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Food etiquette varies from country to country, and it’s never more pertinent than when you are on a culinary vacation. The focus is all on food! We’ve put together a food-themed list of rules to help you out during your next trip to Italy.
It’s true that Italy’s open-air markets are some of the most enticing and wonderful places you will visit on a cooking vacation, but when perusing and purchasing the local produce, please don’t touch!
It might be acceptable in the U.S. to pick through bins of apples, tomatoes, or other fruits and vegetables to find the perfect one, but it is considered rude (and unhygienic) in Italy. Instead, just indicate what you want to purchase, and let the vendor fill the bag for you.
Beverages are not served with ice. Bread is not served with butter. Spaghetti is not served with meatballs.
Can you get ice in your water? Yes, of course, just ask for it. Will you be marking yourself as a tourist? Sure, but it’s your vacation, and if you really want your water ice-cold and your bread buttered, go for it.
The same can be said for things like ordering a cappuccino after a meal: cappuccini are strictly a breakfast or snack-time beverage for Italians, but if you really want a cappuccino after dinner, get one. Your waiter might think it sounds disgusting, but they won’t think you rude.
If, on the other hand, you ask for meatballs with your spaghetti, you won’t get it. You’ll get spaghetti, and you’ll get meatballs (which definitely exist in Italy), but you won’t get them together.
And on the same note, don’t expect the pace to be the same as when you’re eating at home. Meals are more leisurely in Europe, and instead of mistaking it as a sign of bad service, take advantage of the chance to sit, relax, and eat your heart out.
It’s not true that Italians never eat cheese with seafood. This delectable salad of shrimp and rughetta on the Amalfi Coast had shavings of pecorino cheese on it. But it is very true that with fish or seafood pasta dishes cheese is considered off-limits. I’ve seen tourists in Italy ask for parmigiano with their spaghetti alla pescatore and have the waiters refuse to bring it!
Even though asking for cheese is considered, quite literally, bad taste, asking for salt is worse, an insult to the chef and to be avoided if at all possible.
If you wait for the waiter to bring the check, you will almost assuredly close the restaurant. The waiter will continue to come to your table to ask if you need anything else, but until you request it, the check will not arrive.
Don’t think the server is at fault, for he or she is thinking it would be inhospitable to bring the check unsolicited, as though they were trying to rush you out. An exception to this might be at a lower-cost eating establishment that caters to students and a young clientele, where I have seen the bill presented unceremoniously when the meal has long since ended and the clients still linger.
Doggie bags (or “to go” bags) are not done in Italy. It may seem wasteful, you may be thinking how utterly good those table scraps would taste in the middle of the night or for breakfast the next morning, but leftovers are LEFT, not taken home.
The only time I have ever seen an Italian ask to take food home from a restaurant was literally a large bone that he wanted to take home to his dog. He was extremely embarrassed to ask even for that reason, but he really loved his dog.
The thing to remember when dealing with etiquette and cultural norms is that some are simply customs that you can break and seem only a bit odd (or foreign!). Others are rules of etiquette whose infringement can be deeply offensive to your Italian hosts. So remember that it is your vacation, yours to enjoy, but you will enjoy it more if you are sensitive to the cultural norms around you.
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By Peg Kern
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