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Episode #211: Eating Out In Italy – Etiquette Tips and More

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Food and eating in Italy are not just seen as sustenance but a part of the cultural experience and a passionate topic of conversation. We delve into Italian food etiquette – exploring the vibrant market culture, the nuances of dining out, and the diverse array of dining establishments and how to navigate them to avoid raised eyebrows (or worse).

Show notes
We welcome back food tour guide, chef and general food enthusiast Nesim Bekalti of Full Belly Tours. Nesim grew up in the foodie Testaccio district of Rome and has returned to his old neighborhood, having lived and worked all over the world as a chef. He loves to share the food and drink treasures of Rome and Testaccio in his wonderful food tours in the Testaccio. At Untold Italy, we have been lucky enough to have experienced first-hand how great Nesim’s tours are. Nesim is a very popular guest on the podcast thanks to our episodes on Roman pasta (part 1 and part 2 )and finding the best restaurants in Rome. In this episode, he gives us great tips for navigating food etiquette – something that most Italians are very passionate about. He shares with us how we can avoid glares at the market and strange looks in restaurants.

Meet Nesim…

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Nesim gives food tours in Rome with his company Full Belly Tours. He grew up in Rome in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome which is the birthplace of traditional Roman cuisine. Having worked all around the world in the food industry, he came back a few years ago and now he shows people around his neighborhood and feeds them lots of delicious, traditional Roman dishes while he tells you a bit about the history of the neighborhood, the city etc
  2. Katy has lost track of how many times she’s done Nesim’s tour but it’s always great and always fresh. If he gets repeat visitors, he always tries to try to mix it up so people don’t get the exact same thing every time. Luckily, the food is very seasonal in Italy and Rome. There are lots of goodies to be enjoyed and Katy somehow even always gets to try a different pizza type! 
  3. People get a bit concerned about etiquette in general when they’re coming to Italy and they want to read up about what’s the cultural norms and how to manage it, but food etiquette may be on a whole other level because Italians are so passionate about the way and what they eat and the customs around it
  4. Italians are very particular when it comes to their food. A lot of people think and talk about Italian food, but that’s actually a misnomer because, like many other countries, food is very regional, and very much more so in Italy
  5. Wherever you are, there are going to be specific dishes, specific cold cuts, and specific wines
  6. What may be considered right in one place may not be in another and they can be very sensitive about their food and can easily get upset even if you’re a paying customer.
  7. Nesim jokes that food businesses often act like they invited you in out of the cold and they’re feeding you out of the kindness of their hearts, in which case, it is understandable to get upset if you do something wrong, but unwitting visitors may be baffled that the customer is always right does not apply
  8. It is fun to learn about the customs and culture when visiting any country – it’s so much part of travel. Comparing and contrasting what you do at home with somewhere else and pondering who does it better!
  9. Italians can sometimes get a little too intense when it comes to food and can sometimes get a little too easily offended if you’re doing something that’s non-traditional or you ask for something that breaks tradition, so it’s good to have an idea of some of these things

Addressing people

  • Always be friendly and polite to the person taking your order! This should go without saying but travelers can tend to get a bit transactional and not be as relaxed and friendly as they might be at home
  • In Italian, like many other romance languages, there’s a formal way of addressing someone and an informal way of addressing someone. The formal way for you is to say lei, (though confusing also means her), whilst the informal is tu
  • If you want to greet someone, it’s always best to use the formal. The easiest way to address someone is to say, Excuse me, which formally is Mi scusi. If you were being informal you would say Scusa, which you would use with younger people. If you’re dealing with older people, it’s always nice to use the formal because that denotes respect
  • When opening a conversation, like you would if you’re addressing someone in English, you open up the conversation and say, Excuse meor hello. You don’t just walk in and demand the things you want
  • Italians are known for being warm and friendly, and they value a friendly welcome. It’s one of the things that makes living in Italy so enjoyable – people are actually nice to each other on a regular basis
  • Particularly if you’ve taken the time to learn how to order things in Italian –  learn the words that can come before and after, please, thank you etc Find some useful phrases here 
  • Depending on where you live, if an Italian person just walked in and barked an order at you – you might not react very warmly. People often don’t even realize that they’re doing it. When traveling, we often get caught up in what we’re trying to achieve in the moment and can therefore forget the human interaction part. But ALWAYS remember that you’re always dealing with humans
  • Sometimes people can forget when dealing with people in the service sector.
  • It’s a good idea to be nice, not just because you’re going to get better service but you’re going to get people that react to you better that way. A smile always helps and is a great ice breaker

