The Basic Rules of Italian Food

I wanted to write a post about Italian food rules—everything from the when to drink cappuccino to the correct way to eat your spaghetti (I’ll tell you now: no cutting!). However, I’m far from being an authority. So I went to a friend and fellow blogger, Paolo Rigiroli of Disgraces on the Menu, who is a bona fide italiano living in Canada. He had an even better idea.


When Diana asked me to write a guest post on “the rules of Italian food,” I immediately realized it was not going to be easy, even though I knew exactly what she was referring to. Italians are very particular about their food, to the point that they seem to follow a set of unwritten “rules,” some kind of “precepts of tradition.” In my blog and podcast, I often talk about how Italian dishes should traditionally be made and taste. I firmly think that there is a reason why these dishes have become iconic: they work! No Italian would dare try changing their essence, or they wouldn’t remain true to their names. A great example of such dishes is carbonara. Despite what purists may say, a “carbonara” generally remains a carbonara even if it’s made with pancetta (often substituted for guanciale in northern Italy). But it ceases to be a carbonara when extraneous ingredients (like cream) are added.

Even if the existence of some kind of “rules” is undeniable, it’s actually difficult to identify which of them, if any, are followed by all Italians. This is why I never attempted to write an article on the subject, I didn’t think I could speak on behalf of the country. Yet, Diana asked, so I felt I had to try :). But to give myself a chance of being remotely fair, I decided to enroll some of my fellow Italian food bloggers. Together, we tried to identify our minimum common denominator, the intersection of traditions that we all share. It wasn’t easy, but I feel at the very least we came up with a list of “preconditions” for food to be called Italian, as well as a collection of examples of our Italianicity.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!


To the Italians, food is not just fuel for the body, it’s also harmony and well-being. The meal has to be balanced and leave you satiated and satisfied. Food is also a communal experience, the kitchen is at the heart of the household, and the dining table is its social hub.

Italians have deep respect for their food and traditions. This is often reflected in the restraint they exercise when pairing flavors in a dish, or dishes in a meal. Similarly, in Italian cuisine the pure flavors of the ingredients are preserved and highlighted through cooking and moderate use of spices, herbs, and condiments.

Since dining is a cherished ritual, Italians tend not to eat in between meals. In that, they seemingly follow Pellegrino Artusi’s recommendation: “Between lunch and dinner, you should allow an interval of seven hours, for that is how much time is needed for full digestion.”(1)

Cooking Guidelines

Pasta

  • Pasta must be cooked in plenty of salty water at full boil. The salt is mostly for flavor, but it also prevents gelification. The abundant water at full boil (along with an initial stirring), however, plays the biggest part in preventing pasta from sticking to itself.
  • Durum pasta should be served rigorously ‘al dente’ (‘at the bite’, i.e. still relatively firm, not overcooked). Other than having more flavor, pasta cooked ‘al dente’ is easier to digest. For dried pasta, most Italians just follow the cooking time that is written on the package, some even subtract one minute (especially if they plan on finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce).
  • Serve pasta with sauce, not sauce with pasta! Pasta is not just a vessel for the sauce. Italians like the flavor of properly cooked pasta and want to taste it in the dish.
  • Grated Parmigiano is sprinkled on most pastas and risottos, as long as they don’t have fish.The same goes for other cheese, such as Pecorino or Romano. Generally, Italians find that the flavor profile of cheese is at odds with fish (with some rare exceptions, e.g. of some shellfish recipes.)
  • Most traditional pastas sauces call for particular pasta cuts (e.g. penne all’arrabbiata, orecchiette alle cime di rape, tagliatelle al ragu`). This can be explained by how the various pasta shapes “take the sauce” differently. Not all Italians strictly adopt the same combinations of shape and sauce, but most agree that thin spaghetti calls for thin sauces, whereas wider tagliatelle and short pasta better support thicker sauces like meat ragù.
  • Chicken is rarely used on pasta sauces. This is probably because in Italy, chicken is traditionally a second course and rarely ground. It is, however, used in some regional pasta dishes (e.g.: the Roman dish “fettuccine con rigaglie di pollo,” or the Piedmontese dish: “tajarin al ragù di gallina bionda”). These dishes are however almost completely unknown outside of their native areas.
Pasta alla carbonara by Luca Nebuloni, Creative Commons
Pasta alla carbonara by Luca Nebuloni, Creative Commons

Pizza

  • Order your own, whole pizza. The Italians love their pizza, which they can easily eat all by themselves because it’s lighter both in the dough and in the toppings.
  • Did you order a pizza? Don’t expect it to be cut for you. This is because, as stated, usually pizza is not meant for sharing. Cutting it also causes the moisture from the mozzarella (which in Italy is fresh and milky) to get under the crust and make it soggy (an exception is for those pizzerie that serve “maxi” pizzas meant to be shared).
  • Some toppings shouldn’t be cooked, such as prosciutto crudo and arugula. These should be added at the end right when the pizza comes out of the oven. Cooked prosciutto crudo gets dry and salty, whereas wilted cooked arugula is unappealing and tasteless.

General

  • Cook dishes based on the season to make use of fresh produce. Italian food is often inspired by fresh produce.
  • Cauliflowers, broccoli, green beans are generally cooked through. Italians are not big fans of the “green” flavor of these vegetables.
  • Limit the use of garlic. In Italy, using large amounts of garlic is considered unrefined.

