This is a guest post by my gorgeous husband, Henry.
As we’ve been traveling around Italy, we’ve picked up a lot of fun facts about Italy food and culture.
In fact, learning about and eating Italian cuisine has been one of the best ways to learn about Italian culture.
From eating gelato in Florence and everywhere else, to fancy hot cocktails and thick hot chocolate at hüttes along the Alta Via 2 trail in the Dolomites, to a cooking class near Sorrento on that Italian peninsula, we have eaten our way through Italy.
In Venice, we took a food tour and discovered all kinds of interesting facts about typical Venetian food. We enjoyed it so much we took another one in Rome! In the Cinque Terre, we ate anchovies and pesto. We ate at a Michelin-star restaurant as we rode bikes through Tuscany. Even the many books set in Italy that Mel read during our trips to Italy were centered around food.
Everywhere we went we found that the most common ingredients in our Italian dishes came from the region we were in. We loved the locality of food used in Italian kitchens.
Since we cook a lot of our meals in the apartments we rent, we get to explore Italian markets and grocery stores. We love finding different pasta shapes, in-season vegetables, a great variety of different ingredients, and other Italian foods to add to our dinner table as we do our best to approximate Italian cooking.
Fun Facts About Italy Food and Culture
Italian Restaurant Culture
Buon Appetito (Italian for “Good Appetite”). Most travelers to Italy will experience the food through restaurants. Italian restaurants come in several different flavors, namely: Trattorias, Ristorantes, Osterias, and Bar/Cafes.
Trattorias are traditionally family-owned, casual, rustic neighborhood restaurants found throughout Italy that serve fresh, unassuming, conventional local food. Ristorante should mean a full-service restaurant, and there should be a host or hostess to seat you as well as professional kitchen staff. Osterias are wine bars that have evolved to serve simple meals. Traditionally, they are simpler than trattorias and usually have no menu or menus that tend to be short, with the emphasis on local specialties such as pasta and grilled meat or fish, often served at shared tables.
Bar/cafes usually focus on alcohol and coffee but will often have simple paninis (sandwiches) that you can eat there or take with you. You can have them heat the sandwiches up or take them cold. And of course, you can find pizzerias almost everywhere (see below).
The restaurant culture also differs in Italy. With the exception of bars, they assume you are there to enjoy your experience as much as take in calories. The service is slower and less intrusive.
After your initial order, signal your waiter when you need something and you will likely have to ask for “il conto per favore” when you would like the bill. Ristorantes will often allow you to pay at the table, but in other places you may need to pay at the cash register. They generally have to provide you with a receipt but you can ask for one with “la recevuta per favore.”
We’ve found that, as a rule of thumb, the farther away from the main tourist areas you get, the better the food. It’s almost all delicious, of course. I also like to try something new every so often. Worst case scenario, I don’t care for it and order something else but it’s highly probable you’ll find a new favorite.
These days you can generally find a vegetarian option on the menu in most restaurants as well as the occasional vegetarian-specific establishment.
Italians don’t usually tip except occasionally rounding up on the bill for exceptional service or a euro or two left on the table. The wait staff is paid a living wage and not dependent on your tips as in the US.
In highly trafficked tourist areas, you may see a line on the bill, usually in English, for a service charge. Or they may tell you that the service charge is not included in the bill. It’s up to you whether you tip in that case but I generally don’t.
Another great way to experience Italian food is a food tour. We’ve taken several and got to try a myriad of different local specialties we may otherwise have not known about. You can also find agriturismos and arrange for meals in Italian homes. In this case, we do tip the guide.
Italian Regional Differences
Italian food varies across the different regions from colder northern Italy to the hot areas of southern Italy. They all share the reliance on the freshest ingredients though.
Most restaurants will source their food that day from local markets. If you have a vacation rental, you can source your ingredients there, too, and it can be a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. Keep in mind, though, that these are businesses and locals are trying to get their shopping done too.
In the north of Italy expect to find more Germanic influences in areas like South Tyrol and Veneto. This area used to be part of Austria-Hungary and still shares a lot of cultural attachments and language with the countries to the north of Italy.
