Eleven Etiquette Mistakes (Not) to Make at an Italian Meal (Updated for 2018)

When it comes to food, Italians love etiquette. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a fine-dining establishment with jacketed waiters or chowing down on pizza at a plastic table: There are some things that will always get you dirty looks. Or snide comments from the servers. (Yes, the people you’re paying for for the food. That’s a subject for a whole other day…)

Below, 11 ways to make servers into enemies and annoy neighboring Italians — all while doing the seemingly-simple task of consuming food.

Coffee

2018 update: Since I wrote this post eight (!!!) years ago, some things have changed… slightly. Namely, there is so much more tourism to cities like Rome than even a few years ago. The results of this are what you might expect.

First, servers are becoming less disgusted taken aback by non-Italian food habits. They’re more used to seeing it. Second, the local culture is changing: Italy in general (like the rest of the world) is becoming more globalized and locals are following more international trends. So while Italy’s food culture remains unique (and I hope it always stays that way), you can now find (a handful of) restaurants serving US-style breakfast or pizzas with unusual gourmet toppings, for example.

That being said, even if you can get away with breaking these traditions, part of the allure of Italy is its tradition! (Particularly food tradition, of course). And Italians I know still abide by all of the below. So I still stand behind all of them (and abide by them!) 100%. That being said, I recommend giving the comments section below the post a read — Italians from other parts of the country have chipped in on how true they think these each are in their region (or at all), and it’s been fascinating to read!

Without further ado, mistakes not to make are….

1. Expecting breakfast. Unless your hotel provides it, don’t expect your first meal of the day to be anything like back home. Most Italians start their day with a mere coffee, or a coffee and cornetto. Cereal is starting to hit grocery-store shelves, but it still seems a rare choice — and if you’re looking for good old scrambled eggs and pancakes, forget about it! If you can’t start your day without, either pick a hotel that explicitly offers American-style brunch or plan to grocery shop and cook your own food.

2. Ordering coffee before or with a meal. What horror! Coffee is seen as a way to help you digest your meal, so drinking it alongside is seen as misguided… even dangerous. (Breakfast, as above, is the one exception to this). If you must have a caffeine hit before a meal (and really, when you’re facing a 3-hour dinner that starts at 9pm, who can blame you), duck around the corner for a quick espresso at a nearby café.

An espresso like this one is an any-time-of-day kind of drink. A cappuccino, however…

3. Having any coffee but a caffè normale (espresso) after noon. Italians follow rules regarding mixing dairy and meat that seem as strict as keeping kosher — only somewhat less consistent. While you might think, given the previous rule, that you’d be allowed to have a cappuccino after a meal, you’d be wrong. A cappuccino has milk in it! You’ve probably just eaten meat! The mix of the two in your stomach can make you get sick and die! (Yes, that pizza with anchovies, or the mozzarella di bufala you consumed as an appetizer…with prosciutto, should do the same thing. But for some funny reason, it doesn’t.) And yes, this rule applies even if you had an all-vegetarian meal. Or if you haven’t eaten at all and are simply grabbing a 4pm coffee. Remember: The clock strikes noon, the coffee goes normale.

In Napoli, it’s okay to pack pasta together, fry it, and slice it, but dip your bread in olive oil and vinegar? Never!

4. Asking for olive oil, or olive oil and vinegar, to dip your bread into. Why would you need olive oil?  Or vinegar? You’re provided with the most delectable of pasta sauces for your bread! (Well, you are.) Oh, wait, because you want to eat your bread before the courses come? Well, then, make sure you see etiquette mistake #5…

5. …Eating said bread before the meal. If you’re starving, okay. (Who am I kidding — I start chowing down on bread before the food comes almost every time). But the bread is there as an accompaniment to your primi and secondi, especially to dip into leftover sauces, not as a way to fill you up pre-dinner.

Order it, eat it, enjoy it — just don’t ask for grated cheese to be put on it

6. Requesting parmesan for your pizza. It doesn’t even matter if you know how to say it (parmigiano). Putting it on pizza is seen as a sin, like putting Jell-o on a fine chocolate mousse. When a friend of mine did this recently at La Montecarlo, the waiter sneered so much I thought his lips were going to curl into his forehead. “Parmigiano per la pizza?” he spat with disdain. And La Montecarlo is a pizzeria that’s used to tourists. Imagine how they’d treat you at a pizzeria that wasn’t!

The cheese you see on this beautiful carbonara was Pecorino… and it’s there only because the server offered it

 7. In fact, putting parmesan on anything with which it isn’t explicitly offered. Remember that many pasta dishes in Italy aren’t meant for parmesan. In Rome, for example, the traditional cheese is pecorino, and that’s what goes on classics like pasta carbonara, calcio e pepe, and amatriciana. Not parmesan. As a rule of thumb: If they don’t offer it to you, don’t ask for it.

