Few countries in the world have the same culinary pedigree as Italian cuisine.
Italian food culture is among the most beloved on the planet. Nearly every country in the world hosts Italian dining options; you can find Italian-based dishes almost anywhere.
But nothing compares to the quality of cuisine found in the country that spawned these iconic dishes, whether in northern Italy, Milan, or Florence.
A food tour of Italy is an experience. Learn about the etiquette you need to know about eating there, the traditional food you must try, and the must-see destinations for your trip to Italy.
What Is the Etiquette for Eating in Italy?
The vast world of Italian cuisine ranges from casual and delicious street food to the apex of fine dining experiences.
Recommended etiquette may vary depending on the environment; the accepted standard for table manners in a Michelin star restaurant may differ from those of a friendly Mom and Pop eatery.
Here are general rules about Italian restaurant culture that will help you understand and abide by the accepted standard of dining customs.
Good table manners demonstrate an earnest appreciation for a meal and local food customs. Unlike most American dining, Italian dining has a few key food rules that make for good table manners.
Implement these customs when you’re eating at an Italian restaurant or in the company of Italian diners.
- Pass food to your left
- Don’t eat with elbows on the table
- Proper handling of utensils
- Don’t use a spoon to eat pasta
- Tip between 10 to 15 percent for excellent service
Pass Food to Your Left
Crucial items in a full Italian eating experience are the shareable dishes. Bread with seasoned olive oil and appetizers are staples of an Italian meal and are typically shared freely with the whole table.
Italians love to eat communally or family-style. When these shareable dishes are delivered to the table, they quickly circulate amongst the diners for all to enjoy. When circulated through the table, food passes to the left.
If you receive a shared dish, pass it to your left when you’ve taken your share.
Don’t Eat With Elbows on the Table
Elbows on the table may be considered a rude gesture depending on the environment. Putting your elbows on the table in a fine dining context can be perceived as an inconsiderate posture; it communicates a lack of regard for the customs of the setting.
While eating, sitting with appropriate posture with elbows squarely off the table demonstrates attentiveness and respect for the setting. However, context is everything.
In a casual setting, eating with elbows on the table is not considered as significant a grievance. Additionally, in a relaxed setting, like during a casual after-dinner conversation with a cappuccino, having one's elbows on the table may be more permissible.
Proper Handling of Utensils
How you handle your utensils can indicate your level of dining etiquette and your knowledge of local customs. Italians generally hold their fork in their right hand and their knife in the left.
Crucially, they do not switch utensils to their dominant hand throughout the meal; many people in the United States will switch their fork and knife between their dominant hand when cutting food, then switch again to eat.
While this standard of utensil etiquette may be difficult for folks not accustomed to it, abiding by it will speak volumes about your commitment to learning local customs; when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Don’t Use a Spoon When Eating Pasta
There is a common misconception about how Italians eat pasta, one of Italy’s staple foods. The belief is that diners will hold a spoon in the left hand, set it on the plate, then twirl pasta on the fork tines against the spoon.
Italians do not eat pasta this way; they use a fork exclusively. Many travelers to Europe imitate this method of eating pasta, only to learn that Italians do not use a spoon this way. Spoons may ladle sauce or cheese onto pasta, but never for eating it.
Tip Between 10 to 15 Percent for Excellent Service
Tipping in Europe is different from other parts of the world. In America, tipping is an integral part of the restaurant experience. Servers typically receive a lower wage; tips account for a considerable part of their income.
European restaurants do not have the same standard for tipping.
However, satisfied diners are encouraged to leave a modest tip. Tips between 10 to 15 percent for excellent service are the generally accepted rate in Italy. Often, diners will leave a tip by rounding up to the nearest dollar amount.
How Should I Order at an Italian Restaurant?
A first glance at the menu of an Italian restaurant, trattoria, or cafe may be confusing. Italian menus typically have a list of courses to select.
- Aperitivo: Pre-meal beverages; these drinks whet the appetite before the meal begins.
- Antipasti: Appetizers; usually, antipasto dishes include cheese like Parmigiano or meats like prosciutto, olives, salads, and small, shareable items.
