Eleven Etiquette Mistakes (Not) to Make at an Italian Meal

Coffee

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.Never eat the bread before the meal in Italy!

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.

A real no-no: cheese on pizza in Italy

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!

Pasta carbonara at Al Pompiere, Rome -- with pecorino cheese.
 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?)

When out, go for bottled water.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.

You might also like:

Can't Find a Fave Italian Dish in Rome? Here's Why

The Demise of a Once-Good Restaurant in Rome: Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

How Safe is Rome… Really?

You might also like...

27 comments

  1. Why doesn’t the author just stay home where everything’s done like in “America?” The attitude projected in the article is exactly why we try not to identify ourselves with American tourists incapable of standing back for a moment to see how things are done, accepting it, and then taking part in a culture and quality of life which are non-existent in “America.” The author is a perfect example of the Oscar Wilde quote: “America is the only country that managed to go from barbarism to decadence without passing though civilization.”

  2. Hey Bill,

    Not sure that’s entirely fair. There’s a big difference between commenting on — and even poking gentle fun at — some of the cultural traditions you see around you, and holding up your own culture as the pre-eminent one. By (literally) sneering at non-Italians who do it the “wrong” way, moreover, I think Italians do open themselves up to some of that (light-hearted or not) criticism from those same non-Italians. Because it literally is sneering!

    Meanwhile, I hardly think “our” way of doing things is better: I especially agree that the Roman way of doing #9 and #10 are better than our own. Sure, I do find the “rules” regarding coffee a little silly (especially because the digestion-and-health argument IS the argument usually given for why it “must” be done that way), but I don’t think letting travelers to Rome know what the rules are — and how to obey them — means an “Oscar Wilde” approach to travel. If my humorous tone was taken that way, I apologize.

  3. excellent piece. witty and accurate at the same time. i particularly like points 2 and 3, as I remember were part of my cultural shock when i moved to ny.
    my understanding of 3, though, is a bit different. it’s not like dairy and meat together clash. it’s that cappuccino is seen as a substitute for a meal. in fact it is our breakfast, so there’s no point in having it as part of a different full meal. If you ask for it in between lunch and dinner, say tea time, people should be more tolerant. or at least I hope they’ll be…..;)

  4. I think Amanda’s entertaining and lighthearted article perfectly addresses these cultural peculiarities, and has hit the hammer on the head. I do agree with Luca on 3 though, I hadn’t heard of the dairy and meat clash, rather that the milk is simply “bad for digestion” (as I’ve had many Italians tell me). I always thought it was funny since the most popular desserts– panna cotta, tiramisu, profiteroles, etc– all contain copious amounts of cream (dairy!). Signore Bucci clearly misunderstands her attempt to help guide and advise foreigners who might otherwise make fools of themselves at a meal, especially since many Italians can be quite crude when any of these faux pas are committed (or even just commenting on them!).

    Thanks Amanda!

  5. Hi Luca and Redtalons,

    Thanks for your comments! Glad you found the post entertaining (and helpful). That’s interesting about the dairy/meat dispute — I’ll have to recheck my (unofficial, Italian) sources. 🙂

  6. Thanks! Planning a trip to Italy and can use all the help I can get as I don’t want to be Bill B’s American tourist. I found your article to be helpful and witty!

  7. hi,

    enjoyed the text, too 😉 one might add another etiquette remark as regards the bill: anything else but one bill for the table will likely get you wry looks, e.g. if you’ve been eating with friends, definitely forego the request to have calculated what each person/couple has accumulated for (in order to get the ‘just’ amount) and pay individually. only a resigned waiter might get you the menu again for you to work it out yourselves (but certainly won’t witness this disgraceful procedure), others (rightfully) might just stare and refuse – either one person pays all (best solution) or the cost is split evenly at once (already worse)…

    maybe this sounds too obvious, yet in Germany it’s quite common to split the bill ‘exactly’ and it’s often done with a fervour abroad, too, that has earned this method the uncomplimentary term ‘pagamento alla tedesca’ (and I understand that the Greek have a similar term, too).

    regards

  8. Hi Nautiker,

    Very good point! And yes, in the U.S. we split bills often, as well. Not something that’s smiled upon here in Italy…

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. Loved the blog… found this site from Ricksteves.com… I’m planning trip in mid-November and based on the points of etiquete I don’t think I really have too much of a problem. Just wondering though.. is it odd to ask for lemon wedges with my sparkling water? I really like a squeeze of lemon.

  10. I think Bill was a bit over-sensitive. I did not get the impression at all that the author would rather everything was done the American way. Helpful and entertaining though! I think the article demonstrated how to be aware of Italian customs, but not be paranoid about getting everything right!

