Italian Food Culture: A primer

Frankreference27 Comments

Italian Food Culture

There is much more to Italian food culture than many people outside Italy realize. Mastering the art of Italian cooking is not just a matter of learning recipes. It requires coming to understand a whole approach to the preparation and eating of food. And one way to get a good sense of this approach is by getting to know a series of unwritten “rules” that guide most Italians’ culinary habits.

Here are twenty basic rules, some of which may surprise you:

General Rules

Rule 1: Eat in season. This ‘rule’ is valid anywhere, but many of us ignore it. Italians still do follow it, by and large. Asparagus is for the spring, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers for the summer, mushrooms for the fall, cabbage and hearty stews in the winter, and so on. Order a risotto ai funghi porcini in a restaurant in mid-summer and you may get some strange looks. This rule, unfortunately in my opinion, does seem to be breaking down some. In the last few years while I was in Rome, out of season fruits and vegetables began appearing in the supermarkets (never the open air markets) but they were very expensive and, of course, not very tasty. Frozen vegetables were also beginning to catch on.

Rule 2: Eat locally. Italians were locavores long before it became fashionable (or the word even existed). For most of history this was a matter of necessity for all but a privileged few. But this way of eating continues now that prosperity is widespread. Even the train trip from Rome to Florence can be like a visit to a foreign land in culinary terms. On the other hand, these days, as elsewhere, regional differences are beginning to blur. A number of local specialities have become national dishes (eg, pizza, carbonara). But even these national dishes taste best in their native territory. If you’re in Italy as a tourist, there’s no point in ordering pizza in Milan or a risotto in Naples. If you want carbonara, go to Rome. Do a little research before visiting a town and try the local specialties.

Rule 3: Look for a harmonious combination of ingredients and avoid clashing combinations. Generally speaking, Italians feel that fish and cheese do not mix. (Never put grated cheese on pasta alle vongole!) But there are various exceptions to this rule. For example, mozzarella and anchovies are a common pairing. It is also not unheard of to combine fish with cream and with some milder cheeses, so perhaps more accurate to say that fish and aged cheese do not mix. But even there, there are exceptions, especially in southern Italian cookery. And though it may come as a surprise to many. non-Italians, pasta and chicken is another taboo combination. Mushrooms and cheese is yet another dubious combination, but here, too, there are exceptions like mushroom salad with parmesan shavings.

The structure of an Italian meal

Rule 4: There is no such thing as a ‘main course’ in a classic Italian meal. A classic Italian meal is a series of courses of varying number, depending on the occasion, but including a primo (first course of pasta, soup, polenta, rice, etc.) and a secondo (meat, fish, vegetable), often served with a contorno (vegetable side dish). Fresh fruit usually serves as dessert. Or more formal occasions, an antipasto comes before the primo, and a proper dessert may close the meal. In the old days, formal dinners could also have an ‘intermezzo’ between the primo and secondo.

That said, times are changing. In these diet conscious days, when eating out, the new normal is to share an antipasto, then have either a primo or a secondo (but not both). If you’re still hungry, you share a dessert. Everyday meals might include just a primo or secondo with some fruit to follow.

It is possible to double or even triple-up primi and/or secondi at elaborate dinners as well. But having a pasta as a second course after another pasta, or a soup after a pasta, is a common mistake non-Italians make when ordering in Italian restaurants. The notable, and increasingly common, exception to this rule is the piatto unico, or ‘single dish’, that serves as both primo and secondo.

Rule 5: The courses of a meal should provide variety without clashing. You would not follow a delicate egg pasta, for example, with a spicy dish like fettine di manzo alla pizzaiola. And it is preferable not to repeat key ingredients from course to course—better not to follow a pasta with tomato sauce, for example, with a meat dish that features tomatoes. That said, it is quite common in southern Italy to follow a pasta and meat ragù with the meat from the ragù.) At the same time, a dinner that begins with seafood often continues with seafood in later courses. A rule of thumb for beginners: try to stick to dishes of a single region for the various courses; they are more likely to go well together.

Rule 6: Do not serve pasta, risotto, gnocchi and the like as side dishes but as a separate course. There are exceptions like ossobuco (braised veal shank) and risotto alla milanese, which are often served together. Polenta is often served with meats as in polenta e osei (polenta with roasted birds) or polenta and sausages. You call this kind of combination dish a piatto unico.

Rule 7: Salads are most often served as contorni (side dishes). Most Italians don’t follow the immigrant custom of serving green or mixed salad as a separate course after the secondo and before the fruit. Certain salads, however, in particular composed salads like an insalata caprese, can serve as an antipasto.

