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

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.


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?” http://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.

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

  1. Thanks for all the pointers about eating in Italy. I’m sure it will save me some embarrassing moments one day. We had similar mothers; it was so important to them that we be perfect at the table. Yes, I think it’s time to retire the cut and switch.

  2. Wow this was so interesting and funny to read, Italians love their food and their dining table rules, what you wrote in this post is completely right and 100% correct!🙂

  3. This is *exactly* what freaks me the eff out about going there !!😦

    i have manners. Excellent ones, actually. Took a table etiquette course (had to due to a college activity I was involved in). I know the whole nine … “Solids to the left and liquids to the right” “don’t divorce the pepper and salt when passing” “napkin on your chair when you leave for the restroom” etc etc. BUT…

    My ppl came over on the boat to Murrica and I’m afraid I can’t escape my ancestry of uneducated and poor, but very brave and awesome, Italians who came here and made a new life for themselves and me their great granddaughter. So, I nearly cried when you mentioned the bread and sauce thing. Really?!? Whaaa. Bread=utensil to me. Thanks for the warning.

    • Angie, I wouldn’t worry at all. I’m sure you’ll be totally fine. Most people go to Italy and are fine, it’s usually just the really arrogant people who struggle (more than anything with what they think is “Italian” versus what actually IS Italian. Don’t sweat it!

    • Oh no Angie, don’t worry about it, you’ll be totally fine! I’m one of those 100% Italians, with Italian ancestors, born and raised in Italy. And trust me, unless you’ll eat putting food directly in your mouth with your hands, chewing in front of people with your mouth open or scream unpolitely at the waiters like said above in the post, you’ll be ok. Most of the things written in this article are true for the “galateo” (etiquette), but you don’t have to follow them so strictly. I put my elbows on the table or in my lap sometimes. And yes, I also do the “cut and switch” move sometimes (but don’t tell anyone shhhh! ;P). Someone might think it’s weird, but they won’t kick you out of the restaurant for this. And unless you are at a business meeting, you don’t have to order what everyone else orders. Your Italian friends won’t really care about that.😉 If you have manners, there’s nothing you should be afraid of.

    • Don’t worry, if you’re with chill people in an informal situation you can dip your bread however much you want, and I recommend it because not doing it means wasting all the delicious sauce! If you’re in a formal situation then it’s better to leave the sauce there, but you can try dipping the pasta as much as possible so that you eat as much sauce as you can.🙂

  4. And Bruschetta is not Broo-SHET-a. I have a colleague in Rome from “New Yawk City” who insists in saying “proSHOOT” and “MooozarELL.” Drives me nuts. Even after months of Italian lessons she insists that the way she learned it in her Italian-Polish neighborhood is right.

    • I used to think that was fake Sopranos Italian, too….until spending time in various parts of the provincia di Cosenza with my boyfriend. I was surprised they cut almost all of the final vowels off of words. Mozarell’ exists. or, surnames…Monica Bellucci= Monica Bellucc’. Un pomodor’ etc etc. If one speaks “Italian” it doesn’t happen really, but when they do dialect, or don’t pay much attention, I’ve noticed it’s pretty prevalent. Although I chalk up the NYC metro-speak as mainly what they’ve heard in movies or from certain ancestors and nobody knows “why” they even say it that way.

      Bru-shet-a….just no! lol

      Love this blog post,

      • Ah, yes! That’s my husband’s dialect! They chop every word in half. It took me two years to figure out what, “vuoi manga,” or “ma che sch.” It adds to the confusion that I have only ever lived in Florence. So, my in-laws and family only speak dialect but most of our friends speak florentine. Ma, scusa! Oh! Ma cosa ber? Eh? Hoha-hola!? That’s what my brain is doing all the time. LOL.

      • Misty, yeah, I think you said your husband’s family has a Neapolitan/Campania type of accent? I can join you in being confused. My boyfriend and family have a few friends from the Napoli area and I feel like a remedial idiot when we all speak together. They could say the easiest things, but being used to Tuscan, like you, I found it really difficult…and still do! There I was thinking I made huge strides and then staring back blank faced while crickets may as well have been chirping in the background. One person told me I “needed to learn Italian” and thankfully my boyfriend exploded at them, saying maybe people needed to ‘speak Italian’. Slowly I’m getting used to it all, I guess!

      • >>but when they do dialect, or don’t pay much attention, I’ve noticed it’s pretty prevalent.

