Italy…just the thought of it conjures up images of a warm rustic villa nestled among lush rolling green hills, peppered with statuesque cyprus trees, where a vivacious family sits around a large wooden table that is covered with dishes of glistening olives, sweet sun-dried tomatoes, savory rustic crostate, sautéed season vegetables, warm crusty bread, an array of delicious aged cheese and trays displaying a variety of salame and prosciutto. As they enjoy their delicious meal made with the kind of exceptional ingredients that only a sunny climate and volcanic soil, such as what is found in Italy can produce, the endless wine flows, adding to the joy of the event.
Learning the Rules…
Italy is a dream destination for many romantics who have fallen in love with its splendor. However, if you plan to visit Italy, you should be aware of the culinary etiquette that exists amongst its population. These rules have been criticized as bordering on fascist, but if you want to fit in and avoid any nasty looks and scoffs, you will follow them religiously.
…and breaking them.
On the other hand, once you have tasted these dishes with an open mind, if you still want to be able to defend your individual choices and scoff back, you should read on. These are not just the rules, but also, in several cases, they are the reasons why they exist, which is something most of those who are judging your choices never mention, let alone, learn. This is based on my observations and detailed conversations while living amongst sometimes the most traditional of Italians as well as frequent conversations with chefs and people in the food industry.
I’m a foodie and after living in Rome for so many years, I am now well aware of the so-called “traditions” that traditionalist Italians inform you about in order to try to shame everyone into becoming exactly the same as themselves. It is my opinion that you should read these rules and be aware of them, try some new things in order to expand your experiences but feel free to have your food, your way, if you really prefer it. Learn the differences between Italian-American, Traditional-Italian and Modern-Italian cuisines, so you can decide what you like best. This is not about a list of DOs and DON’Ts. Food is something that should be experienced with an open mind. This post is about learning the rules that traditional Italians tend to follow, learning why they follow them in the first place, then deciding for yourself. After all, you’re the one doing the eating.
The History of Italian Cuisine
How Italian-American Cuisine Evolved
If you have ever traveled to Italy, you will have noticed that in many cases, what you believed to be typical Italian dishes were actually Italian-American specialties and cannot be found in most of Italy. There is a simple reason for this, but in order to explain this we need to travel back in history to when Italian immigrants first arrived in America.
Italians were starving when they immigrated to America. For the first time in years, they were finally able to afford to buy meat and loads of vegetables. Eggplant Parmigiana became Chicken or Veal Parm, meatballs were added to pasta, the portions doubled and tripled, bread was served with everything and everything was now swimming in sauce. Italian-American cuisine was a celebration of their newly acquired abundance and demonstration of what they considered wealth. The suffering and starvation were finally over. No Italian would ever starve again, that is, while they lived in America. This is why it is so important to the elderly who experienced that kind of hunger, for you to eat. “Mangia, mangia!”, is commonly heard at any Italian table with grandparents present. It is also why you will always see older Italians giving money to the homeless on the streets of Italy. Starvation is something they will never forget. For it was not just the immigrants from the 1800s who found a new home in the US, but there were several immigration waves that occurred in the following century as well.
Italian Food is Actually Antique Fusion Cuisine
While Italian-American cuisine is still delicious when prepared well, many of these dishes go against the traditions found in Italy and traditionalist Italians will certainly scoff at anything that is different from what they were raised with. There are certain rules that most conservative Italians strictly adhere to, no matter what country they find themselves in. These Italian culinary rules have been in place for as long as anyone can remember. However, it seems that their memory of their history is not that clear. I wonder how many Italians realize that ninety percent of what they consider ‘traditional Italian ingredients’ have actually originated elsewhere.
The Origins of the Ingredients
Hundreds of years ago, the Italians of the time were so open-minded that they introduced the following ingredients into their cuisine: Pasta was introduced from China, where the Chinese had been enjoying it for at least 4,000 years. Their realization of the existence of the Americas – where the genocidal maniac, Columbus was discovered by the enormous population of Natives Americans who lived there – and the culinary customs of these Native American tribes introduced sugar, cocoa, coffee, tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, corn and strawberries. They got spinach, almonds and rice from the Arabs, while basil, onions, garlic and eggplant originated in Asia. Prior to this time period, Italian cuisine consisted of meat, seafood, bread and local fruit and vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus and olives. When you remind Italians of this, many will claim that Italy improved upon them. However, unless you have tasted the best freshly made noodles in China, coffee in Colombia, chocolate in Mexico or purple potatoes in Peru, then you really have no idea. When food is made with excellent ingredients and it is prepared well, it is absolutely delicious, regardless of where the cuisine is from.
Italy has, undoubtedly, created an amazing cuisine out of these imported ingredients, but taste is objective and this is not a competition. Food should be enjoyed and celebrated. Without the introduction of all these foods from abroad, the world would not have ever tasted a lasagna, cappuccino, gnocchi, eggplant Parmesan, Tiramisu, polenta, chocolate nor most of the delicious concoctions that have evolved throughout the ages using foreign ingredients. In fact, Italian cuisine is one of the oldest fusion cuisines in existence.
Italian Culinary Rules
I have compiled a list of all of the Italian culinary rules and traditions for you to follow, but only if you wish to do so, in order to fit in with typical Italian customs. Many visitors complain that Italians are way too strict with these rules, especially considering the fact that most of the cuisine is based on foreign ingredients. I believe that you should always open your mind and try new things but after you do, feel free to eat what you prefer and in the way of your choosing. There will always be people who flick their nose up at you if you commit an Italian culinary faux pas, but if they do, perhaps you should ask them if they realize that most of it is not Italian in origin at all. I have also included typical culinary habits that you should expect from restaurants, so that you are not surprised and know how to react. If, on the other hand, you are preparing a traditional Italian meal, these rules will help you to attain that. Otherwise, you might want to call it something else such as Italian-Fusion Cuisine.
