5 Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them)


Dinner Disasters

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear in my other posts on food, Italians are pretty particular about what they eat. And when they eat it. And what they eat it with, and what they drink it with, and how it’s prepared, the season, the ingredients, the temperature outside, the alignment of the stars…

You get the picture.

Recently I’ve run into a few people who have commented on the general unwillingness of Italians to compromise on anything food-related, even when it comes to getting business from turisti. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and some of the reasons behind it (click here and here to take a look) but I thought I might quickly run down a list of Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them) to make your mealtimes in Italy run smoothly.

Now, pay close attention. Note that these faux pas are not in any specific order. They’re all probably equally heinous mistakes to make where the average Italian is concerned. I’ll explain the reasoning behind them (where I can) to keep you from being baffled further by the food-loving Italiani and to try to help you keep your tourist status under the radar.

Le Regole (The Rules)

1. Niente cappuccino after 10:30am. None. Whatsoever. Never. Don’t bother to order one. Especially if it’s hot out. Why? All the Italians I’ve met practically classify milk (the cappuccino topper) as a meal on its own, almost as filling as eating a solid food. Milk is a breakfast thing and needs to be consumed before 10:30 so as not to badly interact with other foods in your stomach, which brings me to the next point…

2. No latte (milk) with a meal. Milk is not a drink that accompanies anything other than cookies or coffee. Breakfast is the best time to drink it, then don’t think about it again until the next morning. It doesn’t go with pasta or steak or pizza or risotto or a panino – that’s what wine was invented for. (Obviously.) Milk just does not get consumed at lunchtime or aperitivo time or dinner time. All this relates nicely to the next rule…

3. No latte (milk) or formaggio (cheese) with any species of pesce (fish) or pasta containing fish. One summer in Siena, my  60-something-year-old landlady Tina moved faster than I’ve ever seen her move just to swat the cheese container out of my hand before I had the chance to ruin my penne con tonno (penne with tuna in tomato sauce) with a sprinkle of Parmigiano grattugiato (grated Parmesan). “Sarah!” she all but barked. “Non si mangia il pesce con il formaggio. Non si mangia!” she admonished. (Sarah! You don’t eat fish with cheese. You don’t eat it!) I learned my lesson and have never done it since.

4. Dinner isn’t served before 7pm. (And even if you manage to stave off your hunger until that late hour, it’s only the tourists who eat at 7). Get used to eating later, especially in the summertime. In Siena, we sat down to dinner anywhere between 8:00 – 9:30pm. Now, note that I didn’t say that’s when we started eating, because we probably had an aperitivo beforehand, sometime around 7:00 – 8:00 pm. (My housemate Alex once remarked that he could set his watch by my leaving the apartment for aperitivo. I left around 7. Every evening.) Seriously though, restaurants don’t serve cena (dinner) before 7pm. One of the best restaurants in Siena takes reservations for 2 dinner seatings: at 7pm to eat with the tourists, they told me, or 9pm to eat with the locals! Bump up your other mealtimes accordingly.

5. Walking and eating is vietato (forbidden). So is walking and drinking. Unless it’s a gelato, or a drink drink, which are perfectly acceptable to enjoy during a passeggiata. A piece of pizza, however, is not. You’ll get strange looks if you walk down the street and eat pizza. Believe me, I’ve done it, but only once. (I’m a quick learner). You can stand and eat pizza, sure. But just don’t move, and for heaven’s sake don’t scarf it down. Italians think it’s unhealthy to eat quickly or anywhere that’s not a table or bar counter. My coworker once told me that the reason for her (practically non-existant) belly was that she ate sandwiches quickly while at work. Fa ingrassare, sai. (It makes you fat, you know!)

So there they are, laid out for all to read and hopefully internalize before a trip to Italy. Why are these little, trivial things so important? Well, remember the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”? It’s like this: wherever I go, I try to fit in as much as I can, out of respect and interest of the host culture. People respond better to me that way, and I don’t come across like the ugly tourist, demanding that everything be the same as I left it at home. If all I want is for everything to be like it is at home, then why travel?

