Ask any person how they would define Italy and food and we’d bet you one hundred bucks that the answer would be one long drool: ‘’Pizza!’’ On many levels, they’re right. Pizza is part of the country's cuisine, but Italy shouldn’t be pigeonholed into being only the masters of pizza. As you’ll soon learn in this article, Italy is a master of food as a whole, not just dough, cheese and pepperoni – as much as we love it. The only people who know this are locals and people who have visited Italy.
Food is a big deal in Italy and the taste is out of this world. Equally as interesting as the cuisine itself are the traditions and superstitions that go with it. They go way beyond spinning dough through the air. It’s not like we didn’t already know how fascinating Italy is, but we didn’t know just how big a deal its food culture is...until now.
The next time you visit your local pizza/pasta restaurant, you’ll see things in a completely different way and hold even more appreciation for that little plate of Fettuccine Alfredo.
Here, 20 things you need to know about Italy’s food culture – get ready to book your plane tickets and make table reservations ASAP.
20 It’s bad luck to spill olive oil
Superstitions are common throughout Italy. Even more common is olive oil. No wonder it’s considered back luck if you spill olive oil. So it’s worth being careful if you ever find yourself dining in a household or restaurant in Italy. Take extra care when holding that bottle of olive oil. If you spill it, you are destined for bad luck. The locals have a lot of superstitions when it comes to food.
They also believe spilling salt will bring you bad luck. Then again, olive oil is so wonderful and so precious; it would be a real shame to spill it.
19 It’s good luck to eat lentils at New Year
If you eat lentils at New Year, however, you’ll get some good luck. That’s because the locals believe lentils represent prosperity for those who eat them because they look a lot like small coins. We can see why they see them as a good luck symbol – lentils are known for their plethora of health benefits. Even if you’re not the biggest fan, it’s worth trying an Italian-style lentil dish to bring yourself some luck and prosperity at New Year. Lentils are also said to make you feel more productive. Now it makes total sense why they’re our good luck charm.
18 Pizza started off as just the base without topping...until Queen Margherita Changed Things
Pizza wasn’t born with a topping of tomato, mozzarella and meat. In fact, it was originally just a flatbread with no topping. Can you believe it?
Thankfully, Queen Margherita changed all that for us. When the Queen of Italy visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples in 1889,
the pizza maker created a special pizza for her that contained the colors of the flag. As a result, she received a pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil.
The Queen loved the pizzaiolo’s creation and it soon became a hit with the rest of the world. We know it as Margherita pizza and we love it too!
17 People in italy used to eat pasta with their hands
The idea of eating pasta with our hands doesn’t sound appetizing. What a messy job – especially with all that sauce! But it wasn’t until the mid 14th century that locals took to eating pasta with a fork. Before that, it was basically a normality to eat pasta with your hands. Although, it was more like pasta dough rather than pasta with sauce.
Pasta actually used to be eaten mainly by the wealthy on special occasions. For the peasantry, it was a rare treat. Fortunately that all changed when pasta became a street food in the 17th century. From then on, it became more common for everyone to eat pasta in Italy.
16 A traditional menu has up to 9 courses
Forget three course meals. In Italy, they go up to nine courses for a traditional menu.
Aperitivo is the first course. This is basically just a small dose of liqueur before the dinner. The second course is called the antipasto, which is usually an appetizer like cheese, bread and vegetables. Next is the Primo, a course of pasta, rice or soup. Then it’s the secondo, a second course comprising of a protein like fish, beef or chicken. Contorno follows, which is a course of salad or vegetables. Afterwards, it’s the formaggio e frutta, also known as ‘’cheese and fruits.’’ Dolce is the dessert course, made up of cookies, pastries or cakes. The next course is ‘’Cafe,’’ a strong espresso. All of this ends with the digestive course, an after dinner liqueur.
15 Meals in Italy are a long affair
In the U.S., people tend to eat fast. Meal time is sometimes a family affair, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a slow one. In Italy, on the other hand, meal time moves slowly. Locals like to enjoy their meal time with family and friends. They don’t like to rush dinner time at all; although, with all those 9 courses, it would be hard to make it a short affair.