Breakfast

  • Start your day with breakfast in Italy happens in a bar. In Italy, a bar is a café. They serve alcohol, but it’s also where you would normally start your day with breakfast
  • Breakfast is usually quick and efficient (possibly the only thing that is quick and efficient in Italy!)
  • There’s a set way to do things, that is best to know ahead of time, especially if it’s a very busy bar in the morning
  • People will normally consume their breakfast at the counter. The coffees aren’t very big. They don’t have a sipping coffee culture there. Coffees are small (a couple of sips) and intense. Even a cappuccino isn’t that big
  • You may have multiple coffees throughout the day, but it’s normally a very quick transaction
  • It’s important to know, to avoid wasting time and people getting annoyed with you, that you should pay first and then use that receipt to get your food
  • If you wait at the counter, then they’ll ask you what you want, if you haven’t paid you’ll have to go back and wait in line. So pay first, and then you bring the receipt and you put it down on the counter when they ask you what you want. To be nice, the norm is to put a 10 or 20-cent coin on the receipt when you put it down on the counter – that’s considered a kind of tip
  • There’s also the question of where you will be consuming your breakfast. Most Italians consume their breakfast at the bar, partly for speed but also because it’s cheaper that way
  • On average in Italy, an Espresso is about €1. That same Espresso, if you choose to sit at the table may cost double – this is because you don’t pay at the counter, you sit down and they’ll come and take your order. If you’re sitting in a café in Piazza San Marco in Venice or in Piazza Navona in Rome – somewhere glorious but touristy, you’re liable to spend 10 times that same coffee at the bar. You’re basically paying for the luxury of sitting in these world-famous squares
  • You’ll often see older Italians sitting in a cafe with one coffee, sipping it very slowly. They are trying to maximize their time there
  • A cappuccino is considered breakfast food. If you ask for a cappuccino after 11:00 AM, you may get some pushback. But you’re on vacation, if you want a cappuccino after 11:00 AM, please feel free to ask for it but you might get a raised eyebrow if you ask for a cappuccino in the afternoon
  • You can ask for your coffee al vetro, which means in a glass. Instead of having the little ceramic coffee cup, they’ll give you what looks essentially like a little shot glass. The pros of that are you can see the coffee to gauge the quality and you can see the magic of la cremina, which is the cream of essential oils that collects at the top of the espresso. The glass for the al vetro is thinner in diameter, so you’re going to get more of that cream (or it will seem that way). The con is that theoretically the glass cools quicker and it turns bitter, quicker
  • If you’re feeling particularly brave or celebratory can ask for a Caffe Corretto. This means a ‘corrected coffee’, which is an espresso with half a shot of your liquor of choice
  • Nesim likes to have one occasionally as a mid-afternoon snack. Pairing it with Baileys will give you the creaminess and sweetness. A fun little afternoon interlude from time to time
  • Katy’s been finding on recent trips – particularly in the north of Itay that some cafes don’t have Espresso machines, but basic coffee machines – her tip, if coffee is important to you, is to leave if you see that

At the market

  • There’s some specific etiquette around how to act in a food market
  • In Italy, they have a very big market culture. There are more and more little supermarkets that are starting to replace them, but they are very lucky to still be able to shop on a very regular basis in markets. Nearly every neighborhood will have its own market
  • Don’t just walk up to a vendor and start touching the fruit. That’s something that is going to drive the vendor crazy. If you see other people doing it, those are the long-term regulars and they have earned the privilege of being allowed to
  • You ask for assistance, and they will get the stuff for you. If you’re serious about buying something small, like grapes or cherry tomatoes, you can ask to try one to see if it’s got the desired taste, sweetness etc. Sometimes the vendor will offer for you to try. But always start out asking for assistance
  • Never just walk up and start serving yourself. It’s considered very rude, especially if you don’t even acknowledge the vendors – again it’s always a good idea to say hello, acknowledge them and let them know you’re interested in what they’re selling
  • Even within the space of a week, that you’re in a place, the more and more frequently you buy from a specific vendor, the more freedom you’ll have as the more they’ll appreciate you
  • This partly has to do with pride – by going back to a vendor repeatedly, you’re telling them that you really appreciate and like what they’re selling. You’re validating their great product is amazing and they’ll like you more because of that

