Eating in Italy – How do you eat in Italy?

Italian Food Rules

Italian food culture, unlike North America, is centuries old and there are distinct “rules” to eating in Italy. Not only are there distinct rules but Italian cuisine is one of the most interesting in the world one fun fact about Italian food is that tomatoes are not native to Italy, and another is that (not surprisingly) Italians eat over 51 lbs of pasta a year.

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Italian food Phrases

Food is very important in Italy not only the traditions of food and what you are eating but the eating itself is imbued with meaning. These are some of the phrases you will hear in Italy around food

  • “hai, mangiato?” – meaning did you eat in Italian
  • “mangiare” is simply eat in Italian
  • “Mangia” is of course eat

Like many areas across Italy, there are regional differences and Rome is only one of the hundreds of Italian cuisines.  Northern Italian cuisine differs in many ways and Rome may be over 9 hours away from Palermo but the food of this region is world-famous for its gelati and canoli, and its trattoria. 

Calabria is known for its sweet red onions they are the pride and joy of Tropea. Cipolle hangs at vegetable stands, lie stacked by the side of the road and salads come bursting with sweet, raw, red Tropean onions. 

Eating in Italy, a string of red onions from Tropea Italy Cipolle

If you are looking for some great beach time and seafood head to Sardinia which is where the Italians go for their summer holidays. 

Tuscan cuisine, which you can find when you spend 24 hours in Florence is known for its wild game, rabbit and duck a famous dish you must try in Florence is Bistecca Fiorentina.

Bistecca Fiorentina - eating in Italy a traditional steak dish

Venice is another Italian destination that’s been on my bucket list for years. With its location on a lagoon and the Adriatic Sea, the range of seafood is outstanding there are many must-try foods in Venice. One thing remains the same though the Italians do not eat the same way the rest of the world does. 

Eating in Italy – Italian Traditions

How to eat in Italy

In Italy, there are usually several courses to a meal and there are many Italian food facts that a visitor should know before they visit and get those sideways looks.

Antipasto

Antipasto simply means an appetiser, antipasti means multiple items. This may include means appetisers, and the singular form of the word is antipasto. You might see a selection of olives, cheese, sliced meats or possibly a salad.

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Primo / minestre

This the first or main course and where traditionally the pasta dishes, soups and rice dishes are served. Ministre usually means a liquid so a soup or Zuppa would be served.

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Secondo

Obviously, the second course which will usually contain a fish, meat, egg or cheese dish. It won’t arrive with any vegetable or side dishes as it would in N. America so it may not be as substantial as you are used to.

Contomi

Contomi are side dishes. These should be ordered with your secondo and they will include boiled oven-roasted and grilled vegetables. These are traditionally very simple if you order for example Puntarelle, a salad green that is curly and mixed with an anchovy dressing. A very seasonal dish in Roman cuisine.

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Dolci

Ah, Italian desserts! Gelato, pannacotta, mascarpone cream, cakes, tiramisu so much to choose from. Coffee is not served with dessert but always after and it must be an espresso served piping hot.

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Romans do not eat all those courses though they tend to limit themselves to around 2 per meal but if you are starving you can go ahead and have one course of each.

Italian Food Customs

Italian cuisine does not include spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine Alfredo they simply don’t exist in Italy and are entirely American inventions. You will also never find chicken in a pasta dish.

If you want a cream sauce look for Panna or cream on the menu. Pasta is served al ragù(with meat sauce) for primo or first course but “polpette” (meatballs), are typically served for secondo.

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Fettuccine Alfredo was invented by the chef of “Alfredo alla Scrofa” is not famous nor is it Italian and mostly unheard of in Rome.

There is a pasta museum in Rome called the Museo Nazionale della Paste Alimentari (the National Museum of Pasta). Rome’s most common pasta shape is spaghetti.

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Dining in Italy –  Tips for tourists

Italian Breakfast – Italians don’t eat eggs in the morning

Typically for breakfast, an Italian will have a strong espresso and a sweet pastry. If you need something more substantial try a ham and cheese toast at a local “caffè“ or “bar” as cafes are known here.   

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You will find many of the hotels in Rome do serve an “American style breakfast” or have a buffet to please their tourist guests but Roman’s dishes do not include breakfast.

Wine or water?

In Rome and the rest of Italy, the table will be set with a bottle of still or sparkling water and of course wine. Italians do not drink pop, soda, coffee, ice tea and so on with dinner. Well, not unless it is pizza and then beer or Coke is acceptable.  Cocktails and liquors are reserved for: aperitivi (before-dinner drinks) and digestivi (after dinner drinks).