Cooking pasta

Italian Food Culture: A primer

Rule 8: Pasta should be eaten ‘al dente. Most people know, or think they know, this rule by now. But it is possible to overdo it. Generally speaking, pasta secca, made with durum wheat flour, will have a much firmer consistency than pasta fresca, which is (or should be) made with soft “OO” flour. In the US (and perhaps elsewhere) however, commercially sold tortellini and other egg pastas are often made with durum wheat pasta, giving them an excessively firm consistency. You should cook these pastas well to achieve the right consistency.

Moreover, what exactly al dente means in practice is highly personal. Generally speaking, northern Italians will consider ‘al dente’ a relatively softer consistency, and southern Italians a relatively firmer consistency. In no case should pasta be chalky to the bite, nor should it be mushy or soggy—the pasta should provide resistance when you bite into it.

Within these general limits, the issue is basically one of personal taste. In his excellent book Cuochi si diventa, renowned Milanese gastronome Allan Bay says that “ogni italiano ha il suo punto di dente, parlare di questo è del tutto inutile”, which is to say “every Italian has his or her own definition of the point when pasta is done al dente, so talking about it is useless.” Do be aware, however, that pasta will continue to cook for a while after it is drained, even more so if you mix it with its sauce over low heat, as is so many recipes call for. So drain your pasta while it is still just slightly ‘underdone’ for your taste.

Equally important is making sure to cook pasta in abundant, well-salted water. The general ‘rule of thumb’ is one liter of water for each 100g of pasta, which is easy to remember. (NB: 75-100g is the normal portion of pasta for one person.) But you really can never have too much water, so err on the side of more rather than less water. That said, there are some dishes, like cacio e pepe, where some cooks purposefully cook the pasta in a relatively small of amount of water so as to maximize its creamy starchiness.

And don’t be too shy with the salt or your pasta will turn out sciapa—insipid. The water should actually taste salty, like a soup. But it shouldn’t “taste like the sea” as is sometimes said. That would make the pasta inedible.

Rule 9: It is important to pair the ‘right’ pasta shape with the ‘right’ sauce. It is difficult to give hard and fast rules. This is something that you get a feel for over time and with experience. But some general rules of thumb are possible.

For this purpose, it is useful to group pasta shapes into three broad categories: ‘long’ pastas like spaghetti, bucatini or linguine; ‘short’ or ‘stubby’ pastas such as penne and rigatoni; and ‘soup’ or ‘spoon’ pastas such as ditalini or stellette. Long pastas go well with tomato and other smooth sauces, as well as garlic and oil based sauces like clam sauce. Short pastas, especially those with a concave shape or with holes in them, tend to go well with chunky sauces, such as chiocciole con salsiccia, piselli e ricotta. Spoon or soup pasta, as the name implies, go well with soups and soup-like dishes eaten with a spoon, like pasta e piselli. Beware: the names of pasta shapes can vary across regions, like bucatini, which are called perciatelli in Naples.

Another important distinction is between pasta secca, factory-made durum wheat pasta, and pasta fresca, eg pasta made with soft “OO” flour. Generally speaking, oil based and ‘rustic’ sauces from southern Italy go with pasta secca. Delicate, cream- or butter-based sauces from the North go with pasta fresca. But there are many exceptions to the rule. Carbonara, for example, is typically made with spaghetti, but can also be made with short pasta like penne or rigatoni, or even with fettuccine.

If you are new to Italian food, it would be a good idea to stick to classic combinations. On this site, recipes will indicate the type(s) of pasta that go with a particular sauce, together with suggestions for alternative pasta shapes where appropriate.

Rule 10: It is equally important not to over-sauce your pasta. You should ‘dress’ the pasta with just enough sauce to flavor it, just as you would dress a salad. In fact, the verb condire in Italian is use both for dressing a salad and for saucing pasta. The photographs that go with the recipes on this site provide an indication of how the dish should turn out.

Rule 11: Don’t assume that grated cheese goes on every pasta dish. In general, as mentioned above, cheese does not go on pasta with fish sauces. Nor does it go on ajo e ojo or other garlic-and-oil based pasta dishes. Spicy dishes call for ‘spicy’ cheese like pecorino, not parmigiano, or even more often, no cheese at all. On this blog, the recipe will specify whenever a dish calls for grated cheese. If the recipes doesn’t specify, then the dish does not call for grated cheese.

Rule 12: Pasta salads are made with pasta secca. While a few egg pastas like garganelli lend themselves to pasta salad, in general go with shapes like shells. There is no such thing in real Italian cooking, for example, as a ‘tortellini salad’. And pasta salads are rarely (if ever) made with mayonnaise.