The Frazzled Chef Gets a Helper


Frazzled Chef

Not long ago, I acquired an apprentice to help me around the kitchen: my cousin. He’s about three feet tall, a whopping four years old, and just about the cutest little kid you’ve ever seen. Our first joint endeavor in the cucina (kitchen)? The quintessential Italian dish and worldwide favourite:

Pizza

Now, growing up with an Italian Nonna and a Mamma who loves Italian food, I started to learn the craft of pizza-making at an early age. Over the years, I made pizza with my Mom and Nonna for family dinners, with friends when we had sleepovers at my place and as a late night snack for my housemates and I during our university days. I couldn’t believe it when people would tell me that they didn’t know how to make pizza. Wasn’t it a skill we all learned as children??!!? It was something so simple for me, so natural. (That is, as natural as any cooking activity can be for me…)

Anyways, pizza-making was a skill that my aunt wanted to instill in little Christopher. (I don’t know that he’s ever even made a peanut butter sandwich, but really, why bother starting small?) So, she gave me a call and we set up an evening when the Frazzled Chef would introduce her eager little blue-eyed apprentice to the art of pizza making.

I bet you’re all busting to know how it went, right? Did I spill cheese on the floor? Did I drop the dough? Did the apprentice and the chef end up in a sauce-flinging contest? Did one of us end up in Time-Out?

I can assure you, readers, that the whole ordeal went in the usual Frazzled Chef style. The dough didn’t rise properly, the onions made me turn into a blubbery, red-eyed disaster, and we made a pretty good mess of the kitchen while my aunt grimly surveyed the scene. My apprentice, I’m happy to report, attacked his tasks with furious gusto (which, naturally, he learned from yours truly).

Pizza Dough

Spreading the dough.

Spreading the sauce

Spreading the sauce

Adding the cheese.

Adding the cheese.

We greased the pan with a bit of butter (“I get to use my fing-ers?”), spread the dough, used a spoon to cover it in sauce (“Can’t I use my fingers for this toooo?) and made funky designs with all of our pizza toppings. Somehow, to the music of a little voice saying ever so loudly, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”, and eagerly asking “Can I try? Can I try?” Chris and I managed to concoct two perfectly passable pizzas complete with cheese, olives, pepperoni, mushrooms and yes, some onions.

The oven was hot, the pizzas were ready and Chris, proud of his accomplishments as a little pizzaiolo (pizza maker), was busy admiring our work.

“Stand back now, Christopher. I’m going to put these pizzas in the oven, ok?” I said slowly, motioning for him to move away from where I was about to open the oven door. Quarters were a bit tight in the kitchen, and obviously I didn’t want him to get hurt. (One of my childhood pizza-making experiences with Nonna resulted in me burning my wrists on a hot oven rack. Nonna’s solution? Give me a drink of water and slather some butter on the wounds. Needless to say, she’s no longer practicing medicine).

“Ok!” He chirped, bobbing up and down with excitement and watching me with big eyes.

I opened the oven and was bending down to put the first pizza in, when I felt my posterior brush against something behind me, and that something begin to head towards the floor. It landed with a crash and I quickly shoved the pizza in the oven, closed the door, and stood up praying to the kitchen gods that it hadn’t been anything valuable.

Before I could even turn around to see what I had done, Christopher was shouting it from the rooftops.

“YOUR BIG BUM KNOCKED MY DRAWINGS OFF THE FRIDGE!” His tone was accusatory as he pointed at the pile of papers now strewn all over the floor in front of the oven.

And as if one transgression wasn’t enough, he was sure to add, “AND MY MAGNETS TOO!”

The kitchen gods came through, and nothing ended up being ripped or broken. I helped Chris put his artwork back on the fridge in the same chaotic disarray it had been hanging before and he seemed to forgive me, although he was sure to warn me to “be careful of your bum!”, when, 25 minutes later I once again bent down to retrieve the pizzas from the oven.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

“So, Chris, do you think you and I could make pizzas again some night? You could help me out?” I asked.

“Yeeeeeahhhh! It was coo-oool!” Chris responded between mouthfuls.

Another Frazzled Chef success!

UPDATE – The next time my little helper was around, I asked him if he was going to come into the kitchen and help me with the pizza for dinner? He responded so angelically in his little voice, “But why, Sarah? Don’t you know how to do it yourself?”

Kids!

 

Braving The Italian Coffee Bar


Dinner Disasters

To the coffee drinkers who are thinking of traveling to Italy, this one’s for you.

Italians love their pasta, their pizza, their cheese and their vino, but it’s that dark, strong, syrupy, repulsive-to-many-non-Europeans stuff called caffè that actually runs through their veins and puts the spring in their step each morning. (Notice how it’s called plain and simple caffè and not espresso. Now notice how it’s spelled espresso, not expresso. And no, not even in English is it written or should it be said expresso. Remember that, per favore!)