1: Italian Courses
Italians begin their meals with an aperitivo, if they have one at all. Their first course is an antipasto or appetizer. They follow it with a pasta course and if they have a meat or seafood dish, then that would follow the pasta as a separate course. While we consider an appetizer the first course, you will notice that Italians refer to pasta as their first course even though it follows the antipasto and is therefore, technically the second course. Soups are considered an alternate choice to a pasta dish. While it is common to find cheese platters as an option for an appetizer, there are exceptions. Parmesan cheese that has been grilled and drizzled with honey might be found with the secondi or “second course” options. Seafood platters will also be on their list of secondi, whereas grilled or sautéed vegetables are considered contorni or side orders. Meat and seafood dishes do not usually include side orders, but there are exceptions. Dessert options, i dolci, tend to include ice-cream, fresh fruit and local specialties. You can usually view them in their display case. If you happen to attend a special holiday meal, you may find dried fruit and nuts along with an array of fresh fruit, which follow the dessert course. Italians finish off their meal with an espresso, which is simply, un caffé, and a digestivo, which is a sweet liquor to help you digest your meal. Italians don’t always have all of these courses in one meal. You can choose which courses to have, depending on how hungry you are or how special the occasion. Weddings may feature two pasta courses as well as a meat course and a seafood course. No matter how many courses you decide to have, no Italian will ever order a cappuccino with their meal. Continue reading in order to find out why this is so.
2: Cappuccino after 12 noon
If you order a cappuccino after lunchtime in Italy, someone will certainly scoff. It is considered a huge faux pas, but what is amusing is that very few of these people who scoff, actually know why they are scoffing in the first place. It’s as if they scoff because that’s what they’ve been brainwashed to do when someone does anything different from what they’ve been brought up with. The original reason it was absolutely not ever done was simply because prior to refrigeration, the milk would go bad by lunchtime. This has become so ingrained in the everyday habits of Italians that they no longer remember why they follow the rule at all. Many Italians now claim that dairy should not be mixed with a meal and yet it is common to find creamy desserts such as tiramisu and pannacotta as well as gelato on dessert menus in any Italian restaurant in Italy. These kinds of old wives’ tales are prevalent in the Italian culture where many people even believe that they can be “hit by air”, infamously known as un colpo d’aria, and get sick or claim that their “liver hurts”. Regardless of refrigeration, there is a definite food safety reason why you should be mindful about ordering any milk-based beverage. This is located in the FoodSafety section towards the end.
Whenever you do choose to order a cappuccino, remember that Italians sprinkle cocoa on their cappuccini but never cinnamon, which is commonly added in the states. In fact, if you want cinnamon, you’ll have to carry it with you, since most cafés, known as i bar, in Italy will not carry it. If you do plan on sprinkling cinnamon on your cappuccino in front of an Italian, I must warn you, they will definitely scoff. Personally, I like my cappuccino both ways. A bit of nutmeg with your cinnamon is delicious. But I embrace food, so I enjoy trying new things. Those who scoff, really don’t know what they’re missing out on. You should see the faces I get when I make Matcha Green Tea! Those faces change once I force them to taste it.
Italians prefer to start their day with a cornetto, their version of a croissant, which contains less butter but more sugar and is not as tender as a French croissant. Why mess with something if it isn’t broken? Well, if you’re going to change the recipe, do as the Italians did, they renamed it. These cornetti are usually paired with a cappuccino. They can’t even imagine why anyone would have a large breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast. However, they don’t make it all the way until lunchtime on a cornetto alone. This is why they will also have a mid-morning snack somewhere between breakfast and lunch, which can consist of either a tramezzino or pizzeta sandwich. Go to any café or school at about 11am and you will find it full of Italians getting their mid-morning merenda. FYI for Italians, this is why we eat eggs for breakfast. It suppresses your appetite and gives you energy until lunchtime. Forget about trying to find eggs in Italy, unless you are at a hotel that serves them for their international clients. The recent health trend of juicing is finally hitting the old world and now you can even find cafés that will juice fresh fruit and vegetables. It isn’t everywhere yet, but the US has finally made a positive culinary influence and it’s about time it did.
The portions are smaller, especially if you consider that a three-course meal is the tradition. A normal pasta portion is 100 grams per person. However, when people hold a dinner party with multiple antipasti and various dishes, they will weigh 50 grams of pasta per person. Portions on antipasti will also vary depending on the restaurant. If you go to a fine-dining establishment, you will barely be able to split an appetizer in two. However, if you eat at a trattoria, then you may even be able to split it in four. Ask your server for advice. My husband and I tend to split an antipasto and a meat or seafood course but usually order two pasta dishes and this is more than enough food for us. If you are watching your weight, try ordering several appetizers and side orders and splitting it with your group of friends. The appetizers are usually quite interesting and that can be enough food to fill you. You can also order one course at a time, if you aren’t in a crowded restaurant.
5: Bread, Coperto & Tipping
Bread is never eaten with pasta as that would be a carbohydrate overload and there is only enough sauce to lightly coat the pasta. My husband is Italian and he certainly does not follow this rule whatsoever. I once made him some spaghetti amatriciana and he asked for some bread. We were trying to eat less so I hadn’t bought any. “How am I supposed to eat this pasta?”, he complained. “With a fork.”, I replied then started laughing. He was so sad about not having bread that I went downstairs and got him some just to see him smile. We still laugh about it to this day.
