Five Italian Food Rules that Foreigners Need to Know

By: Rick Zullo

There is a saying among Italians that goes, “Italy is a country with a million laws, but no rules.” Like most clichés, it survives because there’s some degree of truth to it. But—like most clichés—it’s also an oversimplification. There are some rules in Italy that can be bent and others that can be broken. There are even a few that must be followed to the letter. Rules must be evaluated on a case by case basis to determine if they apply to the given situation. The post office? There is no discernible code of conduct for either the customers or the employees. The roadways? Believe it or not, there is an informal set of guidelines—however they bear little resemblance to the actual traffic laws. But there is one area in Italian society that maintains a very rigid set of rules that are not to be taken lightly. Of course I’m talking about food. Let’s review the five most important of these, lest you be asked to leave the country immediately and never return.

  1. No cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. This is perhaps the most well-known, but warrants some explanation. First of all, the exact time is not so important as the acknowledgement that cappuccino is only for breakfast. What’s more, cappuccino isn’t really a beverage; it’s almost a meal in itself and should be taken alone or with a very simple pastry. In fact, coffee drinks in general are not to be consumed with a meal; they should either be enjoyed by themselves or after you’ve finished eating. Coffee (and I mean espresso) is an intense taste to be savored, not to be chugged like a soft drink. It’s the period (or exclamation point!) to signify the end of a meal. The last taste on your palate.

  2. Perfect in its simplicity.
    Perfect in its simplicity.

  3. Keep it simple. Any given dish—no matter if it’s a snack, main course, or dessert—should contain no more than three or four ingredients, and they should all be individually visible. This rule explains a lot about Italian cuisine and it relates both to the taste and the visual presentation. Notice that every course and every side dish is served on a separate plate. There is a good reason for this: Italians want to distinctly see and taste everything that they’re eating. This is why it’s almost impossible to find a Mexican restaurant in Italy, even in a big city like Rome. Italians despise things to be all mixed together, rolled up, and covered in a salsa. Let the ingredients speak for themselves! If you’ve covered it up with a lot of nonsense, then you’ve obviously got something to hide, which is no good.

  4. NO Parmesan cheese with seafood. In fact, watch the parmesan in general. It has a specific role in Italian cuisine and you can’t just indiscriminately throw it on anything that you please. You just can’t. And treating fish or other seafood in this way is particularly offensive. Why order a beautiful piece of delicate fresh fish if you’re just going to mask the flavor with a strong cheese? If you really like the cheese that much, then just order cheese and leave the fresh fish for people who can appreciate it. Furthermore, no funny sauces or condiments on fish either. Just a little olive oil, some parsley, and maybe a small squeeze of lemon at the most. Pour that cheese sauce over some French food and keep it away from my pesce! Basta!

  5. Only Water or Wine with your meal. For adults, these two beverages are the only civilized options to accompany your lunch or dinner. Maybe a beer if you’re just having a pizza or panino, but that would be the only exception. A Coke can be enjoyed on its own in the middle of the day or as a digestive, but not with a meal. Unless you’re 12 years old—and even then.

  6. Don’t eat bread with your pasta. This may surprise some people because, for one thing, bread is always on the table at restaurants in Italy. In your own home, you can “fare la scarpetta,” which literally means to “make a little shoe,” and it refers to the practice of scooping up the remaining pasta sauce with a crust of bread. In a restaurant, however, this is considered bad form. Then why do they put bread on the table if you’re not supposed to eat it? Well, of course you can eat a little when you first sit down or with your antipasto. But notice that some places will actually remove the bread from your table when the pasta arrives. Maybe they’re just trying to protect you from making a fool of yourself. And you should thank them for this.

  7. Lunch is served!
    Lunch is served!

    The funny thing about these rules is that if you asked an Italian about them, they’d probably just give you a shrug and a blank look. To them, these aren’t “rules” so much as common sense. Having had this knowledge programmed into their DNA and practiced daily since they could hold a fork, an Italian might even deny that such rigid criteria exist in their country. But if you happen to break one of these rules, you’ll certainly hear about it, believe me. At that point, don’t bother explaining yourself—just ask for the check and quietly leave. The country, that is. Ciao!

    About the author

    Expat Blog ListingRick Zullo is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: Help and Advice for Expats in Rome, with an added focus on Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Italians.
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    Contest Comments » There are 11 comments

    Alison wrote 11 years ago:

    I tease my (Italian) boyfriend about the many food rules, but I also won't cook Italian food for fear of doing something wrong, even after almost 12 years together. Still, he's rubbed off on me. Now I give people the side-eye when I see them breaking the rules. :)

    Federico wrote 11 years ago:

    Thank you Rick, on behalf of every italian out there! It's time to tel the world know! ;-)

    Aidan Larson wrote 11 years ago:

    Rick, This was funny and perfect for me because I love food and usually find some way to talk or write about it every chance I get. A lot of the Italian customs are similar to the French. It's a wonderful life, isn't it? Ciao from a fellow American abroad, Aidan

    Riccardo Primo wrote 11 years ago:

    Having violated all of the above "rules", both here in the US and Italy, I've been on the receiving end of many intimidating stares where I was sure that the evil eye had been put on me! For most of us Americans the concept of Italian dining has been learned by frequenting Italo-Americano restaurants where traditional Italian food preparation has been abandoned in order to give us what we want, mainly more of everything regardless of quality! But, I can also tell you that I grew up in a household with my immigrant grandparents and I don't remember our meals being so structured or having separate plates for each side dish. My grandmother's bread was the best that I've ever eaten and it was always present and eaten during the meal. So perhaps these rules are more regional and should not be taken as generally accepted. In fact my friends in Italy laugh at me when I ask them if they follow such a set of do's and don't's regarding eating. I most admit though, that through the influence of my Italian daughter-in-law, I'm starting to see the wisdom and appreciate the common sense of "eating like an Italian"!

    Dr. Charles Roberts wrote 11 years ago:

    You forgot to tell them not to ask for a doggy bag! I still have trouble, being a southerner, not having Ice Tea at every meal. I do find meals incomplete without at least a sip of wine. I have also learned to cook Italian with the simplest list of ingredients. It complements my Tex-Mex cusine, where success is when you cant identify individual ingredients!!

    Danny Singh wrote 11 years ago:

    The cappuccino rule has definitely changed! In Rome, I regularly see Italians drinking cappuccino's well after 5pm, especially on a cold day! Try going to the theatre or a classical concert & see how many of the immaculately dressed Italians will be ordering cappuccinos in the evening, with or without pastries!

    Katie wrote 11 years ago:

    Also, the mixing of fish and meat in the same meal is a big no-no, even if they are seperate dishes! If you could have seen some of the looks I've received for this mistake! :)

    Catherine wrote 11 years ago:

    I have to say I LOVE the rules of Italian food. I remember reading about them from afar in those ex-pats living abroad books and now I'm one of them! It's like you say Rick, most of them are quite sensible, a huge milky coffee does not sit well on the stomach after a huge meal. We English are famous for our culinary mixing, so it's quite nice at times to learn and be restricted to right and wrong. But also, sometimes you do just want a cappuccino at 3.00pm!

    Annie Onursan wrote 11 years ago:

    The fish rules are the same in Turkey too. I hate to see a delicious piece of sole covered in a cream or cheese sauce.

    Susan Nelson wrote 11 years ago:

    I have to admit as well....I have abused them all, and repeatedly! I'm hopeless...I admire the way Italians eat and try to adopt, but when in Italy I am usually too busy enjoying the delicious pizza, pasta and cappuccinos to even notice what others are doing or thinking.

    Claudia wrote 11 years ago:

    Wow!!! I never thought about it but it is TRUE!!! I live abroad since almost 15 years but I still shiver when I see people here in restaurants using parmesan on pasta with fish (brrr...), ordering a cappuccino after dinner!!! ....Red wine with fish, Carbonara Pasta with cream!!! Mixing read and white whine during a meal (great recipe for an unforgettable, painful hangover). But most funny of all I find people looking scandalized at me if I take a glass of wine with my noon meal LOL

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