  11. Thanks, Andrea and Leah! On the lemon-wedge front, yes, they might look at you a little funny if you ask. Still – it’s not seen as “wrong”, as far as I know (like putting parmesan on pizza would be), so they’ll probably be fine with doing so.

    Happy travels!

  12. Amanda,
    Great post. I am back in the US at the moment, at it’s funny, just this morning the subject of #11 came up between my friend and me. We were lingering at our table (after the aforementioned #1: American Breakfast) and drinking our coffee, chatting…when the waitress had the nerve to ask if we would mind giving up our table because she had a line of people waiting at the door. I have NEVER had that happen in Italy – I hope it never will! Toni

  13. Interesting post, to which I would add, if you eat with Italians, do not pour the wine backhanded – can be terrible offensive, I’ve been advised by an Italian friend who caught me doing it. Bad me. Will not do it again!

    All the best from Milan,

    Alex

  14. Before I moved to Italy, I read an entire book on the folkways and etiquette of Italy and soaking up the salsa with bread was a big no-no. Subsequently, I have found all the italians do it.

  15. All true! Great job! Now I do not have to the bearer of bad news when I try to tell my guests what they can and cannot do at the table. And it also avoids embarrassing situations- I had one girl argue for tap water and I begged her to just let me pay for the bottle in exchange for his silence LOL 😉

  16. Too bad they don’t extend the manners to promptly responding to invitations to a meal and/or showing up when they have accepted.
    Things get a little more tolerant as you leave bigger cities, too. A waiter in Mercatale can’t afford to discourage the tourists who do find him with sneers.
    I think sr Bucci doesn’t have adequate experience of day to day Italian life. Who do you think is the tourist?

  17. This is a great article and can be helpful for newbies to Italy. The Cappucino and bread comments , especially! And often one would order their own pizza that would be their own, so prepare yourself for that. Something I would add is that the Italians I visit often do not suck down their wine like a lot of Americans I know (I’ve been known to do this in the past:)). They have small glasses of table wine during everyday dinners and lunches. And with “nicer” dinners , they have higher quality wines available that are appreciated. Drinking too much is looked down upon.
    Whether it’s a good / bad thing, however, they know that Americans do things differently so it’s not a complete shock if we ask for a lemon wedge or parmesean. Sometimes, it’s all in how you ask 🙂

  18. Hi all,
    Thank you for your comments! And stay tuned—I’m writing an article for a publication now on strange food etiquette rules worldwide, and will let you all know when it comes out!

    Sharon: Excellent points, particularly about the drinking. You definitely don’t want to be the “drunk, sloppy” American in Italy… che brutta figura! Thanks for stopping by!

    Judith: Ha! Too funny. And good points… I agree re: Sgr. Bucci 😉 Where in Umbria are you? It’s one of my absolute favorite regions in Italy.

    Justine: Thanks! As for the awkward argument over paying for waiter… I’ve been there! Hope this helps stave those off in the future. Thanks for stopping by!

    Dwight: Yes, too true! Hey, can’t leave any of that excellent sauce behind. Thanks for stopping by!

    Alex: Thanks, and good addition. Pouring wine back-handed is a no-no in other European countries, too, I’ve heard—apparently because a prime way to poison someone used to be to fill the gem on your ring with poison, then flip it open as you poured the wine, backhanded, into the cup. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a juicy reason for the etiquette rule coming about! Thanks for stopping by—do you live in Milan? Lovely city.

    Toni: Thanks! Yes, that’s something that would never happen in Italy, at least at “authentic” restaurants… thank goodness! Thanks for stopping by!

  19. 1) imho searching for an american brunch or buying the ingredients for scrambled eggs and pancakes would be silly. If you go on a trip here in Italy there would be really no point in “evading” to try our food habits and wanting to eat just like at home
    2) you can drink a coffee whenever you feel the urge to
    3) it’s true that is our custom to not drink milk after a main meal, but there’s no fanciful excuse for it (: it’s just a “pointless” custom
    I often find myself drinking a cappuccino (coffee+milk foam) around 6pm
    4) i’m sure any waiter would bring you a cup of olive oil/vinegar without any problems
    6) what’s the freakin’ point of putting parmigiano on a pizza? Parmigiano is a pasta condiment. You’ll get a strange face also if you ask for some pepper to put on your coca-cola, or some chocolate to put in your cheeseburger
    8) seriously, have you ever been in Italy? xD It’s the first time i hear something like that
    9) some people drink tap water, some people prefer bottled water, like in any other part of the planet
    10) you can eat on the go whatever you want man (°: seriously, did someone look at you whith disgust because you were eating a sandwich? Where did this happen?

  20. Hi “A Facebook User,”

    Thanks for stopping by and for putting in your 2 cents!

