Dining in Italy comes with a hefty side order of rules.
Food is a hugely important aspect of Italian culture, and eating in the bel paese has its own set of customs. Deviate, if you dare, but you risk being called out online or accosted by a wildly gesturing torch and pitchfork bearing mob (okay, maybe not quite, but you’ll probably be judged, teased, or even refused by your server).
If you come from a country where anything goes, these customs can be a bit puzzling, but in Italy, milk is for breakfast and babies, pineapple is for dessert (not pizza), and pasta shapes are deliberately paired with certain sauces—and that’s just three rules of many! If you want to eat like a local on your trip to Italy—or simply avoid rejection and ridicule—read on.
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Don’t Order a Cappuccino After Dinner
Perhaps one of the most divisive topics for Italians and foreigners, this one has been debated and discussed ad nauseam. Here’s the bottom line: Ordering a cappuccino after a big meal might be perfectly acceptable in many parts of the world, but in Italy, it’s simply not done. Coffee drinks made with lots of milk, like cappuccinos and lattes, are reserved for breakfast because they’re seen as being too heavy if consumed after lunch or dinner.
INSIDER TIPStill want a postprandial coffee? Don’t worry, you can get your fix by ordering an espresso or a caffè macchiato (espresso with just a drop of milk) like the locals do.
Don’t Put Cheese on Your Seafood Pasta
You’re by the sea, under the shade of a restaurant umbrella with a glass of white wine, waiting for your plate of spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) to arrive after a morning of swimming and sunning. The server approaches the table, sets your pasta down in front of you, and moves on. You pick up your fork, ready to twirl, but wait, where’s the parmigiano? Before you ask for it, know this: In Italy, parmigiano NEVER goes on seafood pasta! If you want to avoid an eye roll and possibly a flat-out refusal to bring it, don’t ask.
INSIDER TIPMany people misinterpret this rule as seafood and cheese never being allowed to mix, but that’s not the case. Pasta con cozze e pecorino (pasta with mussels and pecorino cheese) is perfectly acceptable, burrata is regularly served with anchovies, and anchovies are also a common pizza topping.
Don’t Ask for Produce That’s Out of Season
In general, market stalls and restaurant menus in Italy showcase the best produce of the season. Puntarelle, for example, a crisp and crunchy variety of chicory that’s served with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and anchovy, are available in Rome in winter and spring, but you won’t find them outside those periods. Stalls selling fresh watermelon slices are set up during the summer months in many parts of Italy and disappear once the weather gets colder. Don’t expect to find asparagus risotto outside of spring or strawberries in the dead of winter.
INSIDER TIPOpt for whatever produce is in season at the time of your visit: It’ll be at its freshest and most flavorful.
Don’t Order Specialities From the Wrong Region
Every region of Italy has its own specialties, so it’s not common to find tagliatelle alla Bolognese in Naples or carbonara in Venice. Of course, foods from other regions appear on menus from time to time, but generally, most restaurants offer a variety of traditional local dishes made with ingredients that are native to the area.
INSIDER TIPDo yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with the specialties of the region you’re visiting before you go, so you won’t miss any of the good stuff.
Don’t Expect Butter or Olive Oil With Your Bread
When you sit down at a restaurant in Italy, a basket of bread will usually appear with no accompanying butter or oil. Like most other “rules,” this isn’t always the case. Some restaurants will bring a small dish of golden-green olive oil if they want to showcase it, but that’s not a norm by any means. Ask for butter or oil and you’ll immediately out yourself as a foreigner.
INSIDER TIPInstead of eating the bread before the meal, wait until the end so that you can fare la scarpetta, which means to use a small piece of it to pick up extra pasta sauce. Etiquette experts might consider it gauche, but some restaurants welcome it as a compliment to the chef. If you’re in a fancy spot, maybe don’t do it, but in most places, you’ll be in good company as you swipe up every last drop.
Don’t Ever Ask for Dipping Sauce for Your Pizza
In the U.S., no one bats an eye if you order a side of ranch dressing with your pizza for dipping, but in Italy, people will bat both their eyes. Hard. So hard, in fact, that they may start to cry. First of all, because ranch dressing doesn’t really exist here, and second of all, because no one dips their pizza in anything.
Pizza varies regionally up and down the boot. In Rome, the crust is thin and crispy and in Naples, it’s thick and puffy. The toppings are generally lighter than they are outside of Italy, and there aren’t too many of them, but it’s amazing what a few high-quality ingredients add up to. Don’t worry about the dipping sauce, and just enjoy your pizza in all its splendid simplicity.
INSIDER TIPMany pizzerias in Italy will offer one condiment: chili oil. Drizzle it on for an extra kick.
