The other day a friend was asking for some recommendations for restaurants in Rome – and boy, have I had some memorable meals in the Eternal City. But I made it a point to give her a little advice along with the listings – and I recount it for you now: Don’t mess with the Italian Food Rules!
Now, granted, every cuisine has its quaint and quirky ways about it, and there’s usually a general consensus about how things are done – how food is prepared, when it’s served, and what’s strictly verboten. But the Italians – Jeez, these people are fanatics about their food. Ever seen the movie The Big Night? This is an entire country of crazy, but insanely talented chefs just like Secondo, and they all have their cleavers at the ready just waiting for you to order risotto and a side of spaghetti and meatballs. Got it? Bene!
I lived in Italy years ago and have been going almost annually for the last 20-plus years, and things have changed – but some things are sacrosanct. We’re trying to pass these rules on to Yao Yao, and she’s pretty much bought into the program. And you can, too.
1. THE BREAKFAST RULE
Skip your eggs, bacon, toast, and granola. You’re in Italy, and you’re eating prima colazione. Any respectable Italian will have a cappuccino and a cornetto (a pastry similar to a croissant) – basta! I don’t care if your hotel has a buffet you paid for. I’m telling you, skip it. Save your appetite for a proper pranzo (lunch)!
2. THE CAPPUCCINO RULE
Never, ever order a cappuccino after 11:00 a.m. at the latest. It’s a morning drink only. When we first moved to Italy, we ate dinner at a local restaurant in a small Ligurian town and the owner was visibly shaken when I ordered a cappuccino afterwards – but she was kind enough to go home (she lived next door), heat up her machine, and make me one. She took pity on me – your waitress may not be as understanding.
3. ANOTHER COFFEE RULE
If you want coffee in the afternoon, drink like an Italian, have an espresso. You can add sugar or maybe a twist of lemon. (Even that is stretching it.) But don’t ask for cinnamon or any other flavorings. You’ll get the hairy eyeball, and it’s not pretty.
4. THE SEAFOOD AND CHEESE RULE
If you order spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) do not, and I repeat, do not, ask for grated cheese. An Italian never mixes cheese and fish – it isn’t done. I’ve heard that lately some Italians are grating a little ricotta salata on seafood pasta, but I wouldn’t risk the possible humiliation by asking for it.
5. THE CHICKEN ON PASTA RULE
There are no chicken pasta dishes in Italy. Italians do not put chicken on pasta. If you want chicken, order it grilled or baked, but you better think of another primo to order, because it won’t have chicken in it.
6. THE PASTA RULE
Do not use your knife to cut your pasta unless you are a child, or are preparing pasta for a child. Twirl your spaghetti and spear your penne. Only kids use a spoon to help them with the twirling. Just don’t do it. If you’re new to twirling, you may want to wear dark clothing to mask the oil splatter as you develop this skill.
7. THE OTHER PASTA RULE
Pasta is not a side dish, it’s a first course, a primo. You either order a pasta dish, or you don’t get pasta. (Some Italian restaurants are buying into the notion of a pasta dish as a “main,” but that’s a recent development.) Risotto is also a course unto itself. It doesn’t come with your secondo, or main course. The only exception to this rule is osso buco, which is often served with risotto Milanese, on the same plate, even!
Addendum to this rule: When ordering pasta, for heaven’s sake, do not ask for “extra sauce.” The Italian chef knows the exact amount of condimento for the pasta dish at hand, and it’s an insult to ask him or her to vary that perfect ratio. Don’t do it, unless you want to make the evening news.
8. THE SALAD RULE
Salad is not an appetizer. If you order a salad, it comes with or after the meat or fish (and don’t even think about asking for ranch dressing). “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” as Yao Yao would say. And what you get is typically oil and vinegar, sometimes lemon, and it’s damn good. Do not ask for Parmesan cheese to put on your salad. Cheese is not a garnish.
9. PIZZA RULES
Pizza – really good pizza – is served piping hot, made just for you, in a pizza oven for dinner. It is not a lunch item. There are takeaway pizza places that serve slices, and that is acceptable to eat standing up at the counter. Now, there are tons of touristy places that have flaccid, tasteless pizza a mezzogiorno (at midday), but Italians wouldn’t lower their standards to eat at those places. And for goodness sakes, don’t ask for cheese to sprinkle on your pizza! Hot oil? Yes. Cheese? No! Or as my Italian friend says, “Why do you people put cheese on top of cheese? Why?” Real Italian pizza is heaven, so just follow the rules!
Addendum to this rule: Never order an unusual pasta sauce on your pizza and expect to get away with it. When traveling with friends in Umbria, their young son ordered a pesto pizza. That may work where you come from, Buster, but you’re in Italy now. Pesto goes on pasta, particularly trofie, and in another region of the country entirely. (Food is regional here, as it is everywhere.) The request brought food service to a temporary halt. Don’t make the same mistake.
10. THE BEVERAGE RULES
If you are in a restaurant, do not order soda, or heaven forbid, milk. If you don’t want wine, order acqua naturale (still water) or acqua frizzante (bubbly). If you’re having pizza, you can order beer or a soda, but this is on a case by case basis. And even then, just one – no biggie cokes here.
I was going to end this by writing that these Italian Food Rules are for entertainment purposes only, and that the Italians are really not that rigid. But that would be an untruth. Eating in Italy is a sublime experience. But rules are rules. Break them at your peril.
All Italian Food Rules have been vetted by a native Italian. The snarkiness, however, is all my own.