While we were there we ate a fair amount of goulash, sausages, and potatoes. The regional meat was speck, a cured ham in thin slices. They put it in everything.
In Venice, you will find sea foods like buttery-tasting squid and desserts like tiramisu. The spritz cocktail also originated in Venice. It was invented by Austrian soldiers who wanted to weaken the wine.
In central Italy, you will find the fried artichokes of Rome, the ribollita and bistecca fiorentina in Florence (Firenze), and truffles in Umbria. On the coasts, you will also find specialty seafood dishes like the fruita del mare in the Cinque Terre.
In southern Italy, you will find dishes with light olive oils, tomato sauces, and freshly steamed seafood. The cheeses tend to come from goat, sheep, or buffalo milk as opposed to from cows. In addition, arabiatta is more popular in the south. This is made with a local red pepper that has some pep but really doesn’t compare to what we would call spicy in the U.S.
Southerners tend to eat more pasta and their desserts often contain refreshing lemons. These grow locally and offer some respite from the summer heat. And of course, don’t forget the cannoli.
Italian Dining Traditions
A typical Italian menu is divided into il antipasto (appetizer), il primo (a pasta first course), and il secondo (a meat-based main dish) often served with an insalata (salad), contorni (side dishes) and finishing up with i dolci (desserts). That said, you may often see a salad as a main dish in vegetarian restaurants.
Italians call breakfast la colazione. Italian breakfast generally consists of coffee and a pastry or possibly some bread. More likely, they skip this Italian meal altogether and just drink coffee.
Il pranzo, or lunch, gets a little more attention. In fact, for many people, it serves as their largest and most important meal of the day. They usually eat between noon and 2:30 pm with some time to relax and rest and will eat a full, multi-course meal.
La cena, or dinner, takes place later and many people precede it with a takeaway snack or gelato around 5 pm. Many Italians will just have a simple pasta dish for dinner but at restaurants, you will have access to the full menu.
Whichever meal of the day, the food is usually fresh and mostly unprocessed, and definitely delicious.
Drinking Coffee in Italy
Drinking coffee in Italy is different than in the US and many other countries. Coffee shops are “bars” that often also sell alcohol. These shops are small and specialized, often standing room only, although they may have tables outside.
Locals will walk up to the bar and order, typically a shot of espresso, and perhaps a pastry and sip it while standing there. They often socialize with friends and are regulars at the shop. They do not “shoot” the espresso but sip it and may add sugar.
For a milky coffee, I like to order a cappuccino and a pastry. It’s a very small drink but packs a wallop. You still order at the bar but ask to sit al tavalo. They will bring out your coffee and food on a tray. You could also order a latte but this is usually for kids.
You are welcome to sit at the table without rushing off. Unlike American coffee shops, you don’t pay until you are finished, in case you want something more. Sometimes you can pay at the table but generally, you go up to the register and pay, especially if you are using a credit card. I’m not sure how, but they seem to always magically know what you ordered.
I love sitting outside at a table and taking my time with the coffee and pastry and watching the Italians go about their morning and socialize with friends.
In Naples and some other areas, they have a tradition called cafe sospeso in which they pay for a second coffee that someone else can claim if they can’t afford one. It’s a pretty neat tradition of generosity and inclusion.
We generally stay in vacation rental apartments and these will have something called a Moka Pot which was invented in Italy in the 1930s. It’s a simple two-level pot. In the bottom goes water and a tray for coffee. The heat forces the water through the coffee and a filter on its way up to the second level where it is stored. You pour that into your cup. I like to make an Americano (sometimes called Tedeschi or “German”) and add some milk to the coffee and some hot water. Italians joke that American coffee is just “dirty water”.
Facts About Italian Food – Pizza
Next to spaghetti (without meatballs there), Italian pizza probably rules as the most famous of Italian foods and dishes. Pizza-like dishes have actually been around for thousands of years.
