A Beginner's Guide to Eating in Italy

October 24, 2018

If you’re lucky enough to someday go to Italy, the topic while there will sooner or later turn to food. After all, Italy boasts a proud culinary culture with meals of fresh focaccia, hand made and shaped pastas and slow-simmers sauces.

Dining in Italy can be absolutely delightful and food is a BIG reason why so many people want to go to Italy. But, first-time visitors often wonder - When will they fill my glass with water?; Am I really supposed to order every course?; Why isn’t my favorite Italian meal on the menu?



So to help ease your mind here are some dos and don’ts for eating in Italy.


Pasta portions are individual sized.

“Italian” restaurants in the U.S. are known for mountains of spaghetti but you won’t find that in Italy.   Spaghetti is considered a first course and is appetizer sized. The cook isn’t being stingy. It’s just that Italians prefer to stagger their meals – eating the actual appetizers first, 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 the amazing Italian desserts!


Pizza toppings are different in Italy.

Pizza originated in Italy, but in the U.S. it took on a whole different style – 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” in Italy will only get you a pizza covered in peppers!


You don’t need to order the whole menu.

Italians stagger their meal – enjoying appetizers (antipasti) before moving on to the first course (pasta / risotto / soup), the second course (meat or fish) and the sweets. 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. If you’re not real hungry, share some antipasti and then order either a pasta or an entrée. If you’re still hungry after that, you can order more.


Only drink water and wine at Italian restaurants.

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 (approximately 2 euro per bottle). Your waiter will ask if you prefer “acqua naturale” (regular 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.


Oil and vinegar are the only salad dressing you will find in Italy.

Believe it or not, “Italian dressing” doesn’t exist in Italy – it’s an American invention. When you’re served salad in Italy, your server will bring out extra virgin olive oil and vinegar – called olio e aceto in Italian. This duo is the only way Italians dress their salads. And something else to remember, Italians never dip bread in olive oil and balsamic!!


No bread before pasta. 

With the types of foods Italians eat - pizza. Pasta, focaccia - it’s easy to assume that Italians eat lots of carbs. But that’s not quite true.  When ordering pasta, Italians never eat bread before they eat their pasta.   Instead, bread is used to scoop up the leftover sauce on your plate – and only when you’ve finished your pasta.


There are no “doggy bags” in Italy.

Italians love to eat fresh, homemade meals. What they don’t love is 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. 


Some dishes are found in all parts of Italy 

Rome is famous for carbonara, Florence is known for its fagioli and Venetians go crazy for risotto. Wherever you go in Italy, you’ll encounter regional flavors. SThe means the food you try in Sorrento won’t be the same taste as what you had in Siena. Before heading to Italy, do a bit of homework to discover the local specialties in each place you'll be in. When in Rome, eat like a Roman. And, when in Milan, eat like the Milanese do.


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.


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 digestive liqueur such as limoncello or Sambuca. Italians believe that a digestivi aids post-dinner digestion. You can even order a shot of espresso spiked with liqueur.


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 that he now present you with the bill.

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Darla Logsdon


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