In a country where virtually every rule is made to be broken, Italian food rules are surprisingly rigid, and followed with a borderline fanatical gusto. If you’re not careful, you could be committing a mortal food sin without even realizing it!
This guide will help you avoid those awkward moments at a restaurant and to prepare you how to order food in Italy the right way.
If you want to order food like an Italian, or at least avoid awkward stares or protests from waiters and Italian friends, just remember these three basics; eat your meal in the proper order, respect all of the Italian food rules, and ask for the bill when you are finished eating.
If you only remember these three Italian eating customs, you will be well on your way to perfect harmony at the table!
Meals in Italy are structured in a very deliberate way, with careful attention being paid to how your body digests food. Rather than having a single plate with big portions piled on it, Italians serve many smaller plates, one course at a time.
The biggest and most elaborate meal of the day is dinner, so lets start there.
1. Eat Your Meal in the Proper Order
• Bevande (drinks): First they ask what you’d like to drink. This is a bit of a loaded question, because there are only two correct answers: wine and water! The sole exception is when you’re eating pizza, in that case soda or beer are the drinks of choice.
The type of wine to choose generally depends on the temperature outside, if its hot then get white wine, when cold choose red. Most places have house wine served in quarter, half or full liter carafes at a good price. Water comes by the liter, and is almost always bottled so you’ll need to pay extra. You get a choice of naturale (still) or frizzante (sparkling).
• Antipasti (appetizers):
Once drinks are brought to the table, you get a choice of appetizers. Everywhere has a plate of antipasto misto which is a mix of several premium cold cuts, salami, cheeses, olives and other. Normally these plates are huge and good for at least three people!
Depending on where you are in Italy, the rest of the choices will be completely different so don’t be afraid to try the local specialty! You can also expect a basket of bread, which you’ll typically be charged for, even if you refuse (see part 3).
• Primo (First Course)
The first course of dinner is going to be something with carbs; think pasta, risotto, polenta, gnocchi, and soup. In Italy, the type of pasta you are eating is more important than the sauce, so the first word of the dish is probably going to be the type of pasta that is favored in the region.
These dishes are quite a bit smaller than what you’d expect in other countries, and are in single serving portions. Many Italians decline this part of dinner, opting only for the main course (especially if they’ve already had pasta for lunch).
• Secondo (Main Course)
The main course will feature a protein (meat, fish, sometimes cheese) on its very own plate, and unless indicated won’t come with any vegetables or potatoes. If for some reason you don’t see any vegetarian offerings, just ask as they will undoubtedly have something to choose. Don’t feel obliged to order both primo and secondo, you can choose one or the other without incident.
• Contorni (Side Dishes)
As stated, the secondo probably won’t come with any vegetables so if you want something you can order it along with the main dish. Think grilled vegetables, braised greens, fresh tomatoes, potatoes and french fries. Salad (insalata) is also an option, but you will literally get fresh greens with no other toppings. Olive oil, salt and vinegar is provided as a dressing.
• Dolce (Dessert)
Hopefully you saved some room for dessert! As expected, dolci are very regional and you won’t always find the same things everywhere you go. For example, in the north of Italy you won’t find typical Sicilian desserts from the south. Stick with the regional favorites and you won’t be disappointed!
After dinner, you will be offered a caffè. If you choose to go with one, make sure it is either an espresso or a macchiato–ordering a cappuccino at dinner is a major no-no. There are some instances where the waiter will flat out refuse to bring you one!
• Digestivo (sometimes called amazzacaffè)
Since Italians pay very careful attention to digestion, at the end of dinner you will be offered a small glass of strong liquor to aid in digestion. They come in a shot glass, but you only take small sips.
Naturally, digestivi are regional, but you’ll always find grappa (highest alcohol content, made from grapes), limoncello (typically sweet), and amaro (herbal or bitter tasting).
This meal is much more casual compared to dinner. Pasta, pizza al taglio (pizza sliced and charged by weight), and panini (sandwiches) are the norm. Often the lunch menu will be written on a board or the wall instead of an actual menu, so keep your eyes peeled.
