Italian cuisine is full of intricate rules that can bewilder foreigners. Here are 5 rules of Italian food culture that will help you order like an Italian while in Italy and eat like an Italian while at home:
1. No cheese on seafood pasta – This is one of those habits that differentiates Italian cuisine from Italian-American cuisine. Ask for a bit of parmesan with your spaghetti allo scoglio and watch as your waiter recoils in horror. The logic behind this rule is multifold but the most frequently cited reason is that fish has a delicate flavor that is overpowered by the strong bite of parmigiano-reggiano and other grated cheeses. Italians have also told me that serving cheese with seafood pasta can imply that the fish is not fresh and thus needs to be hidden with the taste of cheese. For a more detailed discussion of the motivation behind the rule, see this Chowhound discussion.
2. Eggs are for lunch or dinner, not breakfast. – In Italy, you will find eggs cooked in a frittata which can be served as an entree on its own or put into a sandwich. But they will be missing from any breakfast menu (though even the presence of a sit-down breakfast is rare in Italy, where most grab coffee and a croissant at a bar). Italians often get quite squeamish about the thought of eggs in the morning.
3. No cappuccinos after 12 pm. – Before coming to Italy I’d always heard that you shouldn’t order a cappuccino after 10 a.m. But it is quite common to see a bleary-eyed, just awakened Italian taking their cappuccino and cornetto at 12 on a Saturday morning. The basic rule is that cappuccinos are for breakfast, whenever that might be. Ordering a cappuccino after a meal instantly marks you as a foreigner, though most restaurants will still make it for you if you ask politely.
4. On the other hand, alcohol before 5 pm is no problem. – Wine with lunch? Prosecco at 2 p.m.? Feel free, it’s perfectly acceptable to have your drink before Happy Hour begins. Just keep your drinking in moderation – extreme public drunkenness is less common in Italy than in the U.S., especially for females.
5. You don’t have to order or eat a first and second course. It is perfectly acceptable and “Italian” to have either the primo (typically a pasta or risotto) or the secondo (meat or fish). Portions are usually so generous that you’ll be quite full with just one. And you want to make sure you have room for that tiramisu…
But the most important thing to remember is that these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. If you want a cappuccino at 2 p.m., feel free to order it. If you love the taste of freshly grated parmesan over spaghetti with tuna, go for it. I have seen Italians commit both of these taboos and when I asked them why, they said “Because I like it that way.” Perhaps the best tip of all for eating like an Italian.