Poor people and peasants would make flatbread with olive oil and leftover vegetables that would otherwise have gone uneaten. Similar dishes existed all over the world. Modern Italian pizza likely originated in Naples in the 1700s or 1800s when the Spanish brought tomatoes from the New World.
Neapolitans definitely invented the queen of all pizzas, the Margherita Pizza. Tradition says it was invented in 1889 when pizzaiolo (pizza chef) Raffaele Esposito made one and named it in honor of the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy.
The green of the fresh basil, white of the mozzarella cheese, and red of the tomatoes paralleled the colors of the Italian National flag. However, evidence exists that it had actually been delighting the people of Naples since about 1800.
Neapolitan pizza is arguably the best though it’s hard to find a bad one. Italian pizzas are traditionally cooked in large wood-fired ovens that get up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. They have a large mass and it takes a long time to get them hot enough to cook. For this reason, many restaurants won’t serve pizza until the afternoon or evening.
We were turned down numerous times when looking for lunch pizza, even at pizzerias. That said, you can always find an open one in the major cities. A typical pizza will be flat, crispy, and about 9-12” across.
In addition to the Margherita, there are several other typical types of pizzas. The Quattro Station, or four seasons, has mushrooms, artichokes, olives, and ham, each occupying a quarter of the pizza. The Pizza alla Diavola has spicy sauce and sausage. The pizza Capricciosa, or capricious pizza, has olives, artichokes, mushrooms, and prosciutto. It’s one of my favorites.
In Naples, you can try fried pizza. Melynda, Anders, and Finn had some and said it was delicious, but not something you’d eat every day.
You may read that Italian pizzas only have simple ingredients but I’ve found that to not always be true. For instance, Pizza Americana often has corn and/or french fries on it. Pizza Viennese has, well, hotdogs. Regardless, the Italians are masters of the art of pizza making and you almost can’t go wrong trying new styles.
Facts About Italian Food – Pasta
Surprise! Spaghetti with meatballs is not a traditional Italian dish. Invented in America, the Italians eat both, but separately.
Italians don’t add olive oil to the pasta while cooking either. Some people in the US say it keeps the pasta from sticking together, but that’s a myth. I actually like to put a dollop in the pot to break the surface tension and keep the water from boiling over. However, Italians will add olive oil after the pasta is cooked for flavor, usually with sautéed veggies or seafood or some other oil-based sauce.
Types and shapes of pasta as well as types of pasta sauces seem innumerable. While we in the U.S. might think of tomato-based sauces as “Italian,” they mainly dominate in the south. In the north, you will find more cream and oil-based sauces that predominate.
The pasta types themselves are generally similar in ingredients (gnocchi [nyoacki] being a notable exception) but you will find them in many different shapes with each shape often serving a different purpose.
Certain shapes hold different sauces better than others. Obviously, ravioli and tortellini contain pockets of cheese and/or meat, while shells will generally allow pockets of sauce to infiltrate the pasta. They can stuff ziti. Spaghetti, linguini, and capellini are great for oil-based sauces.
Cheese in Italy
Say cheese. Italy produces many different delicious cheeses that vary dramatically by region but arguably the two most famous kinds of cheese, at least for most Americans, are Parmigiana and Mozzarella. What we get at the grocery store in the U.S. is generally a pale copy of the original.
Parmesan cheese, or specifically Parmigiano Reggiano, dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. In the 13th Century, Cistercian and Benedictine monks wanted to find a cheese that would last for a long time. They combined the salt from the local salt mines and milk from cows and aged it for 12 months or so.
This resulted in a dry crumbly cheese with a powerful flavor. It’s perfect for pasta and soups. In fact, on our trip, we started making a soup called ribollita or “reboiled” soup which includes a rind of Parmesan that gives it a satisfying and comforting extra dimension. You can also add it to minestrone or just stick a pile of it on your pasta.
Today only cheese from Parma, Reggia Emilia, and an area near Bologna can legally claim the title of Parmesan. You can find producers in that area and take tours of the facilities and warehouses where they store the 84 lb wheels of cheese that can cost thousands of dollars each.
