How to play the game in Italy when food is involved


November 11, 2012 by JL Walker

Two ATMosfera trams in Piazza CairoliThe 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.

Entrance to Salotto 42 restaurant with flowersRule #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.

Eating out
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.

Tourists contemplating the Trevi Fountain in RomeRule #14. Ask for the check at the end of the meal. It is not customary for the server to bring the check automatically.

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.

Eating in
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.

Table and chairs in front of a window overlooking grapevinesRule #23. Produce is much cheaper and much better when it’s in-season.

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

12 thoughts on “How to play the game in Italy when food is involved

  1. Pecora Nera says:

    Good post and you are correct the Italians do take their food seriously, I have eaten all the food you mentioned except Nervetti.

  2. Sounds pretty similar to Barcelona, where I live. Food is a serious business here too. Did you catch the book ‘Delizia’ by John Dickie? It’s a history of Italian food and culture and I found it fascinating. For example, in old Naples, people used to eat spaghetti in the street with their hands.
    I remember Siciliy being an interesting place to eat out. Many smaller restaurants have no menu and the waiter just comes out and reels off the meals of the day orally. My Italian was nowhere near good enough to understand them, but everything we ate there was fantastic.

    • JL Walker says:

      I do think that Italy is similar to other Mediterranean countries when it comes to food, and there are a lot of similarities with France. I’ve never read Delizia, but it’s going on my “to-read” list, thanks for the recommendation!

  3. […] How to play the game in Italy when food is involved […]

  4. […] and desserts will be different. Italians, in a country with a wealth of regional cuisine (and a lot of rules!), are very familiar with this kind of culinary variety. Not to mention the various holidays […]

  5. Dounia says:

    Great post, and so true! There are definitely a lot of similarities with France, and I’ve also seen many of these with my husband’s family (Italian)!

  6. Joe says:

    Can I order a cappuccino in the afternoon if I call it a latte?

    And you should totally make a web page with a table of which sauces are acceptable on which pastas. I’m imagining a spreadsheet of sorts with pastas in the first column and sauces in the first row, and an “X” in every cell where the row corresponding to a pasta intersects with the column corresponding to an acceptable sauce for said pasta. Unless of course it’s just a simple one-to-one relationship wherein there’s only one correct sauce for each pasta; then you could just add a column or two to the “Know Your Pasta” web page I made when we were in high school:

    • JL Walker says:

      Thanks Joe! I’ve never seen your “Know Your Pasta” page, and I think it’s a great early html product! 🙂 There are a few resources out there focusing on the shape of pasta, and what sauces go along with each. These are the ones that come to mind:

      I’m sure both these options could be improved upon. One thing I would include would definitely be the meanings behind all the pasta names, as well as the region they are used. Oh, and the ingredients used to make the pasta itself (with or without egg, some pasta has breadcrumbs and flour, etc.).

      And as for the latte, remember that it literally means “milk” in Italian… if you want a latte, you need to order a “caffè latte.” And it’s a drink that’s comparable to cappuccino, so same rules!

  7. […] Italians take food seriously. There are probably hundreds of kinds of pasta around Italy, each with its own specific name. In […]

  8. Great post! I think I agree with all of your rules, except possibly the pizza ones… I’ve often seen it eaten with hands and washed down with wine… that might just be my wife’s uncouth Italian family though! I’m glad to say though that I’ve not had to try too many of your Unusual Ingredients just yet.

  9. lapavanella93 says:

    Great post! I’m Italian (I live in Turin :D) and the only thing I disagree with it’s about the way you eat pizza. Most of us eat it with the hands..and the aperitivo is a common thing in Italy,not only in Milan 😀

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Date to submit applicationSeptember 10th, 2015
Time to submit my application for dual citizenship!
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