Italian mannerisms are quirky. Although pretty consistent across the country, they still can vary from city to beach to countryside. But, I will say beach life in Italy is pretty much a constant…
I feel inclined to share these suggestions because they are incredibly specific and helpful when traveling all over Italy. I think these little details will help in having a fascinating and enriching experience of local culture, by genuinely trying to integrate yourself into the cultural rhythm. The significance of these little quirks I will explain (and mostly hypothesize) as to why they are so commonly practiced. Some of them I grew up with or even ended up adopting back home because, well, they just make a lot of sense! Others are a bit harder to commit to wholeheartedly while immersed in the NYC grind.
Let’s break it down! To start, a general intro to ‘Italian cordiality.’ We will then dive into food culture (because that is my only true motivation) and map out the daily grind of cibo. After, we will have a ‘coffee’ and touch on the simplicity and general awesomeness of Italian beach life. To finish, a good pile of miscellaneous travel jargon that still can lend a hand when you are lost in the chaos of Rome and trying to find off taxi scammers and gypsies.
***….A super heads up! Italy is a modern country ok? So trends, like intermittent fasting and açai bowls exist there too. That being said, while the cultural tips and tools do apply in most cases, do not see Italy as some museum that is isolated from commercial (bs) trends.
Ok here we go!!!
First and foremost…
ALWAYS TRY TO SPEAK ITALIAN! It is the sweetest and most respectful thing to do! Do not be afraid of your accent, just go with it! Generally, people will want to help you out. A few helpful tips:
When you walk into a store, always say Salve (sal-veh,) which is the formal way to say hello when entering a new place. You can also say buongiorno or ciao. The goal is simply kindness! Especially in the South, Italians do appreciate friendliness and openness. Mixing Italian and english is never a bad thing…! I actually suggest it, because there are an incredible amount of english words people know, and it can make for a nice cultural exchange! (e.a. film, bar, cool, etc…) For convenience, stray from using big words that you would probably not understand if someone said them to you in Italian.
In Italy, the customer is not always right. It is a strange thing to experience, but with a few helpful tips, you will get the gist of Italian eating culture!
Breakfasts are traditionally more sweet. Coffee does well with sweet stuff am I right?? A cornetto (Italian version of a croissant – more sweet and ‘eggy,’ with a bit of citrus essence) with a coffee is probably the most classic breakfast. In many households, biscuits, coffee, and juice is a quick acceptable breakfast. Again, Italy offers options. The point is: do not be surprised if coffee bars do not have many savory options.
Restaurants have strict hours. Lunch is usually served between the hours of 12 to 2:30 or3 p m. Dinner is never served before 7 or 7:30 pm. If you can relax your schedule, try to just get into the food mood there. Do not try to eat dinner at 6 pm at a local restaurant because it will result in a lot of frustration for yourself and the restaurant owners.
Avoid restaurants with menus full of pictures. There truly is not much more to explain here. If something is delicious, why need the extra advertising?
Ask for an Italian menu. The english menus notoriously do not make any sense. The translations are often misleading and pretty laughable (would you like the egg cream pasta, aka carbonara??) If you can bear it, try the Italian menu and use research to learn. Most of the time it is one menu with or without translations. But, if you receive a menu completely in english, ask your server to see the original menu!
Olive oil and balsamic are not used for dipping bread. Oil and vinegar are typically given as condiments for salad occasionally. Bread is used to enjoy alone or to wipe up leftover sauce on your plate. Sometimes, Italians reconcile the desire to dip bread in olive oil, depending on place and circumstance. Maybe there are some delicious tomatoes, or fresh fagioli (beans) that you are enjoying to start. Just don’t be surprised if condiments are nowhere to be found on the table. It is not a common thing.
There is an ingrained order of courses. Appetizers, primi (pasta,) secondi & contorni (meats and sides) are served IN THAT ORDER. They really value that there – people really EAT. It is cool to go out of order, but do not expect everything to come together like it does it in the states. Oftentimes they do accommodate, but it can confuse the kitchen a bit. A perfect time to try to practice your language skills!
Do not ask for salt and pepper. Whatever you do, pretty please try to not ask for salt and/or pepper. It is one of the largest insults to chefs [in Italy.] You are almost better off saying the food is inedible. Again, there exist some exceptions. Salads, for example, are often served undressed, so they will always bring the condiments! If you do ask, though, do not be surprised if your server may have an adverse reaction.
Last but not least…
Aperitivo is maybe the best thing since sliced bread. This is the most amazing addition to anyone’s lifestyle. Usually happening from 6 to 10 pm, everyone grabs a couple of drinks, which are typically accompanied by complimentary bites, like nuts and potato chips. A typical aperitif is anything with bitters like an aperol spritz, negroni, etc… On the Amalfi coast, you can find a limoncello spritz, which is divine. It is also common to order a prosecco or glass of wine. Florence is home to the negroni so milk it there!!! Some people refer to aperitivo simply as “Ape (ah-peh.)”