8. Asking the server for more water, wine, food, etc. The person who brings your food isn’t (usually) the same person who takes your order. If you make the mistake of asking that person for another bottle of water, as I did just this week, be prepared for a dirty look. And a hand gesture. (Because really, how can you properly express disdain, or anything else, in Italy unless you use your hands?)

9. Ordering acqua del rubinetto at anything but a bar. Yes, Rome’s water is perfectly safe — but when  eating out, Italians always drink bottled water. (To really look local, ask for sparkling, or frizzante). I’ve been told that this is because there’s a lot of calcium in the tap water, so Italians mix it up with bottled so they don’t get kidney stones. I’ve also been told it’s because Italians simply don’t trust anything provided by the state. Who knows. But it’s what the locals do, and restaurants will simply refuse you if you ask for tap water (although bars and cafés, when selling you a cocktail or a coffee, should allow it).

10. Eating on the go. Much like the Parisians, Romans look down on anyone chowing down on bus, metro, or on foot. It’s anathema to the entire philosophy of eating: Dinner should be a meal that you sit and enjoy, preferably for two, even three hours. Eating while doing anything else is seen as sloppy, desperate (can you really be that hungry?), and missing the whole point. The one exception: Gelato, which you’ll see whole families tucking into on their Sunday evening strolls.

The one thing you can eat on the go? Gelato

11. Getting annoyed that your bill hasn’t yet come. In short: You must ask for it. Unlike in the States, it’s seen as rude for a waiter to bring your bill and whisk away your plates as soon as you’ve finished your food. You’re supposed to have the liberty (and luxury) of lingering at your table, finishing your wine, water and even ordering a coffee. Once you’re ready to go, signal for the waiter and say, “Il conto, per favore.” Or the universal squiggly-finger-in-the-air hand signal will always work, too.

As a caveat: It’s not as if I always adhere to Italian etiquette. While I’ve gotten good at automatically ordering a caffè normale after noon or asking for a bottiglia d’acqua gassata upon sitting down, I particularly annoy waiters by consistently asking for salt. I can’t help it: My sodium-drenched American palate finds a lot of Italian food just slightly bland. But I’ve learned to expect frowns in return.

So go ahead, break the rules. Just do so at your own risk…and have a salty Roman response in reserve for the coming comments.

Also: why you can’t find your favorite Italian dish in Rome, all about coffee in Italy and five more ways to do as the Romans do.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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How to Eat Responsibly in Italy and Beyond

The wonderful meals you can enjoy in Italy might not be around forever. Between globalization, a farming crisis, and the demand (particularly by tourists) for out-of-season products, the way Italy makes and consumes its food is changing. Just check out the relatively-sudden prevalence of grocery stores (there are three within a 5 minutes' walk from me) or the crowds that pack the (yes, few and far between, but still existing) McDonald's in Rome for proof.

The same way you'd think twice before tossing garbage into the street, think about how your choices of restaurants and foods might impact the (culinary and natural) environment around you. Katie Parla gives some excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater — in Italy, or anywhere.

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Ferragosto, When All the Italians Flee Rome

Chiuse per ferie -- a common sign during ferragosto in Rome.
If you've been wondering why more stores and restaurants seem to be closed than they should be in Rome, it's because ferragosto is nearly here.

Ferrogosto — the period when Italians go on vacation, officially starting August 15 — is rooted in ancient tradition. In 18 B.C., Emperor Augustus, Rome's first emperor, instituted the feriae Augusti, or Augustan holidays. Adding to summertime festivals already celebrated, like the Consualia on August 23, the holidays celebrated the end of major agricultural work. Horse races were held; work set aside.

Two thousand years later, the holiday's origins may have dissipated — but the tradition itself continues, under the only slightly-different name of ferragosto. Italians leave the cities and flock to the seaside, taking two, three, even four weeks off work. The result for those of us left in Rome, and for tourists? Seeing door after closed door on local shops, restaurants, and drycleaner's, all with the sign "chiusa per ferie."

In other words: Come back in September.

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Nuovo Mondo: The Best Pizzeria in Testaccio

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Most guidebooks to Rome vaunt Da Remo as Testaccio’s best pizzeria, noting its big crowds and classic Roman pizza. Well, okay. Da Remo’s pretty good.

But if you’re heading out to Testaccio anyway, my advice: Go to Nuovo Mondo instead.

