11 Rules for Eating in Italy

by Christopher Atwood

If you’re lucky enough to dine with Italians, the topic will sooner or later turn to food. After all, Italy boasts a proud culinary culture. You’ll hear mythic tales about nonna’s Sunday suppers -- feasts filled with…

Fresh focaccia

Hand-shaped pastas. 

Slow-simmered sauces.

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Dining in Italy can delight your taste buds. Heck, food is a BIG reason why so many folks want to travel to Italy. But, the etiquette of eating in Italy can make first-time visitors wonder:

When will they fill my glass with water?

Am I really supposed to order every course?

Why isn’t my favorite Italian dish on the menu?

To ease your edible enjoyment, See Italy has come up with 11 Rules for Eating in Italy. Feel free to share them with your Italy-hungry friends

1. Pasta portions are individual sized.

“Italian” restaurants in the U.S. are known for mountains of spaghetti. Not so in Italy. Pasta – considered a first course or primo – is individually sized here. The cook isn’t being stingy. It’s just that Italians prefer to stagger their meals – eating appetizers first…. and then pasta… and then an entrée. Keeping pasta a manageable size lets Italians eat multiple courses without feeling stuffed. The upside? You’ll have plenty of room for tiramisù come dessert!

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2. Pizza toppings are different in Italy.

Pizza originated in Italy, but in the U.S. it took on a life of its own – inspiring BBQ chicken pizza, Hawaiian pizza and pepperoni pizza. Traditional pizzas in Italy include margherita (mozzarella, tomato, basil), marinara (just crust and tomato sauce), quattro formaggi (white pizza with four types of cheese), and capricciosa (artichokes, ham, mushrooms, and black olives). Keep in mind that pepperoni in Italian means ‘bell peppers.’ Ordering a “pepperoni pizza” will only get you a pie covered in peppers!

3. You don’t need to order the whole menu.

Italians stagger how they eat – enjoying antipasti before moving on to the first course (pasta / risotto / soup), the second course (meat or fish) and the dolce. As a result, you will never see a chicken entrée served on the same plate as your pasta. Italians consider them two separate dishes – with the pasta always before the meat course. Insider tip: share some antipasti and then order either a pasta or an entrée. If you’re still hungry after, you can order something else.

4. Only drink water and wine at a restaurant.

At sit-down restaurants, Italians sip only two drinks: water and wine. Water in Italy comes in chilled glass bottles, which you pay for individually (about 2 euro per bottle). Your waiter will ask if you prefer “acqua naturale” (flat mineral water) or “acqua frizzante” (fizzy mineral water). If you ask for tap water, many restaurants will refuse. House wines can be ordered by the liter and are often priced the same as water! Most restaurants also have wine available by the bottle.

5. Oil and vinegar are the only salad dressing.

Funnily enough, “Italian dressing” doesn’t exist in Italy. That’s right, it’s an American invention. When you’re served salad in Italy, you server will bring out extra virgin olive oil and vinegar -- olio e aceto in Italian. This duo is the only way Italians dress their insalata. On a related note, Italians never dip bread in olive oil and balsamic.

6. No bread before pasta. 

Pizza. Pasta. Focaccia. With foods like these, it’s easy to assume that Italians do nothing but consume carbs. In Italy, though, Italians aren’t exactly gluten gluttons. When ordering pasta, Italians never eat bread before their bucatini. Instead, bread is used to scoop up the leftover sauce on your plate – and only when you’ve finished your pasta.

7. There is no “doggy bag” for leftovers.

Italians love to eat fresh, homemade meals. What they love less are… leftovers. When you go out to eat in Italy, be careful not to over order. At the end of the meal, you can ask your waiter for your check but not a to-go bag or box. Whatever pasta is left on your plate will be cleared away. Savor each bite but don’t expect to take it home with you. 


8. Some dishes won’t exist in all of Italy 

Rome is famous for carbonara. Florence is known for its fagioli. And, Venetians go gaga for risotto. Wherever you go in Italy, you’ll encounter regional flavors. So, the food you try in Sorrento won’t resemble what you savor in Siena. Before heading to Italy, do a bit of homework to discover the local specialties in each place you'll stay. When in Rome, eat like a Roman. And, when in Milan, eat like the Milanese do.

9. Cheese doesn’t always go on your dish. 

What could be more Italian than a dusting of cheese on your plate of pasta? Well, surprisingly, quite a bit. Unless your waiter offers you a spoonful of grated cheese, it’s not customary to ask for extra on top. In Italy, the cook is always right. So, be prepared for your cheesy request to be refused. Pasta dishes that Italians will add cheese to include carbonara or egg pasta with meat sauce.

cheese in Italy

10. Enjoy a “caffe” or digestivo after dinner. 

Only foreigners order cappuccino with or after dinner in Italy. Once they savored a slow meal, Italians prefer to order a simple caffe or macchiato. The milk-laden 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.

11. Ask for your bill, when you want it. 

Americans are used to waiters bringing them the bill once they’ve finished. This simply doesn’t happen in Italy. Once you’ve been seated, the wait staff will not hurry you out the door. They’re not ignoring you – it’s just that the table is yours for as long as you want. When you’re ready to pay, simply flag down your waiter and kindly request “il conto.”

Want to enjoy even more of the real Italy? Click below to view our food-themed Tuscany itinerary:

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