Italian Cuisine and Food Culture
Eating Fresh by Shopping Daily
Whether looking to travel through Italy or set up shop for a while, it’s important to note that shopping in Italy is a bit different than what you are used to in other places. Italians generally like to buy all of their food fresh and going to market is an important part of their day-to-day lives.
While Italy has certainly embraced the 21st century, there are still some shops that seem to be a throwback to a simpler time. When walking the streets of Italy, you’ll be able to find indoor markets, street markets, and traveling markets. The traveling markets are usually quite a bit cheaper than chain and more popular stores.
When it comes to those bigger and more shopped at stores, places like supermarkets are not as populous as they are in North America or Great Britain. Supermarkets only account for about six percent of all grocery shopping in the entire country. Smaller markets, as well as open-air markets, are still quite a bit more popular than any other kind of market. It seems as those the Italian shopper trusts these smaller businesses to the massive chains that are popping up in other parts of the world.
When talking about the biggest chains in Italy, you’ll be talking about places like Esselunga, Conad, and Coop. These markets all adhere to the general policy of Italy. This means shoppers tend to take their own bags, as opposed to having them bagged at the store. There is no carry out either.
When a Meal Is More Than Just Food
With a country that puts such importance on food as a cultural pillar, it makes sense that the average day of an Italian is structured around mealtimes. For Italians, meals are more about socialization and building community while sharing delicious, homemade foods and perfectly paired wines.
The day begins with breakfast (“prima colazione”) around 7:30 a.m., which usually consists of croissants or biscuits paired with milk, tea, or strong coffee. Children enjoy milk with cereals, with a little bit of coffee added. While many other regional cuisines around the world rely on a heavy, protein-packed breakfast to provide enough energy to get through the day, an Italian breakfast is meant to give just a small boost to get the day started.
Lunch serves as a main meal of the day for many Italians and often consists of multiple consecutive courses. Lunchtime generally begins between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. and starts off with a pasta- or rice-based dish, followed by meat and vegetable courses. On Sundays lunch can last up to three hours with plenty of convivial socialization.
Dinner is generally served around 8:00 p.m. but can be as late as 10:00 p.m. as families tend to wait for all family members to arrive home. Dinner is considered a social meal, and when guests are over, the host will generally pour the first round of wine. After that, everyone may serve themselves. Remember to respond with an energetic “Salute!” when the toast is given!
Famous Italian Cuisine
One of the biggest reasons thousands of tourists visit Italy each year can be summed up in one word: food! Known for its delectable and diverse cuisine, Italy is the birthplace of hundreds of dishes that have become worldwide favorites, from “spaghetti alla carbonara,” to ultra-thin pizza, to creamy gelato in endless flavors. The only trouble you will have is deciding which local restaurant to try first in this expansive mecca for foodies.
No matter what areas you plan to visit, you will be sure to find something to suit your palate. Each region has its own traditions, preferred ingredients, and tried-and-true methods. In the south, you will find many filling pasta dishes prepared with olive oil and hot red pepper. The north favors black pepper to season, butter for the fat, and rice for the starch. Tuscany offers an earthier menu, with dishes ranging from wild boar sausage to wild-caught hare. For a more exquisite experience, head to Piedmont where truffles shaved over risotto are celebrated.
In a country with upwards of 2,000 different pasta shapes and over 4,000 distinct wine labels, it’s no wonder Italy is considered a food capital of the world. To get the most bang for your buck, book your trip around a few food festivals, called “sagre.” At these events, visitors can sample a variety of dishes and wines while socializing with locals and absorbing the culture. Keep an eye out for the Italian State Tourist Office (ENIT)’s yearly booklet, An Italian Year.
An Intricate Ballet of Courses for Dinner
An Italian meal is structured like a well-rehearsed play. Italians generally follow a specific order of events during a meal, each one with its own purpose and significance. To foreigners, an Italian meal may seem extravagant, but this is just a part of the Italian culture. Long, drawn-out meals are what inspire the Italian phrase, “L’appetito vien mangiando,” which translates to, “The appetite grows while eating.”
An appetizer (“aperitivo”) is served first, which usually consists of small nibbles like olives, nuts, or crisps alongside wine or prosecco. This may be followed by a starter (“antipasto”) which will contain sliced meats, like Parma ham or salami, and cheeses or vegetables.
Next on the menu is the first main dish (“primo”). This dish will be either pasta, rice, or soup. Common dishes are “risotto,” “gnocchi,” and “ravioli.” The second main course (“secondo”) usually consists of meat or fish. A vegetable side dish (“contorno”) is presented alongside the “secondo” and serves as a palate cleanser.
The meal ends with a final course of fruit (“frutta”) followed by a dessert (“dolce”). Italians generally conclude a meal with coffee. Wine is often served throughout the whole meal, no matter the time of day. If you are more of a water drinker, options typically include sparkling or still mineral water (“acqua minerale gassata,” “frizzante”, or “acqua minerale liscia”).
What Role Does Drink Play in Italian Society?
Drinking Is Mostly about the Food
Italians are not heavy drinkers in general. Most prefer to pair drinks with food and have a typical drink for every phase of the meal. Within each “course” of beverages, there will be a few options to choose from, so be sure to sample different things to determine what you like best.
Before meals, it is common to partake in an aperitif (“aperitivo”) in a bar to help stimulate the appetite. You can choose a light white wine such as Verdicchio or a sparkling wine (“spumante”) like Prosecco. These crisp flavors can help clear your palate. Once the meal has begun, choose between red wines (“vino rosso”) and white wines (“vino bianco”). If you’re not sure where to start, most people choose the house red (“vino rosso della casa”) or simply ask for the server’s recommendation.
