Food Customs (mini guide to Italian eating)

by Danilo Brunetti

Arriving in Italy, you may think you already know everything there is to know about Italian food; after all, most of us eat what we think are typical dishes fairly often in our home countries. However, you may be surprised to discover that menus seem baffling here, and perhaps you’re having some trouble figuring out Italian eating habits and customs as a whole. We’ve put together a little guide with some useful tips to help you get the best out of what should be a sublime culinary experience.


First things first, breakfast. Italians don’t really do breakfast as we may know it; and the only places you’ll find eggs and bacon, or fruit and cereal, are in some hotel dining rooms. If you’d like to try breakfast Italian style, get yourself to one of the hundreds of bars dotted around the city. Partake in a warm caffe latte and a cornetto—the Italian version of a croissant. Most people consume these standing up at the bar before going about their day. The whole ‘breakfast experience’ will last around ten minutes, and then you’ll be ready to get moving. If you would like to sit down and have a more leisurely prima colazione, you can, but be aware that you’ll be charged around double for the same cup of coffee because you’ll be paying for the table.

Next, lunch. This was typically the most important meal of the day in Italy, but is becoming less so due to the constraints of modern working life. While on vacation, you can opt for either option: the traditional or the modern. The modern consists of a panino or tramezzino, freshly made and filled with any variety of delicious ingredients. Alternatives include fresh salads or the wonderful pizza al taglio—sold by the slice with many tasty toppings. At the same places, you’ll be able to purchase supplì, arancini (deep fried rice balls filled with mozzarella, meat, or vegetables), or other fried goods. These choices are all fairly light and allow you to continue with your day without needing a couple of hours’ worth of “time out” to digest!

Tuna Tartarre

Your other option is a full, mouthwatering sit-down meal. On sitting down, you’ll see the menu is divided into sections entitled antipasto, primo piatto, secondo piatto, contorni, and dolci. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to eat, but you don’t have to pick something from each section. An antipasto followed by either a primo or a secondo should be enough. The primo will be a dish of either pasta, risotto, or gnocchi, the secondo a piece of meat or fish. Be aware that your secondo will not automatically come with vegetables or salad; you will have to order this separately from the contorni section. Try one of the mouthwatering homemade desserts (dolci) found in so many places to finish off your meal. If you find your- self feeling very full, don’t worry. This is a country made for eating and any restaurant will be able to offer you a variety of digestivi, liquors made with herbs, to aid natural digestion. After a little break or even a short nap, you’ll feel full of energy and ready for a funpacked afternoon.

When it comes to dinner, you’ll be faced with the same menu format as at lunch, but you’re sure to encounter lots of different dishes, so make sure you opt for variety. Sample the antipasto della casa if you can, because many restaurants will bring you a selection of their signature eatables which are unmissable. Same story for the first and second courses, from pasta and risotto to fish and meat, as well as dessert. Savor the fresh ingredients and the bursting flavors and finish your day fully satisfied.

Carciofi (artichokes) alla Giudia

Don’t forget that Rome has countless traditional dishes, which are often the stars of the menu. If you want to eat like a Roman, try dishes such as bucatini all’amatriciana (a thick and hollow type of spaghetti with tomato sauce and bacon), saltimbocca alla romana (veal topped with mozzarella, ham, and sage), and artichokes alla giudia (deep fried).

cono gelato

Finally, this wouldn’t be a real guide to Italian eating if we didn’t mention gelato. You’ll notice hundreds of ice cream parlors dotted around the city, and you’ll notice that most of them are almost always busy. If you’ve already tried it, we don’t need to tell you why; and if you haven’t…well, what are you waiting for?