Seeing as food is a big part of the culture, they take their eating very seriously. They like to taste and enjoy all the flavours, make conversation with their family, and appreciate the experience. Maybe we should try it.
14 A Trattoria is not a restaurant...not exactly anyway
When travelling in Italy, you might notice a range of different bars and restaurants. They all have different names. One that causes the most confusion is the difference between ristorante and trattoria. Both of them are restaurants but they’re different kinds of restaurants.
If you go to a ristorante, you can expect a full service restaurant with more sophistication. A trattoria, on the other hand, is more of a casual and rustic local restaurant that serves non-fancy local food. It’s still good, it’s just different to a restaurant. And it’s worth knowing so you know which to choose when dining out.
13 Every shape of pasta has a special recipe to go with it
People in Italy are pretty strict when it comes to their pasta and they’re very particular about which sauce goes with which type of pasta.
Pouring carbonara sauce over penne pasta would be the ultimate sin. Carbonara is for spaghetti, as is Bolognese. Fusilli will only work with a tomato-based sauce. Linguine is made for a white wine sauce and shrimps. Penne fits with either pesto or tomato sauces. Ravioli doesn’t require anything more than a brown butter and sage sauce seeing as it already contains a filling. Ziti is the best choice for mac and cheese. Locals usually combine it with a creamy, cheesy sauce.
12 Pasta is always al dente – your pasta box was wrong
Do you tend to cook your pasta until it’s really soft? According to the people of Italy, you’re doing it the wrong way. They like to cook their pasta al dente, which means slightly undone.
Because pasta is usually tossed with various sauces, the locals believe the pasta continues to cook.
That is why they like to drain their pasta a few minutes before the pasta becomes al dente. This is the way the people of Italy have been doing it centuries and, if you’ve ever tasted an authentic plate of pasta (from Italy), you’ll see that they’re clearly on the right track.
So stop following the instructions on your pasta box and fish out a noodle to see if it’s al dente.
11 People really do eat pasta every day
You may think it’s a myth that locals eat pasta every day but it’s actually not. They really do eat pasta every day.
It’s a part of their food culture. So how do they stay slim? It’s all down to portion control. Most eat small portions, so a small plate of pasta really isn’t going to do any harm. Unlike in the U.S. where we’re prone to piling food onto our plates, Italy knows its limits.
They prefer eating a dinner of several courses with small portions rather than eating one huge plate of food. Ah...so that’s their secret!
10 Cappuccino is never acceptable after 11am
Cafe latte or cappuccino – basically any coffee with milk – is only drunk until 11am. Drink it any later than that and you’ll get some strange looks. We don’t know why the locals don’t like the idea of drinking milky coffee after 11am, but we have a feeling there’s a good reason behind it. Maybe it’s better for the digestion or something.
Still, they don’t skip on the espresso for the rest of the day. The people of Italy practically live on espressos. They believe it is good to drink espresso after a big meal because it aids digestion. Let us all listen to the food-wise.
9 Tomatoes were used in Italy only for decoration
Tomatoes didn’t come to Europe until around 1500. Still, it took decades before Italy would begin eating the tomatoes, which were totally foreign to the nation back then.
The bitter varieties didn’t help – it just made them think tomatoes were poisonous. For that reason, they used tomatoes as table decorations or sometimes in ornamental flower beds. It’s a good job someone finally decided that tomatoes should be used for more than just decorations otherwise we never would have discovered the Margherita pizza. We don’t think anyone would even consider using tomatoes for decoration these days. Tomatoes are for cooking is the present belief.
8 Every dish is served on a different plate
Every entree of a meal in Italy is served on a different plate. You won’t get your salad, pasta and meat stacked all together on one single plate. Locals like to taste the different dishes. Salad is on a different plate. Meat is on a different plate. And of course the pasta is also on a separate plate.
We guess they put a lot of effort into each dish to ensure the taste is just right. It would indeed be a shame if it was all mixed together. Personally, we just feel bad for the person who has to do the dishes.