Mozzarella cheese also claims a top spot in our hearts. Strangely, what many of us buy as fresh mozzarella in the states, the Italians would call fior di latte because it originates from cows’ milk.
True mozzarella comes from buffalo milk. In Italy, they are a domesticated sub-variant of water buffalo. Because of its high moisture content, mozzarella is traditionally served the day after it is made, but it can be kept in brine for up to a week. It’s a key ingredient in Margherita Pizzas (see above), eggplant parmesan, and Insalata Caprese. Definitely try some of the real buffalo mozzarella if you have the chance, it has a slightly stronger flavor than fior di latte but not overpowering.
Dessert in Italy
Just like other courses, Italians have invented and perfected so many sweet options for the dessert lover. Here are just a few.
Surprisingly, you will find apple strudel as an “any time of day” dessert option in the north. The Germanic influence here is obvious. For those who may not have heard of this delicious alpine dish, it consists of a flaky pastry with an apple filling. Similar to apple pie really, they often serve it with whipped cream or ice cream.
In the north, you will also find kaiserschmarrn, one of our family’s favorites. Think egg-heavy, scrambled pancakes with extra butter and sugar. Kaiser means Emperor (think Caesar or Czar) and schmarrn means pancake. So Emperor or King’s pancakes. I only recently realized that, due to my aging eyesight, I’d been reading the “rrn” as “rm” so I’d been misspelling and mispronouncing the word as Kaiserschmarm which would translate to Ugly Emperor. Oops.
Our kids’ favorite cold weather treat, although not really a dessert, is definitely ciccolata calda or cioccolata densa. This is not cocoa. It’s more like the thickest, richest cocoa you’ve ever had. Basically, they melt chocolate and add a bit of milk and you eat it with a spoon!
Of course, every traveler to Italy will encounter and enjoy their world-famous gelato. Made with milk instead of cream, I like to claim this dense dessert is healthier than ice cream but since I eat twice as much, I’m not sure the math works out.
It’s served at a bit warmer temperature so it lands somewhere between soft serve and regular scooped ice cream. Italians feel no compunction about eating Gelato at any time of day, morning, noon, or night.
Gelateria are nearly ubiquitous and easy to find. They often get quite creative with their flavors. I’ve seen rice, licorice, cream and sweet wine, cinnamon, and even “smurf” flavor. A few of the most popular flavors you may not recognize:
- Fior di latte, which is just sweet cream.
- Stracciatella is sweetened cream with chocolate poured over it so that it hardens and breaks.
- Amareno is cherry flavored.
- Zuppe Inglese is custard with chocolate and lady fingers.
- Nocciola is hazelnut.
Cannolis were invented in, and dominate in, Sicily and Southern Italy. A deep-fried tube filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, these delights will tempt you from their window displays. They can be very rich so don’t over-order. You will also find them with chocolate and other flavors.
You may also run into Panetone. A puffy bread with raisins and candied citrus peels, Italians traditionally serve this around Christmas time. We remember our vacation rental hosts gave us one when we stayed near Vernazza in the Cinque Terre in early November. The dessert originated in Lombardy centuries ago, but you can find it pretty much everywhere now.
Finally, the most famous Italian dessert of all. Most non-Italians have heard of Tiramisu. There are two legends of how this was invented. One says this favorite dessert was invented as recently as the 1960s in the Veneto region. My favorite legend says that a Madame at a house of ill repute invented it to revive her patrons before they went home. The name literally translates to “pick me up.”
Tiramisu is a simple dessert consisting of layers of ladyfingers soaked with espresso and sweetened mascarpone cheese and some chocolate powder on top. You will find variations on this of course, with additional flavors added. We recently stayed in Rome near Piazza Navona and a tiny little shop that sold only Tiramisu per porta via consistently had lines several people deep. We finally took the time to try it and, Mama mia, deliccioso!
