When I went to Italy two years ago, I got to experience how to cook real Italian food with Giglio Cooking in Florence. I was looking at some of our photos, and today, I decided that I’ll cover Italian food culture today! There are several things I’m going to go over in this post, including words for certain foods, Italian food-related etiquette, and about Italian food in general. As much as this blog is about language, it’s also about culture!
The size of a meal
While this obviously varies in different parts of the country, a good rule of thumb in Italy is that meals, ascending in size, are ordered so: breakfast, dinner, lunch. You might find it odd that dinner isn’t the largest meal, but this is completely normal in Italy! Lunchtime is often the biggest meal of the day partly because much of the family or coworkers have lunch together to relax. It is considered poor taste to discuss work at the lunch table if you can avoid it. Having a heavy meal also makes one sleepy, and it is not uncommon for cities to slow down a little after lunch, since many people go home to take a nap. This tiramisù looks delicious, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s already a bite taken out of it!
Family meals VS Formal meals
Some people think that Italian meals are regularly extravagant, multi-course affairs. However, most Italian people are just like everybody else, and don’t have time to put together such a meal! A family meal can be very large as mentioned before, and often consists of fresh, homemade dishes. You probably have the image of an elderly Italian woman working away in the kitchen making dinner for her family, perhaps with help from her daughters. Italian family meals are informal affairs and focus on enjoying food with one’s family. As you can tell from the photo below, making fresh pasta, like pansotti, is a tiring process. (In case you’re wondering, the person making the pasta in the photo is me!) Fun fact: pansotti means “pot-bellied”, which is a fitting name for this stuffed pasta.
Now, in contrast, formal Italian meals are very complex, and do consist of multiple courses, served in a specific order. Italian cuisine prides itself on serving only the freshest food to please diners. As a result, Italian restaurants in Italy avoid making too much food in advance, as it will get cold and won’t taste as good. A typical formal meal in Italy consists of the following courses in order: aperitivi, antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti con contorni, dolci, and digestivi. The first course, aperitivi, consists of alcoholic drinks meant to stimulate the appetite, particularly wines such as Prosecco, Cinzano, and Vermouth, and they accompany the antipasti. Antipasti literally means “before the meal”, and consists of small appetizers, which may be cold foods like prosciutto and other cured meats, as well as cheeses, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and olives. The primi piatti (“first dishes”) are typically pasta, gnocchi, soups, or risotto. You might not know that strictly speaking, gnocchi aren’t considered pasta, as they are not prepared in the same way as pasta and are more like potato dumplings than anything. Secondi piatti (“second dishes”) are the largest portions of the meal, consisting of meat and fish. Dolci (“sweets”) follow those dishes, and are usually fruits, certain pastries, as well as other sweet dishes, such as the world-famous tiramisù. The word comes from the phrase tirami su, which means “pick me up”. Considering that it has rum and coffee in it, it’s bound to do so! To end the meal, diners often have coffee with digestivi (“digestives”), which are digestive liqueurs, also referred to as ammazzacaffè (“coffee-killers”).
Now, regardless of whether it is a family or formal gathering, there are few basic rules of dining etiquette in Italy. First, never start eating before the host has declared the meal to have started. In restaurants, putting your utensils on your plate signals that you are done eating, so put them to the side if you’re not done. It is highly improper to try and mop up all the sauce on your plate with bread; do it delicately!
Perhaps most surprising about Italian etiquette is that wishing someone Buon appetito! (Bon appetit in French and English) is impolite! It comes from a medieval Italian threat, in which the host would say this to his guests to effectively say “Eat well now, because if you don’t behave, you will not be invited again.” It is also seen as poor manners to fidget, touch oneself (very bad!), or put one’s hands or elbows on the table, for anything but eating.
Ingredients in Italian cuisine and dietary restrictions
If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, you may be fond of the red and marinara sauces, the ones that are more famous. Well, here’s some trivia for you: the tomato is not a native ingredient to Italian cuisine, and was brought by the Spanish from the New World! It is now a popular ingredient in Southern Italy, due to being relatively cheap and easy to grow. The North uses more vegetables native to Italy, making much more frequent use of cattle and dairy products. Southern Italian cuisine has many influences from Arab traders and Spanish rule, using rice, spices, and most importantly, the tomato. Also, due its greater dependency on the coasts for economic reasons, Southern Italy makes heavy use of fish.
Now if you’re like me, a vegetarian and a non-drinker, you may feel that your lifestyle is practically anathema to the Italian way of eating. Like most cuisines of the world, the Italian diet is largely meat, particularly fish. Just as in many other countries, fish is not considered meat, because it’s a separate dish entirely. To add onto that, Italians will almost never go a meal without a glass of fine wine. Thankfully, the latter is a reasonably forgivable (to them anyway) thing. Alcohol in Italy is a traditionally moderate practice, and public drunken-ness (AKA going to a bar and getting wasted) is highly frowned upon. If you’re getting a little tipsy at an Italian dinner, it would be well-mannered to either drink less or simply not drink at all for the rest of the meal.
As for vegetarianism, this is a little harder. According to Life in Italy‘s post, “Vegetarians in Italy” (linked here), vegetarianism is gaining more traction in Italy, and in many big cities, if you ask, restaurants are happy to oblige. That being said, you have to be careful, as there are certain dishes that are secretly meat-based, such as soups (it’s not a bad idea to ask if there’s fish broth) and a few antipasti. Fortunately, many dishes in Italian cuisine are vegetarian, including a wide variety of vegetable contorni and hearty pasta dishes with delicious sauces.
For other dietary restrictions, such as halal, halal meat is gaining more visibility in Italy, due to a recent influx of Muslim immigrants. Vegans will have the hardest time in Italy, as milk, cream, and cheese are popular ingredients that would be difficult to omit from dishes, even if you asked. But it never hurts to try and ask for accommodations.
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