        Just remember there are MANY dialects, What you noticed is right for Cosenza but not everywhere😉

  5. Totally agree on everything but on one pin: we do use bread to soak up the sauces and we even got a name for the actual action! It is called “fare la scarpetta” and even though people say it is not nice to do it in public, it is the best form of appreciation you can give a cook and many Italians will do it in pubblic – all you do you use a fork and the bread to mop up the sauce instead of your hand🙂

  6. I do not agree with point 4: Taking up sauce with the help of bread (or of the fork, but it needs training) is quite usual (maybe not the classest thing you can do, but widely accepted) and it takes the name of “scarpetta” (you can search on google for scarpetta pane)

  7. I know just what you mean: my American born and raised (but very Italian-feeling) great-aunt was visiting Venice and sent her pasta (pasta al pomodoro) back three times in one of our “regular” restaurants for more tomato sauce. It didn’t seem dry, in the least, and every time they sent it back (with clearly more sauce than before) she still complained, until I figured out she wanted to just SEE the extra sauce piled on top (and had to plead to the cook “please, just do it” when he [rightly] noted that it would never get mixed in well with the pasta,and he was serving a “bad” dish of pasta), and then she was happy. Mostly. Except for complaining that it took them three times to be able to serve spaghetti “right”.
    And as to point 5, wine by the carafe (vino sfuso, house wine) here in Veneto is generally quite good, and less than the beer or soft drinks. Sometimes less even than the mineral water.

  8. I was also sad to learn there was no spaghetti and meatballs when I moved to Italy. (I still make them at home, sometimes). But re: #4… in Rome, in most places, this is totally ok. You fare la scarpetta (make a little shoe) and sop up what ever is left on the plate. Sure, there are a few places where this would be frowned upon, but in most– go for it!

  9. Your articles are the highlight of week. I just returned from my annual Italia trip (this time to Campania…If you say “Amalfi” there isn’t an Italian around who understands where that is) and managed to impale the inside of my cheek with fish bones…I then tried to delicately spit into my napkin, but the macerated bones somehow managed to land on the floor. Even if you manage to follow the general guidelines, there is every possibility you will end up looking like an ass. That’s when batting your eyelashes and preening over the wonderful food comes in.

  10. On my first trip to Italy many years ago, I still remember a loud blonde American woman and her spawn harassing a waiter because there was no “Alfredo sauce. You know…Alfredo. We want Alfredo.” I wished the waiter gave her the number of his uncle, Alfredo.

    Although I have to disagree with the bread thing. Fare la scarpetta is totally the thing! Bread is meant to sop up sauce….at least the Italians I know. boh. In my personal experience bread is never eaten before or during a meal since it takes up room where “real food” should go. Although I’ve had bread-loving friends eat some bread with their meals….and afterwards… I suppose it’s a regional/familial thing?

  11. I am obsessed with your blog! I have been following it ever since I got back from Italy. And it is by far the best one I have found. It’s relieving to know that someone as open as me who isn’t solely interested in living in Italy on a cloud full of rainbows and seahorses (although that would be fucking awesome), can actually survive in Italy! I can’t wait to move there. Thanks for the laughs. Keep posting, can’t wait for the book🙂

  12. ahhaaaa great post!! I think Italians have way better table manners than Germans! Sometimes Im disappointed here😦

  13. Monica and Antonio, I’m so relieved to hear that ‘fare la scarpetta’ with your bread is OK because I do it all the time! What better use is there for saltless Tuscan bread?!

  14. You have such a fun writing! Despite of being a Brazilian, I identify myself with a lot of perceptions and expectations Americans have about Italy. We arrive here and we figure out that Italy can be much better than we thought🙂 And I simply LOVE the funny way you beg Americans to behave better here! Lol! Good job!

  15. There are a lot of food superstitions that I have heard too… like you are not supposed to pass the salt directly to someone but set it on the table near them, or that you shouldn’t use your water glass to join the toast if you don’t have wine!

    • Ah, yes. You’re also not supposed to toast and touch plastic, you have to touch with the backs of your hands. Also, I was screamed at by an Italian professor once for setting the table for “13” places. And, of course, dipping bread in pesto will send half of the room into hysteria (in my experience). Fun stuff.

    • This really depends on the person(s) you’re with and in which part of Italy you are. I’m Italian, born and raised here, and I couldn’t care less of 90% of the things listed in these comments or in the article.

  16. Oh my! I just can’t get enough of this blog. Seriously, I’m not sure if this post is more helpful or hysterical – I literally LOL’d. We’ll be in Florence next month and I’ll put these tips to good use. I’ve been trying to imagine #6 – actually getting my left hand up to my mouth without making a big ‘ol mess or puncturing my cheek – I’ll give it a whirl. One question, are doggy bags used? or frowned upon? Thanks so much!

    • Thank you! I’m so happy that you’re enjoying it. I laughed reading your comment, please, don’t poke out an eye! Although, I guess if you did you could wear an eye patch and then you’d be A PIRATE, which is kind of amazing. So I guess you’ll win either way! As for the doggy bag, that is a GREAT question and I might add it to the list now. No, I’ve never seen anyone ask for a doggy bag, ever. Honestly, portions in Italy are very small so it’s not usually necessary to bring things home.

