Italian Dining Etiquette: A Cautionary Tale – And How to Avoid Becoming One

Even though Italian food is ubiquitous in the U.S., the Italian style of eating is still very foreign to many of us. And I’m not just talking about multiple courses.

joyce dining in italy
Even though Italian food is ubiquitous in the U.S., the Italian style of eating is still very foreign to many of us. And I’m not just talking about multiple courses.

Allow me to illustrate with an experience from a tour I led . . .

Vignette: Castello di Rossenna-Emilia Romagna

On a gastronomic walking tour in Emilia-Romagna, we spent one morning hiking from a Parmigiano Reggiano production house to the Castle of Rossenna in Terre di Matilde.

We were scheduled to have a picnic lunch, and I’d picked up all the necessities - including Erbazzone and Prosciutto di Parma – but I forgot the wine! The castle custodians, quickly spotting my oversight, offered to share theirs, and I invited them to dine with us.

I arranged the buffet table and set the table for the two custodians, myself, and my guests. Ravenous from the hike, my guests immediately set upon the buffet when they entered the room. But the custodians were sitting at the table, expecting everyone to come together and sit down before beginning the meal together.

Glances of blatant disbelief passed between the two custodians as they looked back and forth between my guests and each other. I could see what they were thinking. How could the Americans behave like this?

We had offended our hosts and not realized it.

Italian Dining Customs

You see, in Italian culture, the act of dining together is still sacred. It is a way to bond with each other in the moment and more broadly others dining at the same time and all those who have come before. In American culture, sharing a meal has lost this importance.

An Italian meal is also a tiny celebration. Every meal begins with “buon appetito” before anyone can begin. Every dish is attacked with gusto and enthusiasm. Every item is sampled, appreciated, and lauded.

But apart from this overarching approach to dining, there are other smaller differences:

    • Italians keep their hands (and sometimes elbows) on the table, a practice which harkens back to a medieval practice of showing your table mates you’re not hiding a weapon under the table.
    • Italians order from each course and eat them one at a time. If you’re in a hurry, or you and your companions ordered different courses, ask the waiter to bring them all at once.
    • Italians don’t twirl their long noodles on a spoon or cut them into smaller pieces, but simply twirl the pasta against the curved side of their plate and eat it in one bite.
    • Italians don’t eat bread before or with their pasta, soup or risotto – only with the main course or to scoop up sauce left after their pasta is finished.
    • Italians don’t top any fish or seafood dish with cheese. (And usually not pasta with truffles either.)
    • Italians don’t eat eggs for breakfast (too heavy) but rather for dinner. Anything past a cappuccino, a croissant, and perhaps a little fruit is considered too much for an empty stomach.
    • Italians only drink their coffee after dessert is finished, never along with it.
    • Italians only drink bottled water. Even though Italy is blessed not only with fantastic spring water but also very high quality tap water, Italians simply only drink water out of a bottle. Go figure. But just go with it.


Look for more dining etiquette tips in the upcoming Italian Concierge newsletter! (Comment on this post if you’d like to receive a copy)

And if you like what you’ve been reading, like us on Conde Nast Traveler’s Travel Specialists List, where I’ve appeared for the last five years straight.

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Guest Tuesday, 21 May 2019

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