With all these rules, however, there is one thing that would be looked down upon in many countries but that most Italians eagerly do. They clean their plates of all remaining sauce with their last pieces of bread. They call this act fare la scarpetta. Tuscany is known for saltless bread. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were the first to fare la scarpetta in a desperate aim to add some flavor to what I, personally, consider very bland bread. I’m certain those Tuscans have a palate that can discern the subtle flavor hidden to the rest of us. Even in Italy, it is not considered good etiquette to do this, but they always do it regardless, so feel free to join in.
Bread is usually freshly made every day. Please note that there is no free bread in Italy. They will bring it to your table without you asking for it, but they will also make you pay for it. It can cost about €2 for the bread in general or even up to €2 per person in finer restaurants, which I think is a ripoff, but you should keep this in mind. Some include it in the coperto, which is the price you pay for your cutlery, plates and glassware. Yes, you have to pay for that too. Different cities have different rules. In the Lazio region, where Rome is located, the addition of a coperto is illegal. In many instances, you will still find it on your bill. If this is the case, and it’s only a few Euro, then I consider that their tip. Italian servers make the same kind of wages as people who work in shops, therefore people merely round up to the nearest Euro or so, but not much more. Prices reflect their wages so keep in mind that you are already paying their wages when you pay for your meal. Waiters who specifically tell you that tips are not included, know that Americans tip 20% in the US and are hoping for some extra cash. Most waiters never receive your credit card tips as they usually go directly to the restaurant instead, so please give all tips to the waiter directly and in cash.
You will never be served butter with your bread in an Italian restaurant and while your bread will be fresh, it will rarely be warm unless it has just been made. Butter is rarely ever found in any Italian ‘recipes’, however, if you sneak into an Italian chef’s kitchen, you will catch them slipping some into their dishes but they will never ever admit to it. I know several chefs personally and they have all told me this is true, but if you aren’t good friends with them and you ask them, they will deny, deny, deny.
7: Dipping Bread in Olive Oil
You will never be given olive oil to dip your bread into, unless you are in Tuscany or where they make their own olive oil. Dipping bread into olive oil is done so you can taste how good their olive oil is, not to dress the bread. I think an American visited Tuscany ages ago and noticed that they served him olive oil with their bread and they took this to be an Italian substitute for butter. In reality it is the other way around. It is as if they are serving you olive oil and the bread is merely your spoon.
8: Al dente
Pasta in Italy is always cooked to be al dente, meaning that it is firm to the bite. You can see the white ring in the photo above that is the telltale sign of al dente pasta. If you bite into long pasta, you’ll see a white dot on the inside. Learn how to cook pasta to perfection every time. Cooking tips are at the end.
In order for pasta to be cooked properly, it needs to be made properly. By Italian law, pasta secca or dry pasta in Italy must be made with either Durum Wheat Semolina or Durum Wheat Flour. Pasta made in other countries make it with various types of flour which may not achieve an acceptable level of firmness by Italian standards. In fact, even well-known pasta companies will make their pasta with Italy’s required ingredients but change it when made for exportation. I also personally know the owner of a commercial pasta company who makes pasta for several brands and he enlightened me on these facts.
While pasta is always served al dente, vegetables are not. If you want crunchy broccoli or carrots, you will have to cook them yourself. They are always cooked until they completely fall apart and could easily be mashed with a fork. Perhaps the Italian mammas got so used to cooking baby food for their children, that they never changed their habit of overcooking their vegetables. If you don’t want mushy vegetables that feel like baby food, opt for sautéed greens like cicoria (chicory), broccoli (broccoli rabe), spinacci (spinach) and other greens that may be in season. They are always delicious and good for you.
9: Chicken or Veal Parm, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Fettucine Alfredo and Italian-American Favorites
Many Americans are saddened to find that there is no Chicken Parmesan nor Spaghetti & Meatballs available in most of Italy. You might find vitello alla parmegiana in Umbria, which is a variation from Eggplant Parmesan, but it is not common and perhaps only found in a handful of restaurants, if at all. Spaghetti con polpette can be found in the Salento region, but it is mainly made at home or in very few restaurants and is made with small meatballs the size of a nickel. Most Italians have never heard of these dishes, therefore, you will not find them in most of Italy. Fettuccine Alfredo is not famous in Italy and is only found in one restaurant in Rome, the one that “invented” it and exported it. However, a conversation with a group of Italian cooks uncovered something interesting. What we know as Fettucine Alfredo is very common in Italy, only not under that name, nor will it be found in any restaurant besides the aforementioned one. Alfredo sauce is basically butter and Parmesan cheese. Italians think of this dish as something to whip up when you run out of better ingredients. It’s like the equivalent of a condiment sandwich. So yes, it technically exists, but only at home and when you’re desperate.
There is also no garlic bread nor Italian subs. There is no pasta with chicken nor with loads of ingredients. You must remember that most of these are Italian-American dishes that evolved throughout the years. They are delicious but so are all those dishes that you have yet to try. If you are visiting Italy, you have to try all the seasonal fruit and vegetables as well as their local pasta dishes. If you are on the seaside, you should not miss having their seafood dishes. This may be your only opportunity to try your new favorite food.
10: Cheese on Seafood Dishes
“Cheese is never added to dishes containing seafood!”, is a rule most Italians will recite by heart. However, there are several traditional pasta recipes that can easily be found along the Italian coastal towns that feature both seafood and cheese combined, such as linguine al tartufo di mare e parmigiano or vongole al parmigiano. Therefore, you might want to remind them of this if you choose to cheese up your dish and someone scoffs. Keep in mind that the dishes above will be served with the cheese already mixed in. If your seafood dish comes without cheese, try it first, as the chef intended. However, if you absolutely must have cheese, tell them to mind their own business. Oh, will the scoffing ever cease?
