November 11, 2012 by JL Walker
The topic of food, eating and cooking is generally taken very seriously in Italy, while Northern European cultures and Anglo-Saxon cultures seem to be more laid back on the issue. Visitors to the boot usually notice this difference and Italian food is world-renowned as excellent.
Because of this cultural focus on what’s on the stove, on the table and in your tummy, there are some unique rules to all things food amongst Italians. Travelling around Italy and living in Milan over the past decade, I’ve noticed some of these traditions and I’ve come up with my own list of food-related rules.
Of course, this list is subjective and it’s just a collection of my own observations over the years. Suggestions for additions are more than welcome!
Timing is everything
Rule #1. Cappuccino shouldn’t be ordered during lunch or dinner. Any form of espresso is valid, including caffè corto, lungo, macchiato, corretto, just to name the most common.
Rule #2. Small stores are often closed for up to 2 hours during lunchtime, giving shop workers time to go home and have a nice lunch (and office workers usually have at least a 1-hour lunch break).
Rule #3. Meal times: 1pm for lunch, 8 or 9pm for dinner.
Rule #4. “Gelato o’clock” is around 5pm on a summer afternoon.
Rule #5. In Milan, there is an aperitivo tradition (a happy hour), which is traditionally served around 6-8pm. You can buy a cocktail, a beer or a glass of wine and have access to a buffet of finger foods, which is sometimes very abundent.
Rule #6. Meals are divided into several courses: the first course is pasta, rice or soup, the second course is usually meat or seafood, often served with a vegetable, which may be a salad. Salad is never served at the beginning of a meal, but rather at the end.
Rule #7. Coffee is served after dessert.
Rule #8. An ammazzacaffè (limoncello, amaro or grappa) may be served at the very end of a meal. It literally means “coffee killer” and is thus had after the coffee.
Rule #9. No eating in public, such as on the bus or on the steps of public monuments. (And this is even a law in some places, as the New York Times has reported.) Food is a serious affair, so you should eat with friends or family while sitting at a table, if possible. The exception to this rule would be the ultimate street food: gelato.
Rule #10. Be careful about sitting down for table service in touristy locations. The added service charge can be very expensive!
Rule #11. Wait until everyone is seated at the table before ordering.
Rule #12. Pizza should be eaten with a knife and fork, no hands!. Each person will be served one individual pizza.
Rule #13. The drink of choice to accompany pizza is beer, but a soft drink is also acceptable.
Rule #15. You can pay the bill directly at the cash register (this is true in Milan at least). Just get up and take your check, and you can pay by cash, credit card or debit card.
Rule #16. Tipping is not expected since there is a service charge added to the cost. Some people choose to leave a few euros as a tip, especially in fancier restaurants.
Rule #17. No doggy bags. If you don’t finish your meal, the server might ask if you didn’t like your meal. When people go out to eat, they usually go hungry and ready to finish their plates.
Rule #18. Bring a bottle of wine or some kind of dessert when invited to a dinner party.
Rule #19. In Anglo-Saxon cultures, it’s common to offer guests something to drink when they arrive. In Italy, this step can be glossed over and food may be the first thing to be offered, possibly after the arrival of all the guests. Guests may not be offered a drink until the first food course is served.
Rule #20. At a dinner party, eat everything on your plate. It may be considered rude to leave an unfinished plate because it implies that the food wasn’t good.
Shopping for food
Rule #21. At open-air markets bartering is frowned upon. The final price will be displayed with the produce.
Rule #22. At the supermarket, use a plastic glove to pick out your fruits and veggies. You will also have to weigh them and sometimes find the right number that has the correct price.
It’s all about the pasta!
Rule #24. When making spaghetti or other long pasta, don’t break the pasta before putting it in the pot!
Rule #25. When eating long noodles, they should never be cut, but always twirled around the fork. (Using your fingers to imitate a twirling fork is even a hand gesture, meaning “let’s eat something.”)
Rule #26. There is a correct sauce for each kind of pasta. This is something I still haven’t learned entirely, but most Italians seem to know the rules. I think it takes years of exposure to pasta to learn all the ins and outs.
Rule #27. No cheese with seafood. So don’t put parmigiano reggiano on your pasta con frutti di mare!
Rule #28. Fruit is usually peeled and eaten with a knife and fork. This includes apples, pears, peaches, etc.
Bonus: Unusual ingredients
Here are a few ingredients that are acceptable in Italian cuisine, but that I’ve never seen on the menu or in the supermarket in Ohio:
- Capra (goat meat)
- Coniglio (rabbit meat)
- Cavallo (horse meat)
- Puledra(filly meat)
- Asino (donkey meat)
- Cinghiale (wild boar meat)
- Guanciale (the meat from the jowl of the pig)
- Trippa (tripe or pig intestines)
- Nervetti (calf tendons)
- Polpo (octopus)
- Rana (frog legs)
- Digestifs made with unusual ingredients like artichokes and rhubarb – popular brands include Zucca and Cynar