Food plays a central role in the life of Italy but there’s far more to eating than simply filling your belly! Italian cuisine has an ancient and varied heritage that has produced incredible regional specialities, a stunning array of beloved recipes and incorporates the very best of carefully selected local ingredients.
Italians are, unsurprisingly, fiercely proud of their food and consequently treat their meal times with respect and special etiquettes. Meals are never rushed and families often spend several hours slowly making their way through several courses as they enjoy their food together.
This means that it’s vital to know the proper dining etiquette while you’re in Italy so that you don’t offend waiters, chefs or cause outrage amongst the people you’re eating with. The diner etiquette, or ‘Galateo’ in Italian, can be a little unusual but it’s a deeply ingrained tradition in the country and you’ll find that everybody abides by it without evening thinking about it.
What Time Do Italians Eat Dinner?
One of the first things you need to learn about the way that Italians eat is that they don’t dine early. In most of Europe and America people eat their evening meal at around 6 o’clock whereas in Italy, it’s normal to eat at around 8.30pm to 9.30pm with restaurants rarely opening their doors before 7pm.
Once you sit down to dinner it can easily last until midnight after which you can take a leisurely stroll through the town to take in the scenery and chat in the piazzas.
Reserve A Table For Dinner In Advance.
If you’re planning to eat out at a restaurant in the evening it’s always worth making a reservation. Italian restaurants are usually busy in the evenings, particularly in the summer. This is because tourists and locals alike frequently eat out so if you don’t book your table you may find yourself walking from restaurant to restaurant looking for spare seats. It’s also considered polite to book your table in advance so that the chef and waiting staff are better able to prepare for the numbers of people that they need to prepare for that evening.
You should also book a table if you want to eat out at lunch because, once again, good quality restaurants are busy throughout the day.
If you’re staying in a hotel you can ask the concierge to book you a table at a great local restaurant or help give you advice about the best places to eat.
Once you’ve booked a table try not to be late for your time slot. Up to about 20 minutes late is acceptable with most restaurants but it’s better to arrive as close to the time that you reserved as possible.
Ask The Waiter About Local Specialities.
When you’re ordering food in a restaurant it’s always worth asking the waiter about the local specialities. This will not only make the restaurant staff proud of their region but you’ll also be helping to support the local economy.
There’s a huge number of special regional dishes and there’s no way to truly experience the depth of Italian cuisine without trying the unique local recipes that usually use special ingredients that are produced and sourced within the province.
Should You Leave A Tip When Eating Out?
When you’re eating out in Italy the tip, or the ‘coperto’, is usually automatically added onto the bill. The coperto includes the bread and table service so theoretically you are not required to leave a tip at the end of your meal.
However, if you have enjoyed the meal and are happy with the service you should leave a tip of around 10% of the total bill. Where possible, it’s better to tip in cash as well! On the other hand, if you’ve just popped into a cafe for a cappuccino you generally don’t have to leave a tip of any kind.
Overall, it’s polite and thoughtful to leave a tip every time you enjoy a meal in a restaurant while you’re in Italy. Obviously, you should use your own discretion but as a general rule you should be tipping whenever you’re eating out.
How To Use Your Bread.
After you’ve finished a delicious pasta or meat dish you may want to use your bread to mop up the remaining sauce! This is known as ‘fare la scarpetta’ in Italian and is perfectly acceptable at the family table or in most restaurants.
In some very fine dining restaurants it may be a little frowned upon however since it’s a sign that you really enjoyed the food the chefs and waiters will be happy to see you ‘fare la scarpetta’!
Never Order A Cappuccino.
No matter what you’re having for dinner you should never order a cappuccino to go with the food! Italian menus are carefully constructed to be perfectly balanced and if you order a cappuccino it will destroy the harmony of the courses.
For instance, an Italian menu will begin with an ‘antipasto’, or starter, that is followed by the first course, or ‘primo’ which will usually includes rice or pasta. This is followed by meat or fish, or a ‘secondo’ that is served with a side dish, or ‘contorno’, of salad, sautéed vegetables or potatoes. Lastly, you will have a desert, or ‘dolce’, and a coffee with digestives.
An Italian meal can be seen as an orchestra with each dish and ingredient playing its own role in the overall symphony. Therefore, interrupting the flow of the meal with a cappuccino, a can of coke or anything except water or carefully selected wine is the equivalent of playing rock and roll music at a symphony orchestra concert!
