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?

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15 thoughts on “5 Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them)

  1. Happy to be Polish, so I do not need to stick to the Italian rules 😉 😀 and I can have a sour milk with boiled young potatoes and dill for my lunch (actually dinner during the day) 🙂 and have my dinner (well for us supper) before 7pm 🙂 Thank you for sharing. It is, however, good to know 🙂

  2. Great stuff! The number of English friends we’ve tried to stop from ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon… And can I add another one to your list please? My wife got told off by a waiter the other day for putting cheese on pasta with mushrooms. I’m fine with the fish thing, but mushrooms??

  3. I’m italian and I agree with you but I can say that we’ve very much changed our habits due to tourists habits. Years ago italian restaurants used to close by 2 p.m. and open again at 7.30 p.m. – now wherever you go bar, pizzerie, restaurants are opened all day long. When I travel and travel a lot (last year have been in Polonia) I’m happy to learn and appreciate different habits even regard to food. Sometimes I found that change can be better and good suggestions come from those who know that food better than I do. So, I’d not talk about rules, simply suggestions…than one can follow or not…

  4. Americans who need the milk in their espresso can order a Latte Machiato after 10:30. It actually has more milk than a cappuccino and is closer to a Starbucks cappuccino.

  5. I just found your blog (via Facebook) and it’s great! There’s someone else like me out there… Love these Food Faux Pas, they are soooo true! I try to tell people these rules (mainly my mother) all the time, but some people just want what they want when they want it. Great blog!

    • Ciao Nicole,
      Grazie!!! It’s always nice (reassuring, inspiring) to know that people enjoy reading what I write.
      Took a look at your blog as well – seems as if you’ve had some similar experiences. Still loving living in Italy?
      If I could get back there full time, I certainly would.
      Sarah

  6. I think the cappuccino rule has relaxed a bit. I have even seen the odd Italian having on in the afternoon. I am still embarrassed when my husband orders one after dinner. I think drinking milk with a meal only happens in North America.

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