If you have ever been to Italy and you tried to book a table for 6pm you may be surprised that their dinner service may have only just started… or more likely, not at all. In the continent of Europe they do things a little different than the US. For one, they often have dinner much later than we do in the US.
In order to understand Italian cuisine and culture it can be worthwhile to figure out why. The answer is a mixture of cultural norms, lighting, and ultimately work. Read on to find out why Italians eat dinner so late.
A Typical Italian Working Day
One big factor is how the weather affects the active hours of most people in Italy. This depends what area of Italy you are in, and what season.
For example, in the south of Italy such as Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, in the summer it will be extremely hot almost all day and the sun won’t go down until maybe 9pm, depending on the date.
This creates an issue if you work, and like most of the male population of Italians, at least historically, would work manual labour while outside. If you are engaging in manual labor outside, in the south of Europe, you really don’t want to be caught in the sun.
Part of avoiding the heat and the sun is to wake up early in order to work around the hottest part of the day. This means you might have a small breakfast when you wake up, around 7/8am and maybe have a small breakfast or “collazione.” Then having a slightly larger breakfast at 11pm, perhaps.
In the morning Italians tend not to eat too much for breakfast, this is an old tradition as it means you can get more done in the early morning and by the time the sun is starting to get powerful around 11pm, you aren’t walking around with a stomach full of pasta.
It’s become traditional in Italy that breakfast is built around coffee and pastries etc., and many Italians even skip breakfast.
By the time it is 12/1pm the sun will be at the highest point in the sky which means you can’t avoid it (there is no shade) and it will also be at its most powerful. When the sun is like this, you don’t want to spend too long outside.
As a result, in many European countries, they have what is referred to in Italian as a ‘riposo’, ‘pausa‘, or in Spanish as a siesta. This is usually misinterpreted as naptime, most Europeans just chose to go inside and spend time with family, eat food, and rest.
This is the main lull in most hot European countries, shops will close around this time and bars too as most people will be at home.
During this riposo, most Italians will enjoy their largest and heartiest meal of the day, ‘pranzo’. This is what most people would recognise as Italian cuisine.
At this point most Italians would have some form of antipasto which is usually a small plate of pasta followed by another course of some sort of meat referred to as secondo, usually joined by side dishes of vegetables and fruit.
The Italians will enjoy such a hearty meal for lunch as after their riposo they will get back to work, usually working until 5/6pm. Many Italians will take the opportunity to work while the sun is out and also while they are full from lunch.
Working later hours makes up for the hours lost by taking the necessary break from the sun during the afternoon.
So, an Italian may return from work around 7pm, potentially. This is often the simple explanation as to why dinner is eaten later, they are simply making up for the hours sacrificed in the name of a riposo, which believe me is necessary in 90 – 100 degree Fahrenheit heat.
Moreover, the Italians have had their largest meal already at around 2/3pm so oftentimes the Italians will eat a ‘supper’ or ‘cena’ at dinnertime instead.
A cena usually follows a similar structure to the lunchtime meal. They may have a small plate of pasta, followed by a meat dish.
Commonly, this meal is a little lighter and may not have so much fat and carbs involved. The common Italian desserts will be enjoyed with coffee after the main meal has been enjoyed.
Even in modern Italy, most of these rules are followed even when the majority of the modern population don’t engage in manual labor as much as they used to.
It’s become a cultural norm and with the generational families that are common across Italy, traditions are closely guarded with families.
How Does This Affect Italian Restaurants?
Many restaurants in Italy will respect these eating times, as they understand these will affect the amount of traffic in their restaurants. As a result, many restaurants will be closed during the riposo period between 1pm – 3pm opening again to prepare for those who come in for an evening meal.
There will be some restaurants that will remain open most of the day, but these will usually be aimed at tourists who have different eating times. It’s often said that the restaurants that remain open during the riposo will be of bad quality.
If you have been to a traditional restaurant in Italy you may be surprised that people may remain in the restaurant until 11 or 12 pm. This is partly why people perceive Italians to have dinner so late, even if it’s isn’t the exact reason.
In Italy, when you go to dinner, you eat and drink for a long time while in a restaurant. Many restaurants consider the fact that many Italians will have eaten a large meal at lunch time. As a result they will often serve many small dishes of pasta and various meats and salads.
Sometimes an Italian dinner could have up to 10 different courses with different purposes. Italian life is about enjoying good food and good company and making the most out of the ritual of dinner, it’s often a sacred and almost religious time.
How Does This Affect Supermarkets And Other Eateries?
Supermarkets usually open around 7/8am to accommodate the nonnas who wake up nice and early to avoid the sun’s heat. Similarly, they will close at 8pm, which seems late, in order to accommodate for the later hours brought around by the riposo.
It’s pretty rare that Italian supermarkets will be open 24 hours like they are in the states.
Local food stores, referred to by locals as gastronomia, alimentari, forno, etc, which sell local foods such as baked goods and other Italian delicacies, will usually remain open all day to accommodate those who want food outside the regular hours.
There are also bars in Italy, which operate much differently to how we recognise ‘bars’ in America. In Italy, the bar is a place to get food all day and get fed at any time. They were essentially created to feed people outside the regular eating hours.
They sell snacks, Italian sandwiches, snacks and other drinks. They operate how we imagine an Italian deli does in New York for example – although hey will serve alcohol here too. They often close during lunch times to accommodate for a riposo.
Why do Italians eat so late?
The simple answer is that it is consistent with the traditional culture of avoiding the heat of the day. Also, since the workday is divided in half by a long pausa, people don’t finish work until around 7:30 or 8:00.