I hate to break it to you, but in my experience, I’ve found “American” coffee (filter/drip coffee) to be practically non-existant in il bel paese. And you want a cup to go? Forgetaboutit! Walking and drinking coffee do not go hand in hand in Italy. In fact, the two are pretty much mutually exclusive. Standing and drinking coffee, sure, that’s standard practice. But once you set your legs in motion you’d better have already knocked back your espresso or savoured the last sip of your cappuccino because you’re committing a big cultural faux pas.

Why do you think Starbucks hasn’t yet moved into the Italian market? They’re in Japan, the UK, India even! What about France and Spain – two other coffee-loving European countries? They’ve warmly opened their places and plazas to Starbucks. Take a look here:

Canadian girl walks all over Paris in the heat searching for Frappuccino

Canadian girl walks all over Paris in the heat searching for Frappuccino

[Ok, so I was at Starbucks in Paris, but I was there for a frosty Frappuccino, not coffee, per se]

The rest of Europe may be littered with to-go cups bearing the Starbucks logo, but Italy seems to have remained Starbucks’ final frontier. Funnily enough, Starbucks creator Howard Schulz dreamed up the concept of Starbucks while sampling coffee in the northern Italian city of Milano. Why then, doesn’t Starbucks have it’s place in the piazza? Because coffee, like food in Italy, has its own culture, its own customs and rituals, and Italians aren’t about to rock the boat on that.

Here are a few tips that will help you order a coffee in Italy:

First go to a bar or a caffetteria (not to be confused with a cafeteria, which would be a mensa) and decide which kind of coffee you’d like.

Caffè – espresso coffee. Referred to as caffè, never espresso and served in a thimble sized cup, often only half full. The coffee of Italians. Add all the zucchero (sugar) you want, but if you need some milk you’ll have to ask for…

 Caffè Macchiato or simply Macchiato – literally “stained coffee”, meaning a normal dose of caffè with two drops of milk in it to lighten it up a bit. Still served in a thimble.

Doppio - literally meaning “double”. With this one you get two standard doses of caffè, same cup.

Caffè Americano – one or two shots of caffè diluted with hot water. The largest cup of this you’re going to get is about the size of a teacup belonging to your Granny’s china set. There’s nary a coffee mug to be found under an espresso machine in Italy. My dear restaurant manager friend is always reluctant to make an Americano for me, even when I beg. “Ti fa male! It’s bad for you!” he chides as he stingily pours a few more drops of water into my teacup of espresso. So be warned, this one may mark you as a tourist, and an unhealthy one at that!

Caffè lungo – literally a “long coffee”, with just a touch of water added to the regular caffè. Still served in a thimble, but it’ll be full. Not nearly as watered-down as the Americano, and much more acceptable to Italians.

Caffè orzo – barley coffee, served the same as a regular caffè but made of, well, barley. This one is best for stomachs that can’t quite handle the strength of a regular Italian caffè.

Caffè corretto – literally “correct coffee”, which is a regular caffè with a shot of liquor in it.

Cappuccinocaffè with a “little hood” of frothed milk. For more explanation on this delightful drink, click here.

Cappuccino

Caffèlatte –  served in a tall, usually glass glass. This is basically warm or steamed milk with a bit of caffè in it. [For all you Starbucks sippers out there, ordering a simple latte at the counter will get you a nice cold glass of milk and nothing else.]

Caffè stretto/ristretto – literally “tightened coffee”, it’s got even less water than your regular shot, further reinforcing the taste.

Caffè shakerato - If James Bond drank coffee, this would be his drink. The shakerato coffee is a regular caffè shaken with ice, using a martini shaker until slightly frothy, served often in a martini glass. Beautiful on those hot Italian summer afternoons.

Decaffinato – decaf.

Zucchero – sugar.

Dolcificante – sweetener.

Zucchero di canna - cane sugar or brown sugar.

Although it may seem strange to some, some Italians prefer to drink their coffee freddo (cold) and either leave it out to cool or put it in the fridge. You may also be asked at times if you’d like latte freddo (cold milk) or latte caldo (warm milk) to accompany your coffee, if you’ve asked for milk in the first place.

Also, even if you don’t speak Italian fluently, always remember to try to be polite when ordering coffee, or anything, for that matter. As you see in the picture below, a “per favore” and a “buongiorno” are not only nice, but they also help to stretch your hard-earned Euros:

Buon caffè!