  17. Hello! Do you have any advice for a single women eating out in Italy? I’ve been here for several months (senza boyfriend or husband) and have gotten a broad spectrum of strange looks, concerned looks, and flat out “we have no room, signora” when trying to get a table. Thoughts?

    • I often ate alone in Italy when my husband’s mother was ill and he couldn’t join me. I never had any problems. It’s true that we have been visiting our small provincial hill-town for many years and most people probably know who I am (la signora inglese) even if we haven’t been introduced. Do you know anyone you could ask for a recommendation or perhaps go with the first time, and then explain that you’ll be coming back on your own?

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  19. Re: #6 Hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand: I see this all over Europe, but no where has it surprised me so much as in the Spanish school where I work. Seeing kids as young as 5 elegantly cutting meat and deftly folding leafy salads over their left-handed forks nearly made my (oh-so American) gum fall out in surprise.

    • Yep, excuse me but I cannot help it……………Europeans are civilized and always have been…………until American “culture” started creeping in………………….

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  21. We have lived in Italy twice, and returned a few years back for a 3 week trip. We drank red table wine everywhere, and every day. Yum! And best dishes we had–for me, porcini mushroom risotto in Pisa, and for my husband, Frutti di Mare in Naples. And Naples is the only place to eat pizza!!🙂

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  23. Great post! In Puglia it is totally acceptable to sop up your sugo with bread. In fact you might be asked ‘ma perche non fai la scarpetta?’. I guess the most important thing to remember, which definitely comes across in your post, is to not be an a**hole ugly tourist about it and think you know more about Italian food than Italians! Order from the menu and don’t ask for different stuff. The next scene in Big Night is also priceless-where they show the successful restaurant across the street-the one whose owner has ‘sold out’ his Italian heritage – the camera pans the restaurant which is packed full and everyone is eating spaghetti and meatballs. Buon appetito! Cristina

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  26. Give me a break. Italian- Americans are supposed to be on some kind of good behavior when visiting Italy? We are not supposed to OFFEND the italians? What about the fact that most Italian Americans have ancestors who had to leave Italy in order to survive? Why? Because the absent landlords of Italy were greedy, taxing and taxiing, but using none of money to develop the land, stripping the land of its richness until it was useless. People starved. Those that could leave, left, with one-way tickets. Millions. Italy is now so depleted of Italians with Romanians as one of the biggest immigrant groups, that they should be glad Italian Americans take the time to visit, and some possibly to stay, or to claim their citizenship.
    They can cater to us, as we are subsidizing THEM now.

    • You have a point with why so many Italians left Italy during the 19th Century, but how does displaying uncouth behavior today when visiting your ancestral homeland right the wrongs of the past? Moreover, such behavior falls mostly on working class Italians with whom your ancestors probably identified.

      If you don’t like something about your dish when eating out and your server can’t resolve it, then politely ask to speak to the manager (assuming that’s acceptable in Italy). Don’t forget that servers are human and they have subtle ways to get back at rude diners.

      Countries that depend on tourism revenue have an obligation to be good hosts. But visitors have an obligation to be good guests, too.

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  28. Big Night is hilarious. My first experience dining in Italy and there after, was amazing. I return back to the States and realized the “Italian” food here is just disgusting. Food is one of my great love and go hand hand with Italy.

  29. Ok, last comment on this blog…………It´s just hillarious to read through this article. Again, being frank and absolutely not politically correct: If Americans would not be so self centered they would learn more about the history and the world outside of the US. It is not difficult nor is it imossible to learn about other country´s dishes and cultures and which traditions and dishes of Italo-Americans are not “original”. Seems like this is hard work if not impossible for the average American.

  30. Is switching your fork and knife between your hands a common American practice? I lived in the U.S. for 25 years and always used my left hand to hold the fork and right hand to hold the knife. After I cut something with my right hand I’d use my left hand to feed my mouth. I don’t recall anyone I dined with switching back and forth.

    Then again, the U.S. is a big place and this practice may be more common in certain regions.

    As for dipping bread, isn’t it customary in Italian dining to dip your bread into olive oil and vinegar? Or is that another overseas custom?

    • It’s considered polite in the US to do either. Some regions tend to eat one way, some eat another. It’s a regional thing in the US and was more common in the 50’s but a lot of people still do it now. Dipping bread in olive oil and vinegar isn’t common in Italy. Sure, everyone has their own dining preferences and some Italians do it, but if you sit down at a table with bread generally the people aren’t going to pour olive oil and vinegar on a plate to dunk bread in it. But again, there are individuals who do it I’m sure.

  31. Haha – you are awesome. I love this! Thank you for making me laugh out loud several times – not just this entry but your whole website / blog. My husband and I are going to Italy for our honeymoon in early April this year. (We are early 50 somethings) And he is notorious for ordering Spaghetti and Meatballs so I will ensure he reads and we comply with your suggestions before we go!

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