Americans have all sort of rules and laws to follow: queue quietly and in line, drive safely, never rise your voice. Moreover, they tend to respect them. By contrast, Italians tend not to be that strict with their rules and, sometimes, even with some laws: Italy does not have a minimum drinking age for example, yet, its youth does not seems to have too many issues with alcohol abuse, either.
Situation changes entirely when it comes to food. Yes. Italians do have eating rules!
For instance, my friend George, from New York City, once wanted to order a caffe latte with his Mexican meal - right in front of me. It took me a while to dissuade him. Hopefully, no restaurant in Italy would ever allow its customers to have cappuccino together with pasta. I have never been brave enough to order pasta 'alle vongole' and cappuccino together to test this rule: if you have more courage than I do, try that combination and see what happens.
The following rules are aimed to correct common American (unacceptable!) mistakes:
Lunch / Dinner Order of Courses
- Meat / Fish ( with vegetables or salad )
- Sweets and coffee
- Ammazzacaffé ( Grappa or Amaro )
Breakfast: Even McDonald's in Italy serves cappuccino for breakfast. Forget eggs and bacon or sausages for breakfast except, possibly, in a hotel that caters to American or English tastes. Cappuccino and brioches are one of the few 'legal' options. Maybe you could have yogurt... probably having tea is pushing it too far.
Lunch and Dinner:
- No butter will be served to spread on your bread. (I think it takes away from lunch anyway - I do not serve it when I cook.)
- What about dipping bread in oil? There's no harm to do this while you're having a meal, but the bread-oil routine is not used as an appetizer in Italy. It has a tendency to fill you up and diminish your enjoyment of the dishes to come.
- No bread should be eaten together with pasta - this is a major no-no. In the US, we make fresh bread when guests come. However, I have resolved to serve bread only after pasta is gone from the table, or my American guests will make the unforgivable sin of eating bread and pasta together. Bread is only allowed near a pasta dish to do a good old fashioned "scarpetta," that is, to wipe the sauce off the plate and enjoy every last bit of it.
- Have mineral water and/or wine with your meal. Forget sodas or milk, unless you are a teenager or a small child. An exception can be made if you are eating pizza at lunch time, in which case sodas are ok.
- An Italian main meal is traditionally multi-course: restaurants like to serve you first and second plates, perhaps third plates, and do not appreciate it when Americans insist on having only one thing ( although they have been getting more used to it in recent times). Keep in mind that Italian portion sizes are smaller than American's, and that the variety of produce and dishes served (pasta/rice first, followed by meat/fish/vegetables, then fruit) represents a relatively healthy balance. You may get fewer calories and a healthier, more balanced meal by eating three courses in Italy, rather than one, giant entrée covered with cheese in the United States. Traditionally, grated cheese is not added to fish-based meals. This rule have eroded somewhat, but you may still get a strange look if you ask for it.
- Coffee may be drunk with fruit or dessert, but never with the main meal. In addition, traditionally coffees with milk (capuccinos and lattes) are for breakfast only. Lunch and dinner are followed by espressos, or, at most, an espresso macchiato.
- Contrary to the perception of some, cinnamon does NOT go on capuccinos or lattes. Chocolate/cocoa or whipped cream do. Go with the flow on this one, you'll have fun.
- If you are eating at someone's home, there is still an expectation you will eat everything on your plate. Again, this has changed somewhat over time, but leaving large amounts of food is still considered an insult to the cook. But watch out for the clean plate problem: cleaning your plate too quickly can cause the home chef to refill it and expect another clean plate. Pace yourself!
- Picking out the healthy food? Italians really object to Americans picking out the healthy vegetables and leaving them on the sides of the plate. Come on - try them! Italians are very good at cooking vegetables and you might actually like it. (My young son loves spinach, string beans and other vegetables).
- Salad dressing: Italians use olive oil and vinegar only, so do not expect ranch, thousand island or, worse yet "Italian" salad dressing. Grated parmesan is never used on lettuce.
- Spaghetti: Italians (above 5 years of age) never cut their spaghetti. Well, Italians have been eating spaghetti all their life ... they should be able to roll it up on their fork easily. Once upon a time (mainly up to my grandfather's generation) the use of spoon to roll your fork on was common. However, it is not used anymore - the spoon is definitely out of fashion now.
Wine: Traditionally, white wine goes with fish, red wine goes with meat. White wine is usually chilled, red wine (except for sparkling red) should be served at room temperature. Ok I confess it, a couple of times I have enjoyed red wine with fish. However, I would never do what a friend of mine did: I brought over a bottle of Chianti to her house for dinner. She poured the wine in a pitcher and added ice - The shock lasted a long time.
By Paolo Nascimbeni