Italy and its food etiquette: when in Rome do as the Romans do.

Find out how to eat and drink in Italy, what are the authentic customs and rituals, and what is the Italian food etiquette. If you want to make the most of your holiday to Italy please read on. In addition, you can also find here some essential Italian food and drink vocabulary.

In Italy, eating is not a trivial matter, Italians don’t consider food as a means for survival, but as one of the pleasures of life. Food is related to joy and it is to be enjoyed with friends and family. Eating is a part of the Italian culture as much as the art of Michelangelo and the science of Galileo. We have many beautiful words which are typical of the art of enjoying food and drinks by the Italians, such as degustare and assaporare which both mean to enjoy/taste. We’ll discuss here the very essential vocabulary that you need for your trip to Italy. But for now, let’s see a few things that you can expect when you’re in Italy:

About meals (i pasti):

Italians eat quite late compared to the British or the Americans, so expect an Italian restaurant to start getting busy at around 8.30. When eating out in Italy always reserve your table. Especially if you wish to eat in the outside area, it is better to book as restaurants get full quickly. Italians are relaxed about time but if you are over 20 minutes late it is better to let the restaurant know. Regarding the menu always ask for the specials: these will be the freshest items on the menu, and it is what most Italian will order. To dine in style in Italy be adventurous and from time to time swap your lasagne and pizza for the local cuisine.

Il ristorante = the restaurant
L’antipasto = the starter (for example prosciutto e melone or bruschetta)
Il primo = the first course, usually pasta, rice, or soup
Il secondo = the main course, usually meat, fish, or a vegetarian option
Il contorno = the side dish (for instance salad or any other vegetable)
Il dolce/ il dessert = the dessert

So as dinner is somewhat late, if you are hungry early, you can always enjoy a lovely ‘aperitivo’ before your meal.

About the aperitivo:

The ‘aperitivo’ in Italy is also a ritual. To put it simply, this is a drink – for example a glass of chilled prosecco, a martini, an Aperol Spritz or a classic Negroni – accompanied by nibbles. So, expect your drink to be served with one or more of these: crisps, bruschetta, focaccia, olives, cheese, a selection of cured meats, etc. The food is fresh and delicious and in spring and summer is enjoyed outside. One essential ingredient of the aperitivo is the relaxed and leisurely attitude of the regulars. Hence aperitivo is to be consumed in an oasis of peace, where what counts is the full enjoyment of the taste, the flavour, the colour, the texture of what you are eating or drinking. And all this, of course, in the company of good friends or family.

Le patatine = crisps
Le olive = the olives
Il formaggio = the cheese
Gli affettati = cured sliced meats (salame, bresaola, prosciutto, etc)
L’analcolico = non alcoholic drink

About wine (il vino):

Wine is savoured with the meal; it complements and completes it. The Italians say: ‘a meal without the wine is like a day without the sun’ (un pranzo senza vino e come una giornata senza sole). Indeed, wine represents enjoyment and joy, it is essential to the full experience of eating like an Italian. In fact, food does not taste the same without it. Italy produces high quality, world renown wines and every region will be famous for their own. I personally come from Valtellina, in the very North of Italy near Lake Como, and our beautiful red wines are Sassella, Inferno, Grumello, Sforzato, and more. Despite this, in Italy, wine does not have to be expensive to be good, even the house wine might surprise you.

Il vino rosso = red wine
Il vino bianco = white wine
Il vino rosé = rosé
Il vino frizzante = sparkling wine
Il vino corposo = full-bodied
Il vino dolce = sweet wine
Il vino secco = dry wine

About beer (la birra) and soft drinks (le bevande)

Beer and soft drinks are the usual accompaniment to pizza and barbeques. However, a very cold beer can also be an alternative to wine in the summer, when it is scorching hot, to accompany light simple meals. In the past the only beer you could find were pale lagers, but today, you can see a good variety on offer, including German, Belgian and Irish imports as well as local craft beers.

La birra alla spina = draft beer
La birra scura = brown ale
La grigliata = the barbeque

About coffee (il caffè):

Coffee is something that Italians are very fond of. Most importantly, coffee for them means an espresso, so when ordering be clear about what you want. If you try to order an item from the Starbucks menu, for example Frappuccino, you will probably be met with a question mark on the Barista’s face. Italian terms for a coffee are: espresso, caffé corretto, cappuccino, caffè ristretto and macchiato. If you order a ‘caffé corretto’ you’ll get an espresso with a drop of liqueur, a ‘caffé ristretto’ is a short shot of espresso, a ‘macchiato’ is an espresso with a drop of milk, or milk foam. According to the Italian dining etiquette cappuccino is drank only for breakfast or in the morning and never after meals.

Il caffé = the espresso
Il caffè americano = the black coffee
Il latte = the milk
Lo zucchero = the sugar
La panna = the cream
Il cornetto = the croissant

About parmesan (parmigiano):

This is the king of the Italian cheeses. The parmesan cheese is originally from the city of Parma. This cheese has been produced for centuries and recently it has been given the DOP label (Denominazione di Origine Protetta = Protected Designation of Origin). The original Parmigiano Reggiano must mature for at least 12 months, while other similar cheeses such as Grana Pandano can be sold after 8 months. This type of cheese is eaten on its own as part of the aperitive as well as being used as an ingredient in many Italian dishes. Usually, cheese is not mixed with fish and seafood dishes. Italians use parmesan abundantly for example on most pasta dishes, however they don’t sprinkle it on pizza, which is made with mozzarella cheese. It is considered so nutritious that even babies are introduced to parmesan as soon as they start eating solid food.

Il formaggio = the cheese
Il parmigiano = the parmesan cheese
Il parmigiano grattugiato = grated parmesan cheese

About ice-cream (il gelato):

As with many Italian foods, ice cream has a long history. What we call gelato originally came from Naples (although not everybody agrees on this!) and since then it has been exported everywhere in the world. When looking for ice-cream in Italy, look for ‘produzione propria’ or ‘artigianale’ which means that it is made on site with natural ingredients.

Il gelato = the ice cream
Il cono gelato = the ice cream cone
La coppetta = the ice cream cup
I gusti = the flavours
Cioccolato = chocolate
Panna = cream
Fragola = strawberry
Limone = lemon

Other essential items of the Italian food etiquette:

Tap water:
better to order a bottle of mineral water rather than ask for tap water.

Oil and vinegar:
Salad dressing such as salad cream are not used by the Italians, who prefer to dress their salad with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt. Consequently, expect oil and vinegar to be brought to the table even if you have not asked for them.

Some other essential vocabulary related to eating is:

Mangiare = to eat
Il conto = the bill
Grazie = thank you
Acqua minerale naturale = still mineral water
Acqua frizzante = fizzy mineral water
Mi porta il conto = can I have the bill please?

When in Italy relax, take your time to enjoy, blend in and try to use the beautiful language (la bella lingua). If you can, keep in mind the Italian food etiquette, however, Italians are generally very forgiving. During your trip to Italy try a few words in Italian, they will appreciate the effort. Other than that, look around, adjust to the atmosphere of the place and do as the Romans do