There are certain unwritten rules that you don’t want to break in Italy. Just because some of us learned the hard way, doesn’t mean you have to as well. Here, one of us Musers shares what he learned the hard way.
As an American living in Milan, there are many things that Italians do that I find rather interesting and different, as I’m sure Italians do the same with me. There are, however, certain things that aren’t okay to do in Italy, and no one is excused for breaking these unwritten rules…not even foreigners. These mostly pertain to food, since it is what I would consider the biggest part of Italian culture. I learned about them because I broke them, but you don’t have to make the same mistake. Keep these unwritten food rules in mind when you’re visiting Italy, and you’ll be golden.
A cappuccino must be consumed before noon!
1) A cappuccino is not an after-dinner drink
Cappuccinos are only socially acceptable at breakfast time, or before noon at the absolute latest. If you order one after lunch or dinner, the waiter might look at you funny, and other Italians you are with will tell you that you’re not supposed to do that. Of course, they won’t stop you from ordering it, but they won’t see you the same as they did before. The exact reason is unknown to me though I have heard it’s because Italians believe the milk has adverse effects on digestion after a proper meal, hence the reason they only drink it in the morning with a sweet. However, when I ask my Italian friends why this is so, they can’t really tell me the exact reason, but they feel it deep in their soul–something in their DNA tells them that a cappuccino after lunch or dinner is wrong.
Your spaghetti must enter boiling water looking like this!
2) Don’t break your spaghetti
There are various things you shouldn’t do with spaghetti. Let’s start with the preparation: Don’t cut the spaghetti in half before putting the noodles in the pot to cook them. I know what you’re thinking, ‘’but it’s so much easier to fit them into the pot’’. You’re right. However, it’s just not acceptable and people will look at you like you are crazy for doing so.
3) Eat your spaghetti with a fork only
Speaking of crazy–and in the same vein as keeping your spaghetti noodles whole–don’t use a knife to cut your spaghetti (or twirl it on a spoon!). This will make Italians cringe. The correct way is to roll the spaghetti, wrapping them around the fork directly on your plate, then eating it. This has something to do with the fact that you must ‘‘respect’’ integrity of the spaghetti, so by cutting them, you are changing them and they are not spaghetti anymore.
Do NOT do this! Separate foods call for separate plates.
4) Separate your food
Food separation is a concept that I had not heard of as something that was actually practiced until I moved to Milan. During lunch at the office, I have one plate that usually includes vegetables, rice, meat and maybe some sort of sauce. My Italian colleagues look at me as if I were taking all these things, putting them in a blender and drinking them. I asked them why and they told me that I needed to separate the food.
The traditional course progression is as follows: antipasto, primo, secondo con contorno, dolce, caffè, digestivo. This is the flow that you would find at a restaurant, but it’s not something you would think to do as you prepare your daily work lunch. The concept still stands, however, that you need to separate the food, and you just can’t put it all together in one plate and call it a meal.
Antipasto is the appetizer if you will, literally meaning ‘’pre-food’’; primo – means ‘’first’’ so it is the first main dish, then there is the secondo con contorno or just simply secondo – the second main dish, with or without a side. Then comes the dolce -dessert – followed by coffee. And if you’re extra Italian, the digestivo – a small shot, usually alcoholic to help you digest. The phenomena of digestion is another topic that warrants its own article, but I’ll save that for another day. I will, however, say this; the average waiting time for swimming after eating a meal in Italy is 2.5 hours.
Of course all of these are unwritten rules, and if you break them, there aren’t any real “consequences”, you just might get ridiculed or shamed. However, if you want to do as the locals do during your visit to Italy, then follow these rules.
As an American, the way I view food is very different from how Italians view it. I view it mainly as something done as an individual — as something that I have to do in order to survive (i.e. not die). I want it to taste good of course, but I don’t want it to take up too much of my time either. Italians however, view it as quite the opposite. It is part of their cultural identity and something that is done in as a community. I think the importance of food in their culture is what prompted all these ‘’rules’’.