Italian food inside of Italy is different than Italian in America or western Europe. Italian food is based upon a few simple ingredients and Italians often have very discriminating tastes that may seem strange to Americans and other visitors. For instance, a sandwich stand might sell 4 different types of ham sandwiches that in each case contain ham, mayonnaise, and cheese. The only thing that may differ between the sandwiches is the type of ham or cheese used in them. Rustichella and panzerotti are two examples of sandwiches well-liked by Italians and tourists alike. Also, Italian sandwiches are quite different from the traditional Italian-American “hero,” “submarine,” or “hoagie” sandwich. Rather than large sandwiches with a piling of meat, vegetables, and cheese, sandwiches in Italy are often quite small, very flat (made even more so when they are quickly heated and pressed on a panini grill), and contain a few simple ingredients, rarely, if ever lettuce. Also, a traditional Italian meal is separated into several sections: antipasto (marinated vegetables, etc), primo (pasta or rice dish), secondo (meat course), dolce (dessert). Salads often come with the secondo. Americans will notice that Italian pasta often has a myriad of sauces rather than simply tomato and alfredo. Also, Italian pasta is often served with much less sauce than in America.
Like the language and culture, food in Italy is also very different region by region. Pasta and olive oil are considered the characteristics of southern Italian food, while northern food focuses on rice and butter (although today there are many many exceptions). Local ingredients are also very important. In warm Naples, citrus and other fresh fruit play a prominent role in both food and liquor, while in Venice fish is obviously an important traditional ingredient. As guideline, in the south cuisine is focused on pasta and dessert, while at north meat is king, but this rule can be very different depending where you are.
Pizza is also very different than what Americans are used to…thick, greasy, and unhealthy. In Italy, pizza is very thin, flexible, and very good for you. It’s made with fresh natural non-preservative ingredients. After Italian pizza, the American kind will never be as good again.
A note about breakfast in Italy: breakfast in America is often seen as a large meal (eggs, bacon, juice, toast, coffee, fruit, etc). In Italy, this is not the case. Breakfast for Italians might be coffee with a pastry (cappuccino e brioche) or a piece of bread and cold cuts or cheese. The cappuccino is one shot of espresso, one part steamed milk, one part foamed milk with an optional dusting of chocolate. Unless you know for certain otherwise, you should not expect a large breakfast in Italy. Another enjoyable Italian breakfast item is cornetto (pl. cornetti): a light pastry often filled with cream or nutella.
Usually Italian meals are: small breakfast, one-dish lunch, one-dish dinner. Coffee is welcomed at nearly every hour, especially around 10AM and at the end of a meal.
Breakfast is small in Italy, but boy do they make up for the lost time at lunch and dinner. Dinner, and especially lunch, are seen as huge social time.
Lunch is seen as the most important part of the day, so much that they have one hour reserved for eating and another for napping. Usually referred to as a sesta in Italian, it’s a time when all shops close down and resume after the two hour break period. To get around this businesses stay open later. And, good luck trying to find a place open during sesta time.
Please remember that in Italy cuisine is a kind of art (great chefs as Gualtiero Marchesi or Gianfranco Vissani are considered half way between tv stars and magician) and Italians generally don’t like any foreigner who asks always for spaghetti or pizza, so please, read the menu and remember that almost every restaurant has a typical dish and some towns have centuries-old traditions that you are invited to learn.
- Risotto – Rice that has been sautéed and cooked in a shallow pan with stock. The result is a very creamy, and hearty dish. Meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and cheeses are almost always added depending on the recipe and the locale. Many restaurants, families, towns, and regions will have a signature risotto or at least style of ristotto, in addition or in place of a signature pasta dish (risotto alla Milanese is famous Italian classic).
- Arancini – Balls of rice with tomato sauce, eggs, and cheese that are deep fried. They are a southern Italian specialty, though are now quite common all over.
- Polenta – Yellow corn meal (yellow grits) that has been cooked with stock. It is normally served either creamy, or allowed to set up and then cut into shapes and fried or roasted.
