Dining in Italy can delight your taste buds. Heck, food is the reason many folks travel to Italy in the first. But, the etiquette of eating in Italy can be an enigma. If you don’t live in Italy, you might wonder…
Am I supposed to order each course? When will they fill my glass with water? Why isn’t my favorite Italian dish on this menu?
To ease your edible enjoyment, follow our Italian-approved 11 Rules for Eating in Italy.
1. Pasta portions are individual sized.
“Italian” restaurants in the U.S. are known for mountains of spaghetti meatballs. Not so in Italy. Pasta – considered a first course or primo – are individual sized. The cook isn’t being stingy. It’s just that Italians prefer to stagger their courses – eating appetizers…. and then pasta… and then an entrée. Keeping pasta portions more manageable lets Italians eat consecutive courses without feeling too stuffed. The upside? You’ll have have room for tiramisu.
2. Pizzas are different in Italy.
Pizza may have originated in Italy, but in the U.S. it took on a life of its own – inspiring BBQ chicken pizza, Hawaiian pizza and pepperoni pizza. Traditional pizzas in Italy include the margherita (mozzarella, tomato, basil), the marinara (just crust and tomato sauce), the quattro formaggi (white pizza with four types of cheese), and the capricciosa (artichokes, ham, mushrooms, and black olives). Keep in mind that pepperoni in Italian means ‘bell peppers.’ Ordering a “pepperoni pizza” will get you a pie covered in peppers!
3. You don’t need to order the whole menu.
Italians stagger how they eat – enjoying antipasti before moving on to first course (pasta / risotto / soup), the second course (meat or fish) and dessert. As a result, you will never see a chicken entrée served on the same plate as your pasta. Italians consider them two separate dishes – with the pasta always served before the meat course. After a day of roaming Rome, you may want to order all five courses. Insider tip: share some antipasti and then order either a pasta or an entrée. If you’re still hungry, you can always something else – there’s no loitering in Italy, so the table is yours as long as you linger.
4. Only drink water and wine at a restaurant.
At sit-down restaurants, Italians sip only two drinks: water and wine. Water in Italy comes in chilled glass bottles, which you pay for individually (about 2 euro per bottle). Your waiter will ask if you prefer “acqua naturale” (flat mineral water) or “acqua frizzante” (fizzy mineral water). If you ask for tap water, many restaurants will refuse. House wines can be ordered by the liter and are often priced the same as water! Most restaurants also have wine available by the bottle.
5. Oil in vinegar are the only salad dressing.
Funnily enough, “Italian dressing” doesn’t exist in Italy. That’s right, it’s an American invention. When you’re served salad in Italy, you server will bring out extra virgin olive oil and vinegar. This duo is the only way Italians dress their insalate. On a related note, Italians never dip bread in oil and balsamic when out to eat.
6. No bread and pasta at the same time.
Pizza. Pasta. Focaccia. With foods like these, it’s easy to assume that Italians do nothing but consume carbs. In Italy, though, Italians aren’t exactly gluten gluttons. When ordering pasta, Italians never eat bread before their bucatini. Instead, bread is used to scoop up the leftover sauce on your plate – only when you’ve finished the pasta.
7. There is no “doggy bag” for leftovers.
Italians love to eat fresh, homemade meals. What the love less are… leftovers. When you go out to eat in Italy, be careful not to over order. At the end of the meal, you can ask your waiter for your check but not a to-go bag or box. Whatever pasta is left on your plate will be cleared away. Savor each bite but don’t expect to take it home with you.
8. Some dishes don’t exist in all of Italy.
Rome is famous for carbonara. Florence is known for its fagioli. And, Venetians go gaga for risotto. Wherever you go in Italy, you’ll encounter regional flavors. As a result, the food you have in Sorrento won’t resemble what you nosh on in Siena. Before heading abroad, do a bit of homework and discover the local specialties of each of your destinations. When in Rome, eat like a Roman. And, when in Milan, eat like the Milanese.
9. Cheese doesn’t always go on top of your dish.
What could be more Italian than a dusting of cheese on your plate of pasta? Well, surprisingly, quite a bit. Unless your waiter offers you a spoonful of grated cheese, it’s not customary to ask for extra on top. In Italy, the cook is always right. So, be prepared for your cheesy request to be refused. Pasta dishes that Italians will add cheese to include carbonara or egg pasta with meat sauce.
10. After dinner, enjoy a “caffe” or digestivo liqueur
Only foreigners order cappuccino with or after dinner in Italy. Once they savored a slow meal, Italians prefer to order a simple caffe or macchiato. The milk-laden cappuccino is considered too heavy after a filling meal. In addition, it’s common for restaurants to offer diners a complimentary digestivo liqueur – anything from limoncello to Sambuca. Italians believe that digestivi aid post-dinner digestion. You can even order a caffe corretto – a shot of espresso spiked with liqueur.
11. Ask for your bill, if you want it.
Americans are used to waiters bringing them the bill once they’ve finished dining. This simply doesn’t happen in Italy. Once you’ve been seated, the wait staff will not hurry you out the door. They’re not ignoring you – it’s just that the table is yours for as long as you want. When you’re ready to pay, simply flag down your waiter and kindly request “il conto.”
Christopher Atwood, PhD is an expert in Italian culture and history. At See Italy, he helps American to discover the Italy tourists rarely encounter. Dr. Atwood has lived in Florence, Bologna and Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.