- Primi: The first course of a meal; primi items may consist of pasta like carbonara or ragu, soups, and risottos.
- Secondi: The second course, main course, or entrée; secondo are typically meat-based dishes including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or seafood.
- Contorni: Side dishes; these items accompany your primary dishes; examples include vegetables, mushrooms, and salads.
- Dolci: Desserts; Dolci items are where you’ll find cannoli, tiramisu, gelato, and other dishes for your sweet tooth.
- Caffe: Post-meal caffeinated beverages; usually include Italian coffee like espresso or cappuccino.
- Digestivi: The last course consists of digestivo liqueurs like Amari or Aperol to aid after-dinner digestion.
The volume of courses may be daunting, but diners aren’t required to pick an item for every course. A standard meal at an Italian restaurant may include an appetizer from the antipasti menu, a secondi item for an entrée, an accompanying contorni, and a dessert from the Dolci menu.
What Are Italy’s Traditional Dishes?
While diners may be familiar with Italian food in their home country, it may be a far cry from how it is traditionally made in the home country. Italy has a sterling culinary legacy, dating back to Roman times in the case of some dishes.
Here are a few traditional Italian dishes to order in Italy:
- Cacio e Pepe
- Neapolitan Pizza
What Is Cacio e Pepe?
Cacio e Pepe translates to cheese and pepper; it’s a pasta dish consisting of Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and spaghetti.
It’s a simple dish but an enduring classic that every foodie in Italy has to try. This staple food defines Italian cuisine, from Grandma’s kitchen to fine dining establishments.
What Is Calamari?
Seafood is a cornerstone of Italian cuisine. With so much coastal territory, Italy is a country defined by its embrace of all sorts of seafood dishes.
One of the most popular is calamari; fried squid is typically served with a red sauce. Calamari is the perfect meal to order as an appetizer.
What Is Arancini?
Arancini are fried rice balls filled with cheese, usually a blend featuring mozzarella and parmesan. Hailing from Sicily, they come with a red sauce for dipping.
They have a crunchy exterior and a smooth, cheesy interior, making them one of the most popular appetizers in Italian cuisine.
What Is Neapolitan Pizza?
Perhaps the most iconic dish in Italian cuisine, traditional Neapolitan pizza is a must-have on any foodies checklist in Italy.
The classic recipe for Neapolitan pizza is a small, flat pizza dough baked in a wood-fired oven. Red sauce is spread over most of the pie, with shredded mozzarella on top. Garnished with fresh basil, it’s clear why this traditional pizza sets the standard for one of the world’s favorite foods — it's delicious.
What Are the Must-See Destinations for Italian Eating?
Places all over Italy have their signature flairs to their cuisine. Regarding must-see destinations, here are the top three places you should have on your travel itinerary.
The Italian capital has centuries of history, layers of culture, and every possible dish travelers want from Italian cuisine.
For travelers visiting Italy to entertain their taste buds, Rome is guaranteed to serve up the dishes you’ve traveled to the country for.
Italy’s third-largest city is a gastronomic capital — it’s the home of pizza.
Naples is right on the Mediterranean coast. Its cuisine is profoundly inspired by the tastes of southern Italy and its proximity to the sea; seafood dishes are a must-have. Naples is necessary for travelers looking for bright, flavorful dishes to eat by the seaside.
Tuscany is a region of central Italian world-renowned for its wines and cheeses.
Villas across the Tuscan countryside produce some of Italy's best wine. Pecorino cheese, one of Italy’s most famous cheeses, hails from Tuscany. Tours across Tuscany are an essential part of a food-oriented trip to Italy.
Taste All That Italy Has To Offer With ETIAS
A trip to Italy is a food lover’s dream come true. ETIAS travel authorisation can take you one step closer to your dream destination to help foodies taste all Italy has to offer.
The passage of the European Travel Information Authorisation System may affect your ability to travel to European nations like Italy.
To ensure safe, efficient travel to Italy in the future, apply for ETAS approval when it’s launched in 2024.