The following article was inspired by Rebecca who studied Italian at EF Rome. With her permission, we adapted one of her blog posts about eating in Italy.
Italians take food very seriously – and so they should, since they basically invented it. (Okay, not all food, but they did invent pizza, which was one of the best inventions ever, right?) To make sure you get the most out of your culinary Italian adventure, we’ll give you all the delicious insights so your taste buds can indulge in living la dolce vita.
Italians keep their breakfast light, fast, and sweet: Make sure you try a cornetto, a scrumptious breakfast pastry that looks like a croissant, but isn’t a croissant: It’s much sweeter, a bit like brioche, and often comes filled with custard, jam, or nutella. Healthier options include cereal, yogurt, or toast with your spread of choice (aka nutella). An espresso or cappuccino is a perfect way to start the day, which conveniently brings us to the next topic.
The two most important rules about coffee in Italy are that you reeeeeeeally look like a tourist if you drink cappuccino after around 10 a.m. – it’s strictly a breakfast drink. After mid-morning, you can have any other type of coffee, but go easy on the milk. Then, do not ask for your coffee to go, it’s basically a sin. Italians celebrate their coffee culture and make it a social event that you savor – be it with friends or some reading material. Also, if you ask for a coffee, you get espresso – two mouthfuls of coffee. It’s a quick and strong shot of energy, perfect for drinking while standing at the bar. In some places, if you sit to have your coffee, there is a service fee (since someone will serve you), so be careful.
Italians tend to have a pretty healthy diet, so vegetables and meat are both staples of the local cuisine. Most Italians eat lunch around 1 or 2 p.m., and, depending on your living and working situation, it’s usually the main meal of the day. If your busy schedule allows, lunch can be two courses – pasta as the first course and fish or meat as a second course. If you only want to have a quick lunch, a salad or sandwich will get the job done. Even though Italians savor their meals, there is a takeout option called pizza al taglio, which is a slice of pizza that’s baked in the electric oven. (Compared to the round pizzas from the brick oven, but we’ll get to that soon.) Yes, this might sound pretentious, but the choice of oven really does give a pizza a different flavor. #themoreyouknow
Snack (merenda) and happy hour (aperitivo)
Since Italians have about six hours between lunch and dinner, they usually grab something in between: These snacks are called merende and are basically morning or afternoon pick-me ups that can be sweet (like fruit or biscotti, a hard cookie) or savory (like crackers or a slice of pizza al taglio). If you’re hungry between 5 to 8 p.m., opt for aperitivo, which is basically happy hour! Aperitivo is very similar to the Spanish tapas – you go to a little bar or a restaurant, pay for your drinks, and eat finger food for free at the little buffet at the bar. When I go for aperitivo with friends, I usually make that my dinner, as it is filling enough on its own.
A typical dinner at an Italian home is usually pasta, meat, and vegetables, and takes place around 8 p.m. Going out for dinner in Italy is a pretty big thing to do, or eat, for that matter: Several courses, wine, and a long time chatting and lingering are all part of the event. Most menus will offer four courses and usually look a little something like this:
Antipasto: This literally means before (anti) the meal (pasto). It’s usually a plate of cheese, meat, and olives. I highly recommend trying bruschetta, pronounced brusketta, a piece of grilled bread topped with tomatoes and olive oil that results in very happy taste buds.
Primo Piatto: This is the first (primo) course (piatto), and is typically pasta. Actually, scratch that, it’s always pasta. Delicious pasta, served in an appropriate serving size so there’s stomach room for more. Crucial rules when eating pasta: Never ever cut your spaghetti with a knife or use a spoon to twirl them. Never. (You’ve been warned.)
Secondo Piatto: The second (secondo) course (piatto – look at you, getting a hang of this whole Italian thing!) is your protein course. This is typically a meat or fish course that often comes with a small side of vegetables. On a lot of Italian menus, you can find a section called contorno, which is a list of the side dishes that go with your second course.
A few words on pizza: Dinner is really the only time when you can get the brick-oven-style pizza we all know and love. If the place isn’t touristy, you can get a taste of heaven between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Something to consider: Don’t order a pizza and a side salad. You can combine pizza with antipasto or pizza with dessert, but never with salad. (Just eat salad for lunch and savor the pizza, you’re in Italy, after all.) By the way, it’s perfectly acceptable to cut your pizza into slices, and eat them with your hands.
Finally, the dessert (dolce)! Since you’ve just eaten three to four plates of food, Italian desserts are usually fairly light: Sorbetto al limone (lemon sorbet) is a good example, but my personal favorite is tiramisù: This dessert is made by layering a specific type of hard cookie, which you dip in espresso, between layers of sweetened mascarpone cheese, topped off with cocoa powder, and it creates just the right mixture of sweet and creamy. After dinner, people will often drink a digestif, like limoncello (lemon liquor), or an espresso to help digest the grand meal they just consumed.