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.
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’.
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 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?