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Dining In Italy: How To Avoid Making An Ass Out Of Yourself At The Dinner Table

written by M.E. Evans July 12, 2014

I was checking my stats this week and there were an unusual number of people searching for “how to dine in Italy,” along with the usual searches like, “Italian hot mom sex,” and “Unicorn penis,” and, “How to pee in public,” WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE!? Freaks, that’s who! And that’s why I like you guys so much, you pervy weirdos. Anyhow, I realized that I’ve never really written anything about etiquette in Italy. Despite peeing in public, I’m surprisingly anal retentive when it comes to table manners. I’ve broken up with people for chewing with their mouths open. Rude dining or gross dining is on my list of reasons to kill or at least maim a person. I know, it’s ridiculous, but it’s not my fault. My parents are crazy people. When I was a kid if I reached “outside of my space” my mom would stab my hand with a fork (not like hard enough for me to bleed to death or cause infection, but hard enough that I regretted it). And guys, I went to finishing school. I’m pretty sure that you can’t tell (nobody can tell, trust me), but I did so I know which fork is which and I can totally drink out of the appropriate glass at the millions of formal dinner parties that I NEVER ATTEND AND NEVER HAVE BECAUSE IT’S BORING. Basically, it’s a bit waste of time and money, unless you’re planning on moving to Europe. Then that useless shit becomes kind of useful. Sort of.

MANY FOODS THAT YOU THINK EXIST IN ITALY REALLY DON’T, SO DON’T BE A PAIN IN THE ASS.

I’ve witnessed so many embarrassing situations in Italy that really explain why Europeans view Americans as pompous, entitled, lunatics. You’d be shocked by the behavior of a lot of tourists. Please, people, don’t come to Italy and scream at waiters because you had your heart set on eating a made-up dish. The food that a lot of people consider to be “Italian” in the United States is not Italian food from Italy. It’s immigrant creations by  impoverished Italian immigrants, generations ago. I’ve witness full-on screaming fights between Italian-Americans and ACTUAL ITALIANS where the Americans were lecturing the Italians on how to cook Italian food. One of my friends/ readers wrote a comment a while back (that’s you, Sid) about a heated exchange she’d witnessed whilst in Italy between an Italo-American family and an actual Italian waitress where they claimed to know more about Italian food than her and there was screaming and name-calling involved. I have tried to put myself in that situation to understand what could possibly motivate people to actually do or say such insane things but alas the only thing that I can come up with is that they are assholes. That’s it.

1. There is no such thing as spaghetti with meatballs. I know, I was sad, too. It does not exist in Italy and if you ask for it you’ll horrify your waitress and look like a jackass. If you order spaghetti it will most often come with a simple tomato sauce. Pasta and starches are a first course food, while meatballs (balled meat simmered in a tomato sauce) are a second course food. You can order them separately as a first course and second course. I know it’s disappointing, but instead of eating American food, why not just order something off of the menu and enjoy real Italian cuisine instead of throwing a tantrum and demanding that the restaurant make you American food? You can get back to your Kraft Mac And Cheese the moment you get home. Watch this movie clip, it’s hilarious: BIG NIGHT

Spaghetti all' arrabbiata

Spaghetti all’ arrabbiata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. I learned shortly after arriving that Alfredo is the name of an Italian human who moved to the United States and invented a creamy pasta dish. Chicken Alfredo was his creation, it’s not an Italian food. It doesn’t exist in Italy and if you ask someone to put chicken in your pasta they’re going to slap you and decide that you’re not to be trusted. I get it, it’s is delicious, but wait until you return to ‘Merca for it.

3. Dining rules are more formal in Italy even at a casual restaurant which can be annoying when you’re drunk or exhausted. Don’t reach across the table (my mom might pop out of the woodwork and stab you), ask someone to pass you something out of your reach. Keep your hands visible by resting your forearms on the table. Do not put your elbows on the table and try to avoid putting your hands in your lap. If you refill your wine or water, make sure that you do so for the rest of the table as well. Don’t just fill up your own glass. Order what everyone else orders. If everyone else is ordering a first course, a second course, and dessert, if you’re financially-able, you should do the same.*

4. Bread is usually eaten with your meal and is not used in public to sop up sauce with your fingers. Yes, the sauce is delicious, but it’s considered a little on the trashy side to scrub your plate clean with bread. If you really want that last bit of sauce, I’d recommend smuggling the plate into your purse, or inside of your pants so you can really savor it at home, in bed, while watching I Love Lucy or Under The Tuscan Sun, which I have recently decided is a really depressing fucking movie.*

5. A very basic wine guide: Drink as much of it as possible, preferably by the bottle. White wine goes with fish, cheese, and white meat. Red wine can go with pork, red meat, and some vegetable dishes. Decide what you’re eating before you choose the wine.

6. Hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand. Cut one piece of food, then bring it to your mouth with the left hand. The style we use in the US, the “cut and switch,” is considered strange in Europe and most will think you have bad manners and they’ll wonder why you’re working so hard to eat. Don’t change your cutlery between your hands back and fourth. Yes, it’s perfectly polite in the US but it’s not polite in Europe. Plus, holding it the European way ensures that you are always armed. If you’re attacked for some reason you’ll have both a knife AND a fork to fend off the psycho.

Should we retire the “cut and switch?” www.thekitchn.com

7. There is more to Italian cuisine than pasta. Pasta is a first course food and it’s cheap to make which is why it’s really the main dish that made it’s way to the US with poor immigrants. However, Italian second-course meals are amazing (and I prefer them because I’m not a pasta person despite what my saddle-bags might indicate). The fish, for example, is amazing. Prepare for the meat to be served differently than what you’re used to, though. Fish will often be served whole with the head still intact, and the eyes are always somehow trained on you accusingly (though the skilled waiters will usually take the bones out for you table-side). Poultry will be well-done, but you won’t even be able to get a chef to do a well-done steak (this includes a pork steak which is weird and probably bad for you). It’s not possible. They’ll refuse. For all of you vegans out there, you’ll be surprised that vegetable dishes are all delicious given Italy’s fresh produce.

Grilled tuna, panzanella and cannellini beans

Grilled tuna, panzanella and cannellini beans (Photo credit: stijn)

When you come to Italy, it’s best to observe what the locals do (at the table at least). I wouldn’t recommend screaming, “I’m a quarter eye-talian (it’s Italian, guys, like the “i” in “igloo, not Eye-talian), so I know what I’m talkin’ about!” Telling everyone “my grandmother was Italian,” means absolutely nothing to Italy-Italians (nationality matters to them, not bloodline, trust me, I’ve tried to be “Persian” instead of “American” a few times and it didn’t work), you’ll just confuse everyone. Sure, they love hearing stories about your immigrant family members, but it won’t work as a segue into teaching them how to cook, eat, or dine.

*This varies by region and depending on your company. If you’re 21 years old and with other 21 year olds they won’t care. If you’re with close friends they probably won’t care. However, certain people do care and will get judgy (business meetings, formal dinners, or meals with people on the high end of the socio-economic scale). When in doubt just go the classy route. Then, after dinner you can sneak off and pee in an alley with your bottle of Chianti, like me.

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