When it comes to food, Italians love etiquette. It doesn't matter if you're at a fine-dining establishment with jacketed waiters or chowing down on pizza at a plastic table: There are some things that will always get you dirty looks. Or snide comments from the servers. (Yes, the people you're paying for for the food. That's a subject for a whole other day…)
Below, eleven ways to make servers into enemies and annoy neighboring Italians — all while doing the seemingly-simple task of consuming food.
1. Expecting breakfast. Unless your hotel provides it, don't expect your first meal of the day to be anything like back home. Most Italians start their day with a mere coffee, or a coffee and cornetto. Cereal is starting to hit grocery-store shelves, but it still seems a rare choice — and if you're looking for good old scrambled eggs and pancakes, forget about it! If you can't start your day without, either pick a hotel that explicitly offers American-style brunch or plan to grocery shop and cook your own food.
2. Ordering coffee before or with a meal. What horror! Coffee is seen as a way to help you digest your meal, so drinking it alongside is seen as misguided…even dangerous. If you must have a caffeine hit before a meal (and really, when you're facing a 3-hour dinner that starts at 9pm, who can blame you), duck around the corner for a quick espresso at a nearby café.
3. Having any coffee but a caffè normale (espresso) after noon. Italians follow rules regarding mixing dairy and meat that seem as strict as keeping kosher — only somewhat less consistent. While you might think, given the previous rule, that you'd be allowed to have a cappuccino after a meal, you'd be wrong. A cappuccino has milk in it! You've probably just eaten meat! The mix of the two in your stomach can make you get sick and die! (Yes, that pizza with anchovies, or the mozzarella di bufala you consumed as an appetizer…with prosciutto, should do the same thing. But for some funny reason, it doesn't.) And yes, this rule applies even if you had an all-vegetarian meal. Or if you haven't eaten at all and are simply grabbing a 4pm coffee. Remember: The clock strikes noon, the coffee goes normale.
4. Asking for olive oil, or olive oil and vinegar, to dip your bread into. Why would you need olive oil? Or vinegar? You're provided with the most delectable of pasta sauces for your bread! (Well, you are.) Oh, wait, because you want to eat your bread before the courses come? Well, then, make sure you see etiquette mistake #5…
5. …Eating said bread before the meal. If you're starving, okay. (Who am I kidding — I start chowing down on bread before the food comes almost every time). But the bread is there as an accompaniment to your primi and secondi, especially to dip into leftover sauces, not as a way to fill you up pre-dinner.
6. Requesting parmesan for your pizza. It doesn't even matter if you know how to say it (parmigiano). Putting it on pizza is seen as a sin, like putting Jell-o on a fine chocolate mousse. When a friend of mine did this recently at La Montecarlo, the waiter sneered so much I thought his lips were going to curl into his forehead. "Parmigiano per la pizza?" he spat with disdain. And La Montecarlo is a pizzeria that's used to tourists. Imagine how they'd treat you at a pizzeria that wasn't!
7. In fact, putting parmesan on anything with which it isn't explicitly offered. Remember that many pasta dishes in Italy aren't meant for parmesan. In Rome, for example, the traditional cheese is pecorino, and that's what goes on classics like pasta carbonara, calcio e pepe, and amatriciana. Not parmesan. As a rule of thumb: If they don't offer it to you, don't ask for it.
8. Asking the server for more water, wine, food, etc. The person who brings your food isn't (usually) the same person who takes your order. If you make the mistake of asking that person for another bottle of water, as I did just this week, be prepared for a dirty look. And a hand gesture. (Because really, how can you properly express disdain, or anything else, in Italy unless you use your hands?)
9. Ordering acqua del rubinetto at anything but a bar. Yes, Rome's water is perfectly safe — but when eating out, Italians always drink bottled water. (To really look local, ask for sparkling, or frizzante). I've been told that this is because there's a lot of calcium in the tap water, so Italians mix it up with bottled so they don't get kidney stones. I've also been told it's because Italians simply don't trust anything provided by the state. Who knows. But it's what the locals do, and restaurants will simply refuse you if you ask for tap water (although bars and cafés, when selling you a cocktail or a coffee, should allow it).
10. Eating on the go. Much like the Parisians, Romans look down on anyone chowing down on bus, metro, or on foot. It's anathema to the entire philosophy of eating: Dinner should be a meal that you sit and enjoy, preferably for two, even three hours. Eating while doing anything else is seen as sloppy, desperate (can you really be that hungry?), and missing the whole point. The one exception: Gelato, which you'll see whole families tucking into on their Sunday evening strolls.
11. Getting annoyed that your bill hasn't yet come. In short: You must ask for it. Unlike in the States, it's seen as rude for a waiter to bring your bill and whisk away your plates as soon as you've finished your food. You're supposed to have the liberty (and luxury) of lingering at your table, finishing your wine, water and even ordering a coffee. Once you're ready to go, signal for the waiter and say, "Il conto, per favore." Or the universal squiggly-finger-in-the-air hand signal will always work, too.
As a caveat: It's not as if I always adhere to Italian etiquette. While I've gotten good at automatically ordering a caffè normale after noon or asking for a bottiglia d'acqua gassata upon sitting down, I particularly annoy waiters by consistently asking for salt. I can't help it: My sodium-drenched American palate finds a lot of Italian food just slightly bland. But I've learned to expect frowns in return.
So go ahead, break the rules. Just do so at your own risk…and have a salty Roman response in reserve for the coming comments.
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