 

Serving Guidelines

  • Lunch and dinner: Even for everyday meals, Italians like to have a first course of pasta or rice, dry or in soup, followed by a second course. The second course can be limited to cheese and/or cured meats, or it may be skipped altogether. The first course is meant to ease you in into the meal, and historically, it was also a way for people to feed their guests when they couldn’t afford much meat.
  • Holidays and feasts: When Italians have guests or for holiday meals, they generally serve a multicourse meal: antipasto, primo, secondo (the main course), cheese or dessert, fruit and coffee. To an Italian, a banquet is the main way to celebrate and to express their hospitality.
  • A note on salad: Salad is traditionally served as a side to the second course—not as an appetizer, and most definitely not with pasta. Side salads are generally very simple, e.g. green salad or tomato salad rigorously dressed with olive oil, salt and vinegar. Though it should be noted that, lately, salads are sometimes seen as a starter to the meal. A big salad, “insalatona,” which may contain cheese, boiled egg, ham, canned tuna, corn, peas, etc. may even constitute the entire meal.

 

Eating Etiquette

There’s a time and place for everything:

  • Cappuccino is only had in the morning, or at least away from meals. Positively no cappuccino right after lunch or dinner! In winter, cappuccino is sometimes had in the mid afternoon or in the evening as a warming drink. Italians find cappuccino too heavy for after the meal.
  • Cookies at breakfast are allowed! But Italian cookies are lighter and crunchy, not chewy. Italians eat them by dipping them into milk (and coffee), or tea.
  • Generally, breakfast is a sweet affair. Cookies, cornetto, cake, maybe cereal. No eggs.
  • Eggs are an informal second course (e.g. made into a frittata), not a breakfast item.
  • Fruit is served after the meal, as a replacement of dessert on weekday meals.
  • Short coffee (espresso or moka) is very common to drink at the very end of the meal, after the fruit. It’s a good way to tell the stomach the meal is done, and to combat the tiredness caused by digestion. 

    Caffè and moka by Nico Kaiser, Creative Commons
    Caffè and moka by Nico Kaiser, Creative Commons
  • Drinks should be paired with food:

→ No milk with dinner (or lunch, for that matter). Milk is a breakfast and snack item only (except sometimes for young children).

→ Wine is consumed mainly as pairing to meals (white wine generally pairs with fish, red wine with meat and aged cheeses). People drink it for the taste, not for the effect.

  • Pasta should never be cut with a knife! Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes, if the sauce calls for short pasta, just don’t use spaghetti (broken pasta, however, can be used for cooking—e.g. some soups can be made with broken spaghetti).
  • In pizzerie, generally stick to a named topping combinationtraditional pizzas feature successful combinations, so Italians generally stick to them (ordering extra toppings is generally shunned as unrefined).
  • Bread is OK on the table (due to the use of tablecloths), and it’s served on its own, without butter (or oil) on the side.
  • No garlic toast is served as pasta side. In general, starches don’t combine.
  • At home (or in informal restaurants) it’s OK to soak up the sauce with bread (called “fare la scarpetta”), but only when there’s no more pasta left in the plate, and absolutely not after eating risotto (where the sauce is mostly starch from the rice itself).

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all who contributed this project, and particularly:

  • Diana Zahuranec (that’s me!)

About the author

Paolo Rigiroli
Paolo Rigiroli

Born and raised in Italy, Paolo Rigiroli has a degree in electronic engineering, specializing in biomedical technology. He works as a software engineer in Vancouver, Canada, where he has been living since 2001. In 2010, frustrated by how Italian food is misrepresented in North America, Paolo started writing a blog – Quatro Fromaggio and Other Disgraces on the Menu – on the differences between what is thought of as Italian food and the food of continental Italy. More recently, Paolo has also been producing a podcast – Thoughts on the Table – in which he talks with various food personalities about Italian food around the world. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, & Instagram.

(1) “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” by Artusi, P. and Baca, M. and Sartarelli, S. https://books.google.ca/books?id=CvNJXPb7wnIC

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14 thoughts on “The Basic Rules of Italian Food

  1. Hi – I heard you on Rick Zullo’s podcast and really like your talk. I just wanted to pass along to please check out “Hanx” app. It’s a writing device by Tom Hanks – I know, crazy, that sounds just like an old fashioned typewriter. I love it and thought you might too after listening to you on the podcast. Enjoy! Susan

    >

    Like

    1. I checked it out, it looks fun! I used to type on an old-fashioned typewriter (like when I was 10) and loved the sound and feel. It would make more sense on an ipad than an iphone though.

      Like

  2. Thanks Diana for the opportunity, contribution, and help with this post! I always wanted to talk about this topic, but I didn’t think I could speak with confidence on behalf of the whole country. Writing this post for you gave me the idea to enroll my fellow Italian foodies, and this article finally saw the light!

    Like

    1. Paolo–thank you for contributing! I knew I chose the right person to do it when you called on the help of other bloggers, and we fine-tuned the “rules.” I would have never thought of all of them (and gotten many others wrong in the process).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I truly enjoyed this article, learning about Italian food etiquette and the proper combinations, was enlightening! Thanks so much for posting and hosting this excellent blog post, Paolo and Diana!

    Like

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