Cooking is an essential part of life in the Mediterranean. Many Italian traditions take place around the table. So, please join us as we dive into the waters of the Italian food culture.
You may smile, but we can not talk about Italian food culture without starting where it all begins. Italian moms play a predominant role in perpetuating these traditions.
The table is more than a place to eat. It is where the families get together. Many jokes and discussions occur during this high point of the day. Moreover, it is considered a great disrespect not to have dinner together. Or at least you have to warn if you plan to stay out to eat with friends. Italian mothers can get very angry!
Options when eating out with family and friends!
For Italians, the most popular option when eating out are trattoria, ristorante, osteria, and pizzeria. Let us check what each one offers.
Ristorante – Restaurant
Here you will find a somewhat formal setting that is usually spacious and well decorated. The staff offers guests table service. They have experience with food and wine. Also, the waiters are professional and knowledgeable. The menu is usually quite extensive, and the food is top-notch. Not surprisingly, the quality of both the food and the service is evident in the price.
Trattoria – Small family restaurant
The trattoria is nothing more than a small family restaurant that often serves regional dishes and house specialties. All recipes are authentic and homemade. Traditions handed down from generation to generation are discernible in their food.
In a trattoria, usually, the mom or grandma is the cook. And dad is in charge of handling the cash register and managing the tables. The atmosphere is more relaxed. The decor is very informal. Thus, the prices are lower than in a restaurant.
A trattoria could offer the same value as a more casual place! But it is simply a more rustic and less fussy dining experience.
The first myth to debunk:
It is not true that all Italian trattorias use a red checkered tablecloth like in the Disney classic “Lady and the Tramp”!
Osterias are wine bars that have evolved to serve simple meals. Generally, they are less sophisticated than trattorias. Usually do not have a menu. The offer changes daily, according to the market. And two or three courses are offered for a fixed price, including wine.
Simple, homemade food is the stamp of an Osteria. Most have a rustic atmosphere. And believe it or not, it gives them a certain charm. It makes them attractive to tourists who want to enjoy good quality and cheap food that also is authentically Italian.
Bars in Italy are quite different from how the rest of the world views them. They open very early in the morning and close no later than 8 pm. Italians usually go to the bar to have breakfast, drink a coffee during a work break, eat ice cream, or have a sandwich or a panino (Italian sandwich) at lunchtime.
Generally, they do not stay in the bar for a long time. It is a shop conceived as a place to pass through during the day.
The name already says it. Pizzerias are places specialized in pizzas. Here pizzas are made, sold, and consumed daily. Pizzerias in Italy usually have a stone oven for optimal cooking of the pizza (according to the original recipe). They can be more or less elegant establishments, where people usually meet with family and friends on Saturday evenings. They almost always have tables for customers, but you can also buy pizza to take away or order delivery service.
Tavola calda – Hot table
Its literal translation would be “hot table.” A quick way to define them is being the equivalent of a fast-food place. Here you can enjoy a quick lunch with homemade low-price food. They are usually not very decorated and are a bit shabby, but this does not mean that the food is scarce or of poor quality.
Rosticceria – Deli
The rosticceria is a very informal place. You can buy fast food to take away. For example, pizza al taglio (cut pizza), pizzetta (individual pizza), calzone, or prepared dishes based on pasta, meat, or fish are all found in a rosticceria.
Rosticcerias are more common in southern Italy and are very cheap. In addition, each city has its specialties.
Panineria – Sandwiches shop, Bakery
As the name says, the panineria is where almost exclusively sandwiches and panini farciti (stuffed sandwiches) are served. There are thousands of recipes, from the most traditional to the most original. Some typical sandwiches are cartoccio (stuffed with ham, mozzarella, and pink sauce), topolino (cartoccio + Frankfurt sausage), caprese (mozzarella, tomato, and basil), panino con porchetta, and many more! The names of the sandwiches vary from region to region.
Il menu – The menu
The menu that you can find in any Italian restaurant or trattoria includes different dishes. The subdivision of these dishes is commonly like this: aperitivo, primo, secondo, contorno, e dolce.
There is a big difference between each one of them.
I primi – First dish
Dish based on pasta or riso (rice). Spaghetti con il ragù (Bolognese sauce), lasagne, pasta alla carbonara, risotto alla milanese, tortellini, ravioli, tagliatelle, etc, are all a first dish.
I secondi – Second dish
It is a protein dish such as meat and fish. You can choose to accompany them with a garnish, called contorno, which is usually vegetables or potatoes.
As mentioned above, they only accompany the main course. The quantity of the portion is small.
Il dolce – Dessert
Finally, you can have a dessert. Fruit may not come as desserts. Sometimes it is considered separately. The dessert can be:
a fetta di torta – piece of cake
a porzione di tiramisu – portion of tiramisu
a gelato – ice cream
You will never find in Italy a yogurt for dessert! Italians eat yogurt as breakfast or as a mid-morning or afternoon snack.
Italian eating habits
In Italy, there are basically three meals: colazione, pranzo e cena (breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
Italian breakfast is quite simple and usually consists of a hot drink such as coffee, milk, or tea and something sweet such as cookies, cereal, or classic bread with butter and jam.
Many Italian take breakfast in a bar. As mentioned above, a bar is a different kind of business than many have in mind.
At the bar, it is typical to have a cappuccino or espresso with a croissant filled with jam, cream, or chocolate (most often Nutella).
The second myth to debunk:
Italians do not drink cappuccino all day. Unlike what people believe abroad, Italians drink it only at breakfast and, in any case, never afternoon or during the main meal such as lunch or dinner.
