Italian dining culture is famous around the world, but it is much more than checkered tablecloths and wine bottles covered in candle wax. Visiting Italy is your chance to really get to know Italian food, and through it, Italian culture.
Italians are known to be lively and passionate, so sharing a dinner table with them is quite an experience. They are passionate about life’s pleasures, food being chief amongst them, but they are also creatures of tradition and habit. When it comes to food, they are happiest when things are done right. Volumes could be written about Italian dining and the various meals and types of restaurants, but to start, here are 5 things you may not have known about Italian dining culture. Remember these and you’ll be ready for almost any Italian restaurant. Of course, if you happen to forget something, don’t worry - Italians are always happy to enlighten anyone who will listen about best dining practices.
Italians Eat Dinner Late
Things in Italy just tend to start a bit later than what we’re used to in North America. If you’re an early riser you’ll find yourself with the streets to yourself, and if you’re used to having dinner at 5:30pm you’ll find yourself in short supply of open restaurants. Italian restaurants typically open for lunch from about 12pm to 2:30pm and then close until 7pm when they will open for dinner. If you’re eating around 7-7:30pm you may have the restaurant pretty much to yourself. If you’re a fan of fast service this could be a plus! It’s not unusual for Italians to sit down for dinner at 9 or even 10 in the evening, although the later diners could find themselves with grumpy waiters when the kitchen starts to close at about 11:30pm.
The Courses: Appetizers, Pasta, Meat (In That Order, Or Not)
A typical Italian menu is divided into antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta first courses), and secondi (meat second courses), with contorni (sides) and dolci (desserts) at the end. Fancier restaurants with extensive menus may divide these sections into Terra (land) and Mare (Sea). There may also be a hand-written paper insert with daily specials (pro tip: ignore the rest of the menu and order something from here). If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Don’t worry though, a full meal starting with appetizers and ending with dessert and coffee is usually saved for special occasions, and whether it’s lunch or dinner, it would be the main, possibly only, meal of the day. Even if you could manage to eat two additional meals, you probably wouldn’t have time. These affairs tend to last upwards of three hours. Pace yourself.
My first Summer in Italy was both fattening and expensive. We ate out often and I thought I had to choose at least two out of the three between appetizer, first, and second course. In reality you can whatever you want, in whatever order you want it. You just have to be willing to explain to the waiter when you’ll be eating what. For example, if you’re with a group of friends who are sharing appetizers and then all getting pasta dishes, you can opt for a steak instead. Just tell the waiter to go ahead and bring it with the others’ first courses.
Kids Eat Off The Regular Menu
Kids of all ages are more than welcome in all kinds of restaurants. Italians generally love kids and tolerate their presence in almost any situation. Don’t be surprised if families with little kids are still lingering while you enjoy your after-dinner drink and the candle burns low. If you’re the one with your kids in tow, you may be surprised to notice the lack of a kids menu. In Italy there’s no such thing as “adult” food and “kids” food. Everyone is generally expected to eat food food. With all of the pasta and pizza, Italian food is very kid-friendly anyway. If you have a very small child, you can just give them a bit off of your plate. If you really need to you can ask the waiter for something not on the menu, like a pasta al pomodoro or pasta with butter and parmesan. Ask for a “mezzo porzione,” which means half portion.
The Pace of Service Is “Leisurely”
In Italy being too fast is considered rude. Italians like to take things slowly, especially things so important as eating. In the United States where we try to optimize every transaction to save time, restaurants are often very concerned with turning over tables. The faster they seat you, serve you, and give you the bill, the more money they make. In Italy hospitality comes first, and it would be unthinkable to rush a customer through a meal. Don’t expect your waiter to hover and ask every five minutes how things are going. If you need something from him you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out and be a quick draw with your question as he passes by. Most importantly, you won’t receive your check until you ask for it. Lingering at the dinner table is as much a part of dinner as the food itself. After all, you’re paying for a dinner out, not a drive-through! If a waiter is looking to hint that it’s getting late, they’ll usually come ask if you’d like a coffee or after-dinner drink.
No Splitting Bills
Once you have your bill, don’t expect to split it seven ways, one third in cash and the rest split between four credit cards. Although the more touristy restaurants might be prepared for complicated bill-splitting, most Italian restaurants won’t be. Many restaurants have pretty simple cash registers, and fees for charging credit cards are high, meaning that charging multiple cards cuts into their already slim margins. Plus, when it comes to customer service, Italians don’t always feel the need to accommodate requests that they find unreasonable. In general, be prepared to figure out the bill amongst your party, and then pay it, either in cash or on one credit card.
Italians are great at taking something simple, and complicating it with extra steps, rules, and variations. This is bad when it comes to bureaucracy, and great when it comes to pasta. It’s easy to understand why getting acquainted with Italian culture is best done at the dinner table, not the post office. Armed with these rules, a little bit of patience and a big appetite, you’re ready to dive in and fall in love with Italian food!