March 26

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Italian Food Rules

By Rick

March 26, 2013


Recently I wrote an article for Expats Blog highlighting some of the Italian food rules that visitors to Italy might not be aware of.  Of course, it’s a satire that mostly makes fun of us “stranieri” who constantly facciamo una brutta figura (make a poor figure) when it comes to enjoying the Italian food that we claim to adore so much.

But just two sentences into this post and I’ve already committed a cardinal sin: I used the term “Italian food,” which any Italian will tell you doesn’t exist.  Or it exists, but only outside of Italy.  Within Italy, it’s more accurate to speak about regional cuisines.  For example, you’d never find “fegato alla veneziana” in Naples; nor would you find “braciole di pesce spada” in Turin.  And of course, you won’t find Chicken Parmesan or Fettuccine Alfredo anywhere in Italy.  These are the ill-conceived concoctions served up at Italian restaurants in the US and UK which repeatedly baffle and amaze (and insult) Italians travelling abroad.  When they see these travesties on a menu, the colorful phrase, “Ma che cazzo è questo?!?” (What the F#*% is this?!?) can be heard echoing throughout the dining room.

Eat Like an Italian

This list could have only been compiled by a foreigner.  If you were to ask an Italian about any so-called “rules,” he or she would probably claim ignorance.  They may not even be consciously aware of them since they’re so ingrained into the cultural mentality.  But believe me, they’re out there and you should know about them if you want to fully understand the Italian approach to the enjoyment of meals.

Italian food rules Number 1: Keep it simple
Italian food rules
Number 1: Keep it simple

My article identifies five of these rules, but really this just scratches the surface.  In any case, the rules aren’t so precisely defined—there’s plenty of overlap among them and variations from region to region.  Furthermore, these guidelines should be absorbed rather than memorized outright.  You have to nurture the innate instincts of our Italian friends who can tell if they’re willing to eat something and how much they’ll enjoy it with a single momentary glance.

No, you can’t eat eggs for breakfast.  No, you can’t put sauces on fish.  Yes, drinking a cappuccino with your lasagna is a very bad idea.  And so on.  But the main point is that the discussion goes beyond a set of definable rules; there is a genuine passion for food that supersedes all other criteria.

What Dreams Are Made Of

One Saturday afternoon just after I had arrived in Rome I went to an open market in Piazza Sempione where there was an artisan cheese maker selling his products under a little white tent.  I walked up as he was carefully setting out his display and arranging everything just so.  At the center of the long table he had placed a strange type of cheese in a position of prominence,  clearly distinguishing it from the rest.  Being a curious straniero, I just had to ask.  “Mi scusi, che tipo di formaggio è questo?

He suddenly stopped his frantic preparations, froze for a second, and then looked me squarely in the eye.  “Signore.”  A pause for dramatic effect then, “Questo NON È un formaggio—è un SOGNO!”  (Sir, this is NOT a cheese—it’s a DREAM!)

Then he went on to enthusiastically explain to me how the milk used for this particular cheese is collected from the stomach of a young lamb who has just nursed from its mother (he didn’t tell me how it was “collected” and I didn’t ask for elaboration).  Apparently the delicate enzymes in the stomach of the baby lamb  are what ferment this cheese and transform it from a mere dairy product into the thing that dreams are made of.

Then he offered me a small sample and I could hardly disagree—it was the best cheese I had ever tasted.  I immediately bought 300 grams and paid him an enormous price which was still a bargain for such a transcendent culinary experience.  I would have gladly paid twice as much.

Italian Food Rules

This scene is by no means rare and only goes to underscore the importance of food in daily life in Italy.  People are passionate about the food they make and the food they eat.  Follow the rules and you’ll be fine; follow the passion and you’ll appreciate it that much more. Here are a few examples to get us started:

  • Keep it simple. Any given dish—no matter if it’s a snack, main course, or dessert—should contain no more than three or four ingredients, and they should all be individually visible. This rule explains a lot about Italian cuisine and it relates both to the taste and the visual presentation. Notice that every course and every side dish is served on a separate plate. There is a good reason for this: Italians want to distinctly see and taste everything that they’re eating. This is why it’s almost impossible to find a Mexican restaurant in Italy, even in a big city like Rome. Italians despise things to be all mixed together, rolled up, and covered in a salsa. Let the ingredients speak for themselves! If you’ve covered it up with a lot of nonsense, then you’ve obviously got something to hide, which is no good.
  • NO Parmesan cheese with seafood. In fact, watch the parmesan in general. It has a specific role in Italian cuisine and you can’t just indiscriminately throw it on anything that you please. You just can’t. And treating fish or other seafood in this way is particularly offensive. Why order a beautiful piece of delicate fresh fish if you’re just going to mask the flavor with a strong cheese? If you really like the cheese that much, then just order cheese and leave the fresh fish for people who can appreciate it. Furthermore, no funny sauces or condiments on fish either. Just a little olive oil, some parsley, and maybe a small squeeze of lemon at the most. Pour that cheese sauce over some French food and keep it away from my pesce! Basta!
  • Only Water or Wine with your meal. For adults, these two beverages are the only civilized options to accompany your lunch or dinner. Maybe a beer if you’re just having a pizza or panino, but that would be the only exception. A Coke can be enjoyed on its own in the middle of the day or as a digestive, but not with a meal. Unless you’re 12 years old—and even then.

You can learn much more about this delicious topic on my food blog, Eat Like an Italian.

Mangia, mangia!

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • I have to say I LOVE the rules of Italian food. I remember reading about them from afar in those ex-pats living abroad books and now I’m one of them! It’s like you say Rick, most of them are quite sensible, a huge milky coffee does not sit well on the stomach after a huge meal. We English are famous for our culinary mixing, so it’s quite nice at times to learn and be restricted to right and wrong. But also, sometimes you do just want a cappuccino at 3.00pm!

    • Thanks so much Catherine! Yes, the “rules” take some getting used to, but eventually they make sense and add to the enjoyment of meals. And as for culinary mixing, I don’t think that anybody does a “better” job of it that we Americans. Ciao!

  • entertaining as usual Rick! 🙂
    i think that another important rule is FRESH bread on the table!! at all times! no questions asked! do you remember the name of that cheese? i’m curious!

    • Yes, fresh bread, absolutely! I can’t remember the exact name of the cheese, but is was certainly a pecorino “fresco,” so not aged, but soft. However, it was NOT of the Sardinian variety–the kind with the live worms in it! Yuck!

      • I think it was another Sardinian variety called “su callu”. If you watch the Bizzarre Foods episode in Sardinia you’ll see it! We have a lot of pecorino varieties, not only “casu marzu” (the one with worms). Even the pecorino “romano” is produced in Sardinia in most cases.

        p.s. Give a try to the worms!

        • Thanks, Fabio! I couldn’t remember the name, but I just googled your suggestion and I’m pretty sure that you’re right. As for the worms, I think I’ll leave those for Andrew Zimmern (bizzare foods). Ciao!

  • I’ve seen once an Italian guy offering some fish tapas ‘aperitivo’ to two beautiful (Russian?) young ladies. When asked what they wanted to drink with the tapas, whether white wine or anything else, they asked for cappuccino. You could see the embarassemente on his face, while he kindly tried to convince them that cappuccino DOESN’T go with aperitivo and less than anything with FISH aperitivo! They insisted.

    Beautiful as they were, I’m not sure he didn’t dump them both 😀

    • Ha, ha! I can imagine the scene, as we’ve all witness similar “incidents” of bad taste on the part of stranieri. But I have to say, as much as it bothers them, most people, such as the man in your story, will eventually let the other person have their way. Even if it’s cappuccino with fish. Che schifo!

  • Having violated all of the above “rules”, both here in the US and Italy, I’ve been on the receiving end of many intimidating stares where I was sure that the evil eye had been put on me!
    For most of us Americans the concept of Italian dining has been learned by frequenting Italo-Americano restaurants where traditional Italian food preparation has been abandoned in order to give us what we want, mainly more of everything regardless of quality! But, I can also tell you that I grew up in a household with my immigrant grandparents and I don’t remember our meals being so structured or having separate plates for each side dish. My grandmother’s bread was the best that I’ve ever eaten and it was always present and eaten during the meal. So perhaps these rules are more regional and should not be taken as generally accepted. In fact my friends in Italy laugh at me when I ask them if they follow such a set of do’s and don’t’s regarding eating. I most admit though, that through the influence of my Italian daughter-in-law, I’m starting to see the wisdom and appreciate the common sense of “eating like an Italian”!

    • That’s right, just follow the example of an Italian and you can’t go wrong. That way you’ll avoid BOTH bad digestion and bad luck (il malocchio)!

  • Hi, Rick.
    Enjoying your blog as I will be going to Italy and France next year with my son’s French class. We need all the pointers we can get! Thanks!

    • Thanks so much Angie! I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Regarding the food, it will be interesting for you to compare the French philosophy to the Italians’. In France, the chef is the star, while in Italy it’s all about the ingredients. Buon Appetito!

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