I had a capricciosa on my last visit there, and it was great. The crust was thin and crispy, the ingredients fresh, and the sauce almost-perfect, if a little uneven. And if you’re looking to get a table within the first fifteen minutes (not a likelihood at places like Da Remo), well, there were still empty seats by 9pm on a weeknight. And (again, pretty shocking for a pizzeria), the waiters were actually friendly. Okay, maybe it was because I was a single woman, eating alone — a rare thing in Italy. But still.

If that weren’t good enough, the bill was even better: €12 for a pizza, three fritti, and water.

The downside is the decor. With somewhat awkwardly low plastic chairs outside, bright orange tables, and motel-style prints decorating the walls inside, it’s no-frills. The place looks like it hasn’t been redecorated in the 45 years it’s been around. But with pizza this good, it doesn’t need to be.

Nuovo Mondo. Via Amerigo Vespucci 15. Closed Mondays. For a map, click here. Note: If you’re visiting Rome for the first (or even second, or third) time, the prospect of getting out to Testaccio (a working-class neighborhood south of Circo Massimo) might seem a little daunting. But it’s easy. You can take the “B” line metro south and get off at Piramide, just 2 stops from the Colosseo stop. Or grab the 3 or the 75 bus, which also stop in the Colosseum area. From there, it’s a short walk to Nuovo Mondo. And the neighborhood’s always lively and feels safe, even at night.

 

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My New Favorite Gelateria: Ciampini

Gelato from Ciampini, the best gelato in Rome

I'm doing some research for an upcoming story, and this research includes finding Rome's best gelato. (There could be worse things).

Thus far, I've been pretty good: Ordering a "coppa piccola" of gelato, tasting, and throwing half out.

But at the gelateria Ciampini, even though I'd already had two frozen treats, I couldn't keep myself from gobbling the whole gelato down. I tried chestnut, mixed berry, and peach with pinenuts. Each one was super-creamy, but with bits of their namesakes mixed in (including actual, chewy bits of chestnut, and whole pinenuts). Yum, yum, yum. I had a stomachache afterwards, but it was so worth it.

(Since then, I've been back to Ciampini a number of times — and I still think their gelato is some of the best in Rome).

Ciampini. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina 29, in between the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. Click here for a map.

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Roma Sparita: Eat in Trastevere, But Not With Tourists*

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I'm so glad to have just discovered Roma Sparita, a bustling restaurant and pizzeria in the heart of Trastevere. Like other tourist spots in Rome, Trastevere is packed with poor culinary choices. Roma Sparita, however, is not one of them.

Situated, with plenty of outdoor seating, on the broad, quiet Piazza Santa Cecilia, the restaurant was, at 10pm on a Wednesday, completely full of Italians. (That's always a good sign). Even so, the host hustled to get our party of two seated. Another waiter asked if someone was helping us. Within three minutes, our table had been cleared, reset, and a menu brought. For a restaurant in Rome–especially a popular, not-expensive restaurant in Rome–that kind of service is rare. Believe it or not.

*[Update, Oct. 2011: In the pursuit of honesty, I have to share that, sadly, this blog post is now completely, um, incorrect. When I wrote this more than a year ago, guidebooks, tourists and (most importantly!) Anthony Bourdain had yet to discover this place. But just a couple of months after this post, Bourdain went (rightfully) gaga for Roma Sparita's cacio e pepe in "No Reservations."

If you've caught this post on my blog about Rome restaurants almost always going south with newfound fame, you know what happened next. More and more tourists started eating here… and the food quality started to slide. The cacio e pepe is still good, but no longer great, and certainly not the best in Rome. Nor is this any longer a "local's place" by any stretch of the imagination. Even worse? Roma Sparita has started taking advantage of tourists who eat here. For excellent cacio e pepe at places that don't rip you off (yet), instead, head to Flavio al Velavevodetto, Trattoria Da Danilo or even Taverna dei Quaranta at the Colosseum. They might not have a fried-parmesan bowl, but they don't rip you off with a selectively-applied service charge, either.]

The food ranged from classic cucina romana to regional variations (beef carpaccio? you don't see that much in Rome). And it more than lived up to expectations. Popping the olive ascolane, a fried mixture of green olives, veal, pork, and breadcrumbs, became tough to stop doing–even knowing a pizza and pasta were on the way.

Then came the good stuff.

The pizza alla norma (shown above), a Sicilian dish with tomato, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata (a salted, dried ricotta grated onto the pizza), was just right. And Roma Sparita's most famous dish, its tagliolini al cacio e pepe, deserved every accolade. Presented in a fried basket of parmesan, it was the best cacio e pepe I'd ever had. Truly. (To the uninitiated: a traditional Roman dish, cacio e pepe features pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. That's it. Simple, but delicious.)

