By: Rick Zullo
There is a saying among Italians that goes, “Italy is a country with a million laws, but no rules.” Like most clichés, it survives because there’s some degree of truth to it. But—like most clichés—it’s also an oversimplification. There are some rules in Italy that can be bent and others that can be broken. There are even a few that must be followed to the letter. Rules must be evaluated on a case by case basis to determine if they apply to the given situation. The post office? There is no discernible code of conduct for either the customers or the employees. The roadways? Believe it or not, there is an informal set of guidelines—however they bear little resemblance to the actual traffic laws. But there is one area in Italian society that maintains a very rigid set of rules that are not to be taken lightly. Of course I’m talking about food. Let’s review the five most important of these, lest you be asked to leave the country immediately and never return.
- No cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. This is perhaps the most well-known, but warrants some explanation. First of all, the exact time is not so important as the acknowledgement that cappuccino is only for breakfast. What’s more, cappuccino isn’t really a beverage; it’s almost a meal in itself and should be taken alone or with a very simple pastry. In fact, coffee drinks in general are not to be consumed with a meal; they should either be enjoyed by themselves or after you’ve finished eating. Coffee (and I mean espresso) is an intense taste to be savored, not to be chugged like a soft drink. It’s the period (or exclamation point!) to signify the end of a meal. The last taste on your palate.
2. 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.
3. 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!
4. 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.
5. Don’t eat bread with your pasta. This may surprise some people because, for one thing, bread is always on the table at restaurants in Italy. In your own home, you can “fare la scarpetta,” which literally means to “make a little shoe,” and it refers to the practice of scooping up the remaining pasta sauce with a crust of bread. In a restaurant, however, this is considered bad form. Then why do they put bread on the table if you’re not supposed to eat it? Well, of course you can eat a little when you first sit down or with your antipasto. But notice that some places will actually remove the bread from your table when the pasta arrives. Maybe they’re just trying to protect you from making a fool of yourself. And you should thank them for this.
- The funny thing about these rules is that if you asked an Italian about them, they’d probably just give you a shrug and a blank look. To them, these aren’t “rules” so much as common sense. Having had this knowledge programmed into their DNA and practiced daily since they could hold a fork, an Italian might even deny that such rigid criteria exist in their country. But if you happen to break one of these rules, you’ll certainly hear about it, believe me. At that point, don’t bother explaining yourself—just ask for the check and quietly leave. The country, that is.