Ciao a tutti! I thought I’d follow up last week’s post on 15 “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy with another one about dining practices here in general. Again, I got lots of this info from all of my Facebook friends who answered my question about their first impressions of Italy a few weeks ago. Thanks again, everyone!
Italy’s food culture doesn’t just include eating delicious, simple, and seasonal foods, it also extends to a variety of other things which I think are good to know before visiting or moving here.
Here are ten things to know about eating and drinking in Italy. Buon appetito!
Table of Contents
Ten things to know about eating and drinking in Italy
Breakfast is short and sweet (literally)
We have visions of mealtimes in Italy dragging on, lasting for hours as food is finished, wine is drunk, and dessert is brought out. This certainly happens here, but not at breakfast.
Breakfast is by far the shortest meal of the day, which normally consists of a pastry of some kind, and a cappuccino or other coffee. Lots of people also get a spremuta d’arancia, or freshly squeezed orange juice, or a bottled juice. Breakfast is often eaten standing up at a bar.
There are many, many kinds of pastries on offer, one more delicious than the next. They also have different names in different regions. Take the croissant, for example, which is served with various fillings (nutella, berry or apricot jam, pistachio, and cream are some common ones). In Rome, it’s called a cornetto, but in Veneto, it’s a brioche. In Sicily, a brioche is a kind of sweet bun, which you can also get filled with gelato (and you should obviously have one if you’re there)!
Luckily, you don’t have to learn all their names, you can just point to the one you want and say “Vorrei quello, per favore,” which means, “I’d like that one, please!”
A bar is a café
Lest you think Italians are a bunch of alcoholics, it’s good to know that having breakfast at a bar here is absolutely normal. Bars also serve alcohol, and often sandwiches or other small lunch dishes.
There are, of course, bars in the English-speaking sense of the word here too, but they usually open later in the day.
Drinking habits are different
This is a generalization, because of course Italians get drunk, but I’d say that overall, binge drinking is definitely not as big of a thing here as it is elsewhere in the world. It’s totally normal for groups of friends to go out and have a Coke on a Saturday night, or maybe a fruit juice, or get a gelato, or something like that.
When I was living in Veneto, I found that people drank more than people in Rome, which is funny, because there’s a stereotype that Venetians are drunkards. How can you not get drunk when the spritz and prosecco are 3 euro a glass?!
It may be because the drinking laws here aren’t as strictly enforced as they are in other parts of the world, so drinking isn’t considered as such a taboo thing. Maybe it’s because wine or beer with a meal are considered part of the culinary experience, rather than a way to blow off steam at the end of a week. Who knows? I do know that my mind boggles a bit when I see a group of teenagers out for a drink here. They have a spritz or a beer, and often, that’s it. In America, if our drinking laws were less strict, I’m pretty sure kids would be barfing up their lunch from the school cafeteria on the pavement after pounding 10 shots.
It is possible to eat badly here
There are plenty of bad restaurants in Italy. You’ll usually find them clustered around monuments and major sites. They’ll probably have a tourist menu.
Fear not – I have a couple of posts that will help you avoid bad meals on your visit. The first is about how to find good restaurants in Italy, and the second is about apps and websites you can use to make restaurant reservations ahead of time!
I mentioned in my post about culture shock that I’ve seen people get upset to find that meal times here are different to what we’re used to at home. It’s true that Italian meals are eaten a bit later than typical American ones. Where I’d say the standard lunch hour in the US is 12 – 1, here it’s more likely to be 1 – 2, or perhaps 1 – 3 or even 3:30, if you’re dealing with a small business that closes for lunch and a rest in the afternoon.
Dinner is later as well. Often preceded by aperitivo, (a drink or two and some snacks before dinner – like happy hour) dinner is usually eaten between 8 and 9 in the evening. Dinner time gets even later the further south you go. In Sicily, we didn’t eat until nearly 10 most nights.
Restaurants don’t open until 7:30 or so, and at that hour, they’re pretty dead. Make sure you’re aware of this, especially if you have kids or are traveling with anyone else who has a strict eating routine! Of course, you’ll be able to grab a sandwich, slice of pizza, or a gelato if you’re in a city and get hungry before the restaurants open.
The bread in Florence has no salt
If you go to Florence, you’ll probably notice that the bread there is very bland. This is said to be due to the fact that a long, long time ago, the Pisans starting charging the Florentines a very high tax on salt. Rather than paying the tax, the Florentines answered by eliminating it from their bread recipes altogether. Take that, ya greedy Pisani. This ancient protest has stuck around until today.
Luckily, all of the other food in Florence is ridiculously delicious. You can use the pane toscano to fare la scarpetta, or swipe up all of that delicious sauce you’ll be eating.
You pay to sit down
If you eat in a restaurant, you’ll probably notice a charge for the coperto. It’s usually 2 euro per person, but can be more or less, depending where you are. According to what I’ve read, the coperto is a charge that dates back a long time, and is meant to cover the cost of washing dishes as well as tablecloths, napkins, etc.
A few years ago, a law was passed in Lazio eliminating the cover charge, but you’ll find that there’s a new servizio charge that has popped up. Restaurants will claim it’s different, but I have a sneaking suspicion that’s it’s the coperto in disguise.
You might also be expected to pay more if you sit down at a bar, rather than having your coffee standing up.
Tipping works differently
So, you’ve gotta pay this coperto, but you’ll save on tips! Servers in Italy are paid a regular wage, so you don’t need to leave a big tip. I recommend leaving a few euro for good service, but it’s not required. An Italian friend told me that for big parties, it’s polite to leave one euro per person.
You might see tip jars at bars or gelaterie. Feel free to drop in a coin or two.
meals are traditionally broken into courses
If you come here and want to have a traditional dining experience, consider ordering a primo piatto and a second piatto with a contorno, or a first course, second course, and side dish. If you’re hungry, you can probably do it. You can even bookend these items with an antipasto (appetizer) and a dolce (dessert), if you’re really super hungry!
Another thing which a lot of foreigners notice when dining in Italy is that if you eat a traditional meal, salad is served after the main course, rather than before it. Americans are used to salad as a kind of appetizer, so if you go for a multi-course meal, or perhaps, a tasting menu of some kind and you think you’re not going to get any, odds are, it will probably come at the end rather than at the beginning.
Food is regional
It’s important to mention that Italian food is regional, so you might not be able to find certain dishes everywhere you are, especially if you’re visiting a lot of different places while you’re here. Take pesto, for example, which is traditionally from Liguria. You will probably find it on every menu there, but you might not find it at all in other cities.
There are standard dishes that you might see across menus and cities (especially at restaurants that cater to tourists), but some specialities will probably only be available in their region of origin.
More on Eating in Italy
As always, feel free to share thoughts and questions in the comments!