11: Ketchup on pasta
While most Italians believe that this is common practice amongst Americans, I have never seen anyone do this. If you are interested in a culinary experience, you will rarely ever find it in a bottle of ketchup. I think all the world can agree on this one. Most Italians would wince to see it on pizza as well. However, when traveling through Naples, the birthplace of pizza, I was taken to a very popular and historical pizzeria al taglio – serving only pizza by the slice – where they put ketchup and/or mayonnaise on each slice. If you really enjoy putting ketchup on pasta or pizza, just know that not just Italians but anyone would scoff. However, since you are the one eating it, I don’t understand why anyone, except for the chef, should give a f… – I mean, should care. If you see anyone eating pasta with ketchup, please do not assume that all of his countrymen do the same.
12: Pasta Sauce
Once the gnocchi or pasta is cooked to perfection, it is drained and immediately mixed into the finished sauce. The pasta absorbs the flavors of the sauce and only needs a light coating of the sauce itself. It is not drenched in sauce nor does it swim in it. You know how everything is bigger in Texas, well everything got bigger and more exaggerated when the first Italian immigrants arrived in the US and could afford to do so for the first time in ages. However, those who never left Italy, maintained their recipes the way they were designed. They are simple dishes that are delicious, so try them out as soon as you can.
13: Italian Recipes and Personal Taste
Most Italians are accustomed to eating only Italian cuisine for most, if not all of their lives. The exceptions are usually found in the large cities or are those who long to leave their small town in order to expand their experiences. Recipes are set in stone and do not vary unless you are eating at an avant-garde or fusion restaurant, where the chef has taken liberties with the traditional recipes and has added his own twists. However, most Italians will stand by the traditional recipe and may enjoy a twist once in a blue moon. Since Italian cuisine is based mainly on the quality of the ingredients, the cooks do little to compensate for a lack of flavor that may occur from time to time.
While in many countries such as the US and the UK, the population is used to eating a wide variety of flavorful cuisines, this is not common in Italy. Therefore the palate of one who is an international foodie will be much more complex than those who only eat the same things over and over again. There are Italian foodies as well, who enjoy tasting new things and a variety of cuisine. We foodies, are used to recognizing the subtle flavors that hit your palate first, second, then third. We may even recognize when too much of a specific ingredient is used in something as complex as a Thai curry. The traditional Italian taste is much more simple and basic, in many cases it is like that of a child. Those that exclusively eat Italian cuisine are used to clean flavors that are never complex but remain simple. The addition of certain ingredients would completely cover up the flavor for them. Due to this kind of palate, they can also discern very subtle flavors in food that someone with a complex palate would consider flavorless.The only time this kind of palate expands is when they begin to taste other cuisines that differ greatly from their own. However, while international foodies may be used to complex flavors, the simple clean flavors found in traditional Italian cuisine is an experience one should welcome with open arms. The subtle flavors will reset your taste buds and allow you to recognize the flavors in simple ingredients such as the sweetness of a tomato or the difference in flavor between types of pasta. Yes, pasta has a flavor and Italians can differentiate between them.
Not all restaurants are created equal and in some cases, the chef might have served you pasta that is too dry or food that is flavorless for your taste. There are condiments that you can ask for that will add the complexity that you desire: sale (salt), pepe (pepper), peperoncino (chili pepper), limone, (lemon), aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar), glassa balsamica (balsamic vinegar glaze), olio d’oliva (olive oil) and one of my favorites olio al peperoncino (chili pepper olive oil). The balsamic glaze is delicious on a steak while the chili pepper oil is amazing in many pasta dishes and on your favorite pizza. Most restaurants have these available, but you must ask for them.
14: Meat in Pasta Dishes
Any meat, such as, chicken, veal and including meatballs, are served separately as what Italians call a second course, even though it is technically the third because, well…math. The only meat found in pasta dishes is either pork sausages or ground meat in a meat sauce such as beef, wild boar or in rare cases, other game meat. There is a dish in Sicily and in the Salento region that has meatballs, but they are very small like the size of a nickel. It is believed that this is the dish that evolved into what is known around the world as Spaghetti and Meatballs. Those post-war Italian immigrants made everything bigger. It’s like the gaudy gigantic diamonds that the nouveau riche tend to pour on themselves in order to show off their wealth. Things get bigger when you first encounter wealth. Spaghetti and Meatballs, as you know it, is not found in Italy, so instead of looking for it, try the local specialties and enjoy their expertise.
15: Caesar Salad
Do not bother ordering a Caesar Salad in Italy. It was invented in Tijuana, Mexico by a man named Caesar Cardini. Since that was during the time of Prohibition, the city was full of Americans going there to party and the salad became an American staple. Most Americans know that it is not an Italian dish but they begin to doubt when they see it on some menus in Italy, but it’s usually only found in modern restaurants that want to add a chic international flair to their menu or in the numerous trendy American restaurants that have been popping up all over Italy. Unfortunately, after tasting several versions that merely used mayonnaise as the dressing, I have to stress that they never live up to expectations, so skip it and get something Italian. As the old adage goes, when in Rome…
16: Salad Dressing
Ingredients are king in Italy, therefore covering them up in salad dressing is simply not done. In fact, that bottle of Italian dressing that you have sitting in your refrigerator, is not Italian at all. You must remember that the volcanic soil coupled with the long hot sun creates vegetables that are full of flavor. By using just a bit of exceptional olive oil and balsamic vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, you will taste each magnificent ingredient and feel the difference. If you are visiting Italy, you should definitely try a salad that is dressed this way. Depending on where you are from and the quality of food that you are used to, you might just be tasting amazing vegetables for the first time in your life. Even if you are accustomed to quality ingredients, you will enjoy tasting them in Italy as well. You might prefer the taste and added richness of your favorite salad dressing. I say, you should be free to eat what you want. However, don’t call it Italian dressing and don’t expect to find it in any Italian restaurant in Italy.