Not only will you offend the waiters and chefs if you start ordering cappuccinos or cokes during your meal but you’ll also spoil your own experience of the food. So never order a cappuccino while eating dinner at a restaurant.
Don’t Order Tap Water.
As a general rule you shouldn’t order tap water while eating out in Italy. While it’s true to say that the tap water in Italy is perfectly safe to drink, chefs and waiters consider that it doesn’t taste as pure as bottled spring water. Therefore, it is thought that tap water will ruin the taste of your meal and so it’s better to order bottled sparkling or natural spring water when you’re eating out.
Don’t Overdo It With The Cheese.
Many foreigners will grate parmigiana over all their Italian food but if you try this while eating out the waiter may look at you with horror! Usually, grated cheese is put on risotto or pasta dishes although this is largely dependent on the sauce.
However, you should never grate cheese on any dishes that contain seafood or fish. This also applies to salads and pizzas. If you’re unsure as to whether you should be grating cheese on a dish you can ask the waiter for advice – they’ll be more than happy to help you out. Alternatively, you can just play it by ear and assume that if you aren’t offered grated cheese for a dish then it’s not supposed to be used.
When you’re eating spaghetti you should never use a spoon! This may take a little practice but you should really learn to twirl the spaghetti with your fork and then use the side of the plate to balance it before eating it in one mouthful.
Waiters and others will always make an exception to this rule for children but as an adult it’s definitely something to avoid.
Don’t Use Salad Dressing.
Salad dressing is rarely used in Italian restaurants because the chef will have determined the perfect balance of flavor for the dish and won’t expect the customers to interfere! Instead you can use olive oil and balsamic vinegar to top up the flavors of a salad instead.
For instance, even if you try to buy salad dressing in a supermarket you’ll get a funny look from the staff and will be pointed to a shelf in the corner of the store with other exotic foreign food items.
However, even though this sounds a little strange, when you taste the authentic Italian olive oils and vinegars you’ll quickly realize that you really don’t need extra ‘French dressing’ or ‘Ranch’ salad dressings to compliment the taste.
Avoid Using Condiments.
Similarly to the Italian’s low opinion of salad dressings, condiments are never used in any restaurant setting. While allowances are made for foreign customers it’s not something that a local would ever do while eating in a restaurant. This includes any of the traditional condiments that are used in vast quantities in most of the West.
That means that you shouldn’t ask for ketchup, mayonnaise or hot barbecue sauce to add to your dish in a restaurant because this will undoubtedly offend the chef! Don’t forget that many of the ingredients in your dish would have been carefully selected and sourced from local producers and so a chef could get quite upset if you started covering the food in pre-made sauces out of a bottle! In Italy, condiments should only ever enhance the flavors of a dish and not smother them. So, if you want to add anything to your food it should really be olive oil!
Additional Tips To Show Perfect Italian Etiquette At Dinner.
- Always remember to offer to fill up your neighbor’s glass at the table before you fill up your own. This rule applies to both wine and water.
- Wait until the host of the party announces ‘Buon Appetito’, gives the table a signal or sits down themselves, before you start to eat your food.
- If you’ve been invited to a special dinner or are a guest in someone else’s house you should always bring a gift. You don’t need to spend a lot of money but you should bring a nice bottle of wine, flowers or something else that’s appropriate to the occasion.
- Once you’ve finished your meal and are ready to leave a restaurant, you should ask for the check. Italian waiters think it’s extremely rude to rush you out of the door so they will literally wait for hours, if necessary, for you to ask for the bill!
- If you want a coffee after dinner you can order an espresso but you should wait until you’ve finished your dessert and never order it beforehand.
A Long Tradition That’s Deeply Ingrained In The Culture.
While some of the etiquette and customs of dining in Italy may seem a bit pedantic the reason for such strict rules, surrounding things like condiments and coffee, are just a representation of how much Italians respect their cuisine.
That’s why as an Expat or tourist in Italy you too should show the Italian people and their cuisine a similar amount of appreciation by respecting their dining etiquette. If you do, you’ll quickly be embraced as a member of the community and if you show that you are interested and ask questions about the food you’ll soon become the chefs’ and waiters’ favorite customer!