If Ciao Bella, grazie and arrivederci are on your list of Italian words; if you love ordering Parmesan-crusted chicken or Fettuccine Alfredo at your favorite Italian restaurant and every morning you take your Venti Coconut Milk Latte with two stevias, you probably know a lot about Italy and LOVE the Italian culture.
And still, I am pretty sure you are about to learn something new about this gorgeous country from my blog post. Visiting Italy for the first time or making local friends can bring you many funny surprises and stories to tell back home.
Italians are world famous for not paying too much attention to the rules, right? Well, while they don’t care much about some formal rules, like careful driving or no loud talking on the train, there are some social rules Italians will respect like their life depends on it.
In Italy when you first meet someone, you shake hands. Later, unless it is a very formal business environment, you are expected to kiss each other on the cheek twice (in some regions three times), starting with the right cheek. Men and women do it all the time, especially in Southern Regions.
Can you imagine how difficult this whole “social distancing” thing is for Italians? But they don’t give up! This is a perfect timing to experiment new ways of greeting, for example, by touching elbows or shoulders to respect the required distance. No greeting at all? Sorry, not an option in this country!
Food probably causes most culture shock cases in people who are sure they love and know the Italian cuisine. Let’s face the truth, many Italian-American dishes don’t exist in Italy. Meal order here is really different from many other countries. And at top of all, Italians don’t usually eat on the go.
Spaghetti with meatballs are probably a great invention that allows you to save time on dish washing but it is not an Italian recipe. Italians do eat meatballs but separately. Same logic goes with chicken. A pasta with bacon, like carbonara, or a meat sauce called ragù is fine for the Italian Food Police, for some reason.
Fettuccine Alfredo do actually exist in a Roman restaurant with the same name, but no Italians in their right mind would go there because it is a thing for tourists.
If you want to witness how jealously Italians cherish their recipes, you can casually mention that you love the “Hawaiian Pizza” (pineapple + ham). Even the most progressive and open-minded Italians who have traveled the world and tasted everything, usually lose their temper on this one and show all shades of disgust, many more than you would expect in a country that produces such a delicacy as maggot cheese.
In Italy you start your meal with “antipasti” – starters that can consist of a “bruschetta” – grilled bread topped with tomatoes, olive oil and salt, but also ham or cheese. Every region has its own typical starters. Then you can have “primo piatto” – the first course, usually pasta, lasagna or risotto. A second course or “secondo” follows – usually meat or fish with a side dish, like vegetables or a salad (of course on a separate plate). Then you can have your dessert.
Bread is not an appetizer, it would be there for the entire duration of the meal. It is prohibited to eat bread and pasta at the same time (boths are carbs) and also don’t ask for any butter, olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
You can’t have two first or two second courses during a meal, unless it is a wedding or a family dinner. You can skip one course, but you must maintain the order. No way you can order pasta and lasagna for yourself or eat your salad before your pasta.
Also, the Italian etiquette says you can’t have cappuccino after noon. Try caffè macchiato instead – an espresso with a small amount with steamed milk. In big cities like Florence, Rome or Milan, baristas don’t care much about traditions and will make you a delicious cappuccino at any hour.
Also, “Venti” is not a coffee size here, it just means “twenty” in Italian. If you don’t want an espresso, ask for “caffè americano”.
Unless it is a special street-food, like sliced pizza – “pizza a taglio” or rice balls – “arancini”, Italians don’t eat on the go. They eat their food at a table.
The only exception is breakfast, which usually consists in a sweet pastry and coffee. It is usually consumed at the bar counter while chatting to the barista and other people around you.
Oh! And if an Italian invites you for a coffee, don’t expect to sit down for hours and have a long conversation, actually, it is literally that, just drink the coffee (as if you are having a shot) and that’s it.
You can find it in all Italian homes but not quite understand its importance for Italians. Being clean is very important here, when Italians travel abroad to countries that don’t have bidets, they complain all the time.
Bidet is their source of pride, something that makes them better than other countries (mostly their French neighbors). They even have an actual published book about the history of this faience monster, that’s how important it is.
If you don’t know what a bidet is, well, it is a cleansing unit for the lower body; if you want to laugh, try to check Wikipedia’s definition, it’s very funny and very explicit! You will learn how to use it as well.
Small-talk in Italy is not about weather, but about everyday life, family, food, recipes. If you come from a country that promotes the Anglo-Saxon restraint, Italians will sometimes provide too much personal information, maybe too loudly as well. For example, speaking about one’s body in detail is the norm here. Nothing to be ashamed of and nothing is too intimate to be shared with a good friend. Try not to look too shocked when it happens!
Probably this is the reason why Italians also speak through their body. There are many funny online tutorials about Italian body gestures that are another, quite efficient, form of communication here. After a week in Italy you will catch yourself upon borrowing some of those gestures too.
From the Italians’ close relationship with food and their bodies you probably figured out that digestion might be one of the most important topics here. Everybody is very careful of their metabolism, of the kind of food they are eating (mixing proteins or carbs during the same meal is a no-go) and the digestion process needs to be taken care of and shared with the world.
Italians even have “digestivi”, special alcoholic drinks that help them digest better, like “limoncello” or “amaro”, that are consumed after a copious meal with family or friends.
Digestion is so important here that after a meal you can’t take a bath for two hours minimum or you risk indigestion, that apparently can kill you. At least, that’s what every Italian from North to South believes.
Italians are well known for being very fashionable, so if you are in Italy, under any circumstances wear white socks or flip flops! Italians see these items as an attack on elegance.
And ladies, please never go outside with your hair wet. It is not stylish and Italians are convinced it can cause you terrible headaches, even in summer!
Since, as you probably understood, the only things Italians are inflexible about are food-related, most words they will frown upon are from this category too.
Al fresco – In English “al fresco” means outdoors, for example “al fresco dining”. In Italian “al fresco” means “in a cool place”, or in its other, more colloquial meaning “in prison”. If you want a restaurant table outdoors, you’d better ask for one “all’aperto”.
Latte – In a lot of countries this is the word for milky coffee but in Italian “latte” is “milk”. If you want coffee with it, then you’re better off ordering a caffè latte or a cappuccino.
Bar – If your Italian friend invites you to a bar at 10 am, no needs to worry. A bar in Italy is open from early morning when they serve coffee and breakfast, to late afternoon, when you can watch a soccer game or have an “aperitivo” before dinner. If you want to go to a place with craft beers and good liquors in Italy, you need a pub.
Pepperoni – If you want a pizza with spicy salami, don’t order a “pepperoni”. “Pepperoni” is the plural for peppers in Italian. What you need is pizza with “salame piccante”. It is less famous here than in the US, this is why not all pizzerias might have it.
Confetti – If your Italian friends ask what confetti flavours you choose for your wedding, don’t be alarmed. In Italy, “confetti” are sugared almonds used to make wedding favors. Italians also use them at baptism and graduation parties. They are usually white at weddings, red at graduations and white, pink or blue for baptism or first communion.
If you need the small pieces of colored paper sprinkled over newly-weds, ask for “coriandoli”. Even if Italians prefer to toss rice at the couple coming out of the Church or wedding hall to symbolize a shower of fertility.
Did you learn something new about Italy from this post?
What was your most remarkable culture shock in Italy? Comment below!