17: Pasta Bolognese
Some Italians will tell you it doesn’t exist but this is not true. It exists in Bologna. Those that say it does not exist have probably never lived or dined in Bologna. It is not usually made the way you find it around the world. It is much lighter and usually made with fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle pasta, which is flat and delicious, and a ragu (This term comes from the French ragôut) sauce of meat and tomatoes, which is slowly cooked for hours and hours. I found it often in local eateries that were not frequented by tourists while living in Bologna and it was always delicious. However, the only place I recommend having this dish is in Bologna. If you see it on a menu anywhere else, you are most likely at a tourist trap, so back away from the menu and run to another restaurant. The same is true for pesto. It is best in Genova or the Ligurian region in general. If you find it anywhere else in Italy, you might be in the wrong restaurant.
18: Pepperoni Pizza vs. Pizza con peperoni
While in the US and in many other countries, pepperoni is known as a cured meat, in Italy peperoni means peppers. Italians never understand how this happened but a stroll through a supermarket in Naples cleared it up for me in one instant. Pizza was invented in Naples. When you order pizza with salame in Naples, they use a specific kind of cured meat that is known as Salame Napoletano outside of Naples. Outside of Italy, we call salame, salami, which is the plural form. While strolling through the supermarket I noticed that one of the brand names of this salame was “Pepperoni”. It only makes sense that when it was imported, it took on the brand name in the same way as we use Kleenex, Pampers and Band-Aids. Regardless, this is not common knowledge, so if you want pepperoni pizza ask for Pizza alla Diavola or con salame.
19: Eating Pizza
As you know, pizza originated in Naples. It was invented as a quick lunchtime meal for workers on the go. It was thin on the inside with a light airy high rim around it. Then, it was folded in four so the workers could eat it easily. Yes, it was made to be eaten with your hands, not a knife and fork. Since then it has evolved to what it is today, but it is still thin in the center and quite light in texture. Although, it was made to be eaten with your hands, that can get messy. It is fine to use a knife and fork if you prefer. Most Italians outside of Naples do so. The original pizza was made with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Additional toppings were added throughout the years. There are many non-traditional toppings found outside of Italy such as ham and pineapple, French fries and hot dogs or corn. They may sometimes be found in a random pizzeria in Italy, but it is not traditional and it is not the norm. Take a wild guess what Italians will do if they see you eating one.
If you want to taste a traditional pizza in Italy, go to Naples or at least to a Neapolitan pizzeria. Romans, for example, are very proud of their pizza, and it is good, but my Neapolitan husband insists, “That is NOT pizza, that is a Ritz cracker!”. New York pizza is actually closer to what they make in Naples than that found in typical Roman pizzerias. You should definitely try the real thing, but if you ask me, anything covered in a well-made sauce and melted mozzarella di buffala will taste pretty good.
20: What to drink with meals
When you are eating delicious food, you do not want anything to contradict the flavors. Wine and water will complement your meal but anything else may change the taste of your food. While Italians will accept Coke and beer when eating pizza, they will not accept it at any other times. I find this to be based more on tradition since there are many pizzas that mirror the flavors found in pasta dishes. Why should it be OK with one and not the other? Personally, I prefer to drink wine or water, but mainly because I hate beer and Coke is full of chemicals that will end up killing you. Regardless of what you prefer, you will certainly risk giving Italians a heart attack if you order a cappuccino during lunch or dinner. I’ve never understood why anyone would care so much, perhaps they have nothing better to do, but they will make what you eat their business, so keep this in mind if you want to avoid the extra ingredient of someone’s nose in your food.
21: Condiments & Spices
Italians are accustomed to very simple flavors therefore they tend to only use olive oil, balsamic vinegar and/or lemon as their condiments. If you have a more complex palate, you can add some chili peppers or other spices. Most Italians have not developed a complex palate so they will wince like an 8-year-old presented with a plate of Brussels sprouts, if you add more than they believe is enough. For spicier dishes you would have to go to Calabria, known for their hot ‘Nduja sausage or Sicily which has many influences from Northern Africa. Italians also have specific ideas of when to use which. I have personally seen a waiter slap my friend’s hand when she began squeezing a lemon on her broccoli rabe. On another occasion she had to say that the lemon was for her water in order for them to serve it to her. Questions a waiter should ask himself: Who has ordered the meal? Who is eating the meal? Who is paying for the meal? Who should mind his own business and not slap customers’ hands?
22: Service in Italy
You should not expect the kind of service that you get in the US while dining in Italy. Remember, Italy is a different country with a completely different culture and rules that go with it. As I mentioned before, tipping for the quality of service is not done. People only round up a couple of Euro. A table of four might tip about €5. Since the servers do not work for tips, it is not in their culture to keep to the timing and customer care that US diners are accustomed to. Your food will come out in order of courses but will not come out at the same time. They will come out when the cook has finished making it, whenever that may be. This is typical, so keep this in mind when reviewing restaurants in Italy on Trip Advisor.