Don’t Ask for Substitutions—Unless You Have Allergies
You know how you can add or remove items at many restaurants? In Italy, you can’t. Do you want a different pasta shape than the one that’s offered or the sauce on the side? The answer is probably no. Of course, if you have an allergy or intolerance, it’s a different story. In that case, your server should be able to make accommodations or recommend certain dishes.
INSIDER TIPA small request here and there might be granted, but usually, menu items are served as written because they’re prepared according to tradition, or because the chef has paired them that way. Trust the chef. They tend to know what they’re doing.
Don’t Expect Your Pasta to Come as a Side
You’ve found a familiar dish: eggplant parmesan (in Italian, parmigiana di melanzane, or simply parmigiana). Maybe the chicken cacciatore has caught your eye. What about the meatballs?! The dish you choose arrives, but wait—where’s the pasta?
In Italy, pasta is served as a primo piatto, or first course, which is followed by the main dish of meat, fish, or a vegetarian option, known as the secondo piatto. Don’t expect to have a side of pasta with your secondo—the two are served separately!
INSIDER TIPIt’s perfectly acceptable to order a primo piatto or a secondo piatto; you don’t have to get both.
Don't Order a Cocktail With Dinner
Cocktails aren’t generally drunk with dinner in Italy. Ask for a gin and tonic with your cacio e pepe and, just like requesting parmigiano for your spaghetti alle vongole, you might raise an eyebrow (or get deported).
Mixed drinks are consumed before dinner, during aperitivo, which is a wonderful Italian ritual that consists of nibbles and a few drinks before, well, eating and drinking more at dinner; or afterward, as a nightcap.
INSIDER TIPHave a cocktail at aperitivo and then wine with your meal. Or, if you’re having pizza, get a beer or a soda.
Don’t Expect Salad Dressing—Even “Italian Dressing”
Are you sensing that there’s a strict order to meals in Italy? Good, because there’s still more to master! While often served before a meal in the U.S., salad is either eaten as a side dish (un contorno) or even after a meal in Italy.
Just as there is no ranch dressing for your pizza, there won’t be any for your salad, either. Generally, salads are served with olive oil, vinegar, and salt that are brought to the table, so you can dress it as you like. Restaurants catering to an international clientele might serve salads with dressing (Caesar salads seem to be popping up everywhere in Rome lately), but in a traditional restaurant, don’t expect any dressing. Nope, not even “Italian Dressing” (that’s right, it’s not a thing).
Don’t Expect Eggs for Breakfast
This is a pretty easy rule to follow because unless you go to a place that serves a savory breakfast or brunch, eggs won’t be available anyway. That’s right, Italians prefer something sweet for their first meal of the day.
INSIDER TIPNow’s the time to have your cappuccino or caffè latte! Enjoy it like a local–at the bar, standing up–with a flaky, cream-filled croissant (cornetto) or a warm, sugary doughnut (ciambella).
Don’t Expect Your Tap Water to Be Free (Yes, Really)
One of the first questions a server in Italy will ask is how you want your water: still (naturaleor liscia) or sparkling (frizzante or gassata). Whatever you choose, it will generally arrive in a labeled bottle, although more and more places are serving filtered water that, yes, you still have to pay for. You certainly can order tap water at a restaurant, it’s just that most people don’t. Why? Well, much of the tap water in Italy is rich in calcium and magnesium, making it hard and affecting the taste.
INSIDER TIPThe tap water in Italy is safe to drink and in Rome, drinking fountains dot the city. If you want to cut down on waste on your visit to the Eternal City, bring a reusable bottle.
I just got from being in Italy for a month. I started out in the Lake area, Piedmonte, Sardinia and ended up in Sicily. I had only one subpar meal and that was a restaurant at the hotel Villa Athena in Agrigento. It was not an "authentic meal" but instead catered to foreign travelers and offered a conglomerate of European cuisines. Not only was it the most expensive meal I had, it was a major disappointment. Everything else I ate, sticking to the specialties of the region, was GREAT!
That dull Italian food is coming with a lot of provisos. Just came back from yet another region in Italy and the cuisine is still unimaginative. Maybe they should start doing proper cooking for a change rather than worrying about pointless etiquette?....
Amazing! I visited more of Italy than the average Italian, cities, towns and villages, been taken/recommended to restaurants/trattorias by the locals and all that time these were just tourist traps!? Blimey, trrapping tourists must be Italian speciality? Or perhaps there is more to cooking than just boiling pasta and slapping mono-flavoured sauce on it and grilling plain meat/fish? Hey, I'm having BBQ tonight with some fresh salad - I must be "cooking" Italian! Sadly, the salad has more than two ingredients in it and will have salad dressing on it!......