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10 Essential Food Rules for Americans in Italy

10/14/2013 01:29 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

Italian food culture is probably very different from what you're used to at home. And, since Italians have been perfecting it for over 1,000 years, try going with the wine and olive oil flow instead of fighting against the current when you're in Italy.

1. Don't ask for "fettuccine alfredo" or "spaghetti with meatballs"

They don't exist here. Alfredo is an Italian name, and when I asked my Florentine friends if they really had never heard of "fettuccine alfredo," they responded: "Chi?" (Who?) To get pasta with cream sauce, try any one with panna (cream) listed in the ingredients - just know that you'll never find pollo (chicken), on that same list. Explaining the idea of putting chicken in pasta provokes confused looks and expressions like, "Che schifo!" (How disgusting!) Likewise, spaghetti is not served with meatballs. In Naples, you'll find miniature ones on other types of pasta. Everywhere else, pasta al ragù (with meat sauce) is a common first course, and "polpette" (meatballs), are a typical -- separate -- second course. If you're way ahead of me and already thinking, "I'll just ask for both those things and mix them together," you can certainly do that. But... the original title of this article was "How To Eat In Italy Without Scaring The Italians."

2. Only drink wine or water with a meal

In America, my mom used to open up the fridge come dinnertime and list every drinkable thing inside: "OK, we've got ginger ale, milk, coke, lemonade, bacardi breezers...what do you want?" This would never happen in Italy. The table is usually set with a bottle of sparkling or still water, and a bottle of wine. Cocktails and liquors are reserved for: aperitivi (before-dinner drinks) and digestivi (after dinner drinks). Italians take enjoying the flavor of food very seriously; and you have to admit, drinking peach ice tea with rosemary lamb chops has to mess with your taste buds. One exception is pizza, to which Coke and beer are acceptable compliments -- but a single glass; no refills.

3. Don't eat eggs in the morning

The quintessential Italian breakfast is a strong espresso and a sweet pastry. Mix up some scrambled eggs to start your day, and your Italian roommates will watch as if you're building a spaceship on their stovetop. In Italy, eggs are usually eaten hard-boiled on a lunchtime salad or sandwich, or as a frittata (open-faced omelet) for dinner. If you're dying for a salty breakfast, try a ham and cheese toast (you guessed it, a toasted sandwich) at a local bar (in Italy, a café is called a "caffè" or "bar"), or escape to American paradise, The Diner, where you can find sausages, omelets and bacon on the menu.

4. Do drink cappuccino in the morning

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The giant cappuccino at Moyo Bar in Florence, Italy

...with your (non-egg) breakfast, and not as an accompaniment or finish to other meals. A sure-fire way to be immediately labeled "foreign" is ordering up a pizza and a cappuccino. If you want to fit in, wean yourself off frothy milk and get used to black espresso, which Italians drink after eating, all day long. Or, feed your cappuccino habit with one of the giant, almost bowl-sized ones at Moyo Bar in the morning, and ride the high for the rest of the day.


5. Know what a "peperoni pizza" is

Duh! Little red meat circles on a pizza! ...Right? In some countries, yes. But in Italy, "peperoni" (one "p") is Italian for the plural of bell pepper. So if it's "pepperoni" (double "p") you want and not strips of red or yellow vegetables, check the menu for "pizza al salamino," "pizza diavola," or "pizza calabrese" - just be prepared for some spiciness.

6. Peel your fruits and vegetables

Italians peel fruits and vegetables normally enjoyed with the skin on in other countries: apples, pears, sometimes peaches, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes; and even they don't know exactly why. I've heard, "It's healthier," "The pesticides will make you sick if you don't," and "It tastes better," but I think it's mostly tradition. And why peelers are sold in Italy, Italians prefer good old-fashioned knives. If you eat unpeeled produce in front of them, they might just take it out of your hand, remove the skin in one perfect spiral, and slice it into uniform wedges with the speed and dexterity of a sushi chef. In fact, one of my most embarrassing moments (and I have a lot to choose from) was trying to peel a pear at the dinner table while my Italian friend's parents watched.

7. Don't ask for salad dressing

...reach for the olive oil and vinegar. If you want to be pointed in the direction of the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store, you'll get blank looks (because there isn't one). Some tourist restaurants have "ranch" and "french dressing," which taste like anything but ranch and french dressing. It's best to begin an amateur mixologist career, finding the perfect balance of oil and vinegar for your palette. Sound a little boring? You probably haven't tasted authentic Italian olio e aceto (oil and vinegar); the varieties are endless and the flavors intense. Opt for a cloudy, green oil and pay a little extra for an aged, balsamic vinegar, and you might just write off other (less healthy) dressings for life.

8. Use condiments sparingly

Olive oil is the only real Italian condiment. All the rest came from some other place and show up at grocery stores on the same shelf as exotic food. But "exotic" will not be the word Italians use to describe you putting ranch dressing on your pizza, ketchup on your potatoes, and mayonnaise on your sandwich, to their friends. People in Italy like to enjoy the exceptional flavor of what they're eating (which is usually handmade, or picked that day), and not mask it with other toppings. If they're eating chicken, they want to taste chicken, not barbecue sauce. A condiment (read: olive oil) should enhance flavors, never cover them up.

9. Take time to enjoy your food

Eating is not a race, and a bowl of cereal in front of late-night TV is not a dinner. It's not uncommon for Italians to spend an hour preparing a meal and even more time savoring every bite. And when eating out: service is slow, courses are many, and it's highly unlikely that a waiter will ever tell you they "need your table." Block off large chunks of time in your agenda for eating. Italian food is unbelievably good and so worthy of "wasting" a few hours; sitting at a table is so much nicer that running around town with a sandwich in your hand. Relax! You're in Italy! You can mail that letter and drop off your laundry...tomorrow.

10. Wait to eat plain bread with your meal

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"Fa la scarpetta!" (Do the little shoe!) Italian for: using bread to mop up food

Can't wait to show Italy how Italian you are by sitting down at your first ristorante, pouring some olive oil and vinegar on your plate, sprinkling it with Parmesan cheese and dipping your bread inside? Save it for the Olive Garden, because, like that restaurant, it's actually not Italian at all. Visitors to Florence often complain about the flavor of plain Tuscan bread, as it's made without salt. But that's just because they don't know that in Italy, table bread is more of a utensil than an eat-alone food. It's often used as the main tool to fare la scarpetta (do the little shoe): the action of mopping up any delicious-ness left on your plate after a meal, or whatever your fork can't pick up during one.

*Interesting fact: Fare la scarpetta (do the little shoe)'s origin came from one of three things: 1) An old word similar to "scarpetta" that was used to describe someone who didn't have enough food 2) That bread picking up food off a plate is similar to they way the sole of a shoe picks up things off the ground 3) That using bread to scrape up food off a plate smashes it into a shape that somewhat resembles a shoe. (I choose to believe #3 because of this video). Also, our Italian readers (Ciao, belli!) want me to warn you that while the scarpetta is 100 percent welcome at home, it's arguably not the most polite demonstration at nice restaurants or in front of people you care about impressing.

Whitney Richelle is an American journalist who has been living in Florence, Italy since 2009. She is a video host, blogger, and editor for blog.studentsville.it, where this post first appeared.

Help us all be more Italian! What strange or fascinating food rules have you encountered in Italy? Share them in the comments below.

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