5 Food Rules Italian Families Swear By

published Jan 4, 2022
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Credit: Dana McMahan

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Part of the joy of travel is discovering how folks in other parts of the world approach things that we share in common. Mealtime is mealtime, right? Actually, despite how rapidly things are homogenizing around the world (and becoming more Americanized, as I’m told everywhere I go), there are still some delightful differences in how we come to the table. Yes, there may be Starbucks in Italy now, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see an Italian sipping on a frothy confection after lunch. And that’s just one of the food rules you’ll find in this delicious slice of Europe. 

I’ve learned some of these rules in travels across Italy over the last 20 years, but to get more insights, I asked some experts: People who’ve lived there or still do. 

Pasta every day is real

I know I eat pasta on the daily when I’m in Italy, and it turns out that’s not just a tourist thing. 

Screen siren Sophia Loren herself told me she eats pasta every day (albeit just three bites), and my friends in Italy agreed — with some caveats. “Pasta, as you can imagine, is almost always included at dinner,” says Shawn Slon. The expat is speaking from ten years of experience; he lives in Rome, where his wife was born and raised, and where they’re bringing up their 7-year-old daughter in the Eternal City. 

Daily pasta may seem a bit jarring to those of us surrounded by “encouragement” from the diet industry to avoid carbs, but dinner simply isn’t dinner without pasta, Shawn says. 

But take note, he cautions: “The type of pasta must match the sauce. Certain sauces go better with certain pasta types and Italians are not so flexible about changing these tried-and-true combos.” Also, “It must be cooked al-dente,” he added. 

Why is that preparation important? Science. When pasta is overcooked, it can form a sticky dough in the digestive tract which blocks digestion, according to La Cucina Italia.  

Say cheese — but not on fish or pasta

Italians may be famed for decadent goodies like Parmigiano and burrata, but there is a time and a place for cheese, and it’s not on your fish or your pasta, according to Judy Witts Francini. She moved to Tuscany in 1984, where she fell in love with Florence, and a Florentine. Now, Judy leads cooking classes and offers immersive programs throughout the region. (When I took one of her market classes, she taught me the trick of getting up to walk around after a heavy meal to help make room for dessert!). 

“That is changing, but both real Parmigiano and fresh fish are expensive ingredients and one covers the other,” Judy explains. This insistence on celebrating the star ingredient can actually streamline meals if you think about it. Buy (or make!) one really amazing pasta, or source a pristine fish, and let it shine in your meal without a lot of other fuss.

And it’s not just cheese; there are some other dairy no-nos. You don’t have milk on the table, Judy says (just water and wine). And you definitely don’t have cappuccino (or milk in general) after breakfast. We can (again) thank Italians’ keen interest in proper digestion for this rule, she says. “They are sensitive to congestione, where your digestion gets blocked.” Also? We may have had that famous Got Milk campaign here in the U.S., but Judy notes, “Italians are not a huge milk-drinking population.”

Keep your hands where they can be seen

“Napkins stay on the table and hands and elbows do too,” says Sara Pfaff. She’s lived in the Piemonte region of northwest Italy with her Italian husband Francesco for 11 years. They’re raising two boys, now 8 and 5, among Italian traditions like this. And it turns out there is a story behind this particular table rule.

Some say it comes from Mafia times, according to Judy. “At the table never sit with your hands in your lap … to know you are not holding a gun.” Yikes! But this may very well be a stereotype that doesn’t hold water — as with many cultural mythologies.

And speaking of hands, there’s no switching back and forth when you’re holding your fork, Judy says. 

Credit: Dana McMahan

Keep it simple and intuitive for a more personalized recipe

We tend to overcomplicate things sometimes here on our side of the pond. Simplicity rules in Italy. 

Take spaghetti and meatballs, for instance, says Emma Reuland. Her family is originally from Sicily, but Emma grew up going back and forth between there and Bologna before spending a year studying abroad at University of Bologna. Today she works with Italian design brands at her mother’s New York-based PR agency, Novità Communications. We reveled in some meals together in Bologna that took her back to her roots.

“My great-grandmother taught my grandmother, who taught my mother, who taught me the recipe for the perfect meatball,” Emma says. “This recipe doesn’t require fancy crusty bread and elaborate additions but rather focuses on simple, easy-to-find ingredients like sliced bread, whole milk, and ground chuck. Use your hands, have fun with ingredients, eyeball things like spice, and let your budding chef experiment with crafting their own techniques. So much of who I am as an amateur cook is from watching my family cook and then taking the reins myself. Use the recipe as a guideline but find ways to make it your own and take some flavor risks! Italian cuisine is as flexible and romantic as the language itself. There is beauty and depth in the imprecision.”

Coffee and salad come after the main event

While we tend to start with salad in the United States, and often see people drinking coffee with their meal, that’s not the order of business in Italy. In fact, I’ve tried ordering coffee with dessert in Italy only to be gently rebuked — and brought my espresso afterwards, anyway!

“I grew up in a 100% Italian household,” says Diana Strinati Baur, an artist who lives part of the year in Piemonte, where she created and ran a five-star bed and breakfast among the wine hills. “There were lots of subtle rules around food, but one that was totally different from my American friends was that salad, always, is after the main course. It’s intended to clean the palate, my grandmother would always say!” Sara agrees, “Salad is served at the end of the meal if at all.” And “any Italian woman who is worth her salt will have a Moka coffee maker ready to go for after lunch/dinner coffee and always has a digestive or limoncello up her sleeve if anyone wants.” (This tradition was so ingrained on my first trip to Italy that I packed a Moka home in my backpack!) Want your own elegant coffee tradition? Try it out!