Everyone knows that Italians take pride not only in their food but in their culture and traditions. Whether you’re dining out in Italy or invited to the home of Italian friends, there are many unwritten rules that govern local drinking and dining etiquette. Here are some common do’s and dont’s to help you make a bella figura (good impression) on your next trip.
DO expect to spend a couple of hours at the table. There’s a reason Italians dedicate a whole day to Sunday lunch. They believe that meals are meant to be shared. Meals are a moment for families to gather around to enjoy good food and good wine for a good time. Since Italian culture revolves around food, Italians often enjoy a full five-course meal at dinner with friends and family.
Italians always begin with an antipasto — usually an appetizer to share with the table. Some of my favorite antipasti are a classic bruschetta with fresh tomatoes from the garden or fritti. Olive ascolane (deep-fried olives) or arancini (rice balls) can be found on menus throughout Italy. Next comes the primo: the first dish which is traditionally pasta or rice-based. In my family, it was always gnocchi, my personal favorite. After the primo comes the secondo: usually a meat or fish dish (or eggplant parmigiana for vegetarians). You can order vegetable contorni to accompany your main dish. And finally, remember to save room for the dolce, a sweet way to end your meal. If you need to digest, order a digestivo. Most restaurants will have local liquors made with regional herbs to help you digest your meal. Buon appetito!
DON’T sprinkle parmigiano on fish pasta or main dishes. It may be tempting to sprinkle parmigiano on every Italian dish, but the sharp taste of cheese will overpower some of the subtle flavors. If a dish calls for parmesan cheese, your waiter will offer it — otherwise, you should assume it’s not the right pairing. Even dishes like penne all’arrabbiata, pasta with peperoncino-laced tomato sauce, or pasta with truffles, are served without cheese. Italian cuisine is all about quality ingredients, rather than masking flavors with condiments, so you can savor the real taste of Italian cooking.
DO make eye contact when toasting. This is proper dinner etiquette when making a champagne toast at a special event or simply just a salute (cheers) before diving into your meal. It serves as a sign of respect and connection to friends or family, signaling that they are seen, loved, and appreciated.
DON’T ever toast with water. As you may know, Italians are extremely superstitious. Cheering with water, crossing the street after a black cat, and the number 17 are all unlucky in Italian culture. If your glass is empty, don’t cheer. Italians will understand — and rush to refill your glass before the toast. However, if you’ve already made the mistake, there’s an undo button. Make a horn shape with your hands and point to the ground to fight off the evil eye.
DO pair red wine with red meat or tomato sauces (like amatriciana), and white wine with fish or vegetable dishes. When it comes to a Pinot Noir versus a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, don’t stress. But it’s important not to mix a light wine like Pinot Grigio with crimson meat like a Florentine steak. Like water and oil, the tannins in wine will not blend with the taste of meat leaving your tastebuds confused. However, something like saltimbocca alla Romana, veal cutlets with prosciutto, could be beautifully paired with either wine, depending on the preparation. Always ask the waiter if you’re unsure!
DON’T hold your wine glass by the bowl. Instead, hold it by the stem. (A pinky-up while you’re at it!) Holding your glass by the stem, especially a chilled white, will keep it from warming up too much. And it’s classier to hold it by the stem.
DO smell and taste your wine to make sure it isn’t corked. If you order a bottle of wine, the restaurant’s sommelier will ask your table, “chi assaggia?” — who will taste? Someone will taste the wine to ensure it tastes right before the wine is served to everyone at the table. When wine is corked, it means air has gotten through the cork and into the bottle. This alters its original flavors. While it’s safe to drink corked wine, it’s not very pleasurable! If you order table wine that comes in a jug, there will be no initial taste test.
DON’T ask for tap water to save a couple of euros. Cities like Rome may be blessed with hundreds of drinking fountains that you can use to refill your bottle on the go, but when you sit down at a restaurant, you’re expected to order a bottle of water. Glass bottles are usually served and are reasonably priced around €2-3. You are welcome to order other beverages of course, but a restaurant will almost never serve you a glass of water from the tap.
DO pour water for others at the table. It’s just the polite thing to do. Italians love their sparkling water. There will almost always be one sparkling and one still bottle at the table. Usually, people are okay with both, but always ask before you pour. The same goes for passing the parmigiano and the bread basket.
DON’T be embarrassed to clean your plate with a piece of bread after your meal if you’re dining in an informal trattoria or at home. Italians even have a word for this called: “Scarpetta.” Not only are you doing yourself a favor by enjoying every last bite, but it’s a compliment to the chef or cook that prepared the dish. It signifies, “I’m done, and I wish there were more.” If you’re eating in an upscale restaurant, however, you should refrain from doing so.
DO sip on an espresso after a meal. Lunch, dinner, or both. Italians believe the caffeine in a little cup of espresso helps aid digestion. You will even find it on a menu under “Digestivo” with tea or limoncello served alongside a delectable dessert. These drinks are meant to be sipped slowly as you relax after a meal. Or more commonly, Italian natives will stop for an espresso on the go at a local caffè for an afternoon “pick me up.” Learn more about Italian coffee rules here.
DON’T order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Italians love their morning cappuccino accompanied by a flaky cornetto. However, a cappuccino after lunch is too heavy on the stomach. Instead, Italians enjoy an espresso or a macchiato after a meal. In Italy, a macchiato consists of a shot of espresso with just a splash of milk — a soothing option for those that don’t agree with the bittersweet taste of authentic espresso.
DO leave a few euros on the table as a tip. Tipping traditions are changing in Italy, and restaurants in popular tourist destinations are now used to receiving tips from American travelers. You can round up your bill or leave around 10% of the total. If you’re eating in a small local town, this won’t be expected (though it’ll surely brighten your waiter’s day). Card readers usually don’t have the option to add a tip, so carry some change with you.
DON’T worry about indulging on vacation. It’s important to taste everything when traveling for the full experience! Remember that you’ll be walking a lot and Italian dishes are properly portioned. European food standards are also very high. Italians are proud of their hand-picked produce and incorporate seasonal flavors into every dish. Since ingredients are sourced locally, food is not processed and doesn’t contain many pesticides. Italians live a lifestyle of simplicity, especially in the kitchen.
DO read this list and DON’T forget about these rules! You will find yourself feeling a little more cultured and a lot more confident when roaming the streets of Italy.