Lunchtime is usually between 13.00 and 14.00. At home, lunch consists of a good pasta dish with simple seasoning such as salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce). Then comes a second course. Formaggio (cheese) or prosciutto (ham) are typical second dishes. There is not always a second dish, but there is always fruit at the end of the meal.
Many also have a good espresso coffee before going back to work.
Sunday or holiday lunch
The traditional Sunday or holiday lunch, on the other hand, includes a first course (pasta or rice) and the second course of meat, fish with vegetables or cold meats and cheeses. Then, to conclude, fruit, dessert, and coffee (strictly espresso).
Dinner is one of the most relevant moments in Italian life. It is the moment when the whole family can gather around the table to eat together after a long day of work. Dinner consists of light meals. These may include soups, salads, cheeses, eggs, meat, or fish and vegetables.
Italian customs at mealtime
Italians do not put a large plate in the center of the table where everyone can help themselves.
Each person at the table has a plate (or two or three!). And each of them is intended for a different dish.
There will be a deep plate for pasta, risotto, or soup; a flat plate for the second and side dish; and a small plate for dessert or fruit.
An Italian would never eat by placing the plates directly on the table without putting a tovaglia (tablecloth)!
The third myth to debunk:
Italian never eats different types of meat at the same meal (for example, chicken with turkey or veal with pork) and never mixes meat dishes with fish dishes!
Popular Italian foods
Who doesn’t know pizza, lasagne, spaghetti, or gelato? Let’s take a close look at some of the most popular Italian foods.
Il pane (bread) is the basis of the Mediterranean diet and is one of the most consumed foods in Italy.
Italians have a long tradition of making artisan bread.
I panifici (the bakeries) sell freshly baked bread every day. Thus, Italians prefer to buy it directly from the oven rather than from the supermarket, where it is usually industrially produced or previously frozen.
Depending on the shape, bread has different names and varies from region to region.
The fourth myth to debunk:
An Italian never eats bread and pasta together! Pasta is a complex and already complete dish. So, eating bread and pasta does not make any sense!
However, it is also true that Italians usually fare la scarpetta (translated in English would be “to make the little shoe”). What does this expression mean? When eating pasta with a rich sauce, Italians dip the bread with the leftover sauce until they clean all the dish surfaces.
Pizza is the quintessential Italian food. There are so many flavors, but the most classic are:
Margherita (tomato, basil, and mozzarella): a Neapolitan pizzeria came up with this combination of ingredients for a pizza in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy.
Romana (tomato, mozzarella, york ham): Roman pizza differs from the Neapolitan in the dough. The Roman dough is less hydrated since the percentage of water per kilo is around 55%, which results in a less spongy consistency.
Capricciosa (tomato, mozzarella, york ham, artichokes, and mushrooms): is a classic Italian pizza. The Capricciosa, as everybody calls it, is on the menu of every pizzeria. Usually under the list of traditional pizzas. A pizzeria in Rome called La Capricciosa claims it invented Capricciosa in 1937. The original name they gave it was “clean the fridge” pizza. The toppings varied according to what was leftover. However, the Capricciosa pizza later became standardized using the same staple ingredients.
Quattro gusti o quattro stagioni (tomato, mozzarella, york ham, mushrooms or artichokes, German-style sausages): is prepared in four sections with diverse ingredients. Each quarter of the pizza represents one season of the year.
Other pizzas: besides these, there are hundreds of different tastes. Above were only mentioned the most “classic.” Each pizza maker can decide to modify the original recipe and propose variations.
However, in an Italian pizza, you will never find ingredients such as chicken, egg, carbonara sauce, Bolognese sauce, or fruit of various kinds. In exceptional cases, pineapple. But nothing more.
Pasta is one of the main foods in the Italian diet. Italians usually only use the forchetta (the fork) when eating pasta. Since childhood, most learn to roll the spaghetti perfectly around it. However, it is true that not everyone knows how to do it. And it is not uncommon to see someone helping themselves with il cucchiaio (the spoon).
The fifth myth to debunk:
Italian cuisine is known all over the world for pasta and pizza. But Italians do not only eat pasta and pizza. The Italian diet is very varied, including legumes, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, etc.
Moreover, each region has its own typical dishes. Therefore, the number of recipes is vast!
The sixth myth to debunk:
The famous pasta with meatballs in Italy does not exist! It is a purely American invention. Among Italian recipes, meatballs do exist. But Italians don’t usually eat them with pasta!
How do Italians cook pasta?
There is only one way to cook pasta properly!
- Fill the pot 2/3 full. Do not fill so the water doesn’t run out when it boils.
- Cover the pot with the lid (this will make the water heat up sooner).
- Put the pot on the fire and wait for it to boil.
- Only when it boils, add the salt and the pasta.
- Leave the pot uncovered: the pasta cooks without a lid.
- Stir the pasta frequently to avoid sticking.
- Check the cooking time indicated on the pasta package (each format takes a different time).
- Taste the pasta for doneness and salt. If it is too hard, or the inside is still yellow, it should continue cooking.
- When it is tender but still a little firm, it is ready. Consistency is an essential aspect of cooking pasta. The right consistency is what Italians call “pasta al dente.”
The seventh myth to debunk:
One of the most widespread myths abroad is how Italians check if their pasta is ready. According to the myth, Italians throw pasta against the wall. If it sticks, it is at the right point. I hate to disappoint you, but that is false.
What do you think about the Italian food culture? Did you learn a couple of things? Would you also like to check out some interesting facts about the Italian language? Click here to check out that article too.