Ordering at the market

  • Ordering can sometimes be confusing as far as what quantity you can buy things in, but noting the price can help you
  • Look at the price and see how it’s being sold. Normally, in a market setting, they’re going to be selling things by the kilo ( about 2lb with the US system) 
  • Sometimes, especially for more expensive things, they’ll sell things by the 100 grams, which is called an etto in Italian. The English word is hectogram (which no one uses it) which is about a quarter lb
  • There’s also certain items that will be sold and priced by the unit, which is al prezzo or l’uno
  • To ensure that you’re buying the best possible version of what you’re getting, you can tell them when it is you want it for. If you’re buying stone fruit, melons, persimmons and things that can ripen very quickly, let them know and they’ll give you one that will be ripe on that day
  • In supermarkets in the US/Australia etc, you tend to get everyone going around squeezing the fruit to try and get to their own judgment of when it’s going to be ready, so there could have been a log of squeezing by the time it gets to you
  • That is the vendor’s main gripe with the produce being touched. – if you squeeze a little too hard, you can bruise the fruit and then they won’t be able to sell it.
  • If you are used to shopping mainly in supermarkets you will find that the produce in Italy is so delicious because it’s very natural and therefore can go off very quickly. When Nesim and his wife moved back to Italy after living in the US, they forgot this and did a week’s worth of shopping, and by day 4 everything was either wilting or rotting
  • More industrialized food has been grown and bred to last longer and to look better
  • The no-touch rule is actually also in place in the supermarket. Near the little produce bags, there are normally going to be disposable gloves, so if you see those, the cue is that you should wear them
  • if you’re going to a fishmonger or a butcher, they will also be doing everything for you
  • Again address them politely, smile, be nice etc. If there’s something that you’re not familiar with and you want to try something new or you want to cook something that you haven’t cooked before, know that the individual vendor will be more than happy to give you recipes. You can say, ‘Excuse me, how would you prepare this?’ Come e si prepare?  They’ll probably like you even more because you are asking for their help. If there’s one way to get an Italian on your team is to have them feel that they’re really helping you out as opposed to just doing their job

Alimentari and Panicifio

  • Another very common place that you by food in Italy is the Alimentari, which is like your local deli where you would go to buy bread, cold cuts, cookies, pasta, milk etc
  • These are often tied in with bakeries called Panifici (from the Italian pan for bread) or Forno (meaning oven).
  • The same general sampling rules go for meats and cheeses. Don’t push it by trying to have a full smorgasbord of samples. Sampling is only if you’re going to buy something. Never sample a bunch of stuff and just say thank you and walk away. That’s not respectful – that is simply not cool!
  • You can’t always get a sample of small cheeses or salami that are sold whole as it might mean they’d have to cut the whole thing open – which obviously they wouldn’t want to do
  • Sampling also depends on the nature of the business. Mom and Pop style places are normally more willing to give samples, whilst the more like a supermarket a store is, then not
  • When buying salumi you can ask for specific thinness of your slices.  Nesim finds that very thinly sliced cold cuts are a lot more delicate and release their flavor better so you would ask for fino means thin and if you prefer them thicker spesso means thick
  • You can get bread by asking for a level of done-ness. Poco cotto means soft or “underdone” whilst ben cotto means crunchy or “well done”
  • You can often get sandwiches made in such places but these would normally be just one meat and/or one cheese. They’re based on very few really good ingredients and the interplay between those ingredients – might be considered very basic in comparison to the US style. There’s no lettuce, tomato, dressing, or mayonnaise. If they have pickled or preserved veg like artichoke or sundried tomato you can have them add some and even then the person serving you may comment on what a creative sandwich it is
  • The filling is meant to complement the flavor of the bread, which is why it’s going to be mostly bread with just a little bit of filling, as opposed to the American-style sandwich, which is mostly filling with just a bit of bread (equally delicious but very different)
  • These businesses, even though they sell food, will close for lunch, which a lot of visitors are very confused by. Alimentari will normally close around 1:00 to 1:30 PM and reopen around 4:00 to 4:30 PM
  • Most businesses will tend to shut down for lunch, or siesta, which literally means nap. It’s definitely a country where you work to live and not the other way around