7 Salad is a side dish, not a starter
In Italy, salad is always considered a side dish and never a starter. That might be hard to digest for those coming from the States because we always have salad for a starter. We consider it a starter. In Italy, on the contrary, they consider it as a dish you put with meals.
If you ask for a salad starter at an authentic restaurant (one in Italy of course), don’t be annoyed if the waiter ignores your request. Having salad as a start is generally not done in Italy so the waiters probably don’t understand what you want or why you want it.
6 There are over 600 varieties of pasta
If you were asked to name different varieties of pasta, you’d probably come up with at least several.
There’s penne, ravioli, fusilli, shells, macaroni and of course spaghetti. How many of you can name the other 594 others?
Because that’s how many varieties of pasta there are: 600 in total. To improve your pasta knowledge, let’s explore a few other types of pasta. There’s also angel hair, farfalle and some you’ve definitely never heard of before: pizzoccheri, cencioni, garganelli, pici and bucatini to name a few.
The list goes on, but we’d be here all day if we listed them all.
5 Tagliatelle pasta was inspired by a bride’s long blonde hair
According to legend, tagliatelle shape pasta was invented by Maestro Zafirano, a village cook, in 1487. At the time, Lucrezia Borgia was getting married to the Duke of Ferrara and the cook was inspired by the bride’s blond hair. Thus was born the tagliattele strips of pasta.
It’s hard to see or eat tagliattele pasta without vizualizing long blond hair now, isn’t it?
Some people believe the creation was invented much earlier. Still, we like this notion a lot and are more than happy at the story of a bride’s hair inspiring the tagliatelle pasta shape invention. It just sounds...more romantic.
4 Breakfast is always light
A breakfast in Italy is a lot different to one in America. For one thing, it’s much lighter. You won’t find bacon, eggs, waffles, or toast in Italy to start the morning. Sometimes they don’t even eat breakfast. They’ll replace it with a cappuccino. I
n the U.S., we are told that a good breakfast starts the day off, but in Italy that belief isn’t there. For breakfast, it’s always either an espresso or a cappuccino with a cookie, small cake, cornetti or pastry filled with marmalade or chocolate. That’s if the individual is feeling hungry. If not, they’ll get by on their coffee until lunch time comes around.
3 Meal times are rigid
While they might skip breakfast, other eating times aren’t so whimsical. Lunch time is something people in Italy are especially picky about. It starts at 12:30. Other cultures are more flexible with their eating times. They’ll basically eat whenever they get hungry which makes sense...well, not to the people of Italy. Then again, if they’ve only had an espresso for breakfast we can understand why they wouldn’t want to wait around till 16:30 to eat.
Dinner time starts at 20:00. There are no ‘’around’’ times. 12:30 is 12:30. So if you ever get an invitation for lunch, don’t be late. You don’t want to upset a hungry nonna.
2 Locals prefer the neighborhood markets to supermarkets
Obesity is rare in Italy. You won’t find so many overweight people in Itay. Although we can’t speak for all, the reason could be down to the Mediterranean diet, known to be the healthiest in the world. And when they cook, they always use fresh ingredients.
They prefer their local market to the big supermarkets. In fact, food in Italy is very seasonal, so everything is always fresh. When you think about it, this is the way it should be. Cook with what’s in season and that way, you know it’s as fresh and as healthy as possible. It’s also usually cheaper that way.
1 Gelato is healthier than ice-cream
Summer in Italy isn’t complete without a daily serving of gelato. But you don’t have worry too much about counting calories because gelato is supposed to be slightly healthier than normal ice-cream. For starters, it contains less fat.
Gelato may be the local name for ice-cream, but it is different to the stuff we know. It’s also denser than ice-cream – probably because it isn’t so fatty. You rely more on the main flavour of the gelato for its taste. With ordinary ice-cream, you taste all the milk, cream and eggs as well as the main flavour ingredient, but the main flavour doesn’t always shine through as strongly as it does with gelato.
References: lifeinitaly.com, thekichn.com, thisisinsider.com, justlanded.com, forbes.com, telegraph.co.uk,