Featured, Italy, Travel Advice

Mangia Italia – Food Etiquette of Italy

20 Comments 04 January 2011


My substitute for Gelato

What is the first thing you think of when planning a trip to Italy?

Ruins, scooters, Italian men boldly wearing red pants, wine, Tuscan hill towns, medieval towns, plump Italian mothers, wine…

If you are anything like me, your first thought is that delicious, carbohydrate filled food.

I’ve been to Italy many times and have even taken cooking and language classes there; however on this recent trip to Italy I had a unique opportunity to travel as a local and begin to understand the non-touristy side of Italy. Thanks to the hospitality of my friend Vera and her family, I was able to get a special look into the culture of Italy – and of course to focus on the food.

I arrived during the holiday season and was treated to cultural food and traditions I had never experienced before in Italy.

The traditional Christmas and New Year dish is not pasta…it’s lentils. Cottechino or Zampone is a hearty lentil dish served with cooked salami (normally the whole pig leg for a visual treat). It’s a hearty winter dish that will warm you up inside. But most importantly the lentils represent your good monetary luck in the new year; so don’t be afraid to eat a lot of lentils…your pocketbook will thank you.

italian confectionary

Oodles of Choices

On the sweeter side, if you go to Italy during the holidays you’ll most definitely get to try their special holiday cakes – Panettone. A light bread soufflé-like creation that has fruit and nuts in it. Think fruit cake but light as air. In addition to Panettone the bakeries are filled with all kinds of special holiday confections which are impossible to pass up. In fact, while visiting Italy in winter I didn’t have gelato once, but I made my fair share of stops at patisseries that were calling me to ‘come in and warm up with a little sweet’.

italian cake

A fluffy fruit cake

A non-food related New Year’s tradition I was also exposed to was the expectation to dress up for the big count down to the new year. I was totally surprised when a very casual dinner in with friends all of a sudden came to a halt when all of the Italians stopped cooking for a moment to go change into their ‘dressy’ clothes. We weren’t going anywhere, we had all seen each other in our casual clothes, but everyone insisted on getting dressed up before dinner was served. I of course was the only one that didn’t know about this tradition, so I looked like a rather sloppy American in my jeans and sweater! Regardless the lasagna and company were great.

In addition to traditions, I was exposed to Italian food etiquette too. Luckily my friends put up with my many questions in order to put together this list of etiquette rules. If you know these food etiquette rules you’ll start to fit in as if you were an Italian; ok that may be a bit much, but at least you won’t stick out as a tourist as much. Throw around a Ciao and Gazzie mille and you will be even more convincing.


Only in the PM

  • Only order cappuccino in the morning before noon.
  • After noon, you order espresso.
  • Order espresso after your meal.
  • Go to a ‘bar’ and drink your espresso standing up at the bar. After all – espresso means fast…this is not a lingering drink. Get in and get out.
  • Expect to be served multiple wines for each course (main and desert) and sometimes an apertivo if you are eating at someone’s home.
  • Don’t use your spoon when you eat spaghetti/noodles. Only kids and tourists use their spoon. (I must admit – I was guilty of this and was quickly corrected…and laughed at). Simply use your plate to twist the noodles on your fork.
  • Don’t eat pizza with your hands. Plus, don’t be surprised when your pizza is served with a fork and knife as it never comes pre-cut. You eat pizza like you’d eat a steak. Cut off pieces one bite at a time and slowly enjoy this crispy treat.
  • Eat your pasta first and then your salad second. Never put these two things on the same plate…an Italian sin. Each course is separate and gets it’s own plate/dish and it’s opposite of what you’d expect. Lasagna is served in a shallow bowl, and salad is served on a dinner plate.
  • Don’t expect a choice of dressing on your salad. A salad comes dressed with olive oil and salt…simpler and tastier than you might think!

This trip to Italy was like no other for me, I was exposed to customs I wasn’t aware of from my previous trips. More importantly, I was able to constantly ask questions to my friends about cultural what and why. This was better than any tour or independent travel could ever be! If you ever have the chance to go to your friend’s home country, take it; no doubt you’ll have the best travel experience.

What food tips do you have to share from Italy?

Your Comments

20 Comments so far

  1. Decidedly delicious photos, Sherry. Good thing it’s the crack of dawn or I’d have to raid the refrig. Loved the tips about food etiquette; I’ve broken more than one of those.

  2. islandmomma says:

    The expresso thing holds in Spain too. The odd thing for me still (after 20-odd years here) is seeing workmen knocking back a quick café solo (as it’s known here)with a brandy early in the mornings!

    I couldn’t do my coffee that way. I do opposite the strong stuff to kick start me in the morning, and the cappuchinos in the afternoon when I need less caffeine!

