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The Rules for Eating in Italy Explained by the Locals

When it comes to Italian food everyone has its opinions, its recipes, and its irrefutable truths. The truth is that Italian cuisine is one of the most imitated cuisines in the world, together with the Chinese one. It’s also often one of the cuisines that people know less about, once again together with the Chinese one. And it is so little known in the world that when foreigners come to Italy and want to have what they consider real Italian food they often are disappointed. In this guide, we will explain to you what are the rules to follow if you want to eat in Italy like an Italian.

Being Italians ourselves, and traveling constantly, means that we’ve seen pretty much everything: aside from the carbonara-gate, that periodically comes back, we’ve seen people eating garlic bread and pretending it is truly Italian, people using ketchup instead of the ragù to season their pasta. Once, a fried piece of chicken has been served to us, on top of a bowl of spaghetti, pretending that this “chicken parmesan” was something we had to know and love because “it’s Italian, 100% Italian“. And we could go on, and on, and on…

It’s hard to please an Italian when it comes to food, and we know we are extremely susceptible when it comes to Italian cuisine. The reason why it’s easy and simple: food is one of the biggest features of Italy, something that differentiates the country from others, and its particularity is that it is always prepared with genuine and fresh ingredients. When this does not happen, or when the food is completely changed but is still passed through Italian, then all Italians get angry.

What are the rules to eat in Italy?

Here you have a few rules on how to eat in Italy or at least how we Italians eat. If you follow these rules, whether you are in Italy or abroad, for sure you won’t cause any hysterical reaction.

Never ask for a risotto as a starter

It’s not unusual to go to a dinner party outside Italy and get a risotto as a starter. In Italy, risotto is a (big) main dish because it’s rich and tasty. It’s not even accompanied by salad or something else: we just eat our risotto with a good glass of wine!

Pasta and salad don’t go together

Italians are proud of their pasta, and, as for the risotto, they don’t serve it with anything else. Nor with salad or potato chips! Pasta is a main, and it’s enough to satisfy a hungry stomach.

Chicken carbonara doesn’t exist

Chicken carbonara is something we’ve never heard about. It’s supposed to be made with cream, parmesan, peas, and chicken but this pasta doesn’t come from Italy. In Italy there’s only one carbonara pasta, the traditional one with eggs and bacon! Get the recipe to make the only and unique pasta carbonara.

Chicken parmesan is an unknown item

Just like the chicken carbonara, chicken parmesan just does not exist in Italy. It was created in the US and has never been imported in Italy or exported from Italy. We suggest you don’t try to order a chicken parmesan in Italy unless you’re up for some good banter.

Fettuccine Alfredo is not a traditional dish

This pasta seems to be originated in Italy but Italians don’t eat it anymore (or maybe they’ve never eaten it!). If in the US it is considered a proper and complete Italian dish, Italians consider the fettuccine Alfredo something you cannot order in a restaurant and something you eat when you’re sick. Read the story and the recipe of the fettuccine Alfredo.

Italians only drink wine or water while eating

The only exception to this rule is when you eat pizza and you can drink a soda or a beer. Never ask for cappuccino together with pasta or a tea with a steak. Nobody will refuse to serve you what you want but the disappointment in your waiter’s face will be almost unbearable.

Read Also: Best Italian Wines for Beginners

Pizza with peperoni is not pepperoni pizza

Even if you’re used to having meat on your pizza, in Italy peperoni is the plural of bell pepper. People in Italy don’t know what a pepperoni pizza is so if you want a pepperoni pizza style you have to ask for “pizza alla diavola”.

Mozzarella cheese is different from the Italian mozzarella

Mozzarella cheese is a dry cheese you can cut and eat, Italian mozzarella is a fresh cheese where milk literally leaks in your plate. You may not understand the difference only from words, but as soon as you’ll have a chance to taste real Italian mozzarella you’ll immediately understand what we mean.

Italians don’t eat bread with pasta

Pasta and bread are eaten separately, even if during the same dinner/lunch. Italians don’t use to serve bread with oil and vinegar or with butter. Bread is eaten together with cured meat and cheese or even as a starter/appetizer.

Grated cheese is not added to fish-based meals

This is a strange rule to follow for foreigners but we don’t mix. Seafood doesn’t go with cheese, you can ask your waiter to have some Parmesan together with your spaghetti alle vongole but you may get a strange look if you ask for it. And, just to keep it as a secret-not-so-secret, Parmesan cheese over fish kills the fish!

Marinara sauce doesn’t exist in Italy

Even if Subway has made its way along this “italian” sauce using it for its sandwiches, when in Italy don’t ask for pasta with marinara sauce because it doesn’t exist at all. What we have is a marinara sauce used for the pizza alla marinara which is actually a simple pizza with tomato, garlic, olive oil and oregano. Sorry for all the Friends’ fans out there!

Never ask for salad dressing

Salad dressing doesn’t exist in Italy: we have vinegar and olive oil, that we use together or separately to season our salad. Olive oil and a good vinegar are meant to enhance flavors, that’s why the salad dressing and other similar condiments have no place in Italy.

The Mac&Cheese’s myth

Despite the fact that, according to the myth, this pasta has been imported from Italy in the 18th century, we Italians don’t eat Mac&Cheese. Something similar to this pasta is the so-called “pasta pasticciata” but it’s not really comparable. If you’re in Italy and you look for a pre-cooked mac&cheese box in a supermarket, you will never find it: if we want to eat pasta with cheese, we make it at home. Get the recipe for the perfect Mac&Cheese.

A bowl of delicious homemade mac and cheese.

Coffee is an after meal affair

Coffee is never drunk with the main meal at lunch and dinner, and it’s always an espresso, without milk. Coffees with milk (cappuccinos and lattes) are reserved for breakfast or for an afternoon snack (merenda), but never drunk with the main meal.

Spaghetti are never cut

Except for little children, cutting spaghetti in Italy is almost an offence. Spaghetti are rolled up on a fork and eaten as they are. In the past, older people used a spoon to roll their fork and the spaghetti, but this is not really common anymore. At the end of the day, we have been eating spaghetti all our life! [Side note: we don’t even use a knife to eat pasta because we simply don’t cut the pasta and if we’ve to cut it, we use the fork).

Spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist

Pasta al ragù is what we eat in Italy, and we’ve never heard of spaghetti bolognese or bolognaise. Ragù is a must, and it’s also used for the lasagna. It takes hours, it contains incredible ingredients, and it is used to season the pasta. Bolognese is just something made up outside of Italy, so you will never find it in Italy.

White and Red wines serve different purposes

In Italy, we pay a lot of attention to how we serve the wine and how we pair it. Traditionally, white wine goes with fish; red wine goes with meat; white wine is usually chilled, red wine is served at room temperature. We never add ice to wine, and you shouldn’t do it as well!

Aperitivo is a serious matter

Aperitivo is serious for us Italians: we could go on and on in discussing why the aperitivo time is one of the most important parts of the day or at least the weekend. A good Aperol Spritz is what we drink, together with wine or prosecco; a drink is always accompanied by “stuzzichini”, little bites of food that in many cases constitute a dinner.

Last but not least

Take your time

Italians love to take their time when eating, and a meal is one of the most significant forms of socialization and aggregation. A meal is never consumed on a coffee table in front of the television, and it’s never rushed. If you want to eat like an Italian, take your time, don’t rush, and enjoy every single moment of your lunch or dinner.

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About the author
Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a freelance content marketer and digital strategist. She's an accredited journalist, a member of the British Guild of Travel Writer, and a certified sommelier. She's the co-owner of TheFoodellers and a bunch of other websites.
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