I have been living abroad since 2009, specifically in Middle East, and met many people of different culture and culinary habits. Italian food is generally appreciated as simple and tasty and has gained its reputation also because the Mediterranean diet famous in the Italian peninsula is recognized as one of the healthiest one.
When I first gathered with non-Italian friends in an, “so called”, Italian restaurant, I understood that there is a huge confusion about what it is really Italian or not. For instance, many Italian Restaurant chains offer meals that simply do not exist in Italy and would attire disgust and strange looks from Italians.
Therefore, if you are planning to invite for dinner an Italian friend or if you are going to visit Italy for leisure or business, you should take into account the following Essential Food Rules. If your partner is Italian and it’s the first time your mother-in-law invites you for dinner, please stick to this rules for a good first impression.
1 – Don’t ask for or prepare the famous Chicken Pasta Alfredo
Even though Alfredo is a typical Italian name and this kind of pasta is sold in many “Italian” restaurant chains, it simply doesn’t exist in Italy.
Please remember that it is considered almost a blasphemy to add chicken to any kind of pasta. Chicken is a main course and you can eat it with salad, potatoes or other veggies. Only suggesting the possibility to put some chicken in pasta can provoke confused looks and reactions like “Che schifo!” (How disgusting!).
2 – Don’t put Ketchup on Pizza or Lasagna
Another thing that is very badly perceived by Italians is to alter the genuine and almost perfect taste of pasta, pizza and lasagne with tomato ketchup. I can assure you that you will get angry and puzzled looks from your Italian mate or from any waiter in a really Italian restaurant if you start doing so. I had the same reaction the first time I saw a friend of mine ruining a fabulous lasagna with a healthy quantity of ketchup. I couldn’t help but burst in a “What the hell are you saying?” when he enthusiastically exclaimed “wow, now it is a real lasagna!” after having emptied half bottle of ketchup on it.
Italians rightly use ketchup for hot dogs and fries, but not as additional condiment to any other food or dish, especially if home made.
3 – Don’t ask for salads dressing and use them sparingly
The only real Italian condiment is extra virgin olive oil, sometimes accompanied by vinegar (plain or balsamic). Therefore don’t expect to receive any kind of dressing or topping with any of your meals. Italians want to taste the natural flavour of the food they are eating and any dressing should just enhance in it and not covering it. So, be ready to renounce to French dressing for your salad, Ranch sauce for your chicken breast and any other kind of additional condiment that differs from plain olive oil. And even in that case, remember to use just a little quantity of oil and avoid flooding your plate with it.
If you think that olive oil is boring, just try few of the dozens different extra-virgin olive oils available on the market like the ones produced in my home town. Here you have an example.
4 – Drink just water or wine (maybe a beer) with a meal
Many people use to drink any sort of product during their meal: ginger ale, iced tea, milk, juices, coke, lemonade, bacardi breezers and so on. This in Italy would rarely happen. The table is usually set with water (sparkling or still) and wine and sometimes beer. Cocktails and liquors are reserved for aperitivi (before dinner drinks) or digestivi (after meal drinks). Milk is drunk almost exclusively at breakfast. There are obviously exceptions, with people drinking Coke or other similar soft drinks during a meal, but it wasn’t so common a decade ago.
With pizza, it is common to have beer, coke or other soft drinks.
5 – Behave with the bread
While your Italian mates will find awkward to have bread dipped into an olive oil-vinegar-parmesan mix while the food is getting ready, they might taste it to please you and to momentarily calm their appetite. It’s not a big deal after all, it is just that in Italy we don’t use to serve it before a meal.
For this reason you should keep it in mind when travelling to Italy. You might receive some bread and grissini (bread sticks) before your food is served but definitely you won’t receive any olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
On the other hand, it is very common to use bread as a proper tool, almost comparable to the normal cutlery, to enjoy the meal. Once you have emptied your plate, you are allowed to do the Scarpetta, literally the little shoe, to clean it and avoid losing some of the wonderful condiment or sauce left in your plate. However common it could be at home, please note that it is considered rude to completely clean your plate in a fine dining restaurant.
6 – Take time to enjoy your meal
For Italians eating isn’t just a way to sustain themselves, it is a ritual. Sharing a meal has many social implications and cannot be performed by eating a bowl of cereals in front of the TV or grab something to eat in a drive-through. Italians don’t like very much fast foods or quick meals and usually spend hours for a ‘simple’ dinner. Therefore plan it in advance. No e-mails, letters and other external factors should force you to eat quickly and clear the table soon after the last bite is gone. I have sometimes discussions with my partner when she does it. The dishes can wait, the clean up as well. It’s dinner time and we shall relax.
If you are in Italy and go out for dinner, don’t expect to receive a quick service. It is usually slow and your dinner could take more than one hour. But it isn’t just the waiter laziness that create this situation. It is the fact that Italians love to enjoy every single bite of their food while amicably chatting with friends and loved ones.
Once the main course is done, allow yourself time enough to digest and have some dessert or fruit and then offer to your Italian mate an espresso or a digestivo. It is, in fact, very common to have either coffee and/or liquor (Limoncello, Sambuca or Amaro Montenegro are my favorite) after a pleasant meal.