Tavola Calda

  • Another type of food service establishment that you’ll find in Italy, that you won’t necessarily find in other parts of the world is what a Tavola calda, which means hot table
  • It’s a bit like the prepared food section of your local deli or supermarket – with super basic but very tasty home-style cooking
  • The stuff will already be made and served out of large trays. You would normally get the stuff to go and heat it at home, but they’ll normally have a bit of seating for you to dine in if you want too
  • It’s a quick and inexpensive way to have a meal – unfussy and unfancy. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to having home-cooked Italian food without someone physically inviting you into their home. These places are mostly busier around lunchtime rather than dinner. Like the Alimentari and Panifici, they also tend to close for lunch and shut before dinner time

Pizza al taglio

  • Pizza al taglio (or Pizza La Pala, which is more specific to Rome) are the equivalent of fast food pizza
  • Each pizza is already made. Each one has a price by weight. You tell them how much of it you want, normally by gesticulating. They cut off that piece, weigh it, and charge you just for that
  • The food is nearly always taken to go. The easiest way to go about trying more than one is to tell them what size you want for the first slice and get a slightly smaller one. Once they cut off that size, you say, great, I would like the same size of that one, that one, that one. Saves you about time on specifying for each piece

The 3 types of eat-in establishments – Trattoria, Osteria, Ristorante

  • All three of these establishments will open for lunch and dinner

Trattoria

  • This is the basic entry-level of the dining establishment with table service. They normally have paper tablecloths, the menu won’t necessarily come bound, and there is no plating involved and the food reflects is stick-to-your-ribs kinda food
  • In a trattoria, it would be maybe a little strange to act super formal.
  • It’s always a good idea to start out being formal, but you can take visual cues from the setting you’re in. The more rough and ready the place, the less formal you’re expected to be

Osteria

  • The term comes from what used to be our local watering holes back in the day as Ost means host. An osteria was the place where you would go hang out with your friends, play cards, drink some cheap local wine, have some bread and cheese – there would maybe be a prepared couple of dishes for the day
  • Nowadays, osteria has become the synonym for a slightly fancier trattoria. Nicer place settings and tableware, with slightly more formal service. But it’s still a fairly informal setting
  • An Osteria can be considered mid-level, but at the same time, the term can be used more widely.  For instance, the famous Osteria Francescana, considered the best restaurant in Italy is a three-star Michelin

Ristorante

  • This can be considered the most fancy and formal of the options and where would want to act the most civilized
  • A restaurant where you would normally have white tablecloths, the waiters will often be in more formal attire, often unlike the three-piece suit
  • Waiting tables is a career profession in Italy, and you have waiters who will work in the same restaurant their entire life. You do have a lot of these old-school waiters that wear the tie and the more formal attire

Tipping

  • Italians do tip – just not anywhere near the large percentages that are expected in the US and it is not expected – but appreciated
  • A couple of euros per person is fine. Nesim usually ips 10% which, although around half what is expected in the US, is seen as a very good tip amount in Italy
  • When they print out your credit card receipt, in many countries, you have the option of adding a tip, putting the new total down, and then they can close out that check. That does not happen in Italy
  • A lot of places will not let you add the tip on the credit card because that is then taxable
  • What you can do, if you don’t have cash, is ask beforehand if you can add a tip on the credit card. Sometimes they’ll let you do that, sometimes not If you don’t have a tip on you, that’s not a problem
  • Restaurants are legally not allowed to add a set tip to a bill (not to be confused with coperto or service charge). In any highly trafficked area with tourism, sometimes you will be taken advantage of – so if you see a tip on there that you are not expecting – smile big and ask about it

