Eating out in Italy is a fantastic opportunity to enjoy an important part of the country’s culinary culture. But making a mistake at the dining table is also a surefire way to out yourself as a tourist.
There are unwritten rules about how and what to eat when dining out in Italy. In order to avoid any missteps, here are 11 habits that make you look like a tourist:
- Cutting your pasta: Have you ever wondered why there are so many different shapes of pasta? They have each developed from a local context and go perfectly with a certain kind of sauce or topping. Pasta is not used interchangeably – the right shape is always selected for a reason. So long pasta is meant to be long! Practice twirling, or even ask for a spoon for help, but never cut your pasta.
- Piling lots of different kinds of foods on to one plate: In Italy, the vegetables on the menu almost never come with the main dish. If you order meat, you are getting meat and probably nothing more. Salad, cooked vegetables, meat, and pasta are all served on their own plates and not mixed together. There are a few buffet exceptions, but if you are sitting down to eat then take your time. Focus on one food at a time instead of helping yourself to everything at once.
- Asking for modifications: Italians take food allergies and celiac disease very seriously, so please do speak up if you have special dietary needs. However, asking the chef to hold an ingredient or leave something on the side because you simply don’t like it? Go ahead and proceed at your own peril. The chef knows best, and many restaurants will dismiss a request to change a dish. But if you are traveling with a child or a vegetarian and don’t see anything suitable on the menu, go ahead and ask politely. The kitchen will likely be able to accommodate this.
- Chicken and Pasta: Pasta is traditionally a first course, with meat being served separately as a second course. While there is no need to always order multiple courses, you should be aware that meat and pasta are rarely served together. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example, is more Italian-American than Italian. In Italy, those meatballs (polpette) are served as a secondo. One meat you will never find on pasta or pizza in Italy is chicken. If you are craving a bit of bird, try pollo alla romana (chicken stewed with peppers) or pollo alla cacciatora (hunter’s style chicken with herbs and white wine).
- Eating cheese with a fish dish: Continuing on the pasta rules – you will give yourself away if you ask for parmigiano to sprinkle over your frutti di mare pasta. There are very few exceptions to this rule (cozze e pecorino come to mind), but in general it is simply not done to add cheese to any fish-y dish. And tuna melts? Forget it.
- Dipping bread in olive oil: Italy makes some of the world’s best olive oil so it is natural to want to indulge in some extra. Bread is often brought to the table right before the meal is served, and you will likely be charged for it. However, dipping bread in olive oil is distinctly non-Italian. The amount of oil absorbed is seen as too much. Instead, drizzle the oil over the bread. Or better yet, order a bruschetta aglio e olio.
- Getting artichokes in August: Italian food is seasonal, particularly the produce. Keep an eye out for menu items that seem out of place, such as artichokes in summer. The same goes for strawberries sprinkled on your gelato in winter – it is pretty much guaranteed that those ingredients are frozen instead of fresh. Keep an eye out for an asterisk* after menu items. Restaurants are required to disclose when they use frozen ingredients and usually do so with a mark on the menu. Skip those and ask for the plate of the day instead.
- Asking for tap water: The tap water in Italy is perfectly good to drink – so why can’t you do it at a restaurant? While you technically can order tap water, it is simply not done. Treat yourself to a bit of frizzante if you can’t bring yourself to pay a euro for naturale, but know that asking for tap water will almost definitely peg you as a tourist.
- Ordering more wine than food: It is totally normal to order wine with pretty much any meal after breakfast. However, the key is that wine is really only normally enjoyed WITH food. Even if you order wine during happy hour, you are likely to receive a few snacks alongside your glass. Feel free to indulge in a bit of a vino, but be prepared to order food to go along with the boozey break.
- Drinking a cappuccino after your meal: This is an oft repeated “rule” to dining in Italy for good reason – milk after meals is simply not done. This is because of the generally held belief that milk is bad for digestion. So a cappuccino with your meal? Really really bad for digestion. Enjoy it in the morning, and then opt for a caffe macchiato after a meal if you need the espresso to be cut with a dash of dairy.
- Over tipping: Last but not least, leaving the table can be just as fraught with potential pitfalls as ordering can be. Be aware of over tipping, as 15% is certainly not the norm in Italy. While you are welcome to leave as much as you like for excellent service, you are not required to tip more than a few euro. Here is a helpful guide to tipping in Italy with a bit more information on how to avoid over spending.