Eating your greens

Rule 13: Except in the fanciest of restaurants, vegetables are not there for garnish. They are meant to be eaten.

Rule 14: Salad dressing is made from oil and vinegar (or, less frequently, lemon). Do not expect to find ‘blue cheese’ or ranch dressing—or any other kind of bottled dressing, for that matter. You don’t prepare dressings separately and pour them on the salad. To dress a salad Italian-style, you add oil, vinegar and salt directly to the salad bowl and mix them with the greens. A rare exception is puntarelle, a kind of wild chicory, which are dressed with a separately prepared garlic and anchovy dressing.


Rule 15: Drink cappuccino only in the morning, and never after a meal. The “rule” is you don’t drink cappuccino after 11 am. And you drink coffee—always an espresso, not a cappuccino— after you’ve finished eating not with your food. It does not accompany dessert or any other part of the meal.

Rule 16: Mineral water and/or wine are the beverages of choice to accompany your meals. That said, beer is becoming increasingly popular, especially with pizza. Avoid milk and, as mentioned above, coffee. I’ve seen some young Italians drink Coke with their meals, especially with pizza. Sigh… And PS: It is said to bring bad luck to toast with anything but wine.

Table Manners

Italian Food Culture: A primer

Rule 17Use a knife and fork! Italians are not traditionally big on eating with their hands. Even pizza… In sit down pizzerias in Italy, they will generally serve you your pizza whole. You then cut it into slices with a knife and fork. From there, many Italians will cut the slices into bite sized pieces, never touching the pizza with their hands. Others will eat the individual slices with theirs hands. There are exceptions: pizza ‘a taglio’, a single slice of pizza sold at stands, tramezzini and panini, ice cream cones, scottadito, all of which you eat with your hands. But many Italians will eat even some of these foods with a napkin to avoid direct contact, though the taboo around eating with your hands seems to be breaking down, especially among young people.

Rule 18: Do not cut your spaghetti. Twirl it on your fork. And unless you are 6 years old or younger, do not use a spoon.

Rule 19: Do not eat bread with pasta. But you can (if eating with friends informally) fare la scarpetta, i.e. sop up the extra sauce after you’ve finished a pasta (or another dish with a sauce). Unless you are at home among friends, use a fork. Except in some regions of northern Italy, you will not find bread served with butter. If you ask for it, you may get some odd looks. Nor is dipping bread in olive oil as you wait for a meal an Italian custom. (It’s unclear to me where that started.) There does exist an antipasto called pinzimonio where you dip cut fresh vegetables in seasoned olive oil.

Rule 20: If you leave food on your plate, your host may wonder if you didn’t like it. Your host may ask you if you liked the dish, just to make sure nothing was wrong. Of course, it is fine to explain that the food was delicious, but you are full. Except, that is, if your host is your Italian mother or grandmother…

A final word of advice…

Finally, let’s close this primer on Italian food culture not with a rule but an attitude. You can sum it up with the old expression: “a tavola non s’invecchia”, meaning “at the table you do not age”. In other words, don’t rush through your meals, don’t eat them in your car while driving or at your desk. Sit down with friends, take your time and enjoy!

27 Comments on “Italian Food Culture: A primer”

  1. Hi Frank- very interesting articles and recipes. Generally I love authentic Italian food, but I really don’t like having primi and secondi piatti. I like things all on my plate at once, so I can sample a little of each as I go. Since I’m almost always watching my diet, I usually leave food on my plate! As an American chef and author, I must say that I find some of the rules of “authentic Italian cooking” to be arbitrary and silly While one might say that cheese doesn’t belong on fish because it overpowers the delicate taste, I would say that MY taste buds tell me that fish is generally strong tasting and that cheese nicely balances this (even fresh fish). I do cook with salt, but probably not as much as you do. I think it’s likely that my salt receptors might be more sensitive than yours, so maybe the end result is the same. No one knows what someone else tastes. I find that recipes I see in the major cooking magazines and shows use 2 or 3 times more salt than I find acceptable. And the abomination of pineapple on pizza? To that I would say YUM! As long as the cheese is excellent and crust crisp and chewy! ( but I won’t order it when I’m in Italy LOL)

  2. Pingback: earthstOriez | History: On how coffee reached South Italy and Naples

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  4. Thank you for this great post. One question. How is bread traditionally incorporated into a meal?

    1. Great question, Judah!

      The bread is an integral part of the meal and makes its appearance early. I can remember my grandmother appearing at the table as the family began to eat, a large round loaf in hand, and then slicing it as she held that loaf against her breast. There was something almost theatrical about it that I found mermerizing. And the bread was wonderful, too.