Ordering in restaurants

  • To get someone’s attention, again, be polite. Scusi and vorrei or potrei ordinare – can I order? That’s saying you’re ready to order, but you’re doing so in a very polite way
  • There are three savory courses in an Italian menu before you get to dessert
  • There’s the appetizer, which is antipasto, then there’s the starch course, which is the primo, (which means first –  which is confusing because this is your second course). This is the intermediary course between your appetizer and your main – usually pasta or rice. The main course in Italian is called the secondo (second)
  • Most mains do not come with sides. You’re just ordering the main protein.  There’s also a list of contorni, which are the side dishes that you would ask to have with your secondo
  • Don’t ask to split 3 courses –  it’s not appreciated if you split one of each, just make it 2 courses instead. So appetizer and primo, appetizer and main, or pasta and main
  • You can say that you’re going to split the appetizer and then order one pasta and one main, and then you and the person you’re eating with can pass ask them back and forth, or maybe you can ask for side plates
  • Most restaurants don’t plan on turning tables like in busier city restaurants in many countries, where restaurants focus on turning tables to make money
  • Often, if you book a table, it’s considered yours for the sitting. Therefore, they do expect that you’re going to eat a normal amount of food

Ask for the check/bill

  • If you’re sitting at the table a long time after you’ve finished eating and are wondering why you don’t have the check – know that you have to ask for it
  • It’s considered very rude and frankly unacceptable to drop the check without it being asked for.
  • Nesim moved back to Italy around 7 years ago and he worked for a very long time in hospitality in other parts of the world where it was ingrained into any waiter to hover around the table and five minutes after people seem to be finished eating, if they don’t want anything else, boom, you drop the check and get them on their way. That is definitely not something that happens in Italy
  • If at the end of your meal, you feel like you’re being ignored, it’s because they’re treating you like locals. They’re expecting you to want to sit around, chatting and finishing your wine or water for as long as you like. It’s your right to do so

Water

  • Most Italian restaurants do not serve tap water. The options will be bottled – either still, sparkling or in certain parts of the country, they actually have a mid-level of sparkling water called effervescent or slightly sparkling water (leggermente)
  • Water does cost less here than it does in other places. You’re not likely to be spending 7 Euros or a bottle of Pelligrino (unless in a tourist trap)
  • Tap water just isn’t really a thing. If you say tap, they’ll probably just say no

Reservations

  • If you want to guarantee you’re eating there make a reservation – particularly if it is a famous or busy restaurant
  • Rome can be a little bit behind the times compared to some of the rest of the world – and so online presence isn’t necessarily a thing. Restaurants won’t necessarily have websites, but nowadays many will have ways to book online which makes things easier
  • They’ll often ask you to put a credit card down. That’s to cover for no-shows, which is actually a big problem for the restaurant owner. If you make a reservation but you can’t make it, please cancel!
  • Sometimes, when traveling, Nesim will make two bookings for the same meal and as it gets closer to the date, he’ll cancel one of the two but plenty in advance – at least two days before, giving the restaurant a chance to rebook that table
  • Food is of course perishable. When you make a reservation, the restaurant is factoring that into how much food they’re preparing for that service, so if you’re booking a large party – for say 10 and only 4 of you show up and you didn’t let the restaurant know, that’s not a great thing to do
  • Keep the restaurant up to date with your reservation and the number of people. If you have any young children in your party, specify that, because there’s a big difference between the amount of food for 4 and 4 adults (unless they have big appetites like Katy’s kids!)
  • Kids also take up less space, so maybe they’ll be able to see you in a different part of the restaurant
  • Some places won’t let you book more than a month out in advance. It’s always a good idea to contact the restaurant just to find out if that’s why you can’t book a couple of months in advance
  • If you can’t get a reservation there is a cheat that you can try. It won’t guarantee you getting in the door, but it is worth a try. Most Italian restaurants will book tables for a sitting, so if you show up when the restaurant opens, so say 12/12:30 for lunch or 7:00/7:30 PM for dinner, and say “I’m sorry, we do not have a table, but we were hoping to have a quick meal” they might be able to seat you
  • A quick meal in Italy is an hour/an hour and a half! So they might say, “ok, we can see you, but we’re very sorry, we need the table back by 9” –  as if it’s an impossibility to have a meal in two hours
  • That is often a way that you can get into the busier places because they’ll stagger reservations, meaning they’ll take X number of reservations at 7/7:30/8:00 so that they don’t flood the kitchen with orders all at once
  • Most places won’t turn tables but the few that do will have sittings at 7ish and 9ish 
  • The general hours of opening for restaurants are 12/12:30 – 15/15:30 and 19/19:30 – 22:30/23
  • Most local dining establishments close down between lunch and dinner shifts at around 3:00/3:30, and reopen around 7:00/7:30
  • Any restaurant that does service throughout the day is often not catering to locals and may therefore be a tourist trap but although most local eateries do shut down between lunch and dinner – there are exceptions

