The Dos and Don’ts: Etiquette in Italy

Part of the joys of travel to a foreign land is about immersing yourself in a new culture, embracing alternative ways of living and experiencing differences.

As such, part of any preparations for a trip to another land should involve a little research into the do’s and don’ts, the lay of the land you’re travelling to.

Pizza and pasta for example are two delicious reasons to visit Italy in themselves. Well, more than two actually if you count the many varieties of each. But how do you avoid a pizza faux pax? A pasta disaster?

Here are a few pointers about Italy etiquettes…

How to Eat Pizza in Italy: Unless you are in a really relaxed environment, and with people you have already impressed with your wit and good looks, then you shouldn’t eat pizza with your hands. The ‘rules’ though depend on where you are eating your pizza. You will usually use your knife and fork, cutting each mouthful at a time just like you would a steak for example. In a more casual setting, such as enjoying a home delivered pizza, only then may you fold and hold. The norm is generally to order one pizza per person. Pizzas are served steering-wheel sized and uncut. The pizza bases usually range from super-thin to thin, made on-site by the expert ‘pizzaiolo’ and topped with a few (very few) select ingredients to bring out the flavour of each quality ingredient.

What is the correct way to eat pasta in Italy? Here’s some advice on how to eat spaghetti and other strand pasta politely. Take your fork and use the prongs to ‘spear’ a few strands at a time, then twist until you get a nice and (hopefully) neat mouth-sized bundle. Then place the entire bundle in your mouth. Is it polite to eat spaghetti using a fork and a spoon? Why, of course! But only if you’re under, say, 5 years old. For most Italians, using a spoon to twist your spaghetti is like having training wheels on your bike. There comes an age when you will be up for ridicule if you continue. For lasagne, cannelloni, ravioli and other stuffed pasta varieties, revert to the normal fork-in-left-hand, knife-in-right-hand, elbows-off-the-table etiquette.

Drinking in Italy: For most Italians, drinking beverages such as cola or beer with your meal is a no-no. The only exception is with pizza.  Italians will drink either water or wine with their meals. And boy can they be fussy with their water – you really will hear locals ordering water in terms of not just ‘frizzante’ (sparkling) or still, but also about the temperature they want the water to be. Italians may drink a glass of wine or two with lunch, but the bottle goes away when the meal is finished. Italians never drink without having some food, even just a selection of nibbles to accompany their drinks. This is because it is a definite no-no to be drunk in public in Italy.

Eating in Public: Eating whilst you are walking down the street in Italy is a bit of a no-no. There are slight exceptions though. It’s okay to enjoy a gelato whilst wondering down the road. (It’s actually okay in our humble opinion to enjoy gelato pretty much any way and where you can!) There are also food carts which serve local delicacies, such as in Florence where you can enjoy (or otherwise) a ‘lampredotto’ sandwich (we’ll let you look that one up for yourself!) served with a glass of Chianti wine, whilst standing on the street around the cart.

How to Dress in Italy – Fashion and Flip Flops: Italians take a lot of pride in how they dress. For most Italians, flip flops are only warn in the house or on the beach, but not in public. For all their flair in fashion, they are still quite conservative in terms of keeping things a little covered. Maybe this conservatism harks back to the church, which still has a lot of influence over Italian culture, as you cannot enter into places of worship without having knees and shoulders covered. Yes, some Italians may wear their trousers skin-tight (and not just the women!) but they don’t show skin like short-shorts. And if Italians do opt for shorts or a revealing top, it is usually under the one-or-the-other rule – show your legs, but keep up top under wraps, or vice versa. Even seaside, Italians will dress completely before leaving the sandy shores rather than wander about scantily clad.

Drinking Coffee in Italy:  Proof of how seriously Italians take their coffee can be found in the fact that there is a big difference between a ‘caffelatte’ (espresso with milk poured in) and a ‘latte macchiato’ (milk with a shot of espresso poured in).  Latte means just milk, so if you don’t want a warm class of dairy goodness, you’ll need to elaborate. Cappuccinos are a morning coffee, not to be consumed after a meal. During the day most Italians will go for an ‘espresso’ (note there is no x in espresso), perhaps served ‘macchiato’, which is literally ‘stained’ with milk. The locals stand at the counter since there is a service charge if you take a seat, which is often a lot more than the coffee itself.

Other Food Offences: You’ll make a chef cry if you ask for cheese on your seafood pasta, as seafood and cheese are usually not considered sound tummy buddies.  Steak comes cooked as per the tradition that has existed for centuries so if you don’t like it rare, order a salad instead. Leaving food on your plate is almost offensive, and you will often find the waiter asking very concernedly if there was something wrong if you have not finished your meal.  Doggy bags are not custom here, rather you order what you want and eat it all. It’s much better to ask for a smaller portion than to leave food.

Shopping in Italy: Many stores in Italy will put almost everything they offer in the window, and you enter only if you have serious intentions of trying and buying. When you do go into a store, locals will ask if it is okay to have a look around.  When buying items from the local grocer, you wait to be served and allow them to select the items for you. Touching items in a window display is a big offense, and you will notice that many signs say ‘Don’t touch’ in English only, as the locals wouldn’t dare.

It all sounds so serious! But really, relax and enjoy your time in Italy. It’s a great place to visit. After all, there are many wonderful things to see and do culturally, the views are spectacular, plus the food and wine is amazing. What more could you ask for in choosing the perfect holiday destination?!

Besides, most people have a sense of humour and are friendly enough to forgive (or polite enough to ignore) any social indelicacies.

Great gaffes make for a great holiday stories.

And if you really make an embarrassing social blunder, just remember you’re in a foreign land and you are unlikely to see these people ever again anyway!


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