My husband and I once went to a beautiful restaurant in a villa in Rome. It was a Tuesday night and our anniversary. While the restaurant is huge, it was quite empty. Regardless, they seated us in the doorway between two dining rooms. We asked for a better table but they told us those were for larger parties. They remained empty for the entire night. We each ordered an apéritif, an appetizer, a meat or fish dish and a dessert. My husband’s appetizer came first and I watched him eat. Then when mine came, he watched me eat. The same thing happened with each subsequent course. While this is common with large parties, it is ridiculous when it’s just two of you in an empty restaurant. However, this is typical service in Italy. Also do not expect a romantic table for two like you would find in France or New York. Two-tops are usually pushed into the worst nooks in the room. The French celebrate romance, but large parties are king in Italy. You have been warned so that you are not surprised when you dine out. On the positive side, your server’s personalities are as they show them to be. If they are friendly with you, then that is most likely sincere.
You’ll notice that while they do usually give you the proper cutlery at a restaurant at the beginning of a meal, they don’t always replenish all of them once you have used them. If you’re having an aperitivo, which is where you eat from a buffet for the price of a cocktail, you might not get a knife at all. I always notice that most Italians use the side of their fork to cut into their appetizers or a large ravioli, leaving their knives for the meat or fish course. On one occasion, we went to one of our favorite restaurants with a group of friends. After having used my knife during my appetizer course, I was never given another one. When I asked for one, the waitress said to my husband, “Do you need a knife to cut your food too?” Well, I could just use my hands to eat, but in our society, we use cutlery. Restaurants don’t always set the table properly, unless it’s an upscale location. At some trattorie, I’ve found cutlery lying in a pile in the middle of the table. This is part of the charm, I suppose. Just ask for what you need. They will bring it.
24: Getting the bill
Eating is a leisurely tradition in Italy where you eat and enjoy the ambiance, the company, the food and the wine. Restaurants usually book their tables for one seating. While you usually give your time of arrival, that table will most likely stay empty until you arrive. Because of this, there is no rush for you to leave. You will never get your bill until you ask for it yourself. So relax, take your time and enjoy the experience. My husband hates the rush he gets from waiters in New York City. He wants to be able to enjoy his meal without feeling any pressure to leave. For this reason, feel free to stay as long as you like.
Tourists are not always treated the same as locals because restaurants don’t think they’ll return. A couple of expat friends had dinner at a restaurant in Rome. The restaurant assumed they were tourists because they were overheard speaking in English. When they were in the middle of their meal they were rudely asked to hurry up. This is never done in Italy and my friends knew this. They had been planning to finish their meal soon anyway but not after experiencing such rude behavior. At that point they slowed their eating, ordered dessert and another bottle of water, which they slowly sipped until 1am. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, it is in your power to act. If you are being scammed, call the police or keep your receipt and go to the police afterwards.
25: Meal times
Meal times can vary upon region but normally you begin eating lunch between 1:00 or 2:00pm. While dinner begins around 8:00 or 9:00pm. The more south you go the later they eat but they dine earlier in the north. It’s common to find that restaurants do not even open until 7:30pm for dinner. With a few exceptions, it is mostly the touristy restaurants that are open all day.
Italy does not adhere to the same food safety regulations that are prevalent in the United States. For this reason, you should be careful when eating at the following types of eateries:
- Pizzeria al taglio: places that serve pizza by the slice
- Tavola Calda: Salad bars that also serve pre-prepared hot meals
- Kebab or Rotisserie Chicken: Any place that sells kebabs, gyros, chicken or already prepared food
- Bar: cafés that serve sandwiches
There are specific times of the day when you can eat at these locations without getting sick and there are also types of food that will be more prevalent to bacteria than others. The best time to eat at these places is during Italian meal times. You will notice that many of the pre-prepared meals, pizza, meat and sandwiches are not kept heated nor refrigerated, making them breeding grounds for bacteria and therefore, food poisoning in tourists. Just because it is behind glass, does not mean that it is refrigerated. This is a real breeding ground for the types of bacteria that Americans are not accustomed to having. If you choose to get a quick bite in between meals, I suggest you ask for that which is still warm, as that will have been the meal that has been prepared most recently. Italians don’t have to follow these rules, as they are accustomed to the bacteria, just like Mexicans are used to the water in Mexico. Also, do not assume that since it is an organic food spot that their food hygiene is superior. It is not always the case, only the ingredients usually are.
Another thing to be careful of is ordering a drink that contains milk in the afternoon. Do you remember the reason why Italians originally did not drink a cappuccino after 12 noon? Well, while refrigeration certainly exists today, you will notice that espresso bars do not always put the carton of milk back in the refrigerator after using it. In fact, when you order a cappuccino, they often use the milk that they have previously frothed that has been sitting in the jug for who knows how long. So if you do decide to order that cappuccino, it is best done when everyone is ordering it, which is in the morning or late at night after 2am, when getting back from painting the town red.
27: Rules Were Made to be Broken
Italians fear that many old-world recipes are being lost every day as new generations stop making them. However, there are also many avant-guard chefs that are continuing in the tradition of those who first introduced all those foreign elements. New ingredients are slowly being used by award-winning chefs and, thus, the future of Italian cuisine is now commencing. At the same time, there are new restaurants popping up everywhere around Italy that are re-introducing old-world dishes to the younger generations, inspiring one mouth at a time.
Whether you choose to follow the rules, bend them or rebel against them, there is one constant rule in Italian cuisine that is always strictly followed by all Italian nonnas, mammas and chefs. It is the true secret to Italian cuisine.
