Eating in Italy: 22 Unique Italian Food Rules Explained by Italians

Author: Veruska Anconitano, Award-Winning Food Travel Journalist, Sommelier & Outdoor LoverAuthor information
About the author
Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a a food travel journalist with awards to her credit, such as World Best Food Travel Journalist. She holds a certification as a sommelier and she is also an ardent lover of the outdoors. Aside from this, Veruska is a Multilingual SEO and Localization Consultant and co-owns multiple websites that cater to a global audience.
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If you’re planning a trip to Italy and curious about the unspoken guidelines of eating in Italy, this guide is just what you need. Written by Italians who love Italian food, it includes all the crucial advice and insider information you need to maximize your eating experiences in Italy and it will help you eat in Italy like a local.

Italian cuisine is highly regarded as one of the most influential in the world, alongside Chinese cuisine. Despite its global popularity, many people do not understand Italian food and what it truly entails. Tourists who visit Italy for what they believe to be authentic Italian cuisine are frequently let down when they discover that what they’ve come to expect is a falsehood.

As Italians who frequently travel, we have witnessed many situations where Italian dishes are inaccurately presented, such as garlic bread being passed off as an Italian staple or ketchup being used instead of traditional ragù. One particularly egregious example was being served the fried chicken on top of a bowl of spaghetti, masquerading as the famed “chicken parmesan” dish.

This guide, written by Italians, will provide valuable insight into the unwritten eating rules in Italy. We understand that Italian cuisine can be complex, and knowing how to order food or what to expect from a meal in Italy can be challenging. We will cover essential topics, do’s and don’ts, and Italian food rules. By the end of this guide, you will better understand how to eat in Italy like a local, appreciate the country’s culinary culture, and avoid common mistakes that may offend us Italians.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler to Italy, this guide will undoubtedly enhance your experience when eating in Italy and help you appreciate the beauty of Italian cuisine. Let’s get started!

What do you need to know when eating in Italy?

We’ve compiled a set of guidelines on how to eat in Italy, or at the very least, how we Italians typically dine. By adhering to these rules, whether in Italy or abroad, you’ll avoid eliciting extreme reactions and can enjoy your meal without hiccups. So, read on to learn more!

Avoid ordering risotto as an appetizer

It’s not uncommon to encounter risotto served as an appetizer at dinner parties or restaurants outside of Italy. However, risotto is typically a main course in Italy due to its rich and savory nature. We even enjoy it without any accompaniments, paired with a delicious glass of wine.

risotto allo zafferano

Pasta and salad don’t go together

Italians take great pride in their pasta, and like risotto, it is often served as a standalone dish without any additional side dishes such as salad or potato chips. As a main course, pasta is hearty enough to satisfy even the most ravenous appetites.

Chicken carbonara is not a legitimate dish

We’re unfamiliar with chicken carbonara, which supposedly features chicken, cream, parmesan, and peas. However, this pasta dish has no roots in Italy. In fact, there is only one true carbonara pasta in Italy, made with eggs and bacon, which is the traditional recipe. Get the recipe to make the traditional pasta carbonara.

Pasta Carbonara

Chicken parmesan is not an Italian dish

Like chicken carbonara, chicken parmesan is not a dish originating in Italy and is not a familiar part of traditional Italian cuisine. Instead, it was invented in the United States and has never been exported from or imported to Italy. We advise against ordering chicken parmesan in Italy unless you’re prepared for some friendly (or unfriendly) ribbing.

Fettuccine Alfredo is not a part of traditional Italian cuisine

Although fettuccine Alfredo is said to have originated in Italy, it is not a dish that is commonly consumed by Italians today. In fact, it is not a dish that is typically found on menus in Italy and is more commonly associated with Italian-American cuisine. While it may be viewed as a legitimate Italian dish in the US, in Italy, it is often considered a dish to be eaten when feeling unwell rather than a staple of Italian cuisine. Read the story and the recipe for the fettuccine Alfredo.

Italians only drink wine or water while eating

When it comes to the beverages consumed during meals, Italians favor wine or water. This is because wine is viewed as a complement to food, enhancing the flavors and aromas of the dish, while water is considered a neutral beverage that won’t overpower or clash with the flavors of the food.

There is one notable exception to this beverage rule: when eating pizza, it is acceptable to drink soda or beer alongside it. However, it is essential to note that it is generally frowned upon to pair cappuccino with pasta or tea with steak. While waiters may not refuse your request, it’s likely to elicit disappointment or disapproval from them.

