filed under Italian Food

Italian Food Culture 101: A Primer

Photo by Marla Gulley Roncaglia

When you think about Italian food, the first foods that spring to mind might be pizza, pasta, Parmesan, or gelato, coffee, and maybe even bread and olive oil. You certainly wouldn’t be wrong. However, the long list of Italian food stretches far beyond these particular boundaries to include risotto, polenta, fish and meats, along with copious varieties of salami, cured meats and cheeses, with vegetables certainly not forgotten. When you step off the plane with phrase book clutched tightly in hand, Italian cuisine and culture may reveal a few startling surprises. What we Americans know and love in the US as classic Italian food is not necessarily what you find being served in Italy. I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as “wrong”; it’s just that these “classic” dishes have evolved and transformed themselves to local ingredients and tastes, some not even originating in Italy.

Take Caesar salad. This dish’s origins are in dispute, although it seems to have been created by an immigrant Italian restaurateur with restaurants in Mexico and the US. Although Caesar salad uses classic Italian ingredients, you won’t be finding it on any menu in Italy.

Keep in mind that Italy has, just this past year, celebrated 150 years of united togetherness. Italians tend to identify themselves first from their region before identifying themselves as Italians. Americans, used to eating the wide range of Italy’s national cuisine, will be surprised at how very regional Italian cuisine can be. Finding particular dishes and ingredients that one thinks of as being quintessentially Italian, may be extremely challenging because they may actually be quintessentially Sicilian, Roman, Tuscan, Sardinian, Piemontese and so on, and thus not offered where you happen to be dining.

What unites Italians, north and south, is a passion for genuine food, simply prepared, allowing the natural flavor to shine through. Emphasis is on quality, not quantity, with the focus on balancing flavors to harmonize or contrast as desired.

Here are some differences that might surprise you:

1. Food and drinks are normally served close to ambient temperatures. It is a common Italian belief that consuming extremely hot or cold food does not aid digestion, and Italians are all about digestion. Ice is not common, and water is seldom served from the tap, even though 95% of Italy’s tap water is quite safe to drink. Italians like their bottled water with and without gas.

2. You won’t be served warm soft bread with olive oil for dunking or butter for slathering. It just doesn’t happen anywhere in Italy that I am aware of, with the exception of olive oil tasting. Buttery garlic bread is not something I have ever seen in all my years of living in Italy. The closest I have come across garlic bread is in the Tuscan tradition of making bruschetta or crostoni, where the bread is toasted and rubbed with a raw clove of garlic and either topped with diced tomatoes and drizzled with oil, or placed at the bottom of a bowl of bean soup. To Italians, olive oil is a sacred liquid that makes food sing. Their love of crusty, hard bread is more for its use as a utensil, pushing food onto one’s fork and as la scarpetta, sopping up all those delectable juices left lingering on your plate.

3. When ordering pizza for the first time in Italy, you may be caught off-guard. Firstly, the best pizza comes from an establishment that cooks them in a wood-fired oven, not always found at lunchtime. Secondly, pizza comes in one size, usually around 10” and is considered a one-person serving. You can split it and even share it as an antipasto for a group, although it usually is so good, you’ll quickly adapt to having one all to yourself. Red sauce with mozzarella is not always the standard base from which you add the toppings. White pizza without tomato sauce comes in many varieties. Toppings are endless, although more sparsely added, and thin crust is the rule. Crusts will vary from chewy to as crispy as a cracker, depending on the chef’s specialty. Thicker crusts fall under the focaccia heading and are often sold by the rectangle, cut from large sheet pans and slightly warmed in the oven of a focacceria.

4. When ordering Americans’ number one favorite pizza topping, pepperoni, it will come as a huge shock when it arrives adorned with mild red and yellow peppers, even though that is exactly what you ordered. There won’t be any familiar spicy salami in sight. You needed to order the salsiccia piccante to get what we know as a pepperoni pizza. Peperoni is the Italian word for peppers of any type. Peperoncini are the spicy hot peppers that give the salami on American pepperoni pizza that fiery flavor we love and crave. Translation or miscommunication is probably the culprit for our pepperoni confusion.

5. Italians prefer their meals in a succession of dishes. They enjoy lingering and savoring each individual course, as well as chatting through them. Even if lunch is a more hurried affair, people sit down and eat a couple of courses with maybe a dessert and usually coffee to finish. Italians seldom eat just one course with a drink. Portions are not generally geared to that type of eating, and the food server might be more than perplexed if you order just a pasta dish and stop. Dishes will come out as they are cooked to perfection, which means that everything will not necessarily come out at the same time. If a group orders quite diverse dishes, there can be real gaps in serving times.