The Secret to Italian Cuisine
Every cuisine has its essence and specific elements that make it great. To capture it is to bring forth the true taste of your desired destination. While the star of French cuisine is the chef, the star of Italian cuisine is the ingredient.
One of the most simple Italian dishes to make is pasta with tomato sauce and basil. The best chef in the world would create completely different versions if the quality of the ingredients given were at opposite ends. While other cuisines have an expert mix of spices and ingredients creating a masterpiece of flavors, Italian cuisine depends mainly on the quality of the individual ingredients.
When you combine high quality pasta that is cooked to perfection, ripe tomatoes that have grown in volcanic soil, then ripened in the heat of the southern Italian sun, such as pomodorini del piennolo del vesuvio DOP, thus giving them an intense and sweet flavor; cold-pressed olive oil made with the freshest local olives in Tuscany; and the basil that has made Genovese pesto famous due to its flavorful taste, then you have created a dish that fills your palate with such joy that the memory of it will remain with you for the rest of your days.
On the other hand, if you use watery tomatoes, flavorless olive oil, bland mushy pasta and wilted basil, your result will be a one-note dish that is sad and tasteless. This is when you might feel the need to add meat, loads of cheese and multiple spices in order to make it have some flavor.
Bringing Food to Life in the Kitchen
In order for you to create the best culinary experience for you and your guests, you need to begin with exceptional ingredients. Learn how to recognize true quality ingredients so that you may bring that tasty dish into fruition. The best tasting fruit and vegetables are usually those that are in season.
Using great pasta makes a huge difference in your dish. Pasta adds a flavor and if you use low-quality pasta, you will be missing an important element to your dish. The same is true if you overcook it. Pasta in Italy is always cooked to be al dente, meaning that it is firm to the bite. In order for pasta to be cooked properly, it needs to be made properly. By Italian law, pasta secca or dry pasta in Italy must be made with either Durum Wheat Semolina or Durum Wheat Flour. Other countries make pasta with various types of flour which may not achieve an acceptable level of firmness by Italian standards. Therefore, make sure that you begin with either fresh pasta or durum wheat dry pasta. My favorite brand for pasta is Garofalo. If you can’t find it, then De Cecco is also good. In fact, many restaurants use De Cecco because it doesn’t overcook as easily as other brands, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t taste as good as Garofalo. Barilla is world-famous, but it is bad industrial crap pasta. It’s like the McDonald’s of pasta.
Once you select your pasta of choice, the key is to first bring the water to a boil, then add salt. One trick that I use is to boil it about 2 minutes under the package instructions, then mixing it in the sauce while it’s on the heat for one minute, thus having cooked it for one minute under the package instructions in total. Making your own pasta at home is easy and fun and will certainly elevate your dish. Use Kamut, whole wheat or organic flour for a healthier version. You can also use gluten-free varieties if necessary. Fresh pasta is ready after about 3 minutes in boiling water, depending on the recipe.
Do not rinse off the pasta after cooking as that would wash off all the flavor and would ruin your dish. Your pasta sauce should adhere to your pasta and this will only happen by immediately mixing your drained pasta with your sauce. Make sure you save some of the water that the pasta has cooked in. Add a bit to your pasta as you mix it in the sauce in the pan to help it amalgamate better.
Pasta comes in a variety of shapes and lengths to go better with specific sauces. Italian recipes will often dictate the desired pasta shape for the dish. Personal taste can also come into play. It is common to purchase fresh pasta at a little shop in Italy and ask for advice on which shape to get based on the sauce you are making or vice versa. In some cases, there may be a long pasta option and a short option as well, in order to satisfy different tastes and needs. Some people prefer long ribbon-like pasta such as tagliatelle or pappardelle. Others prefer the large tubular paccheri but get the short spiral trofie for large parties because they are easier to serve. I suggest you try a variety of pasta in order to find your favorite.
There are secrets that aid in making the best sauce possible. The amount of heat you use should depend on the type of tomato-base you are using. Fresh cherry tomatoes require high heat from the moment they are added to the pan. Tomato pulp requires low heat in order to slowly develop the flavors. Many chefs add some brown sugar or apple juice in order to add a little sweetness. A dash of balsamic vinegar adds a complex layer as well. Italian mammas and cooks tend to stick to the traditional recipes and depend solely on the taste of the tomatoes they use, which they carefully choose at the local market. The key to finishing the sauce, however, is to add a bit of the pasta water. This will help the sauce stick to the pasta when it is done. Always save some of the pasta water until you have properly mixed the pasta. If your sauce is too dry or too little for the amount of pasta, you can use some of the pasta water to stretch it or simply to amalgamate it better.
Making cheese sauces can be difficult when trying to avoid clumping along with the long melted strings of cheese. The easiest way to avoid this is to add the cheese to your steaming-hot freshly drained pasta, then adding some of the pasta water you saved and stirring quickly to mix. Make sure you have turned off the heat, otherwise the cheese will clump. Aged cheese takes heat better, so if you’re making a Cacio e Pepe or using Parmigiano or pecorino – which tend to clump – get an aged version, which will withstand the heat better.