      The bread is there to be eaten along with the savory food items. It is not so much there for its own sake, so as mentioned in the post you don’t get butter or olive oil with your bread to eat it as a kind of appetizer or side dish. Rather, you can use it to soak up the sauce or juices from the food on your plate, something Italians call “fare la scarpetta” or “to make the little shoe”. Or it can also help balance out strongly flavored items like cured meats or cheeses. A bite of cheese, then a bite of bread to cleanse the palate, etc.

      So generally, you’ll have bread along with the antipasto (appetizer), after the primo (first/pasta) course to soak up any leftover sauce, then with the secondo (second course) and contorno (side dish), either to soak up sauce or simply as an accompaniment.

  5. Really late comment on an almost 10 year old post, but I just stumbled across this site. What a great resource this site is! I’m becoming increasingly interested in cooking and, in particular, making authentic food the way it was intended to be made. I’ll definitely spend more time here.

    About dipping bread in olive oil prior to a meal not being an Italian custom: My guess is that this is a Greek custom (part of the meze tradition) that is mistakenly attributed to Italy as well. I’ve been several times to a village close to Kalamata in southern Greece where most native residents own a couple of olive trees that they have oil made from. Restaurant owners will often serve their own olive oil and be very proud of it – and rightly so, Kalamata olives and oil are amazing – and encourage you to try it with bread before the meal.

    Cheers from Sweden!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment and welcome to the blog, Olof! I do hope you enjoy the site and find it useful. Interesting story about the Greek custom—I think you may be on to something there.

  6. Frank, I spend many hours enjoying the information you share. A question: at what time of day would a meal of several courses be eaten, traditionally? Does this vary by region? Thank you again for the blog.

    1. Lovely to hear from you, L.K.! As you might imagine, a full meal of several courses would traditionally be eaten at midday, followed by a nap… Dinner (cena) was traditionally a light, humble meal. These days, most people don’t have the time for a big midday meal every day, so it’s generally limited to Sundays—and even that, sadly, seems to be losing ground to modern life.

  7. Hello, I just recently found your blog and love it! Regarding the salad course, my father and his family (who are from Emilia-Romagna) always ate the salad course (cold salad as opposed to cooked vegetables) after 'il secondo' and before fruit/dessert. My father told me this may be a family thing and is not “typical Italian”. But it is interesting that Hazan also mentions this custom as she is from the same region and a town not far from where my father is from in Romagna.

    Regarding Italians being 'locovoires'; I think this is sadly changing as more people go to the big grocery stores. I have seen this change in Imola, a relatively small town near Bologna, where my father is from. When I was a child, there was a farmer's market in the main square, with actual farmers and there freshly picked local produce. Probably 20 years ago, they moved this market to an indoor market. Now, in this indoor market it's more expensive and the food just looks “too perfect” to have been grown in local plots and it's not nearly as popular as the old market was.

    When I was there in September, my aunt told me that there is in fact a 'real' farmers' market, but that they are not permitted to compete with the indoor market, so can only sell food before 9am! I visited this market, and it is definitely run by local farmers, the dirt is still on the produce! I was happy to see many people shopping there and the prices are reportedly better than the indoor market. This latest visit made me realize how close we are to losing small farms and to being left with eating food grown in greenhouses in another continent. It was also a reminder of what a great struggle it is to keep traditional foods and eating habits alive.

  8. Ciao! I feld in love with Italian food when I began to learn italian language. I already knew so much about the romans, because I love history. I think that you can not begin to understand a culture without knowing the food culture. I am not agreing with y about eating pizza, because Italiens like eat it quite often with hands, at least in Napoli, but can be a diferent culture in south then in North. I also have a culinary blog and I ask for your permision to make a link for you post “Italian food Culture: a Primer” because I will like to let my readers about the richness of Italian Food. Thank y for yr wonderful blog!

  9. @Cindy, Anonymous: Your experiences intrigue me, since they do not coincide with my own experience living in Italy or with feedback from Italian friends. I'm also curious about the Italian-American custom of eating salad as a separate course after the secondo, which must have its origins in the 'Old Country'.

