Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don’ts

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.

eating in Italy an Italian cafe

Dining in Italy entails learning about the rules for Italian food and Italian dining. You should also learn about what types of produce and specialities an area is known for. For example, 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. 

If you are looking for some great beach time and seafood head to Sardinia which is where the Italians go for their summer holidays. The traditional food of Sicily is a combination of many cultures and flavours inspired by Spanish, Greek, and Arab cuisines.

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

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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. 

If you love your bread and pasta then it must be a Puglia road trip for you. Puglia is farm country and famous for its olive oils, grano arso a burnt wheat flour and my personal addiction Burratta cheese.

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

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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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. 

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

How to eat in Italy – tips for dining 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.

Food ingredients used in italian and other european cuisine

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

Primo / minestre

This is 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.

White bean soup with potatoes, tomatoes, paprika, and bacon in black ceramic bowl. Top view

Secondo

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

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

Aperitivo

We learned quickly when living in France about Aperitivo and the Italians are also famous for this practice. Aperitivo is a serious business and to many Italians, it is the most important part of the day, particularly on Fridays and the weekend.

Aperitivo is the time Italians connect with family and friends. There is usually a drink involved – wine or prosecco and it is accompanied by “stuzzichini”, or as we know them appetizers in France they are called charcuterie. The trays of small snacks include some great cheeses, meats like Parma Ham and porchetta, bread and no butter.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

What to eat in Italy

How do you eat in Italian?

Don’t ask for “fettuccine alfredo” or “spaghetti with meatballs”

They don’t exist here. Alfredo was invented by an Italian in Rome for his pregnant wife suffering from morning sickness. The simple pasta with a cream sauce and butter is not served at any restaurant in Italy except for Alfredos in Rome.

Spaghetti Likewise, spaghetti is not served with meatballs. In Naples, you’ll find miniature ones on other types of pasta. Everywhere else, pasta al ragù (with meat sauce) is a common first course, and “polpette” (meatballs), are a typical – separate – second course. If you’re way ahead of me and already thinking, “I’ll just ask for both those things and mix them together,” you can certainly do that. But…reread the title of this article first.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

No such thing as Chicken carbonara

There is only one Carbonara in Italy and it only contains eggs, a good aged hard cheese like Pecorino, black pepper, and guanciale, which is browned pork cheek.

Chicken parmesan doesn’t exist in Italy

Just like the chicken carbonara, chicken parmesan just does not exist in Italy. It was created in the US and has never been imported in Italy or exported from Italy.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

What do Italians eat? – 19 Do’s and Don’ts

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.   

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 dishes do not include breakfast.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

How to order and drink Coffee in Italy

When you head to an Italian cafe for your coffee you head into the cafe and order if it is not breakfast time you will order an expresso and pay at the register. You then take the receipt to the barista who will give you a glass of water – I’ve often seen tourists looking at the water thinking what the heck? The water is to cleanse your palate to enjoy your coffee.

When the coffee arrives you continue to stand at the bar to drink it along with your food if you have ordered any.

There is no coffee to go

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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. 

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.

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 in olive oil and balsamic you have put on your plate.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

There is no salad dressing

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.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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).

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

No Doggy Bags allowed

In Italy, the food must be fresh, hot and made with love Italians do not eat leftovers and until 2016 an Italian restaurant did not have to provide one. These days you can ask but don’t expect to be provided with one.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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.

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. However, having said that it is always good to round up the bill and leave the extra for the hard-working staff.

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.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

Eating 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. You also eat your pizza with a knife and fork in Italy.

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

Meal times in Italy

Italians eat 4-5 times a day:

  • breakfast in Italy is early in the morning and consists of pastries, bread with butter and jam, biscuits and cereals
  • there’s a morning snack around 11 am (for some it’s just a coffee break);
  • lunch in Italy 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 in Italy is around 8-9 pm (a little earlier if you go North, a little later if you go South).

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.

Eating in Italy food tours

Rome food tour: Go on the hunt for some of the best food in Rome on this culinary walking tour through the areas of Campo de Fiori, Trastevere, and the Jewish Quarter. With a guide, learn the local secrets of the Eternal City and sample traditional Italian favourites like gelato and pasta, as well as local specialities like fried artichokes. Limited to 12 people, this tour offers a more personal sightseeing experience. Rome food walking tour to Trastevere, Campo de’ Fiori, and the Jewish Ghetto Visit Campo de’ Fiori’s market to meet local traders and sample their quality produce Explore vibrant Trastevere and try food like a classic Roman pasta dish, gelato, and pizza.

Read more about Small-Group Rome Food Walking Tour: Trastevere, Campo de’ Fiori, Jewish Ghetto

10 Tastings of Florence: Get an insider’s perspective on Florence’s vibrant food scene during this scenic tasting tour through the Tuscan Renaissance city. Join your private foodie guide to go behind the scenes and discover the food favourites most beloved by locals. Sip on an authentic Italian espresso, haggle over fresh pasta at the bustling Sant’Ambrogio market, and sample regional delicacies like Tuscan street food and the best gelato in Florence.

Read more about The 10 Tastings of Florence With Locals: Private Food Tour

Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

Pizza and gelato course in Tuscany: Learn to make pizza and gelato during this culinary experience on a Tuscan estate near Florence, perfect for lovers of culture and cuisine. Your professional Italian chef provides a fun hands-on cooking lesson that culminates in a 3-course feast of appetizers, pizza, and gelato, accompanied by wine and beer. Plus, you’ll receive a recipe booklet to take home and practice your newfound skills.

Read more about Pizza and Gelato Cooking Class in Tuscan Farmhouse from Florence

Naples street food tour: Get a true taste of one of Italy’s culinary capitals on a food and sightseeing tour of Naples. Spend some time exploring the city, stopping at the city’s main squares and basilicas, as well as at hidden eateries to sample traditional dishes. Learn the history of Naples as you make your way from one mini-feast to the next, dining on everything from zucchini flowers to ragù, baccalà, and pizza.

Read more about Naples Street Food Tour With Local Expert

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

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Dining in Italy – 19 Do’s and Don'ts

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