Barbara and I have traveled to Italy annually for twenty years and have been running our Arts Sojourn trips since 1999. We have always tried to fit in with our Italian hosts. We are not trying to pretend we’re Italian – (although there’s nothing wrong with that!), we simply endeavor to tread lightly and adapt to their customs and not the other way around.
Today while on a walk through the beautiful snow-covered Pennsylvania woods near our home, we were thinking of sunny Italy this summer. We tried to come up with some of the customs for dining out that seem different from those in the US. Here’s our top ten list. Can you add any?
1. Butter is used on bread only at breakfast.
2. Italians do not drink cappuccino after about 11:00 am. (The justification I’ve been given is that milk is hard to digest (but gelato may be eaten at almost any time of day – go figure!) If you prefer a cappuccino go ahead and order it. They know you’re not Italian anyway.
3.Tap water is never served with meals. Always bottled water.
4. Food is served in courses, although you do not have to order every course. Where this can get confusing for you and your waiter is if one at the table orders a first course and not a second and another at the table does the opposite. If you want to be sure you’re not sitting with an empty plate watching your table mate eat, say: “Tutti insieme, per favore.” (too-tee in-seeyaymay, pair fah-vor-ay.) “All together, please.” A hand gesture may help.
5. Dipping bread in olive oil is NOT an Italian custom. Oil will be brought to the table only with a salad. A waiter may drizzle oil on certain foods as they are served, and bread may be grilled with oil and served, but dipping bread is an American custom.
6. Parmesan cheese is not served on seafood pastas.
7. Dressing nicely for dinner seems to be becoming slightly less important to Italians these days. It is a custom we hope remains as it is part of what makes dining out in Italy a special occasion.
8. Italian waiters will not continually pester you, or ask if everything is alright during your meal. It is not good manners for waiters to hover or rush you along.
9. In a restaurant it may take a long time for the waiter to bring your check. Service may seem slow by American standards. Allow adequate time when dining out in Italy. A good meal is to be savored.
10. We have never seen separate checks asked for or given in Italy. One bill will always be brought to the table.
Do you have any other dining customs you wish to share?
Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.