Even with a good, €15 bottle of Sardinian wine, the bill came out to a little more than €20 per person. Not bad. But it left me with one lingering question: With restaurants with that kind of value in Rome, why would you ever eat here?

Roma Sparita. Piazza Santa Cecilia. Closed Sundays for dinner and Mondays all day. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Al Pompiere: A Jewish Ghetto Classic, But Banking on It

Fritti at Al Pompiere, Rome You could do worse than “Al Pompiere.” In the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, the restaurant has been around since 1962 — no mean feat for an eatery anywhere in the world, but especially in a city with culinary competition as stiff as Rome.

In particular, it’s a place to come when you’re looking for classic cucina romana. What Rome-based food writer Katie Parla calls “the holy trinity of Roman pasta dishes” all make their appearances on the menu. My carbonara tasted a little undersalted and didn’t play quite enough on the pecorino’s (or the pepper’s) zing, but the consistency was perfect and the pasta fresh.

The biggest draw to Al Pompiere, though, is its fried offerings. The carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichoke) had just the right crunch; the filetta di baccalà (fried salt cod) was soft and flaky on the inside, crisp on the outside. Then there were the fiori di zucca ripieni (stuffed zucchini flowers), which were, quite simply, grossly delicious: There’s nothing like squishing a piece of food with your fork and seeing grease spurt out. (All three are pictured above. Just looking at the photo makes you feel like you’re hurting your arteries, doesn’t it?).

What the restaurant lacked, though, was atmosphere. Set on the second floor of a palazzo and nearly empty for Saturday lunch, it felt awkwardly roomy — and with tablecloths covering the tables, a tad too elegant for the down-to-earth fare. With not an Italian dining in sight, I had to doubt Fodor’s claim that it’s a “neighborhood favorite.” Maybe I caught it on an off day. Or maybe it’s simply been around too long.

Al Pompiere. Via Santa Maria de’ Calderari 38, on Piazza Cenci. Closed Sundays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.

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Ristorante Montevecchio: Tastes of a Grandparents’ Kitchen…?

DSC_0001 I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.

But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.

My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.

To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.

The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.

Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).

Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.

Ristorante Montevecchio. Piazza Montevecchio 22a. Closed Mondays. See more details here. Click here for a map.

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Five Rules for Finding Rome’s Best Restaurants

How to find the best restaurants in Rome - don't eat here!
It can be tough to simply stumble across great restaurants in Rome, a city that's thick on the ground with mediocre, overpriced dining options. And so, to eat at the very best restaurants in Rome, it's always advisable to have a list of recommendations with you (and to make reservations in advance).

But what if you just want to eat well, avoid Rome's worst dining options, and not spend tons of time researching and booking restaurants? Then just keep these five rules in mind. With these tried-and-true ways to find yummy food, even without a guidebook, who knows… you might even stumble across a trattoria you never would have discovered otherwise!

1. Get away from the uber-tourist centers… or at least be aware that the closest you are to, say, the Colosseum, the harder it'll be for you to find top-notch nosh. There are some nhotable exceptions to this: The local favorite Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, for example, is remarkably close to the Roman forum for having such darn good food. But while the family that runs Taverna has the pride and business acumen to keep their food delicious and their prices moderate, not every restaurant so well-positioned will do the same. Especially watch out for the areas right around the Vatican and the Trevi Fountain, which are veritable food deserts.

2. Run, don't walk, away from that oh-so-friendly host trying to get you to come inside. He seems nice? He speaks English? He's telling you you're beautiful and your husband is a lucky man? That all means one thing: His food's not good enough for people — most notably Italians — to come in on their own.

3. A tourist menu can be okay. Yes, if it's posted on the door as "MENU TURISTICA: 10 Euros for appetizer, pasta, and wine!", you might be in trouble. But if you go inside and are handed an English menu, don't worry. Most restaurants do this these days.

4. Never look for a place to eat at 6pm. Or 7pm. Or anytime before 8. As a general rule of thumb, if it's open that early, it'll be catering to tourists: Italians never eat before 8:30.

5. Trattoria, hosteria, taverna…meh. Any difference there once was between these has pretty much slipped away. Just remember that a birreria is more a place for fried food and beer, and that most good pizzerias aren't open at lunch.

Finally, remember what you're looking out for: That hole-in-the-wall place that doesn't even look like a restaurant on the outside, but when you walk in (remember, at 9pm), it's bustling with Italians. Eat only at gems like these, and you're guaranteed to have some of the best food in Rome.

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Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas

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