6. You will find far less garlic in most dishes than what most of us would have thought. Often, if you use onions in a dish, you don’t use garlic, and vice versa. While there are some very creamy, garlicky heavily-spiced dishes, they are more the exception than the rule.

7. Overall, dishes tend to be less creamy or cheesy and far less adorned than what most Americans are accustomed to. Meats, thinly sliced, are the norm. Pasta and risotto will be decidedly al dente and lightly sauced or studded with ingredients, when cooked to perfection. Meatballs, or polpette as they are called, will be a separate meat dish served after the pasta. Uncomplicated fresh food calling forth the subtlety of clean, clear flavor is what most Italians adore.

8. Lastly, if you order a coffee, it will be what Americans call an espresso. This is coffee for Italians. The tiny cup will not be full, with only a sip or two. They will look at you with surprise if you don’t add sugar. If you want to order something resembling more of an American-sized cup of coffee you need to order a caffé Americano. You will receive a larger cup with a shot of espresso and a small pot of hot water on the side to add at will. Sometimes they will mix it for you. Half-and-half is never served, and they won’t know what you are talking about. Cappuccino is usually ordered before noon, but they will serve them in the afternoon, usually without sidelong glances. Coffee with lunch or dinner is always served after dessert as a separate course. It is considered the finish to your meal and an aid to digestion. There are no free refills in the Italian culture, zip, zero, nada, period.

On that note, I will leave you to digest my initial musings on Italian food culture and encourage you to join me again in the weeks to come, as we explore the richly varied mosaic that is the cuisine of Italy.

  • Elisa

    Love reading your blog! I also love Italian food and was pleasantly surprised to find out how pure their cooking is there in Italy vs. here in North America. They seem  to have savouring single ingredients down to an art!

    • Marla Gulley

      Thanks Elisa. I so agree about savouring simplicty as an art form!

  • Ralvarez

    Have been visiting relatives in Italy for 25 years. Have been teaching Italian for 12 years. Good and accurate advice…Brava!

    • Marla Gulley

      Grazie Ralvarez…bravo for teaching Italian, what a gift.

  • Justin C

    Great primer.  These were all the same observations we made on our trips over to Italy.  Drinking espressos in Italy definitely made me appreciate the flavor of coffee much more. 

    • Marla Gulley

      Thanks Justin. Yes a great espresso is a satisfying sip indeed.

  • Michael James Louise

    This article (sans the pizza part) walked hand in hand through my dinner this evening in Napoli’s Spanish district. Five local friends and I ate in a back alley trattoria that I refuse to share the name of at this time. It was that good, and true to your descriptions throughout. The simplicity and attention to quality ingredients were both obvious. Bread (nude), shared ‘house’ antipasti, a couple lovely pasta choices, some of very fresh seafood ‘second’ plates, and side for the table to share were just as you describe above. Keep it coming , Marla. Thank you so much for sharing the good news!!   ….and P.S.  I will take you there if you come to visit.

    • Marla Gulley

      That’s a date! Thanks Michael, I’m imagining this trattoria now…mmmmm!

  • Evk0109

    I think your article should be part of our orientation week when we transferred to Italy.  When I think of the many Americans who disparage the Italian food we eat in Italy vs. what they are used to in the States, I cringe.  Reading your article gives me insight into why Italians serve and eat the way they do. After 14 months of living near Naples, I’m forever spoiled.  Thank you for sharing your recipes on your website, as well as your experience in this article. 

    • Marla Gulley

      Thanks, I was trying to get across the why a bit as it always just seems so strange for new visitors to Italy, so perhaps it will make it easier to go with the local customs .

  • Elizabeth

    Nicely written Maria. I find that many people visiting Italy for the first time are quite confused about the various courses, ie: things being served in succession. There is something so wonderful about spending several hours to consume a meal…

    • Marla Gulley

      Yes, Elizabeth, we spend so much time rushing around, it is quite refreshing to savour and chat over a leisurely meal. Nice change of mentality I think. 

  • Sarah Topps

    Excellent advice Marla and this would be perfect for our guests, especially ones visiting Italy for the first time. We have been here 5 years now and some things still astound us. Thank you for putting us straight!

    • Marla Gulley

      Thanks Sarah. We just had guests that literally spoke the experiences as I was writing them…it was pretty funny…”How come when we ordered pepperoni pizza they gave us peppers?!”

  • Jennifer Avventura

    Great article that offers fantastic advice on Italian eating. Well done.

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Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita ("beautiful mountain house"), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.