- Gelato This is the italian version for ice cream, The non-fruit flavors are usually made only with milk. The fruit flavors are non-dairy. It’s fresh as a sorbet, but tastier. There are many flavours: coffee, chocolate, fruit, tiramisù… To try absolutely.
- Tiramisù Italian cake made with coffee, mascarpone, cookies and cocoa powder on the top. The name means “pick-me-up.”
Cheese and sausages
In Italy you can find nearly 400 kinds of cheese, including the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, and 300 types of sausages.
If you want a real kick, then try to find one of the huge open markets, usually on Saturdays, to see all the types of cheeses and meats in action.
Italian restaurants and bars charge more (typically double) if you eat seated at a table rather than standing at the bar or taking your order to go. There is usually small, very small print on the menus to tell you this. Some menus may also indicate a coperto (cover charge) or servizio (service charge).
Traditional meal includes (in order) antipasto (starter), primo (first dish – pasta or rice dishes), secondo (second dish – meat or fish dishes), served together with contorno (mostly vegetables), cheeses/fruit, dessert, coffee, spirits. Italians usually have all of them served and restaurants expect customers to follow this scheme; elegant or ancient restaurants usually refuse to make changes to proposed dishes (exceptions warmly granted for babies or unhealthy people) or to serve them in a different order, and they absolutely don’t serve cappuccino between primo and secondo.
Agree whether you want primo (pasta or rice dishes) or secondo (meat dishes – if you want vegetables too look under contorni and order them as sides). When pizza is ordered, it is served as a primo (even if formally it is not considered as such), together with other primi. If you order a pasta/pizza and your friend has a steak you will get your pasta dish, and probably when you’ve finished eating the steak will arrive. It’s slightly frowned upon to ask them to bring primo and secondo dishes at the same time (or “funny” changes like having a secondo before a primo). They may well say yes…and then not do it. Bad luck if you’re doing the Atkins diet…
Restaurants which propose diet food, very few, usually write it clearly in menus and even outside; others usually don’t have any dietetic resources, as Italians on a diet don’t go to the restaurant.
Italian restaurants are completely non-smoking or have a non-smoking area which is well separated from the smoking area; so says a law, but you will discover that Italians have a friendly approach to laws and rules… This particular law is respected almost everywhere, though. Better anyway to precisely ask for an effective smoking or non-smoking area.
When pets are allowed (not a frequent case), never order ordinary dishes for them; in particular, never ever order meat for your pet, this would seriously upset waiters and other customers. In case of need, you might ask if the chef can kindly propose something (he usually can).
Better to leave tips in cash (not on your credit card).
Out of the restaurant, you might eventually be asked to show your bill and your documents by Guardia di Finanza agents (a police specialised in tax subjects – never in uniform); whatever they show you, immediately try to call #113 (similar to America’s 911 – english spoken) and ask for policemen in uniform to help you, it could be a trick to pickpocket you. This kind of controls is effectively frequent (they want to know if the owner regularly recorded your money) and completely legitimate, but pickpocketers find it a good excuse to approach their victims. Call 113 or enter the first shop.
Pizza is a quick and convenient meal. In many large cities there are pizza shops that sell by the gram. When ordering, simply tell the attendant the type of pizza you would like (e.g. pizza margherita, pizza con patata, etc.) and how much (“Vorrei duecento grammi, per favore”). They will slice it, warm it in the oven, fold it in half, and wrap it in paper. Other shops also sell by the slice, similar to American pizza shops. Getting your meal on the run can save money–many sandwich shops charge an additional fee if you want to sit to eat your meal.
Bars are, like restaurants, non-smoking.
Italians enjoy going out during the evenings, so it’s normal to have a soft drink in a bar as pre-dinner. It is called Aperitivo. Within the last couple years, started by Milan, a lot of bars have started offering fixed-price cocktails at aperitivo hours (18 – 21) with free, and often a very good buffet meal. It’s now widely considered stylish to have this kind of aperitivo (called Happy Hour) instead of a structured meal before going out to dance or whatever.
