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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Italy

Culinary Influences

Like all food, Italian cooking begins with what they have available in and near Italy. As a peninsula, this means seafood is abundant, and having good weather for growing crops, a number of fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables are also common.

The first outside influence on Italian cuisine came with the Greeks, who introduced what is similar to the Mediterranean diet we have today. Latter influences came with the advances of the Roman Empire's boundaries. The people to the east made roasted meats more popular, the northerners introduced many pastries, the Arabian seafarers brought various nuts, spices, and increased rice's popularity. Along with these introductions, numerous fruits, vegetables, and even animals were brought to Italy.

In more recent history, the French have influenced cooking styles in Italy and the Americas have introduced fruits and vegetables that have become a significant part of Italian cuisine, including red peppers, various onion species, and perhaps most significantly, the tomato.

Staple Foods

Pasta: Synonymous with Italy to most foreigners, pasta is more popular in some areas than it is in others, but a staple food none-the-less

Regional Variations & Specialties

Venice: known for their risotto, polenta, & tiramisu
Alps: Close to the Germanic world, German & Hungarian-inspired foods like schnitzel, goulash, and fondue are common
Piedmont: This French-influenced region has a twist to traditional Italian cooking and is home to the country's best chocolates
Emilia-Romagna: known for their stuffed pastas like tortellini & lasagna
South Italy: pasta, pizza, and seafood dominate the plates here

Dining Etiquette

Italian Food - Pasta
Pasta

Italian dining is similar to most of Europe, with the exception that you'll probably consume more wine with the Italians. Whether you are eating at a local restaurant or invited to an Italian's home, take your time, you aren't expected to arrive any earlier than 15-30 minutes late. Perhaps you can occupy that extra time by stopping somewhere to pick up a gift for your host; chocolate and wine are the ideal selections, but if you don't know your Italian wines, you may want to stick with the chocolates, Turin makes the best in Italy. Once you arrive and find a seat (your host may or may not direct you to a chair), wait until your host sits down before getting too comfortable and once seated, remember to keep your hands above the table at all times, but don't put your elbows on the table.

When the food is served, try taking a small portion, your host will most likely try to force feed you a second serving later and accepting their offer is quite polite so don't overeat right away, you have all night to do that. Your wine glass will also probably be topped off before dinner, but don't start eating or drinking until your host begins.

Most locals keep their knives in their right hands and forks in their left, while bread tends to sit on the table itself considering bread plates are rare. Bread is also the only food, with which it is acceptable to eat with your hands; even fruits and cheeses are eaten with a fork and knife in Italy. If you're served pasta like spaghetti, roll the pasta on your plate, not on a spoon.

Italian Food - Tiramisu
Tiramisu

As you eat, feel free to drink your wine, but beware that once your glass reaches the halfway point, someone is sure to top it off. If you don't want any more wine, leave your glass relatively full. However, not touching your wine at all is very rude, so drink enough that your glass it topped off at least once. Ironically, although not drinking is rude, over-drinking is also so make sure you know when to stop.

As you finish your first plate, don't take more food, rather compliment the host, who is surely eager to offer you more. After you finish your second, third, or even fourth helping, the meal should finally come to a close. Your host will again be sure to offer you more food and it will take some persistence before he or she finally leaves you alone and accepts the fact that you are finished eating.

If you're at a restaurant, or even in an Italian's home, place your fork and knife together at the angle of 5:00 on a clock. This will let the server know that you are finished eating. Even if you're finished though, wait until everyone is done before getting up; dining in Italy is a social event and it is expected that you leave with those you came with and they are probably in no hurry to leave. This relaxed attitude makes getting the bill at the end of the meal a challenge; it will not be given to you until you ask for it, no matter how long you remain seated. If you invited your guests, be prepared to pay for everyone's meals, whereas if you are the invited guest, offer to pay, but expect to be turned down. Accept their gift and thank them for the meal.

Typically when you eat at a sit down restaurant with a waiter or waitress, a service charge is included, but if not, you should tip about 10% of the bill. Sometimes, a fee for dining at a table will also be added to your bill; this is often charged for every person at the table; to avoid this charge eat or drink at the counter as the locals do. In bars a tip of whatever loose change you have is appropriate.

Drinks

Every popular international beverage is available in Italy, including tea, juices, soft drinks, and milk. However, coffee and variations of coffee, such as latte, cappuccino, and espresso are among the people's favorites.

For alcoholic drinks, wine rules in Italy, and with their quality control measures in place, it's tough to find a poorly made wine. Plus with enough variety, a bit of searching will guarantee you find one that suits your tastes; among the most common varietals grown and produced include sangiovese, nebbiolo, and barbera for reds and pinot grigio is among the most popular white wines. Beer and liquors are also consumed, but aren't nearly as popular as wine, although all popular international brands are widely available.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Italy, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013