Several years ago I wrote an article entitled, “Five Italian Food Rules that Foreigners Need to Know.” It was inspired by a few of the (many) reprimands that I’d received in the course of making numerous culinary missteps while living in Rome. I quickly learned that this was a serious matter.
So the first five of these rules are plucked from that original list. The rest of them I’ve picked up along the way, and here I’ve chopped them down into bite-sized pieces (pun definitely intended). These rules are quite serious, so please no snickering. If you find yourself dining in Italy, you will certainly thank me for preventing some huge mistakes.
It is often said that “Italy is a country with a million laws but no rules.” In general, there is some truth to this. But not at the dinner table, where the rules are many and often complex to the foreign dinner guest.
I’ve listed 33 of these Italian food rules plus a “bonus” rule at the end, which trumps all others. I could have included many more, but the number struck me as appropriate, perhaps as homage to the symmetry of Dante’s Commedia. Adhering to these 34 should be sufficient enough to guide you out of the Inferno (Hell).
However, if you want to eventually reach Paradiso (Heaven), you’ll have to fully incorporate the philosophies of Italian eating outlined in this article into your daily life.
Tipping in Italy
Do you tip in Italy? If so how much? Expand the section below to read about it. Not really a "food" rule, but good to know!
In general, the tip is considered to be already added to the cost of most goods and services in Italy. For smaller transactions, like at the coffee bar, the rule of thumb is, “leave the change.”
As an American, I just can’t get used to it. I always feel like I’m being cheap if I don’t leave a proper tip. And when I do, I always get a funny look from my Italian friends, who wonder what was so amazing about my sandwich and beer that I felt obligated to leave two whole Euros?
Well, you do what you feel comfortable with, but just know that unless you are in a nice restaurant in the tourist areas, a generous tip is not expected. (Yes, thanks to American tourists, the waiters in these areas now expect a reasonable tip.)
In fact, if you look at your bill carefully, you’ll sometimes see a “coperto,” a cover charge, or “servizio,” a service charge. Other times they call it “pane,” or bread, to make you feel like you’ve received a little something for the extra Euro or two on the bill. In any case, this charge normally goes to the owner of the establishment and not to the waiter. If your waiter gave you good service, leave him a few extra euros and your conscience can rest easy.
Regarding coffee bars, if you sit at a table instead of standing at the bar, you will often be charged twice as much. This is a legitimate charge in Italy, but if it appears on your receipt, then certainly no tip is required.
Be careful tipping in small family-run places. If the owner, waiter, cook, and hostess are obviously all related, then you’re lucky; you’ve stumbled into a genuine trattoria and you’re likely to have a fantastic experience. These people take great pride in making you feel at home and in this case a tip may actually be somewhat insulting or at least awkward. Tread lightly.
As a general rule, the Italians themselves don’t tip generously. However, a small tip at the coffee bar might get you your coffee a little quicker. A euro to the bellman might get him to your room quicker next time. And in the end, it’s just a nice thing to do.
Also, tipping in Rome, for example, might be more "expected" than tipping in a smaller town since the merchants in Rome are accustomed to tourists from the U.S. and other countries.
Oh, and how do you say "tip" in Italian? The word is la mancia.
Read about all of "my" food rules below, or listen to my discussion of this topic on the podcast. And please let me know if you've discovered your own food rules while traveling in Italy!
Now, without further ado, I give you:
Italian Food Rules – The Expanded List!
- Italian Breakfast = No cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. This is perhaps the most well-known, but warrants some explanation. First of all, the exact time is not so important as the acknowledgement that cappuccino is only for breakfast. What’s more, cappuccino isn’t really a beverage; it’s almost a meal in itself and should be taken alone or with a very simple pastry. In fact, coffee in general is never to be consumed with a meal, it should either be enjoyed by itself or after you’ve finished eating.