    As for where I got these from, believe me—I’ve either made all of these “mistakes,” or been forewarned about them by Italian friends. Perhaps they’re not all as strongly adhered to Italy-wide (where do you live?), but in Rome and many other parts of Italy, they’re definitely the case! (Some of your responses back this up, of course, like saying “what’s the freakin’ point of putting parmigiano on a pizza?”—that’s exactly how many Italians seem to think, but believe it or not, it’s something many Americans do at pizzerias back home!).

    As for #8, I think there was confusion. I don’t mean don’t ask the *waiter* for more food; of course you order more water, a secondo, etc. as you go. I mean that in many cases you shouldn’t order more from the person who served you the food, the server, since they are *different* from the waiter and it is not their job to take orders. In the past when I have done so, I have gotten annoyed looks and/or the waiter sent over anyway and/or the order didn’t go through!

    As for the tap water vs bottled water thing, again, where in Italy do you live? Almost everywhere I’ve traveled and lived in Italy, it’s been a struggle to get tap water over bottled water, except at a bar or cafe.

    Thanks again for your perspective, and for stopping by!

  21. Hi “An Italian,”
    Can you give me a source for that? Everything I have seen says that it’s actually the opposite: if you ask for tap water, it’s illegal for the restaurant NOT to serve it to you.
    Thanks!

  22. Hi. Nice article, it’s really funny to read it as a “local” hehe. All the points looks to me somewhat correct but not completely.. many can be reinterpreted I think. I’ll try to comment a few of them.
    First, italian uses and attitudes can be very very different from place to place, I guess you know it yet since you’re a good observer. But roman general attitude is definitely more aggressive then other places’.
    Another point, I’m sure that the fact itself that you’re recognized by an attendant as an american turist makes them act more picky then they are.
    Point two is quite natural, simply cause coffee here is something different then abroad. What’s the point is having a 4 centiliters espresso while you’re eating?
    Point three well, it’s really not true. I often take a coffee while friends have a wine glass before lunch.. so what, nobody ever said me a word for this. You can safely ask a cappuccino at the end of a lunch if you want. It can even make some sense, especially if you didn’t eat so much.. why not? Ok it’s not the “standard” but you can always do it. For the milk matter.. uhm, tell them there’s a phrase from Cremona that says that (at the end of a meal) the mouth is not enought tired until it get “some cow” (meaning a bit of milk, cheese or something). Use that next time 😉
    The thing that you don’t have to use bread to clean up the sauce.. well both versions apply. In an elegant place you don’t usually do it cause it’s considered rough doing it *with your hands*, but still, you are allowed to do it if you use a fork. And everybody can safely do it with hands in “normal” places or at home. There are plenty of those rules, but they are more a matter of personal education. Just like not to put your elbows on the table or chew with your mouth open.
    Hope it will add something to the puzzle..

  23. I confirm, it is illegal to serve tap water in restaurants. It is also illegal to serve sodas, juices and any other drink out of a bottle directly into a glass. It has to be served in its own bottle. Example, if you order a coke, it will always be brought to you in either a can or a bottle, if they just put it in a glass they are breaking the law. This law is for two things:

    – safety of the products (so you can see expiration date etc)
    – making sure that they charge you for what you are really buying. Italians are scam artists as you all know (and I’m from Italy), so you could be ordering a Coke-cola and they could be bringing you a watered down generic brand, maybe that comes from a 2 litres bottle bought for 30 cents at a discount store.

  24. Hi Giorgio,

    I still cannot find any evidence of a law prohibiting restaurants from serving customers tap water. In fact, again, I only see it said that if a customer asks for tap water, legally they MUST be provided with it. Please see, for example, this post from Altromercato about their initiative to encourage restaurants to serve tap water as a matter of course, which explicitly says there is no law against serving tap water: http://www.altromercato.it/it/circolo-del-cibo/news/finalmente-acqua-del-rubinetto-al-ristorante

    So, can you direct me to the exact law number that prohibits restaurants, bars and cafes from serving tap water to customers to ask for it?

    In theory, what you’re saying makes sense, and I would expect there is a law, when it comes to beverages like juices or soda. And, yes, I have noticed that the original cans are always served in Italy (along with a glass). But water doesn’t make much sense for this. After all, if a customer asked for acqua dal rubinetto, what would a restaurant “trick” them with to cut down on costs?

    Thanks, Giorgio, and I look forward to figuring this out together!

  25. I thought it was caffe latte that you aren’t supposed to order past noon. I recall all kinds of folks having a cappuccino in the afternoon at the Campo die Fiori bars. Maybe my recollection might be fuzzy, as that was back in the mid 1990s, and I haven’t been back since.

    BTW, I just discovered your site and have been enjoying it immensely. I will be finally returning to Rome in April, so your recommendations and advice have been a godsend. Keep it up! I hope to continue reading your blog posts.

    Ciao, Bella!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *