One of the best things about taking a vacation to Italy is the food. Sure, we’ve all eaten Italian food in our own countries, but there’s nothin’ like the genuine article in its country of origin.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to have eaten your way around Italy before, you’ll know that each region of this fascinating and diverse country has its own fabulous culinary specialties. Italians are very proud of their cuisine as well as the history and traditions behind it.
Besides the culinary pride that extends from Sicily to the Appenines, there is a culture surrounding food in Italy that is both ubiquitous and regimented. In other words, there are rules about what should and should not be consumed together, and we do not mess with it!
To follow are five things that you might be surprised to learn that an Italian (in Italy) would never eat or even think about doing at a meal.
Food Faux Pas: Dining Habits that Italians Find Weird, Disgusting, or Unthinkable
Spaghetti and Meatballs: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet
Believe it or not, Italians in Italy do not eat spaghetti and meatballs together. Really. Meatballs (called polpette in Italian) are considered a secondo — a second course, which is typically a meat dish.
That an Italian would never eat meatballs with spaghetti is a perfect example of how Italians are very regimented when it comes to a meal. There is an order to a meal, and you will find it strictly followed no matter where you go in Italy. We start with antipasto (appetizers), then move on to the primo piatto (the first course, usually a pasta or rice dish), followed by the secondi, the second courses.
Spaghetti and meatballs as a dish is one of those things that happened when Italian immigrants came to America. To learn more about this transformation, please check out this short article, A Short History of Spaghetti and Meatballs.
Fettuccini Alfredo: Invented in Italy but Not Really Italian
Although Fettuccini Alfredo was invented in Italy — in Rome, to be precise, by restauranteur Alfredo Di Lelio back in 1914 — it is really not considered Italian by Italian citizens and you won’t find it in Italy outside of places that cater to tourists.
That’s not to say that Italians don’t eat pasta with cheese, however. In Italy, we eat cacio e pepe, which is a typical dish from Lazio (where Rome is located). There is no butter and no cream in this scrumptious but simple dish, which requires a certain amount of skill to make and of course a procedure that is practically sacred.
This great article by Forbes recounts the full story of Fettuccini Alfredo.
Dipping Bread in Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil: Not in Italy!
You won’t find Italian citizens pouring olive oil and balsamic vinegar onto their bread plates and dipping bread it in it, like the fashionable, pre-meal gnosh it’s become in North America and other places. Bread in Italy is there to soak up the sauce. Punto, basta.
Bread in Italy is also frequently made without salt. Many visitors are perplexed about why Italian bread has “no taste.” Bread is not there to exist on its own and be delectable with butter heaped on it. It shouldn’t interfere with the flavours of the food on your plate, in the Italian way of looking at things.
Bread in Italy is also very useful when you get down to the sauce that remains on your plate, where it is perfectly acceptable to fare la scarpetta — mop up the last bits of sauce with bread. In a country where the cooking is so good and where poverty was so widespread for so long, wasting even small quantities of food is outside the culinary mentality of Italians.
Drinking Coffee with a Meal: Impensabile!
The idea of drinking coffee with a meal is impensabile to an Italian — utterly unthinkable.
In Italy, coffee comes after dessert. It might seem rigid but there is a reason behind it.
Coffee is believed to aid digestion, that’s why it comes at the end of the meal. Instead of a coffee, you could have a digestivo to settle your dinner. You’ll often hear people referring to these as amari.
The word amaro means “bitter” in Italian and refers to the vast number of herbal concoctions you can find across the country. Amari vary by region based on the local climate and indigenous vegetation. Think Jägermeister and you’ll be on the right track towards understanding this after-dinner delight.
To learn more about Italian amari, have a look at this entertaining and informative article, Amari 101: Your Guide to Italy’s Essential Bittersweet Liqueurs.
Ordering a Cappuccino After a Meal: Disgustoso!
When in Rome, do as the Romans do — in which case, do NOT order a cappuccino after a meal!
Italians think drinking a cappuccino after a meal is disgusting, akin to eating a giant bowl of oatmeal after Thanksgiving dinner.
If you want to be Italian, order a macchiato. This is an espresso topped with a “stain” of steamed milk (macchiato means stained) and is an acceptable way to conclude a meal in Italy.
Interested in a food-focused tour in Italy? Ask about our food and wine itineraries from Rome and in Tuscany.