  3. Laura says:

    This is such an interested post. I love that they dress-up for New Year’s! I also find some of the etiquette rules interesting. I rarely use a spoon when eating pasta but in an etiquette class as a child we were taught that it was ‘proper’. Interesting to hear different perceptions.

  4. Thanks for the tips. I eat pizza with fork and knife, and use fork to eat my pasta (I can’t even imagine how to use a spoon to eat a plate of spaghetti)… but I’ve pretty much broken the rest of the rules.

  5. Donna Hull says:

    Sherry thanks for reminding me about the wonderful Italian food that we experienced on our northern Italian road trip. Did you stop in mid-morning for an aperitif? Proseco at 10 a.m.? I can go for that. Although it is not Italian to drink cappuccinos all day long, they don’t mind serving them to unknowing tourists. I drank one at every meal, bathroom stop, etc, without remorse.

  6. Kim says:

    Great tips! We loved Italy in the summer. Some of the winter foods sound amazing. I need to try the Panettone!

    Happy New Year!

    • admin says:

      Yes – the summer food it totally different…but this was my first time going in the winter for a change! Thanks for reading!

  7. Katja says:

    Don’t order espresso – order caffé. 😉 Or, if you prefer it with milk, a macchiato.

    I don’t know who told you not to eat pizza with your hands, but that’s not true. It’s all down to personal preference. Italians are far more scrupulous than the English about picking up cornetti and cakes with a napkin, rather than bare fingers, but when it comes to pizza it seems all bets are off.

    • admin says:

      No one told me I couldn’t eat pizza with my hands – I was just following the locals. Plus – they always serve it with a fork and knife…which you never see in the US! Regardless – it tastes amazing! Thanks for reading!

      • Katja says:

        Ah, interesting. It seems it depends on the company you keep! Certainly where I live (very, very south), it’s a mixture of fingers and utensils, and I’ve noticed more *picking* up than *cutting* up. It was something that I wasn’t sure about when I first moved down here, though, so like you I just watched what everyone around me was doing. :)

  8. Mark H says:

    I think the food and drink is one of the most enthralling aspects of Italian travel. They do it with care. It is interesting that you mention salad dressing – I think the USA (and Canada) is the only place that you are offered a choice of dressings. Pretty much everywhere else I’ve been, the dressing is part of the flavour or creation of the salad and isn’t something you add (like a sauce).

  9. TourAbsurd says:

    Let’s not forget that traditional holiday fare varies by region. In Bella Napoli, Christmas Eve dinner is usually fish! (And in Italy, “fish” means anything from the sea: octopus, squid, shrimp, and actual scale-bearing fishes. 😉

    Also, I have to differ with you on the pizza. In Naples it was always a mix at the pizzerias: some cutlery users, some eating by hand. My husband is Neapolitan and we always eat pizza with our hands in restaurants or at the family home. Just cut into quarters, fold in half, and enjoy!

    Smack on about the plates, though. Hubby’s family thinks I’m a bit barbaric because I like to save water and dishwashing and mix my food. Oh, the horrors! 😉

  10. When it comes to food, few surpass the Italians. Unfortunately, no one told my American colleague this: http://wp.me/ppqxP-sU

  11. dojo says:

    I’ve never been to Italy yet, but, since our countries are both from Roman descent (I’m from Romania), we do share some of their “carbohydrate crazy food”. Some of the stuff you mention is terrific, even if not always pretty good for your diet 😀

    It’s good you had such a nice time and was able to indulge your cravings. Sometimes we need to do this too :)

    Have just discovered your blog. LOVE IT.

    • Sherry says:

      Happy you found me! I’ll be driving through Romania this summer as part of the Mongol Rally! I’ve never been before – so any advice will be appreciated!

      • dojo says:

        Thank you for having me :)

        I’d say to be prepared for some slower parts. We have many roads that go through the villages, so it’s not gonna be as fast as on the highways. If you can stop for some minutes at least in the mountains you could take some amazing pictures. If you’ll give me details about the route, I might help with some tips. Romania is beautiful in the mountains area, you should like it a lot 😉

  12. Vera says:

    Great to see you picked up so much in so little time! Brava!!! 😉 And thanks for always making me laugh and see my own reality from a different perspective – what aliens these Italians…

  13. Lorraine says:

    Wonderful to read about your italian mangia experience thanx to your lovely friend Vera. I am trying to place for an extended stay in northern italy…an old village somewhere…hopefully with an italian family (with separate bedsit or similar). Would love to dialogue with “Vera”.
    Or find a resonably priced bedsit “somewhere” for 8 – 10 weeks … a base to “come & go” but want to get to know the locals too. Any further tips?
    Lorraine – Australia

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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