Wine and Cocktails in Italy
There are entire websites and books dedicated to the wines of Italy. Suffice it to say that in all parts of Italy, each region and locality has its specialty wine. Some have fancy whites and others deep reds. You can go to a fancy wine shop or enoteca but honestly, we find good, affordable table wines at the grocery store.
Many restaurants serve their own wines. We aren’t oenophiles so that’s good enough for us, but definitely ask your restauranteur or apartment host if they have suggestions for keeping it local.
Wine production in Italy goes back literally thousands of years and they know what they are doing.
While in Venice we tried peach Bellini. Peach Bellini is a classic Italian cocktail made with fresh peach puree, Prosecco or Champagne, and a touch of sweetness. It is believed to have originated in Venice, Italy, in the 1940s, and has since become a popular drink worldwide. The sweetness of the ripe peaches is balanced by the dryness of the sparkling wine, resulting in a refreshing and effervescent drink perfect for a hot summer day. Peach Bellini is often served as a brunch or pre-dinner cocktail and can be garnished with a slice of peach or a sprig of mint for a touch of color and flavor.
Perhaps Mel’s favorite drink was the Bombardino, a traditional Italian cocktail that is popular during the winter months (though we had it in September while hiking hut-to-hut. It is made with equal parts of Advocaat, a sweet and creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar, and brandy, and hot brandy or rum. The drink is typically served hot and is often topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cocoa powder. Bombardino is said to have originated in the ski resorts of the Italian Alps, where it provided warmth and comfort to skiers and snowboarders after a day on the slopes. The drink has a rich, decadent flavor and a creamy texture that makes it a perfect treat while gazing at the mountains.
Surprising Facts and Myths About Italian Food
In the United States, we are lucky to have so many people that have shared their Italian heritage with us, especially when it comes to their food. However, you may be surprised by these Italy Food facts regarding “Italian” food that, contrary to popular belief, you won’t find in Italy.
- You will not find garlic bread in restaurants in Italy. The closest you will get is bruschetta, which honestly, is even better. Toasted ciabatta bread drizzled with olive oil and maybe diced tomatoes and basil. It’s almost like candy.
- Fettuccine Alfredo was popularized in America by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford of Hollywood in the 20s. It’s based on the traditional sauce made from butter and parmigiana cheese. In Italy, it’s referred to as al burro. You can go to two different restaurants in Rome that claim to be the originator of Fettuccine Alfredo: Alfredo alla Scrofa not far from the Tiber river north of the old center, Il Vero Alfredo in Piazza Augusta Imperatore a bit further north.
- Caesar salad is not an authentic Italian dish and you won’t find it in an authentic Italian restaurant. It was, however, supposedly invented by an Italian who owned restaurants in the United States and Mexico in the 1920s.
- As stated above, you will not find spaghetti with meatballs. You will find spaghetti. You will find meatballs. But, you will have to combine them yourself.
Fun Facts About Italy Food and Culture Conclusion
We love eating in Italy. Who wouldn’t? Each region has wonderful takes on traditional foods as well as its own specialties honed over thousands of years from the days of ancient Rome to today.
I highly recommend taking a food tour of some sort as soon as possible. The street food tours are our favorite. It’s a great way to get a window into what the locals love and new tastes to explore.
Try the local wine. Ask for suggestions from your waiters. Add in an extra splurge day. If you try something different and you don’t like it, that’s ok. Just move on and try something else. It’s only food. Good luck and Buon Appetito!
Other Posts to Help You Plan Your Trip to Italy
- Best Books Set in Italy
- Alta Via 2 – Hiking in the Dolomites
- Things to Do in Ortisei (Val Gardena) Dolomites
- Venice Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Sorrento
- Rome Itinerary
- Best Italian Cocktails
- Fun Facts About Italian Food and Culture
- Rent a Bike in Tuscany
- Cinque Terre with Kids
- Day Trips from Florence to Cinque Terre
- Must See Museums in Florence
- Worldschooling il Duomo’s Dome
- Things to Do in Florence Italy with Kids
- Florence Street Art
- Day Hike Near Florence: Fiesole
- First Impressions of Florence, Italy