As everyone knows, one of the best things about Italy is its food. A huge part of Italian life takes place around the table, so it is important to know how to be a good dinner guest. There is an entire section dedicated to this in my book, but I have recently learned even more tips to add to the list!
Here are five quick tips on Italian table manners — with more to come in future posts.
1. Never Put Cheese in or on Seafood
Recently my sister-in-law (the one who lives in America) posted a photo on Facebook of a dish she ate at Olive Garden. It was a fried zitti pasta with cheese sauce and shrimp, and while I was intrigued by it for sure, I have been living full-time in Italy for almost a full year now, so my first and loudest thought was: "That's not Italian!"
Italians, as my husband has told me numerous times, never, ever put cheese on a dish that contains fish, shrimp, or seafood of any kind. Not even if it's pasta, which is typically served with grated Parmiggiano Reggiano on top. Olive Garden is supposed to be authentic Italian food... but they must not have gotten that memo!
2. Don't Share Pizza
You know how, back in the day, Pizza Hut used to have what they called "personal pan pizza?" Well, in Italy, pizza ordered from a pizzeria is always personal. As in, meant for just one person to eat. I will always remember the first time my husband and I went to a restaurant with his friends and ordered pizzas... I was expecting to get a slice or two, but was presented with what we in America would consider a large-sized pizza — and it was all for me. And it wasn't even sliced!!
I had no clue how to eat this... and in the end it was too big for my not-yet-extended stomach, so I couldn't finish it and my husband (who had already eaten his own entire pizza) had to help me out. Then his friends teased me and said that other Americans they knew couldn't finish their pizza either, so I guess it isn't just me.
So, whereas in America we are used to eating our pizza in slices and sharing a whole one with others, in Italy this is seen as just silly. Everyone gets their own pizza, which they have to cut with their own knife (and possibly fork).
3. Hold Your Fork in Your Left Hand
I thought that maybe this was something that was just odd to me because the things we ate at my own house didn't call for it, but I have now heard that it has thrown a lot of other American expats for a loop too. In Italy, you typically eat with your fork in your left hand instead of the right, because usually you are holding a knife in the right. You cut the food with the knife, then take the bite with the fork from your left hand, and you never switch!
At my house in America, we usually cut things that needed to be cut with the side of the fork, but in Italy this, if not exactly frowned upon, is seen as being kind of weird and unnecessary. So, practice becoming ambidextrous, because this can get tricky at times if you aren't used to it.
4. Dinnertime Is Later in Italy
In the United States, dinner can take place pretty much any time after 5:00p.m. without anyone thinking it's odd. In Italy, it is almost unheard of to start eating dinner before 8:00p.m. Most restaurants don't even open for the dinner rush until seven or later, and many home cooks don't put anything on the stove until well past 7:30. And there isn't usually a strict "dinner time" they adhere to, so dinner could start any time between eight and ten, and last anywhere from one hour to four!
This may be one of the hardest things I have had to adjust to since moving to Italy. In America, I ate dinner around five in the evening, but my husband (and his family and friends and everybody else we have met) prefers to not even really start cooking most nights until at least eight or nine. Luckily there are plenty of snacks around to hold me over in the meantime!
5. Dinner (or Lunch, or Breakfast...) Is Not to Be Rushed
It isn't an uncommon thing in America for families to have a nice, sit-down meal with each other every night. But Italians take this to another level. Whereas Americans basically eat, do a bit of chit-chat, and call it a night, a meal at an Italian house can easily last all day.
Aside from the fact that each meal has multiple courses, Italians also like to relax and linger over meals, especially when the rest of the family or some friends have come to visit. And then, when the meal is over, they linger even more! I have personally had guests come for lunch at 11:30 in the morning and stay until almost 8:00 in the evening. And my in-laws often have dinners that start at eight and last until far past midnight, even when my poor father-in-law is falling asleep at the table.
So, if you are ever invited to a meal at an Italian's home, cancel the rest of your plans. The food will be delicious and the company will be great, but you should know ahead of time not to bother rushing, because you're going to be there a while.
Thank you to Alexandria Brodesser, Lia Geloso, Elizabeth Shoudy, Mitey De Aguiar, and Steve Wong for contributing ideas for this post.
Do you have any tips for being a good dinner guest in Italy? If so, leave them in the comments section below and I will add them to Part 2 of this post series!