I got through three lessons of “Learn Italian in your car” before I lost focus and turned on Beyoncé. Though I wish I had taken a little more time to learn the language for my own sake, us Americans are so damn spoiled when we travel to other countries. Last year when Chris and I went to Thailand for our honeymoon, it was the first time I had been out of the country (besides Mexico, which doesn’t count when you’re from San Diego). Everywhere we went, we were met with signs in English and at least one Thai person who spoke enough English to get by. Being in Italy is the same- almost everyone here speaks English to some degree, and most signage is translated for us- even most restaurants have English versions of menus. The few times we have been faced with an all Italian menu, it has forced us to experience a little taste of what most other countries have to deal with on a daily basis when traveling. It is a nice gentle reminder that we are visitors to this country, we are the foreigners who are most of the time fortunate enough to be able to travel with such ease, and that it’s ok to feel a little discomfort while Google Translating a menu at dinner. More important than learning the Italian language, especially for us spoiled Americans, I would say it is extremely crucial to learn how to interact in Italian culture. I don’t mind the language barrier, it’s life. What I do mind is unintentionally acting disrespectfully, or not knowing the cultural standards while we are staying in someone else’s country. The following is my ongoing list of do’s and don’ts, mostly learned by mistake, on Chris and I’s journey of learning “how to Italian.” Although I feel that we were on our best behavior and very self aware (except that one time I couldn’t think of how to respond to my delicious meal so I kissed my fingers like in a movie. SMH), we were constantly learning through the actions of locals and trying to follow suit as best as possible.
I’d LOVE for you to add to this list by leaving a comment below with anything you’ve learned while traveling to Italy!
The first time Chris and I experienced this little taste this of culture shock ended up being one of our best meals in Florence-
Trattoria La Casalinga (stay tuned for a complete list of all our best meals in Italy). We did not have a reservation, which brings me to my first cardinal rule of how to Italian: Make reservations! Most of the restaurants in Italy are little hole in the wall spots, with 6-10 tables in the dining room. The best places to eat are the ones that request reservations. Chris and I, being the laid back Southern Californians that we are, tried to resist this concept for a few weeks before finally giving in and learning to look forward to a good meal by making reservations ahead of time (okay, I resisted the entire time. Down to the last night. I’m a glutton for punishment). I’d spend all afternoon drooling over restaurants online before finally picking a spot with the most intense cravings for that meal. I am notorious for being extremely indecisive, which usually leads us to a last minute dinner decision. Long story short, most of the time, you can’t win- trust us. We’ve been turned down more times than we’ve been allowed to sit as a walk-in, and the few meals we have eaten without reservations, I am convinced we were punished (see my Venice post for details). We deserved it though. The whole goal of us coming to Florence was to feel like we were living in another country, and to learn their culture. Fine, Italy you win.
Don’t over order, and don’t waste food– there’s no such thing as leftovers… yet. I just read an article that touched on a recent push for restaurants to reduce their waste by providing “doggy bags” for leftovers, but such a task means a huge cultural shift for Italy. The article written by The Guardian explains these efforts as, “perhaps one of the biggest cultural changes envisioned by the law. In many restaurants, and among many Italians, such requests are rare.”I encourage you to read the article, I found it very interesting. The few times I did not finish my plate of food, I was asked in disappointment, “you did not like?” We learned that were ordering way too much food. Italian menus are typically broken down into 5 courses: antipasti is the starter, which we would share. Primi is usually a pasta dish that can fill you up as a meal alone. Secondi is the main course, usually a protein, meant to be eaten alongside a contorni, or a side dish. We often shared a secondi, and found that most of the time the server would even have it split on to two plate for us. If you ordered correctly, you have just enough room to share a dessert. The point is, I think it is more important to order the amount of food you think you’re capable of eating, rather than trying to keep up with the traditional 5 courses that most Italians have no problem putting down. We learned to order lighter antipastis, share our main courses (because I was not about to share my pasta), and God forbid, split a pizza every once in a while. Food waste is an issue all over the world, and it was very interesting to learn the different efforts that are only recently being put into action in Italy. The cultural viewpoint of leftovers has a negative connotation, and these efforts made by changes in the law will require a cultural shift that encourages uneaten food to be taken home.
Aperitivo was probably one of our favorite things about living in Italy, and a must while traveling there, in my opinion. Think of happy hour, but at more reasonable hours (usually 7-9) with free food! I hesitate to relate it to happy hour at all because it is so much more than that, and is a very big part of Italian culture that we found in every city we visited, and to me, it represents a lot of what Italy is about. An aperitivo itself is a light drink, traditionally made with a bitter liqueur such as Aperol or Campari, and it is meant to wet your appetite for dinner. The snacks that accompany it is a welcomed addition because dinner is eaten so much later here than in the states. Basically, a drink costs between 6-8eu, and this grants you access to the bar top of delicious bites. The food ranges from cured meats to bowls of pasta, bruscetta and crostinis of all types, and almost everything in between. We went to a few bars for aperitivo (okay, we went almost every night we ate dinner out) and found surprises like chicken wings, pizza, omelettes, potato salad, and creamed broccoli just to name a few. The variety is endless and it’s kind of awesome. Let’s make this clear, however- aperitivo is not an all you can eat buffet. This is a pre dinner drink and snack, meant to tie you over for dinner while also getting you hungry for your upcoming meal (that you hopefully made a reservation for).