Italian breakfast is served in a bar (cafe) which you can find on virtually every corner. The most popular morning drinks are espresso and cappuccino, which are taken standing up at the counter and paired with a cornetto (croissant). Don’t worry if the place looks packed, this is the only Italian meal that is eaten quickly!
You wont find eggs, sausage or anything else savory, but in a pinch you can order a “toast”, which is a sandwich filled with ham and cheese. If you’re American, you’d probably call it a panini back home as the sandwiches are pressed and have those classic grill indentations on both sides.
APERITIVO (Happy Hour)
Its impossible to talk about eating in Italy without mentioning aperitivo. After work, but before dinner there lies the magical Italian custom of aperitivo; which is like a food-infused happy hour.
For the price of one drink, you get a buffet of little Italian tapas; peanuts, olives, potato chips, mini-sandwiches, meats and cheeses. Along with these snacks they have specially made drinks, like an Aperol Spritz, Negroni, or Bellini. You could also get a cocktail, beer or prosecco (Italian champagne) if you wish.
2. Respect Italian Food Rules
These are the rules you must follow when ordering food in Italy. They probably seem silly to you, but in Italy they are taken seriously! We break it down by dish to make it easy to remember.
- Never drink a cappuccino with a meal after 11am.
- Cappuccino is only for breakfast!
- Don’t sit down to drink your coffee, you’ll probably be charged extra.
- If you ask for a latte, you’ll get a glass of milk. Instead, ask for a macchiato.
- Don’t ask for a big takeaway cup, they won’t have them.
- Don’t ask for non-Italian dishes like Spaghetti and Meatballs, Fettuccine Alfredo, or any type of pasta with chicken. They aren’t Italian!
- Never add cheese to a seafood dish! 99% of seafood dishes are eaten without cheese.
- Don’t ask for parmesan cheese unless it comes out along with the dish.
- Never cut your spaghetti, or twirl it on a spoon.
- You never eat pizza and pasta in the same meal!
- Don’t ask for butter or expect oil and vinegar with the bread, it is for after the meal or to be eaten with the antipasti.
- Never eat bread at the same time as pasta.
- Garlic bread doesn’t exist, if it did it definitely wouldn’t come with pasta!
- When the plate is finished, you are encouraged to wipe it clean with the bread, which is called scarpetta.
- Pizzas come in one portion size, so you don’t share with the whole table. Even children get their own!
- Don’t drink wine with pizza! Soda or beer are the preferred pairing in addition to water.
- Don’t ask them to slice the pizza first. You cut your own slices and eat each one by hand.
- If you want a pepperoni pizza, order pizza diavola or salame piccante. Otherwise you will get a pizza full of peppers! (peperoni, with one p)
- You should never drink alcohol without food, in Italy this is unthinkable!
- You won’t find many drinks with ice except for cocktails, as they say cold drinks are bad for digestion. You can ask, but be prepared for three or four cubes.
- Don’t eat eggs for breakfast, Italians consider eggs on their own unhealthy and suggest eating a maximum of 3 per week!
- Don’t eat dinner before 7pm. In fact, most Italians consider 8pm a little early!
3. Ask for the Bill When Finished Eating
Since dinner is a savored event in Italy, you won’t have a waiter rushing you or hovering around ready with the bill. When you are ready to go, ask for il conto, or if its very busy you can walk right up to the cash register to pay.
Don’t worry, this is not considered rude! If you don’t ask for the bill they won’t bring it, even after you’ve finished dessert.
Don’t be surprised if you see extra charges on your bill, as restaurants in touristy areas usually charge a few euros per person for pane e coperto (bread and cover charge) even if you don’t eat the bread. It should be written on the menu how much they charge.
Also, don’t feel like you have to tip, as it is optional. If you have a very high bill and lots of people, paying an extra 5-10% is appreciated. On a smaller bill it is typical to leave whatever change is left over from the bill for the server, but is not expected.
And finally, don’t expect everywhere to accept credit cards, if they do there likely won’t be a line to leave a tip for the server, so leave some change if you wish. Many restaurants are cash only, especially ones that are out of the city center!
There you have it, now you can order food like a local anywhere in Italy! What other food rules have you discovered that we missed?