The cheese clue

  • There’s actually a visual cue for whether you can ask for extra cheese. When the pasta is served to you, if there’s a dusting of cheese on top of the pasta, – that’s the kitchen telling you that the cook used a bit of cheese when mixing the pasta and the sauce, and you can add cheese to it, no problem
  • If you do not see that dusting of cheese, which is often replaced by a sprig of parsley, what they’re telling you is that no cheese was used, so you should not add cheese
  • You’re on vacation and you’re paying for the food so if you really want cheese then feel free to ask, but if you get pushback or strange expressions, you now know why

Enjoy!

There are obviously always exceptions to all those things. Nothing is set in stone and things can be done differently from restaurant to restaurant, town to town, person to person, but these give you an idea of the way things generally are. Ultimately don’t worry too much – just be friendly, and polite and most of all enjoy the delicious food you will no doubt be encountering!

Follow Nesim on his food adventures

You can follow Nesim’s food adventures on his Instagram account @fullbellytours. His website fullbellytours.com has details of his tours, Experience Testaccio and Testaccio Full Immersion and he also offers private and custom tours.

About our guest – Nesim Bekalti

Nesim was born in Washington DC to a French-American mother and Tunisian father. At the age of 9 months, his parents went back to Rome, where they’d previously been living for 4 years as conference interpreters for the UN.

He grew up (and currently lives) in Testaccio, the neighborhood that gave birth to traditional Roman cuisine.  It is known as the culinary heart of Rome, and it’s where Romans from all around the city come to eat.

After graduating high school he realized his passions in life were cooking and traveling.  To him, this meant that if he became a cook it would pay him to travel the world, and he ended up spending over fifteen years working in restaurants around the globe.

He has a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management from New York University and has lived in Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Oaxaca, San Francisco, and New York City. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. He also obtained a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers while living in California.

His passion for cooking came from being raised in Italy, where absolutely everything revolves around eating.  He moved back here 7 years ago where he’s been working ever since as a food tour guide.

Being raised in Italy by multicultural parents makes him both a foreigner and true Roman simultaneously. His background and travel experience allow him to entertainingly bridge the gap between guests and locals, easily explaining their cultural quirks and intricacies to you, and yours to them!

Ultimately, his passion lies in taking care of people (especially in relation to food), and ensuring their experiences are truly memorable and lots of fun!

You can find Nesim on these channels:

Food & Drink

  • al vetro – espresso in a glass shot
  • la cremina – the creaminess at top of an espresso
  • caffe corretto – meaning corrected coffee. An espresso with a half a shot of your liquor of choice
  • alimentari – the local deli/grocers for buying bread, cold cuts, cookies, pasta, milk etc

Resources

  • Italians Mad at Food – Facebook group poking fun at (but really meaning it) outside takes on Italian food
  • Come si prepare? – how is it prepared?
  • Scusi, vorrei/potrei ordinare? – Excuse me, may I order?
  • poco cotto – for bread soft or “underdone”
  • ben cotto  for bread that is crunchy or “well done”

Resources from Untold Italy

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