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To state the obvious, Italians take eating and drinking seriously. Ancient Romans made wine and hosted elaborate banquets, which means that Italians have been perfecting the art of the table for more than 2,000 years. If you've spent any time in Italy, you might have noticed that there are many unspoken rules about meal times, restaurant etiquette, and the appropriate time of day to drink a cappuccino. So before your next trip, study up on these (unofficial) rules to follow when eating and drinking in Italy.
1. Breakfast is a sweet start to the day
In Italy, the quintessential breakfast is a cappuccino or espresso with a cornetto or other pastry, taken standing up at the bar. You can find cornetti (croissants served plain or filled with jam, cream, or sometimes Nutella) pretty much everywhere, but there are also regional pastries that are absolutely worth trying, like maritozzo (a soft bun split and filled with cream) in Rome, sfogliatella (a seashell-shaped pastry with orange-scented ricotta) in Naples and the Amalfi Coast, and brioche with granita in Sicily.
2. It's also the only time of day when Italians drink a cappuccino
Italians will drink espresso at any time of day, but a cappuccino is strictly for breakfast. That's because drinking milk after a meal hampers your digestion. If a shot of espresso is too strong for you, try a macchiato (espresso with a dollop of milk) or a caffè lungo (coffee with a larger ratio of water to espresso). Caffè americano most closely resembles American-style drip coffee, though it's still made with espresso. In the summer, when it's very hot, you can order a caffè freddo (cold, sweetened espresso), a caffè shakerato (like an espresso Martini without the alcohol), or a crema di caffè (a creamy, icy coffee drink that comes out of a machine).
Another thing: Asking for your coffee "to go" might identify you as a tourist. You rarely see Italians walking around drinking large cups of coffee. When it's so quick and easy to knock back a shot of espresso at the bar, why would they?
3. Mealtimes have set hours
Mealtimes can vary slightly, but Italians typically eat lunch between 1 and 2:30 p.m. and dinner between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Many restaurants will open for lunch around 12:30 or 1 p.m. and close the kitchen from 2:30 or 3 p.m. until 7 or 7:30 p.m. Restaurants that serve dinner before 7 p.m. are catering to tourists. In small cities and towns, don't expect to be able to sit down for a late lunch or early dinner—period. If you're hungry between mealtimes, you can get a sandwich at a bar.
4. Reservations are essential
Because mealtimes happen over the span of two or three hours in the afternoon and evening, restaurants aren't in the business of turning tables. That's why it's important to make a reservation, especially at popular spots where there's a high demand and a finite number of seats.
Also: Italian waiters won't bring you the check until you ask for it. That's because meals are seen as social activities and it would be rude to rush you out while you're enjoying the company of family or friends. With some exceptions, if you make a reservation at 8:30 p.m., the restaurant's staff is essentially giving you that table until closing time. If you walk into an Italian restaurant at 7:30 or even 8 p.m. and ask to sit at one of the many empty tables you see, you might still be turned away because those tables have been reserved.
5. Drinking and eating go hand-in-hand
It's rare to see Italians drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages without food. Pretty much anywhere you go, if you order an aperitivo, it will be served with a salty snack like peanuts or potato chips. Aperitivo is sometimes equated to happy hour, but it's technically an alcoholic beverage (usually a cocktail or wine) that's drunk before a meal. And according to Raffaele Ruggiero, Restaurant Manager at Le Jardin de Russie in Rome's five-star Hotel de Russie, an aperitivo should be bitter or sour, not sweet. "Aperitivo shouldn't be sweet because if you taste something and it makes you salivate at the tip of your tongue, it's acidic. Something that makes you salivate stimulates your appetite, so drinking something bitter or sour gets your palate ready to eat lunch or dinner," Ruggiero says.
Italians typically drink wine rather than beer or cocktails with meals, with the exception of pizza, which they usually drink with beer. When it comes to choosing the right wine, they tend to follow the traditional pairing of white wine with fish and red wine with meat, but those rules are shifting, with some sommeliers—especially at high-end restaurants—proposing unconventional pairings. "We suggest asking the sommelier or the waitstaff because in a property like ours, the staff is very qualified and ready to satisfy the requests of our guests," Ruggiero says.
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6. Italians eat seasonally
When it comes to Italians cooking, freshness and seasonality are crucial. Though nowadays you can get many fruits and vegetables year-round, Italians know that they're going to taste better during their peak season. Tomatoes are most flavorful in summer, while fall brings squash, winter is the season for artichokes, and spring is bursting with green veggies like peas, fava beans, and asparagus. Many restaurants change their menus seasonally or offer seasonal specials in addition to the usual dishes.
7. Traditional recipes rule
Italians tend to cook a lot, so when they go out to eat, they want to eat food that's as good as or better than the traditional meals they have at home—and they can be very critical because they know the proper way to make many dishes served at restaurants.
A lot of emphasis is placed on traditional recipes, both in terms of the ingredients and techniques used to make them. Forget about eating a plate of cacio e pepe with parmigiano—that recipe calls for pecorino romano. And don't even think about putting cream in a carbonara—it's made with guanciale, eggs, freshly cracked black pepper, and pecorino. Anything else would be sacrilege.
8. Regional dishes rule
Similarly, Italian cuisine is very regional. Unlike in the U.S., it would be rare to see eggplant parmigiana and cotoletta alla milanese on the same menu in Italy. Some dishes like a simple spaghetti with tomato sauce or linguine with clams transcend their origins, but for the most part, menus tend to focus on regional specialties. When in Rome, trattorias serve Roman pastas like carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana, and gricia. In Tuscany, specialties include pappa al pomodoro and bistecca alla fiorentina. In Milan, you'll find risotto alla milanese and cotoletta alla milanese. One of the best things about traveling in Italy is trying the regional specialties, so don't hesitate to ask your waiter about the local dishes he or she recommends.
9. You don't actually have to order four courses
In Italy menus generally start with antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta, rice, or soup), secondi (main courses, usually meat or fish), contorni (side dishes), and dolci (desserts). That said, you're not actually expected to order four courses every time you sit down at a restaurant.
"This kind of menu with antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno is above all for celebrations like weddings because in Italy you're at the table for three or four hours. But if I want to have an evening with my wife or friends, it's rare that I eat such a big meal because it's a lot," Ruggiero explains. "The Italian style is to start with an antipasto and then choose a pasta or a main course with a side dish and then end with dessert."
10. You probably shouldn't ask for extra cheese
Sure, you can have some parmigiano grated on top of your ragù alla bolognese, but don't you dare ask your waiter to put parmigiano on linguine with clams. They might oblige, but they'll be horrified by your gauche manners and lack of taste. Strong cheeses like parmigiano and pecorino cover up the delicate flavors of fish and seafood, ruining the dish. According to Ruggiero, parmigiano is most appropriate when eating pastas with heavy sauces, like ragù.
Ruggiero notes that Roman cuisine is full of dishes with cheese. "Usually, when you have this kind of gastronomic experience, there's no need to add more cheese because the recipe has already been studied by the chefs," he explains, adding that if the guest really wants more cheese, it should be grated tableside. "You should be wary of grated cheeses because they lose their taste when they're grated and then conserved. The best thing is always to have a piece of parmigiano and grate it tableside so you can taste the cheese."
11. Don't expect a doggy bag for leftovers
With very rare exceptions, taking leftovers home at the end of a meal is just not done. However, here's a little tip: if you want to taste a bunch of dishes without feeling like there's a brick in your stomach at the end of a meal, you can ask for a mezza porzione (half portion). Not every dish can be served in this way, but many restaurants will make you a half portion of pasta if you ask for it.