Based on the restaurant’s options, wine can be ordered in quantities larger than just a single glass. Ask your server for a portion as large as a liter (“litro”), carafe (“caraffa”, typically three-quarters of a liter), half-liter (“mezzo litro”), or quarter-liter (“quartino”). Once your meal has ended, you may be offered a digestif (“digestivo”) to aid with digestion, which can come in the form of fortified wines such as sherry or vermouth, distilled liquors like tequila or whisky, or brandy like cognac or grappa.
If you’re in a hurry, you can save money by choosing to drink at the bar instead of at a table. At the bar, you are free to drink as much or as little as you want and will not be expected to stay for a long period of time.
Drinking for Pleasure, Not as a Game
Florentine Monsignor Della Casa, in his 1558 etiquette manual, Galateo, said, “…I thank God that for all the many other plagues that have come to us from beyond the Alps, this most pernicious custom of making game of drunkenness, and even admiring it, has not yet reached as far as this.” Admiring his country’s avoidance of the fascination with drunkenness, Monsignor Della Casa’s statement still rings true today.
In modern day Italy, alcohol is typically reserved for drinking during meals to accompany the food, not to achieve drunkenness. This concept of inebriation is actually quite foreign to many Italians. Although Italy boasts one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in all of Europe, it is not because of rampant alcoholism or drunkenness; it is simply because it is commonplace to pair alcohol with multiple meals. Most people have no more than a couple glasses of wine per day.
While Italy may be known for its wine, beer-drinkers should not be discouraged. Some popular brands of beer (“birra”) include Frost, Moretti, and Peroni, which are often served on draught (“alla spina”). Beer is commonly ordered in three sizes: 66 cl (“grande”), 40 cl (“media”), and 20 cl (“piccola”).
If non-alcoholic beverages are more your taste, Italy offers some unique and delicious options. Enjoy a cool “granita,” a summery iced beverage commonly flavored with coffee, mint, lemon, strawberry, or orange. For a more luxurious treat, ask for an “affogato,” a scoop of vanilla gelato drowned in a shot of hot espresso.
The Homeland of Outstanding Coffee
Italian coffee terminology is not foreign to the typical English-speaking coffee drinker. “Espresso,” “macchiato,” “latte,” and “cappuccino” are standard fare at coffee shops in Britain and North America. But an American cappuccino is not an Italian cappuccino, and there are a few more phrases to learn:
- “Espresso” is a small cup of strong, black coffee. This is what you get if you simply ask for un “caffè.”
- For a double-sized espresso, ask for “caffè doppio” or “doppio espresso.”
- “Caffè macchiato” is espresso with a dash of milk.
- “Caffellatte” is a large glass of hot milk with coffee mixed in.
- “Cappuccino” is espresso topped with a thick layer of milk froth. Italians never drink cappuccino after lunch.
- “Caffè lungo” is a long, weakened black coffee. More water passes through the grounds while brewing, producing a weaker taste than espresso.
- “Caffè decaffeinato” is decaf coffee. This is not very popular among Italians.
- “Caffè coretto” is espresso with a drop of grappa or other liqueur.
If you order tea, you will be served a cup of hot water and a generic tea bag—Italians typically don’t drink tea. Also note that by law, Italian bars and cafes must serve tap water to all guests free of charge, regardless of whether they purchase anything.
Dining Out in Italy
Dining Out Is an All Night Event
In Italy, it is commonplace for restaurants to only book each table once per night. Compared with other cultures where restaurants focus on getting as many customers in and out as possible, Italian restaurants expect guests to stay for the entirety of the evening through all of the courses and many rounds of drinks. As such, you will not be hurried along through your meal which will add to the comfort and low-key atmosphere of your dining experience.
When choosing a place to dine, you have a few options. A regular restaurant (“ristorante”) usually offers multiple-course meals at the highest prices. If you’re feeling like something a bit tamer, look for a smaller local restaurant (“trattoria”). These hole-in-the-wall places are usually family owned and operated, offer smaller menus, and stay within a lower price range. Do not shy away from these smaller restaurants; gems are hiding all over Italy’s largest cities with dishes that you will want to write home about.
Many people travel to Italy to sample authentic pizza and gelato which are never hard to find in abundance; simply look for “pizzeria” and “gelateria” joints to satisfy your cravings. If you’re searching for a home-cooked meal, find restaurants offering “cucina casalinga.” For quick and easy snacks, a “tavola calda” is your best bet. You may want to avoid restaurants advertising tourist menus (“menù turistico”), which can often be overpriced and of poor quality. If you’re more of a wine enthusiast, you’ll feel at home in a wine shop (“enoteca”) that also serves some food.
Whenever you are visiting a foreign country, it is important to understand your bill when completing a meal out, as well as the best practices for tipping. While it never hurts to ask a local, language barriers can sometimes make this impossible. Understanding some simple words and phrases can help to reduce the confusion so you can end your meal with as little frustration as possible.
When you have finished your meal, remember to ask for your bill (“conto”) from the server. Restaurants often expect you to stay at your table for many hours, and they will not bring your bill until you indicate that you are ready to pay and leave. Your bill will include a value added tax (“Imposta sul Valore Aggiunta”, or “IVA”) and a cover charge called “coperto.” Italian businesses are required by law to provide you with a receipt (“scontrino”) after services have been completed. If they fail to do so, they can be fined heavily.
Tipping is completely up to you and is usually only given for exceptional service. Remember that servers do not receive any of the gratuities included in your bill, so you should include a few extra coins if you wish to leave them a tip.