Italians take food, as well as the rituals surrounding it, seriously. Here are some things that you really need to know…
Some food and drink traditions might be commonplace where you live but will give rise to some raised eyebrows when you try them in Italy.
Ask for a cappuccino after 10am and you will be met with a questioning look. That’s because we Italians take the role of digestion in a meal very seriously, and milk can upset the digestive process (that’s also why we enjoy a digestivo after dinner, to help aid digestion and soothe the stomach after a heavy meal). So, any milky drink after breakfast is seen as a no-no.
But because Italians also love to make people feel welcome in their country, and love greeting visitors, you won’t be penalised for breaking any of these food rules. Italians consider feeding people to be an act of love, respect and friendship, as well as good manners, so you may just be faced with a quizzical tilt of the head instead!
Think of these as friendly guidelines you may wish to follow if you want to fit in like a local next time you visit Italy or if you fancy adding a little Italian flair to your life.
Keep cappuccino for breakfast
Italians regard milk as almost a meal in in itself, and a cup of cappuccino, if made correctly in the Italian way of 1/5 espresso coffee, 2/5 hot milk, 2/5 foam, is more milk than coffee. It’s can be enjoyed on its own for breakfast, or perhaps with a light pastry. The same goes for a caffé latte – it’s thought to be too filling to drink directly after lunch or dinner. If you feel like a coffee after midday, order an espresso.
And while we’re on the subject of coffee…
Drink water or wine with a main meal
In the UK, you might insist on a cup of tea with your lunch or dinner, while Americans appreciate the traditional combination of coffee and a slice of pie. But in Italy, we don’t drink milky drinks such as tea or coffee during a main meal. An espresso, or a tea made with lemon, is reserved for after the meal. On an Italian table, you’ll only find a bottle of water, sparkling or still, and wine. Cocktails are kept off the main dinner table too, and are usually reserved for aperitivi (before-dinner drinks). It’s all to do with enjoying the flavour of food and drinking the liquids that will best bring out the taste.
The best dishes are created with ingredients that are in season, bought fresh from the market and never frozen or packaged with ‘long life’ preservatives. So eat fresh foods when they are available, when they’re at the peak of their flavour and ripeness.
Celebrate regional cuisine
Every region of Italy has its own speciality, with rich creams and meats being popular in the north, where the temperature is colder, and fresh seafood being more common in the southern and coastal regions, where fisherman bring in their haul on a daily basis. And just think of Limoncello, which wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the abundance of lemons found in southern Italy. It’s all to do with tradition and practicality, and the generations who came before us making best use of the ingredients that were available locally, long before the days of mass transportation and frozen foods.
Keep parmesan away from seafood
The strong flavour and smell of parmesan will overwhelm the delicate flavour and aroma of seafood. All the ingredients in an Italian meal have been carefully considered and finely honed over the generations. We like to let each ingredient shine in its own way, never overpowering one ingredient with another.
Eat with family and friends
Most Italian meals are served ‘family style’ with big dishes overflowing with food, and with multiple courses. Each course should be appreciated and savoured in its own right – this isn’t a race! – with time taken between courses to digest your food and enjoy the conversations and the company of the people around you.
Which brings us to…
Taking Your Time
Mealtimes aren’t rushed in Italy – there’s nothing nothing nicer than spending a long, leisurely lunch in good company with the wine and conversation flowing as the hours tick by. While modern life means that some Italians find themselves sometimes grabbing a quick lunch during working hours, the ideal is to take your time over food and appreciate it properly. When sitting down to an Italian evening meal, be prepared to enjoy numerous courses, including antipasti (appetisers served before the main meal); primi piatti (the ‘first dish’); secondi piatti (second plate); contorni (side dishes) and dolce (dessert).
You can drink Cava in Spain or Champagne is France, but in Italy, Prosecco is king! The name comes from the village of Prosecco, near Trieste in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in northeast Italy (the same region that Prosciutto di San Daniele comes from), where both the grape and the wine originated. Prosecco DOC (Denominazione di Origins Controllata) is produced in nine provinces spanning the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions.
Don’t forget the most important ingredient – pleasure!
Italians love to cook and to eat, and mealtimes should always be a pleasure. Cooking is an art form, but so is eating! Almost more than any other nation, Italians are so passionate about their food you can taste the love and joy that goes into its preparation.