You will always have something to snack on as long as you’re drinking- at the bar, during aperitivo, and any time you have a drink in your hand, you’ll have something salty to munch on. I think this is their tactic to get you thirsty and order more drinks. The chips are free but the water is not. Though it is safe to drink the tap water in Italy, it is frowned upon to request it at a restaurant. Italians prefer the taste of bottled water, and, most the time at 1 or 2eu per bottle, we did not mind paying. This is a cultural preference, and we chose to stick to the Italian way and order bottled water when dining at restaurants. It is an easy compromise and it ensures you’re drinking safe water, and you get to choose between sparkling and still. Bonus! You may also notice a “coperto”, or cover charge. Again, this is an Italian standard and as someone in the restaurant industry, I understand and almost welcome the charge, especially since you usually don’t tip! This is another cultural difference that we quite enjoyed, not because we don’t like tipping, but because there was no deciphering the bill or back and forth of how much to tip a server at the end of every meal. In some places where we had exceptional food, or did not have a cover charge, we would round our bill up to the nearest euro, or leave some of the extra change from our pockets as an expression of gratitude. Also, if restaurants do accept tips, the server will gladly tell you to leave it on the table. We didn’t mind the forwardness and were happy for the hint. One of the best parts of dining in Italy was seeing the bill, and paying the exact amount without having to stress.
Bathrooms: it’s a 50/50 chance that there will be a toilet seat, and also a working lock. And just forget about toilet seat covers. So, pee fast and practice your squats. Also, poop at home. I guess I’ve taken clean sanitary bathrooms for granted in the US, and am thankful for the hostesses in our restaurants that make an hourly bathroom check to ensure stocked paper towels and toilet paper. One of the things I was not prepared for in Italy was the lack of bathroom amenities- I was walked in on at least 4 times because the door didn’t lock. At many bars, there were groups of ladies standing guard outside stalls for their friends. I didn’t have that luxury, so I constantly found myself trying to balance while squatting with nothing to hold on to, trying to keep my door closed, and simultaneously trying not to pee on myself. I mostly succeeded. Even some of the nicest restaurants we dined at had very unfortunate bathrooms. It’s nothing I can’t handle, but I definitely would have come prepared with some pocket tissues.
Italians pride themselves in taking things slow: their casual afternoon strolls (called la passeggiata), the long drawn out dinners- they make it a point to not seem rushed during their daily activities. This includes walking down the street, which I found very amusing, as I would recognize our neighbors walking by the same store window very slowly and nonchalant, as if they didn’t pass by the same display every day. This slow lifestyle was probably one of the hardest things for Chris and I to adjust to. We ate fast, drank fast, walked fast, and we were constantly reminded through the actions of locals to SLOW DOWN. We literally had nowhere to go. We found out the hard way that you’ll need to ask for your check, or “il conto” when you’re ready to leave. The server is not ignoring you, they are simply allowing you to enjoy your conversation and digest your meal (I suggest doing so with some limoncello). They will not bring your your bill until it is requested, and even then, often times the bill is paid up front at the reception area.We usually looked for clues from other diners, and watched if a check was received at the table or if they walked to the front. You did pay a cover charge, after all, so might as well enjoy the rest of your wine and conversation, there’s no rush.
The only exception to this slow Italian lifestyle is caffe. Caffe=espresso, and this is meant to be drank at the counter, and while standing. If you want regular coffee, you need to ask for an americano, and if you would like to sit down to enjoy your americano, you will pay more or will be charged a cover. The menu usually has two prices, “banco” is the price for standing at the bar, and “tavolo” is the price for sitting, so unless you plan to stay a while, stand and drink your caffe at the bar! While “to-go” coffee is not really a popular thing here, the Italian’s version of to-go is a quick caffe at the counter, drank hot and fast, and with a pastry that crumbles on the floor of the bar.
Overall, our time spent in Italy mainly taught us to slow down, go with the flow, and enjoy these cultural differences rather than compare or set expectations on any experience. Remember that Yelp and Trip Advisor are not the best indicators for good food and the best restaurants. These are often very biased and unfair judgments made by tourists who are not aiming to adjust to Italian culture. I often read negative reviews about how close tables were to one another in a restaurant, or how the server was anything less than jovial during their meal. This is not America, land of the huge and spacious and sparkling new restaurants, we’re talking 100 year old mom and pop restaurants here! Take it all in! Talk to your neighbor, get to know them a little better before you have to stick your butt in their faces to squeeze out and use the restroom. Make a friend at the bathroom that can watch your back, and share your pocket tissues (just bring them, you wont regret it) if you notice there’s no TP. Also, your server doesn’t have to sing songs and smile all the live long day for a 20% tip, they have a job to do and as long as my food is good and my server is respectful, I do not mind the sometimes harsh Italian personality. Pay for your water, and enjoy the free chips and bar snacks at aperitivo, but do not overindulge. These are the few things that Chris and I observed, learned, and respected about living in Italy for the month. I hope that you learned, or laughed (either way) from our lessons on “how to Italian.” Most importantly, remember that the purpose of traveling is to learn about other country’s cultures. So embrace it, be open minded, and go with the flow, all while trying not to pee on yourself.