A trip to Italy generally means amazing Italian food. Although great Italian cuisine can be had throughout the country, mastering food etiquette takes a dining experience to the next level. Although most Italians probably wouldn’t tell me if I committed a faux pas, I feel more comfortable when I blend in. I try to be a cultural chameleon! If you, too, would like to eat Italy in an authentic way, here are my suggestions.
- Do order coffee to drink standing at the bar. Italians eat their breakfast at the counter, which saves a lot of money since taking a seat can cost multiple times the amount. You will be eating plenty later so it seems right to start your morning off with the typical small Italian breakfast of a simple espresso and croissant (caffè e cornetto). For money-saving tips, see this blog.
- Do order your cappuccino before noon. This drink is seen as a breakfast one. Although places will likely serve you one at any time of the day, Italians generally just drink it in the morning. They don’t have it as a dessert drink, like North Americans do. Speaking of coffee drinks—it’s caffè latte, not just a latte. If you order a latte, you will get a glass of milk.
- Don’t eat on the go. Although Italians may enjoy breakfast standing up, they don’t walk around eating food, generally. Even with gelato, I rarely see Italians eating it “on the go.”
- Do eat after 7. Many Italian restaurants don’t open until at least 7, many at 7:30. The further south one goes, the later people seem to eat. To fit in and dine at the restaurants that locals do, eat later.
- Do have aperitivo (see pics below). You may be getting a little munchy if you aren’t used to dining as late as Italians, so take advantage of the pre-dinner drink and snack time known as aperitivo. Many places offer an assortment of snacks (meats, cheeses, olives, bruschette, etc.) to accompany a pre-dinner cocktail. It’s a good value and some venues offer quite the smorgasboard of food…just don’t fill up too much, because you will definitely want dinner.
- Do search out local dishes and avoid American ones. Italian-American favorites like chicken fettuccine Alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs are only served at touristy restaurants and aren’t authentic Italian cuisine.
- Don’t ask for substitutions. Italian food is thoughtfully composed. A chef has put ingredients that they think will complement one another. If the restaurant doesn’t serve cheese with the dish, then the chef doesn’t think it goes. If a steak is served medium rare, it is meant to be. If you don’t want the dish as it is prepared, then order something else.
- Don’t fill up on the bread while waiting for your meal. Italians don’t snack on bread like Americans tend to do when waiting for their dish to arrive. Instead, they use the bread to sop up the sauce after they have finished their pasta. It’s delicious! Also, don’t ask for oil or vinegar to accompany your bread. It is served the way it is supposed to be eaten.
- Don’t cut your pasta. Cutting pasta is something that is done for a child; adults roll the strands around a fork.
- Do follow the norms for eating pizza. A pizza in a restaurant is served in a size for one. Italians don’t split it. Don’t order pineapple on it. If you order a pepperoni pizza, know that you are ordering one with bell peppers on it. For more on pizza, see this blog.
- Do order wine and water with your meal. The house wine is probably quite good and generally reasonably priced. It is tacky to ask for tap water. Italians order a bottle of water—still or sparkling. Please note that there likely won’t be ice.
- Don’t ask for leftovers to be bagged up. Some restaurants will do it for us to make us happy, but if you want to fit in then don’t ask for a doggy bag.
- Do ask for your bill. Generally, a restaurant won’t bring your check. You have to ask for it. Just say: Vorrei il conto, per favore. I would like the check, please.
- Do understand additions to your bill like coperto and servizio. One or the other may be on your check. You may see coperto (cover) or pane (bread). Coperto or pane are charges that will be assigned to each person at your table; it will be one charge or the other, not both, although it may be written as pane e coperto. Occasionally, you may see servizio on the bill, which is a service charge. You shouldn’t see both charges at the same time. If there is servizio or coperto charged, it should be written down on the menu or somewhere noticeable.
- Do understand that tipping can be confusing. Tipping is not compulsory. I generally see if I was charged servizio. If I was, then I generally don’t tip. If I wasn’t, and the service was good, I may leave a couple euro. But please note that they don’t have a tipping culture like we do in the States and it is really up to you if you want to tip. If you decide to tip, 15-20% would be quite extravagant. Also, I’ve never seen a “tipping” spot when paying by credit card, so if you do want to tip you will need to bring cash.
I hope that you enjoyed this guide for how to eat Italy. Buon appetito!
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