Read Also: Best Italian Wines for Beginners

Pizza with peperoni is not pepperoni pizza

In Italy, the word “peperoni” refers to bell peppers, rather than a type of meat as it is known in the United States. Thus, when eating in Italy and ordering pizza in Italy, it’s essential to keep this in mind, as you may not get the topping you’re expecting if you order “pepperoni” pizza. If you’re looking for a spicy, meaty pizza similar to ” pepperoni ” in the US, you should instead ask for “pizza alla diavola” in Italy.

Mozzarella cheese is not traditional Italian mozzarella

It’s important to note that there is a significant difference between the mozzarella cheese commonly found outside of Italy and traditional Italian mozzarella. In many places, mozzarella cheese is often sold in a pre-packaged, dry form that can be sliced and eaten as is. However, traditional Italian mozzarella is a fresh cheese that is soft and creamy, with milk that can literally leak from it when cut.

The texture and taste of Italian mozzarella are quite different from the pre-packaged cheese found in many stores worldwide, and it’s hard to truly understand the difference until you’ve tasted the real thing. In Italy, mozzarella is often made from buffalo milk, which gives it a distinct flavor and texture that is difficult to replicate. If you have the chance to taste authentic Italian mozzarella, you’ll immediately understand why it’s so highly praised in Italian cuisine.

Homemade pizza

Bread doesn’t go with pasta

Pasta and bread are typically consumed separately and not served together as a single meal course. Additionally, it’s not common to serve bread with oil and vinegar or butter, as is sometimes done in other countries. Instead, bread is often eaten as a separate course alongside cured meats and cheese or as an appetizer or starter before the main course. Sometimes, bread may also be served alongside soup or as a vehicle for dipping into sauces, such as with bruschetta.

Fish-based meals

While it may seem like a strange rule for foreigners, in traditional Italian cuisine, cheese, and seafood are not typically mixed together. This is because the strong cheese flavors can overpower the delicate flavors of seafood, leading to an unbalanced and often unpleasant taste experience. While it is technically possible to request Parmesan cheese with spaghetti alle vongole, it’s worth noting that this is not a common practice in Italy and may elicit some surprise or confusion from your waiter.

As a general rule of thumb, avoiding adding cheese to seafood dishes in Italy is best. In fact, some Italians believe that Parmesan cheese over fish can actually “kill” the delicate flavor of the fish. So, if you’re looking to savor the flavors of seafood in Italian cuisine truly, it’s best to enjoy it without adding cheese.

Marinara sauce doesn’t exist in Italy

While the term “marinara sauce” may be commonly used in some countries, it’s important to note that this sauce is not typically found in traditional Italian cuisine. In Italy, the term “marinara” generally refers to a pizza made with a simple tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, and oregano.

While you may be able to find tomato-based sauces in Italy that are similar to marinara sauce in other countries, it’s essential to remember that the ingredients and preparation may be different. As such, it’s best to avoid asking for pasta with marinara sauce or a sandwich with marinara sauce in Italy, as this may not be a familiar or recognizable dish to many Italians.

Meatballs with tomato sauce

Don’t ask for salad dressing

In Italy, salad dressing, as it is commonly known in other countries, does not exist. Instead, Italians use high-quality olive oil and vinegar, either separately or combined, to season their salads. Rather than covering up the flavors of the salad ingredients, olive oil, and vinegar are meant to enhance and complement them. As such, traditional Italian salads do not typically include heavy dressings or other condiments. By embracing the simplicity of olive oil and vinegar, Italians celebrate their salads’ natural flavors and textures.

Do not look for mac and cheese in Italy

Despite the popular myth that mac and cheese was imported from Italy in the 18th century, this dish is not a staple of Italian cuisine. While there is a dish in Italy called “pasta pasticciata” that bears some similarity to mac and cheese, the two dishes are not exactly the same. If you’re in Italy hoping to find pre-made mac and cheese in a supermarket, you will likely be disappointed. Italians typically make pasta dishes with cheese at home rather than relying on pre-made boxes or packages. As such, while mac and cheese may be a beloved dish in other countries, it is not widely recognized or consumed in Italy.

Coffee is an after-meal affair

In Italy, coffee is not typically consumed during the main meal at lunch or dinner. Instead, Italians enjoy espresso after their meal, often accompanied by a small glass of water. Espresso is the preferred coffee beverage in Italy, always served without milk.

Coffees with milk, such as cappuccinos and lattes, are typically reserved for breakfast or for an afternoon snack known as “merenda.” Drinking a milky coffee during the main meal is generally frowned upon in Italy, as it is believed to interfere with the flavors of the food. By savoring a strong, rich espresso after a meal, Italians can cleanse their palate and fully appreciate the complex flavors of their food.

Don’t miss out our guide on how to order coffee like an italian.