This is a very simple sauce that I adore. Legend has it that it was invented in Rome during World War II. Italy had already left their Nazi partners by surrendering to the Allies and US military were everywhere. The Americans brought several things with them such as chocolate, cigarettes, silk stockings and lipstick. In order to appeal to the US military men’s love of eggs and bacon, this dish was invented for them. The original recipe calls for fresh eggs, guanciale, pecorino romano cheese, black pepper and spaghetti. Guanciale is similar to jowl bacon. It comes from the word cheeks in Italian. It is more flavorful than bacon but if you can’t find it, bacon is an acceptable substitute. The guanciale or bacon is cut into cubes and fried to a crisp. When the pasta is done, it is drained and added to the pan with the heat turned off. The cheese is added and mixed in. Then add one egg per person and quickly stir it in making it creamy. No milk or cream should be added. Add pepper to taste. The egg cooks with the steam from the pasta. No heat should be added otherwise you risk it getting scrambled. A tip is to only add whole eggs for 50% of the sauce and add the yolks per head for the remaining 50%. This makes it a richer and creamier sauce. A Roman chef taught me a secret technique that makes it even creamier, without adding any additional ingredients. Unfortunately, I promised I wouldn’t tell. You’ll just have to be lucky enough to taste my cooking.
If the sauce you choose to make takes longer than it does to cook the pasta, then make the sauce first. If you are using seafood or cheese in your sauce, then make the base for it first in order to have it ready for the addition of seafood or cheese when the pasta is almost done. The ideal timing is for the sauce to be done, just before the pasta is, so that you can drain the pasta and add it to the saucepan and mix together prior to plating. The image of white pasta with red sauce poured over it, topped with a meatball and cheese is the farthest thing from traditional Italian cuisine. Read the Italian Culinary Rules above to know the reasons why.
Once you drain your pasta, mix it with the sauce and add cheese if you like. If you are making a seafood sauce, you should keep in mind how many minutes it takes to properly cook each type of seafood. Small clams such as tellini and lupini take about three minutes; mussels take about 5 minutes; razor clams and tartufi di mare can take a few minutes more. If you are making a mixed seafood sauce, I suggest you either cook each type separately or add the mussels 3 minutes after adding the razor clams. Then, add the small clams about two minutes after that. Drain the pasta 3-4 minutes before the package instructions, mix it into your mixed seafood sauce for the remaining 2-3 minutes while the small clams finish opening.
Traditional Italian VS. Modern Italian
Traditional Italian cuisine is based on the original recipes that have been handed down from generations. They are good but only when exceptional ingredients are used. It is human nature to love your mother’s cooking. Those are the tastes that you grew up with and tasted the most, therefore your tastes adapt accordingly. In Italy, where people tend to live and die in the same region, they are raised eating the same food all their lives. Anything that veers away from that will feel unnatural. Most trattorie that you find in Italy will serve traditional Italian cuisine made in the same manner as their mamma made it.
Modern Italian cuisine takes recipes a step further. You might find a seafood carbonara or a vegetarian amatriciana. While most ingredients in Italy have flourished in the volcanic soil and sunny climate, there are some ingredients that are better in other countries. Using these ingredients in Italian cuisine will elevate traditional recipes. For example, the Italian peperoncino has just one note. It’s hot. It hits you immediately and it covers the taste of things if too much is used. In reality, there is nothing special about the Italian peperoncino. However, if you substitute it with a touch of African or Jamaican Scotch Bonnet hot pepper, you will add a complexity to the dish that will make you swoon. These hot peppers have a sweet smoky heat that hovers on your palate without altering the flavor of the other ingredients.
Italian Fusion cuisine is also amazing. While on a weekend getaway on the Amalfi Coast, we ate at a local fine-dining restaurant whose chef was from the area but had a French mother. The restaurant featured traditional Italian recipes with a French twist, such as pasta al tartufi di mare e lavanda. Everything was delicious and so memorable due to its uniqueness. Rome’s top restaurant is La Pergola, which boasts 3 Michelin stars due to their chef Heinz Beck. The food is absolutely impeccable. Only the kitchen staff know what magical ingredients go into their dishes, but one thing that I’m certain of is that the food contains courage, risk and love for cooking. These three ingredients can lead to the most amazing food.
Experience Food with an Open Mind
When you travel throughout Italy, make sure you try all of the specialties you can find. Stay away from the touristy restaurants and avoid scams by seeking out the hidden gems. Learn how to pick a great restaurant in Italy, use Trip Advisor to find them or ask a local. I encourage you to stay away from restaurants that serve cuisine from your home country. Open your mind to new experiences. If you normally enjoy going to the pub and having a beer, in Italy, try a wine bar instead. If you love fine-dining restaurants and enjoy viewing the best views, make sure you know how to avoid the tourist restaurant scams so that you get your money’s worth and the experience you long for.
If you are an Italian reading this out of curiosity, I hope you feel I have covered everything. I also hope that when you travel abroad and see what is labeled as Italian cuisine, that you understand the evolution that led to it. Furthermore, knowing that the Italian cuisine abroad will never beat the taste that you are accustomed to, since comfort food the way your mother makes it can never compare to anyone else’s cooking, I suggest you embrace trying other cuisines. There are so many amazing cuisines in the world such as Thai, Indian, Japanese, Cuban, Peruvian, Caribbean and French. Even countries with negative culinary reputations such as the UK, have amazing historical dishes that are currently being unearthed. Open your minds and enjoy the experience.
For most Italians, Italian cuisine will always be the best in the world. This simply is not true. There is no best cuisine. This is not a competition. Taste is objective and it changes with your experiences. In order to truly develop an expert palate, you must taste everything you can. If you have only tasted Italian cuisine, you are not a culinary expert. However, you, as an individual, know what you like. I only hope you will keep an open mind.
I encourage anyone reading this to try new things, cook new recipes and feel free to adapt food to their liking. Now, go forth and eat!
As a writer and observer of culture, I am always evolving and open to learning new things. If there is anything that I’ve missed or that you object to, please let me know in the comments and explain why. That way, I can look into it and perhaps add it to the post. I hope you have enjoyed reading this post and if so, please let me know in the comments. Thank you.