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Cappuccino is only for breakfast

Italians would never drink a cappuccino at any other time of the day and they certainly wouldn’t drink it with a meal so lay off the cappuccino. After a lovely meal, Italians will order a Caffe or macchiato.

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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.

Italians and tea

In Italy, tea is mostly associated with the flu (influenza) or a cold (raffreddore). Hot tea and honey (miele) are popular during flu season, but that is it.

Plain bread at dinner

Don’t do what most of us N. Americans attempt to do which we learned from the crappy Italian bistro on the corner. In Italy, you do not sit down for dinner take some bread and dip it into olive oil and balsamic you have put on your plate.

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This just isn’t an Italian food tradition. Bread is used in Italy to act as a utensil to sop up all that lovely saucy goodness left on your plate. It’s often called fare la Scarpetta or the little shoe it picks up the bits that your fork can’t get. You would never find an Italian eating bread with their pasta and you also won’t find butter here to slather on your bread.

Know your peperoni from your pepperoni

In Italy, peperoni is the plural of bell pepper so watch your pizza order. Go for Pizza al Salmino, or Pizza Diavolo or Calabrese but warning they will be spicy.

All fruits and vegetables must be peeled

Particularly when served as a fruit platter, small sharp knives are provided and the Romans are very proficient at peeling without looking.

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There is no salad dressing here

Nope, don’t ask for it, no Caeser, no Ranch, no Italian or French it just doesn’t exist. What you will find dressing your salads is a beautiful fresh Olive Oil and maybe some fabulous Balsamic vinegar.

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Olive Oil is a condiment

Italians love to taste what they eat so you won’t find salad dressing as above, ketchup, BBQ sauces, mayo on your sandwiches or brown sauce on your potatoes. Italy is a condiment free world. Oh, they can be bought but the Italians just don’t use them unless it’s olive oil.

No Doggy Bags allowed

In Italy, the food must be fresh, hot and made with love Italians do not eat leftovers and don’t ask for a take-out box savour your meal while it’s in front of you don’t take it home. 

Cheese does not go on every dish

There are only a few dishes that need or will be served with cheese in Italy. Pasta dishes that can be added to with cheese will include carbonara or an egg pasta with meat sauce. Do not ask for extra cheese and do not expect to find the Parmigiano Reggiano on the table to help yourself this just isn’t done in Italy.

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Ask for your bill, when you want it

Don’t expect your bill when you have finished your meal Italians take their time and enjoy the meal and the moment and the waiters will not bring your bill until you request it. They expect you to take your time.

Eating times in Italy

Italians eat 4-5 times a day:

  • breakfast is early in the morning;
  • there’s a morning snack around 11 am (for some it’s just a coffee break);
  • lunch is between 1 and 2 pm, and is usually at least an hour-long;
  • the afternoon snack is around 4 -5 pm (again, for some it’s just a coffee or tea);
  • between 6 and 7 pm, it’s aperitivo time: something to drink (alcoholic or not), a snack like nuts or olives, and an excuse to meet friends after work or on weekends. This is not an everyday custom, but a pleasant exception.
  • and dinner is around 8-9 pm (a little earlier if you go North, a little later if you go South).
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Closing times

Even in the twenty-first century, many Italian businesses and tourist attractions close at lunchtime, it’s important in Italy that all workers get a chance to sit down and enjoy their lunch. In major cities, you won’t find much of this but in the smaller towns and villages, you will see that museums, tourist sites, shops and pharmacies will close for lunch. In the warmer months, many places will stay open later so shoppers can shop without the daytime heat.

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Tipping in Italy

You don’t need to tip in Italy. Most bills will include a supplement charge or a Servizio (service charge) on your restaurant bill and/or the coperto (cover charge), sometimes both and waiters here are quite well paid and respected.

Avoid a menu in English or with photos

In Italy, these kinds of poster menus written in English with photos will more than likely serve crappy food at a significantly higher price. As a quick guide, a pizza Margherita should cost no more than 8 euros and the average price for a cappuccino in Rome should be around 2.80 euros.

Pizza in Italy

Italy offers sauce that many Americans might not be used to. Instead of slow-cooked tomato sauce like we offer here in the US, Italy uses olive oil, pureed fresh tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. This gives their pizza a herby taste that U.S. consumers may not come across often.

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There is no coffee to go

In Rome drinking coffee is considered a pleasure to be savoured. You won’t find a “to go” cup in most Italian cafes. You should be aware though that Italian cafes offer different prices depending on whether you sit at a table or stand at the coffee bar. These prices are noted on the menus: banco is standing and tavolo is sitting. 

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Have you been to Italy yet? What is your favourite Italian custom or food?

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