Never cut spaghetti

Cutting spaghetti is almost seen as an offense in Italy, except for young children who are still learning to eat properly. Instead, Italians have a unique way of eating spaghetti that involves twirling the long strands around a fork.

Traditionally, older generations used a spoon in addition to their fork to roll the spaghetti, but this practice is becoming less common. At the end of the day, Italians have been eating spaghetti for generations and have perfected the art of twirling without needing additional utensils.

It’s worth noting that Italians don’t even use a knife to cut their pasta. This is because pasta dishes, including spaghetti, are meant to be enjoyed as they are, without cutting. If a fork isn’t enough to twirl the spaghetti, then Italians will keep twirling until the entire strand is wrapped around the fork.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a plate of spaghetti in Italy, remember to twirl, not cut, to embrace the Italian dining experience fully.

There’s no such thing as Spaghetti Bolognese in Italy

Spaghetti Bolognese may be a popular dish outside of Italy, but there is no such thing in Italy. Instead, Italians enjoy pasta al ragù, a meat sauce made with a mixture of ingredients that varies by region.

Ragù is a staple in Italian cuisine and is used not only for pasta, but also for lasagna. It’s a complex sauce that takes hours to prepare and is made with quality ingredients, such as beef, pork, pancetta, and vegetables.

The idea of Spaghetti Bolognese or “bolognaise” is a creation outside of Italy. So, if you’re in Italy and looking for this dish, you won’t find it. Instead, you can enjoy a delicious plate of pasta al ragù, a true Italian classic.

The different purposes of red and white wines

Italians take great care in how wine is served and paired with food. Generally white wine is typically paired with fish dishes, while red wine is paired with meat dishes. White wine is usually chilled, while red wine is served at room temperature. Adding ice to wine is never done in Italy and is generally not recommended.

Aperitivo is taken seriously

The aperitivo time is a vital part of Italian culture, and Italians take it seriously. Whether during the day or on the weekend, the tradition involves drinking a good Aperol Spritz, wine, or prosecco or any other local drink or beer. Typically, aperitivo is accompanied by small bites of food called “stuzzichini,” which can often constitute a full dinner. For Italians, aperitivo is an opportunity to socialize, relax, and enjoy good food and drinks with friends and family.

To drink coffee like an Italian, head to the bar and order it correctly

To drink coffee like an Italian, you must head to the bar and order it correctly. We rarely drink their coffee while sitting at a table in a bar. Instead, we stand at the bar, down our coffee in one shot, and then leave. Ordering coffee in Italy can be intimidating, as there are many different types. The most common types are espresso, cappuccino, latte macchiato, and Americano. When ordering an espresso, say “un caffè” and pay at the cashier before heading to the barista. Don’t forget to drink it quickly, as this is how the Italians do it.

Embrace the art of ordering a digestivo

A digestivo is a fundamental part of the Italian dining experience. After a meal at a restaurant, it’s almost customary to have a digestivo, a drink that aids digestion and helps you feel refreshed. The most popular digestivo is limoncello, a lemon-flavored liqueur made from the zest of Sorrento lemons. Other common digestivos include grappa and amaro. Drinking a digestivo is good for digestion and serves as a social ritual, allowing friends and family to relax and enjoy each other’s company after a meal.

Avoid having an early dinner when in Italy

In Italy, dinner is usually served later than in other countries, and it’s an important social event that brings family and friends together. Eating dinner too early can make you stick out like a sore thumb and potentially ruin your eating experience in Italy. Italians typically have dinner starting at 8:30 pm, so it’s essential to adapt to their customs to fit in and have an authentic Italian experience. Remember that restaurants and cafes might not be open for dinner before 7:00 pm, so plan accordingly.

Take your time when eating in Italy

Italians value taking their time while eating; meals are an essential form of socialization and bonding. They are never hastily consumed on a coffee table in front of the TV. If you want to eat like an Italian, taking your time and savoring every bite without rushing your meal is essential. Enjoy the company of your dining companions, engage in conversation, and make the most of your lunch or dinner experience.

Watch the video and discover how to eat in Italy like an Italian!

Eating in Italy: embrace Italian food rules and enjoy authentic culinary experiences

In conclusion, food is not just a basic need for Italians; it’s an essential part of our culture and lifestyle. Italian cuisine is more than just pasta and pizza; it’s about using fresh, high-quality ingredients and following time-honored recipes passed down from generation to generation. By following these Italian food rules, you can experience the true essence of Italian cuisine and fully appreciate the beauty of the Italian lifestyle. Whether you’re dining in a pizzeria in Naples or a trattoria in Rome, remember these tips. You’ll impress your Italian friends with your knowledge and respect for their culinary culture. Buon appetite!

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