- Keep it simple. Any given dish—no matter if it’s a snack, main course, or dessert—should contain no more than three or four ingredients, and they should all be individually visible. This rule explains a lot about Italian cuisine and it relates both to the taste and the visual presentation. Notice that every course and every side dish is served on a separate plate. There is a good reason for this: Italians want to distinctly see and taste everything that they’re eating. This is why it’s almost impossible to find a Mexican restaurant in Italy, even in a big city like Rome. Italians despise things to be all mixed together, rolled up, and covered in a salsa. Let the ingredients speak for themselves! If you’ve covered it up with a lot of nonsense, then you’ve obviously got something to hide, which is not good.
- NO Parmigiano cheese with seafood. In fact, watch the Parmigiano in general. It has a specific role in Italian cuisine and you can’t indiscriminately throw it on anything that you please. You just can’t. And treating fish or other seafood in this way is particularly offensive. Why order a beautiful piece of delicate fresh fish if you’re just going to mask the flavor with a strong cheese? If you really like the cheese that much, then just order cheese and leave the fresh fish for people who can appreciate it. Furthermore, no funny sauces or condiments on fish either. Just a little salt, olive oil, some parsley, and maybe a small squeeze of lemon at the most. Pour that cheese sauce over some French food and keep it away from my pesce! Basta!
- Only water or wine with your meal. For adults, these two beverages are the only civilized options to accompany your lunch or dinner. Maybe a beer if you’re just having a pizza or panino, but that would be the only exception. A Coke can be enjoyed on its own in the middle of the day or as a digestive, but not with a meal. Unless you’re 12 years old—and even then…
- Don’t eat bread with your pasta. This may surprise some people because, for one thing, bread is always on the table at restaurants in Italy. In your own home, you can “fare la scarpetta,” which literally means to “make a little shoe,” and it refers to the practice of scooping up the remaining pasta sauce with a crust of bread. In a proper restaurant, however, this is considered bad manners. Then why do they put bread on the table if you’re not supposed to eat it? Well, of course you can eat a little when you first sit down or with your antipasto. But notice that most restaurants in Italy will actually remove the bread from your table when the pasta arrives. Maybe they’re just trying to protect you from making a fool of yourself. And you should thank them for doing this.
- No chicken on pizza or pasta. In fact, not much chicken in general. This is especially true in Tuscany where this particular fowl, so common to the American kitchen, is almost never presented in a restaurant. So it should stand to reason that dishes such as “Chicken Florentine” or “Tuscan Chicken Pasta” do NOT exist. At least not in Tuscany.
- No ice cubes in drinks. Italians are hesitant to use them for two reasons: they’ll alter (i.e. water down) the proper taste of the beverage, and they freeze your stomach, hindering digestion.
- Selecting and preparing food is less about knowing how to do things and more about understanding why one should do them.
- Italian Breakfast = No eggs! Eggs are for lunch or even dinner. Your stomach simply isn’t ready for such a bombardment just a few minutes after waking. Our bodies need to slowly adjust to being awake and that includes your internal organs. Let your metabolism gradually gain momentum throughout the day before consuming something as heavy as eggs.
- Pasta must be al dente. If you’re able to easily twist the spaghetti neatly around your fork, then it is overcooked. Instead, undercook it by 1-2 minutes so that you can finish cooking it with the sauce before serving. And for the love of all things holy and Italian, do not, EVER, throw it against the wall!
- No chicken, veal, or—God forbid—shrimp Parmesan. The “Parmesan” recipe is for eggplant only. Get over it and order a real Italian dish.
- Don’t ever use the words “pineapple” and “pizza” in the same sentence, much less consider putting them on the same plate.
- Spaghetti AND meatballs is OK. Spaghetti WITH meatballs is not. They are two completely separate dishes and should be served as such. Pasta is a first course, and meat is a second course.
- Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach. This is partially to avoid getting drunk. “Avoid?” you ask. Yes. For Italians being drunk is socially unacceptable. This may seem to be a contradiction to us foreigners because we know that Italy consumes more wine per capita than any other country in the world. True, but it’s taken by everyone, every day, and in small doses, so while the total wine consumption looks like a lot, there is no weekend binge drinking where you wake up on a park bench on Sunday morning in somebody else’s clothes, reeking of cigarettes and fast food.