    So I did a little research into the subject. So far, however, I've found no satisfactory explanation. The sources I've consulted, in both English and Italian, including Artusi and Ada Boni, the two most authoritative books on Italian cookery, confirm the structure of the Italian meal as described in this post: antipasto, primo, secondo accompanied by a contorno and dessert. No mention of a separate salad course. Indeed, one source aimed at English-speaking audiences (Giuliano Bugialli's Fine Art of Italian Cooking) goes as far as to affirm that there is no separate salad course in a traditional Italian meal. And, interestingly, Artusi and Boni both specify that salads should accompany not just any secondo but roasted meats (arrosti) and, indeed, that is still probably the most common use of a salad in Italian meals today.
    In our discussions on this subject at Foodbuzz, one Italian-American mentioned the salad course and was quickly contradicted by an Italian-Italian Foodbuzzer.
    I did find one exception to all of this, and it must be said a notable one: Marcella Hazan, who does talk about 'the salad course' served after the secondo in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
    But Hazan is clearly an outlier and may (just a guess) be catering to American tastes. Or perhaps there are some regional variations that aren't reflected in the sources. Italy is, after all, still a highly regional country.
    So, in short, I don't have an explanation for your experiences. I will keep on looking into this, but in the meanwhile, there are a couple of educated guesses: One is that it is true that the traditional structure of Italian meals is beginning to break down under the pressure of modern life and health concerns. People have less time than they used to, even in Italy, and meals are smaller than they used to be. One result is the increasing popularity of the 'piatto unico'–a combined primo and secondo. In such cases, it is customary to serve the salad afterwards, to maintain some sequencing of courses.
    Other possible explanations would include regional variations, as one of you mentioned, or, in the case of restaurants, the desire to please the customer's personal preferences or perhaps an assumption that an American or other foreigner expects the salad after the secondo.
    Anyway, the subject interests me and deserves some further research. Will also ask some of my Italian friends if they have some insights.
    Thanks for your comments!

  10. Re the comment on the place of salad in the typical Italian meal, I, too, in my many summers (and a few springs and falls)in northern Italy saw salads served only at the end of the meal, before the fruit and cheese. In any case, thanks for the authentic blog, Frank. A pleasure to read. Cindy

  11. Great authentic blog! My only question, I grew up in Italy, and I do not remember salad being a contorno, but instead as a separate course after the meal. It was always simple, just a few leaves, with perhaps some tomato or fennel, oil / vinegar / lemon. Never a large quantity, Italians always said they ate it after the meal to aid digestion.

    Is eating it as a contorno a regional thing? thanks!

  12. Thanks! Great reply! I figured that was what was meant by eating locally; I just like to throw out random facts and you just gave me a few to mull over! 🙂

  13. Many thanks for your kind words about the blog! You're right, both the tomato and the bell pepper are imports from the New World. Actually, the tomato was introduced into Italy more like 500 years ago, although for a long time it was thought to be poisonous and not eaten. The first known recipe for the tomato dates from 1692, about 300 years ago, but in fact the tomato did not 'take off' in terms of its centrality of Italian cuisine until quite recently, during the 19th century. (This really surprises a lot of people.) Peppers were introduced around the same time as tomatoes. And there were other New World imports, including the potato—without which no gnocchi di patate—and corn from which we got polenta. (Although both gnocchi and polenta had been made with other ingredients for centuries before potatoes and corn were introduced.) Even the ubiquitous zucchina is an import from the New World. And eggplants were introduced from the Arab world. Rice was introduced into Sicily by the Moors and spread to the rest of Italy in the 15th century. Even wheat, without which we would not have pasta, originally came from the Middle East, if you want to go back far enough in history (around 5000 years). And the imports continue even today. For example, Italy is now the world's largest producer of kiwi, but the fruit, as you probably know, was developed in New Zealand from a wild Chinese vine.
    Of course, by 'eating local' I did not mean that every fruit and vegetable that Italians eat today originated in Italy. In fact, as mentioned, many did not. But I do mean two things: first, that Italians have largely preserved their local culinary traditions, and (2) Italians still get most of their food from local growers. Both things contribute mightily to the quality and variety that is essential to the Italian approach to food.

  14. First, I'd like to say that I found this blog through a Facebook ad, and I'm really glad I clicked on it. You do a wonderful job of describing the food and giving us recipe guidelines to follow. It makes me hungry just to read your posts.
    That said, it's funny you should mention eating locally, since Tomatoes and bell peppers were imported from South America in the last 300 or so years…So, it's almost like 1 staple and 1 frequently used ingredient (at least in American Italian food) was not native or local at all.

  15. We have so many rules… and yet, freedom rules, in the end! 🙂 But I still “whip” – only verbally, I'm afraid 😉 – my cooking students when they ask me a cappuccino after dinner. ;D You're a FANTASTIC writer, Frank. I can see you giving up your day job and making this your new one…

  16. Your blog is great, keep up the nice work. I am going to Italy in October 09. Can't wait. Thanks for the “Italian descriptions”.

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