While safe to drink, the tap water in many parts of Italy can be cloudy with a slight off taste. Most Italians prefer bottled water, which is served almost exclusively in restaurants. Make sure you let the waiter/waitress know you want regular water or else you could get frizzante (or fizzy club soda water) water.
The Italian Wine is the most exported all over the World. In Italy the wine is a substantial topic, a sort of test which can ensure you respect or lack of attention from an entire restaurant staff (this is why the first question is what you are going to drink). If you are a true connoisseur, don’t allow your waiter to discover it; if you don’t know how to distinguish wines other than by their color, don’t allow your waiter to figure it out either.
Before reaching Italy, have a quick overview on most important regional types (of the region you are planning to go to) and when on site ask the waiter for one of them (not too young, not too old), he/she will suggest you 4/5 wines (always choose the second or the third one). Pay attention to the fact that as Italian Cuisine can be very different region by region (sometimes also town by town), so it can be with wine. So, for example, avoid asking for a bottle of Chianti if you’re not in central Tuscany, Italians are masters to match the exact wine with a dish and often every dish has an appropriate wine. The popular “color rule” (red wines with meat dishes, white wines with fish) can be happily broken when proposed by a sommelier or when you really know what you are doing: Italy has many very strong white wines to serve with meat, as well as very delicate red wines for fish.
The “vino della casa” (home-made wine) can be a good drinking opportunity in small villages far from towns (especially in Tuscany), where it likely could be what the patron would really personally drink and/or produce. Otherwise, it usually is a mixture of low-quality poor wines: low price, low flavour, possible day-after-headaches. Good wine can be very costly, but bad wine is still expensive.
Near the town of Alba (Cuneo Province), in the Piedmont grows the Nebbiolo grape, a noble grape. From this grape is produced the prestigious Barolo wines. It has been called the “king of wine” and the “wine of kings.” It is considered one of the world´s best red wines. It is a DOCG wine, made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape. Once you have experienced good examples of this wine, you will begin to understand its nobility.
Foreign wines are rarely served (just check the house wine list), but many grapes have French names (like Cabernet-Sauvignon).
Beer belongs to the Italian tradition as wine does, therefore pubs serving beer are very common. If you are looking for good beers you won’t find any problem, you just have to look around a little bit more. First of all, it is very common to import beers from Germany and Belgium. Irish pubs are very common, too. Besides that, Italy prodouces ca. 10 type of Beers. The most known are: Peroni Gran Riserva (completely different from the standard Peroni, that is just a plain lager), a double malt strong Lager, and Moretti la Rossa (again, completely different from the standard Moretti lager), a dark Vienna lager. There is also a series of beers called Amarcord made with traditional techniques (they have a website in both Italian and English [www.amarcord.it]). Anyway, if you go to a pub with a big selection of beers, just ask the people working there for a suggestion.
Limoncello. A licquor made of alcohol, lemon peels, and sugar. Limoncello can be considered a “moon shine” type of product as every Italian family, especially in the middle (near Napoli) and southern part of the country, has their own recipe for limoncello. Because lemon trees adapt so well to the Mediterreanean climate, and they produce a large amount of fruit continually throughout their long fruit-bearing season, it is not unusual to find many villa’s yards filled with lemon trees bending under the weight of their crop. You can make a lot of lemonade, or better yet, brew your own limoncello. It is mainly considered a dessert liquor, served after a heavy meal (similar to amaretto), and used for different celebrations. The taste can be compared to a very strong and slightly thick lemonade flavor with an alcohol tinge to it. Best served room temperature or chilled in the freezer. It is better sipped than treated as a shooter.
Don’t forget Grappa. You’ll either like it or you won’t. It’s made by fermenting grape stems, so you could imagine how it might taste. If you’re going to drink it, then make sure you get a bottle having been distilled multiple times.