- Never use a knife on pasta (with one possible exception: lasagne).
- Do not make strange requests at restaurants. Eat what’s on the menu. Trust the chef—if you don’t, then why are you eating at his restaurant in the first place? Besides, if you try to change something, it certainly will be wrong. If you’re that picky, just stay home and save everyone the aggravation.
- Pasta, rice, or soup begins the meal, the main course continues it, a side dish is optional, and dessert finishes it off. Don’t try to switch things around and never put them together on the same plate. You’ll only embarrass yourself.
- Real Parmigiano cheese never comes as a white powder in a glass shaker that stays permanently on a restaurant table next to the garlic salt and red pepper. Don’t use it; don’t even touch it. Try not to even look at it.
- If you see a pizzeria that also sells kebab—well, obviously—go somewhere else. (Unless what you really want is a kebab.)
- “Italian Dressing” for your salad doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone’s imagination. More like a nightmare. Follow the Italian proverb instead: “L’insalata vuole il sale da un sapiente, l’olio da un prodigo, l’aceto da un avaro e va rivoltata da un folle.” Salad should have the salt of a wise person, the oil of a generous person, the vinegar of a scrooge, and then be tossed by a madman.
- It is extremely important to be “a tavola” when mamma calls you. I can’t emphasize this enough: you have precisely 10 seconds to find your seat at the dinner table once the pasta comes off the stove.
- Never throw away bread…but if you really must, you have to kiss it first. (Obviously, this is more superstition than “rule,” but why invite the malocchio into your kitchen?)
- Never break the spaghetti before throwing it in the boiling water. As the ends soften, gently push it down until it’s all in the pot.
- Eating “on the go” is boorish and never acceptable. This applies to coffee, too. If you don’t have time to stop and enjoy it properly, then it’s better just to skip it altogether.
- Scampi are a type of crustacean (similar to langoustines), and not a recipe for cooking shrimp (which are called gamberi). Therefore no “shrimp scampi,” for the love!
- For most pasta dishes, the best grated cheese pairing is Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, Pecorino goes best with a few Roman dishes, such as Carbonara and Amatriciana.
- Garlic should be used sparingly. In fact, most of the time you only want the essence of the garlic and you don’t really want to eat it. Cook with large pieces or whole cloves, and then pick them out just before serving. Heavy garlic use is found in Italian-American dishes but is not commonly found in Italy.
- Lobster Fra Diavolo? No. Or more to the point: Why? Lobster is delicious on its own and doesn’t require any extra help from a chef.
- Eat what’s in season. Don’t buy fresh tomatoes in the winter, and don’t go looking for artichokes in the middle of summer.
- Save room for dessert. It will make you smile and that’s good for your health, too. But yes, just have some fresh fruit if you’re too full for something rich.
- What’s this business with pouring oil, vinegar, and “parmesan” cheese on a plate and then dipping your bread in it? Who started this ridiculous idea? I want names!
- The various pasta shapes go with their specific type of sauce. And no, you may not mix them around and be “creative.” In some tourist shops, you’ll find pasta that is in the shape of a penis. Don’t buy them. It’s really not that funny and I promise you that nobody will actually eat them.
- There are exceptions to some of these rules, but you don’t know them so don’t even try.
- In the Divine Comedy, Dante added an extra canto to the beginning of his poem to round out the symmetry and bring the total number to 100. So in the first and most famous canticle, Inferno, there are 33+1 cantos. And as far as I’m concerned, this bonus rule is the most important:
Enjoy your food and stop feeling guilty about it!
The Many Food Rules of Italy
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. If you do your own research while travelling in Italy, I’m sure you’ll find many others not mentioned here, especially if you get off the beaten path. Learn them. Obey them. You’ll be better off for it.
Check out these 34 #Italian #food rules to live by — for health, pleasure, and to keep you out of trouble when traveling in Italy. #eatlikeanitalian