(City/ Location specific:)
Bread in Florence will not have salt – sounds strange, but pane toscano is quite flavorless (for a few reasons.) So do not be shocked if the bread at your table in Florence has about the same amount of flavor as cardboard. It is usually used for crostone, which have a lovely arrangement of salty toppings, like chicken pâté (fegatino) and Tuscan pecorino cheese.
Pizza is not amazing everywhere. It is like a burger in NYC or the States overall; it is quite an American thing, but does not mean it is great everywhere. Pizza originates from a few places in Italy, and with different styles. Do not assume that just cuz it’s Italy, the pizza will always be amazing. You CAN find great pizza everywhere, if you do research as to where and what kind of pizza you’re looking for.
For example: In Napoli, you’ll find the traditional napoletana pizza, with a fluffy elevated crust, decorated in tomato and bufala mozzarella. Or, in Rome you can snag some thin crispy pizza tonda or pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice, weighed by kilo.) I can go on and on about pizza varieties in Italy. That I will save to rant about later….!
Try local bars. Learn and make friends! The bar is where you can grab a coffee or drink at anytime (no one will judge your shot of sambuca at 9 am…) It is a groovy way to expose oneself to local culture. This leads to….
Do not immediately sit down for a coffee! Go straight to the bar! This is how you will end up spending maybe 4-6 euros for a caffe/ espresso. Do not sit down at some big patio in a piazza. An espresso is a quick job. If anything, order your cappuccino macchiato, or whatever you please, then take a seat! Avoid the big bars anyways, unless it is an exceptionally stunning one.
Cappuccino is a morning only thing. In Italy, you do not drink frothy drinks after 11 am or maybe 12 pm. If you wanna be super Italian, take a cappuccino in the morning and have an espresso or macchiato after lunch and dinner! Italians are all about good digestion (why do you think they have so many bitters/amari?) Also, if you want a “latte,” you must ask for a caffe latte or cafe au lait. “Latte” in Italian means milk, so you would end up with a glass of hot or cold milk, instead.
Beach it Up:
Live the lettino life! Beaches in Italy are simple. A lettino, or beach chair, can be rented at beach bars for the day, making life super easy peasy limoncello squeezy. All you need to do is get up and walk either to the water or to the beach bar for a delicious bite. Where ever you are staying, you can always ask your host or concierge for a recommendation or to give a call if you need to book ahead. Usually, you can just walk in. (ci sono lettini disponibili signore/signora??) Go early/book ahead, though, if you want that waterfront seat. (See Live the Lettino Life for more!)
Italians are competitive beach goers!! They will be out bright and early to be in front of the water like most of us. Also, they will linger much later (I have personally stayed out on the beach until 7:30/8 pm.) It does vary where, but the beach is religion. It is also quite beautiful, whether you are on the Adriatic or Tyrrhenian side!
Do not swim at beaches near busy ports. Lots of boats means there are more chances there could be oil and trash in the water. It is a sad thing, but not everyone is very careful when boating. Also, it can be a bit dangerous to swim that close to propellers and engines….
Transportation/ General Jargon:
In cities, find taxi stands. You do not flag down taxis New York style in Italy. You can find a lot of stands around while walking. Also, you can ask a store or restaurant owner to call a taxi for you. Ubers are only available in Rome and Milan.
Avoid the port. Restaurants and most hotels by busy ports are always overpriced. There are exceptions in much smaller towns, but with the ever increasing popularity of Italy, even more so now in the South, ports will remain one of the best ways to get scammed.
Keep an eye out for GYPSIES – Known as zinghari to Italians, these guys still very much prey on tourists. Keep an eye out at all train stations. And, if you take regional trains especially. They are professionals at preying on tourists. They are easy to point out because they linger and do not look super well kept. You can find many begging for money. There are others who do prey on tourists, like unofficial taxi drivers. So, be a New Yorker and act like you know where you’re going no matter what. This is the time to try out some Italian and ask any train attendants to restaurant owners if you feel overwhelmingly lost!!
That is it! If you have anything to add, comment on, or even question, please reach out! I absolutely love discussing cultural norms, evolutions, and exchanges. I will be adding to this overtime, so please check back if you dig it. This is a list I am admittedly proud of because it took many embarrassing moments to fully integrate myself into the cultural rhythm. I will admit spending time in Italy as a child did give me an upper hand. But still, I am American.
Please use this. It will make Italy even greater for you, and give you a boat load of laughs along the way.