When in Rome…….the food “Rules”
When we travel, I try to learn about local customs and adapt to them the best I can. Most places are pretty lax about “rules” and you only have to figure out a couple of local customs, but when it comes to Italy, food is a serious business and there are “rules” to follow if you don’t want to annoy the locals to no end, which occasionally we manage to do.
Take coffee for example. Coffee culture here is alive and well and vastly different than coffee culture in Canada and the US. Forget the 16 oz caramel macchiato with sugar, caramel, sprinkles and whatnot. Coffee here means one shot of espresso and hopefully you can down it without sugar as Italians do. Don’t expect it to be hot, it is served lukewarm so you can drink it in a couple of sips while chatting at the bar with other locals before dashing off to work or whatever you do.
And don’t make the mistake of ordering coffee at the bar and then taking it to sit at one of the tables. That’s a major no no and you will be called on that by the irate waiter. There is one price to pay for coffee if you drink it at the bar and another price including service charge if you want to have it seated at the table. I have no problem with that as long as you can get service, and most times you do but not always. We went to San Eustachio the other day, a popular local cafe, and sat down waiting for service but it wan’t happening. After 10 minutes we got up, ordered our drinks and went back to sit down and sure enough, out of nowhere appeared an indignant waiter shaking his head and asking us to leave the table because we didn’t pay the service charge (2.50 Euros pp in addition to the price of the coffee). We dragged ourselves up with our cappucchini and cornetti to a stand up table nearby and finished our coffee there spreading cornetti crumbs all over ourselves. Annoying if you asked me. There was no one there and all the outdoor tables were empty. But rules are rules.
If you are in the habit of pouring milk into your coffee think twice before you do this any time after noon. Italians only put milk in their coffee until noon, if at all. Any time after that and it becomes sacrilegious to do so and you will be looked at as one of those people, you know, not Italians. On the other hand, order an espresso after lunch and you will get a nod of approval from the waiter, along with a knowing smile. I would give up milk in my coffee just for that.
At first when we got here we wanted to sit down with a hot cuppa and watch (Italian) people. We tried to figure out what kind of coffee to order other than a cappuccino that comes short and lukewarm. We tried to order an Americano a couple of time but it just wasn’t good. Tried cafe latte but it was milk with barely any coffee to balance it. Eventually we realized that when in Rome…. and begun to order a cappuccino in the morning and an espresso any time after that. We took on the habit to such an extent that the thought of having a big cup of American coffee begins to offend me too now. What is that about?
Also, as I mentioned above, if you want to please the Italian waiter order an espresso after lunch. Nothing would make them happier and more approving of you. But remember, never with milk.
Coffee, however, is not the only thing with rules attached.
One thing Romans never do is walk around with food. No such (barbarian) thing as eating food while walking the streets. You want to eat in a hurry? buy a slice of pizza bianca, other pizza by the slice or a panino and stand at the counter or just outside eating your lunch before you proceed with your walk or whatever you do. If you see anyone chowing down while they walk you can bet they are not Romans. I particularly like this rule.
And, talking about pizza. A Roman would not dream of ordering a whole round pizza for lunch. Whole pizza is for dinner only. For lunch you can have pizza by the slice, preferably from a place that says Pizza Rustica on the sign. And at dinner they don’t share a pizza. It’s one person, one pizza. Don”t mess with that. Apparently you can take leftover pizza home if you didn’t finish it. I have this from a reliable source (Elizabeth Minchilli).
There is also no such thing as “pepperoni pizza”, and don’t ask them to sprinkle parmesan on your pizza. This is a North American thing and would flag you as one…They know what they do with pizza and why they do it so go with the flow.
To confuse things further, the pizza rule only applies to Rome. We just came back from Naples where the law is that you must order a whole pizza for lunch every day and absolutely cannot split a pizza with anyone. I dare you to challenge that rule in Naples.
Eating out has become much more relaxed in terms of rules. When I as here a few years ago it was frowned upon if you didn’t order the 3 and 4 courses they were used to serving. Today, there is no issue at all but I would say there is some rule about not ordering only one course. You are in Italy, don’t just order pasta. Order the pasta as your “main” if you wish, that is fine, but order something as an appetizer first. One dish only is against the rules.
Having said that, Italian can eat. I have watched them over and over in restaurants eating course after course, with wine and bread, while I am flat out exhausted after barely two dishes. And they stay slim. How annoying is that?
Speaking of desserts, I have to mention gelato. It’s not really a dessert, it’s more a street food and is probably the only food you are allowed to eat while walking around. There is a rule about gelato and the rule is that you must have at least one every day. I have seen the local gelato police looking at us to see if we had ours yet. And we have one every day, just to be safe. And, as my Roman friend Gabby’s Italian Kitchen just reminded me, you better say “SI” if they ask you “con panna?” (with cream). It’s a dollop of freshly whipped cream over the gelato. You won’t regret it.
Another rule about gelato is what kind to have. If you come to Rome you will see the big piles of gelato fluffed up in attractive mounds 2 feet high and brightly coloured. Run the other way and don’t look back. This type of gelato has stabilizers, artificial flavours and food colouring probably. This is not the real gelato Italians eat. It is for tourists and won’t count towards your legally required daily quota. Real gelato is packed into metal pans and is not brightly coloured. How do you think banana gelato gets yellow? with food colouring. Banana is white. You get the picture.
I am sure there are other food rules that I have’t discovered yet but this is good for starters so memorize these before your trip to Italy and call me if you run into problems with the food police. After all, I am a lawyer too.