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Food & Drink How to Eat in an Italian Home

If you are traveling to Italy, it is a given that you will be dining in as many restaurants as possible. But as amazing as the food is in most of these locales, there is no replacement for Italian food cooked and served up by a genuine Italian in a genuine Italian home.

Most people think that it's a stereotype to say that food is the most important thing in Italy, but in reality, this isn't far from the truth. Food and family go hand in hand, and preparing meals for one another and eating together is the number one way that Italians express their love and affection. This is why, in my opinion, you don't really get the full "Italian experience" until you have broken bread with an Italian family in their home.

I have been visiting/living in Italy off and on since 2016 (to spend time with my Italian-language pen pal) and in early 2020, I officially moved here (after I married that Italian-language pen pal!). During that time, I have eaten with a lot of Italians, and I have learned a lot about their culture — and found that it is a lot different than ours in America.

This inspired me to write a book, How to Be an American in Italy, full of things I have learned while living here and experiencing all the ups and downs (and differences) of Italian life. Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite sections of that book, in which I give my top tips to keep in mind if you are lucky enough to be a dinner guest in an Italian home, or to have your own Italian dinner guests at yours.

Tip #1: Pace Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes I made on my first trip to Italy happened when I went to my then-future in-laws' house for a meal. They put a big plate full of delicious food down in front of me and I ate it all right up. It was delicious, and my stomach was stuffed and happy. I was more than content to sit there and digest in the pleasant company for the next hour or so, but then my husband told me something that changed everything:

That was just the appetizer.

In America, most meals are served with the main course and the side dishes all on one plate. But in Italy, the first plate is just the beginning. If you are eating a meal with others (especially lunch), even on an average day there are usually at least three or four separate courses. Appetizers are usually just for special occasions, but there is always il primo (the first dish), usually consisting of pasta or risotto, followed by il secondo (the second dish), which is typically meat or fish, sometimes with a small salad as well. Next comes the fruit course, then the one that you will always wish you had left more space for: dessert (which may or may not include coffee or something alcoholic to help you digest everything).

In Italy, there is one food per plate, and each one gets its own course. This is a perfectly fine way to eat, but it does take some preparation. Italians in general tend to eat more than Americans (and they hardly ever gain weight, grr...), so each course consists of what most Americans would consider to be a full-fledged meal. My advice is to not fill up on the first course so that you have some room left for the other courses because it is all food worth trying!

Note: If you are living with just your spouse or one roommate or relative, you typically forego all the extra courses and just have il primo for lunch, since it's more casual. But if you are visiting with family or friends, you can expect them to pull out all the stops, so plan accordingly.

These are just the appetizers! (And a much smaller amount than usual)

Tip #2: There Has to Be a Tablecloth...

For the most part, we never had much use for a tablecloth at my house growing up, so I had no idea that they were so essential to the household in Italy. For every meal, there must be a tablecloth on the table. Heck, my mother-in-law even puts one down when we have a quick afternoon snack! The tablecloth "rule" is one you cannot break, even if you're not having a big family meal. No one is going to get mad if you don't use one at your own house (although they may judge you), but I can tell you from experience that if you try to start eating without one at someone else's house, you can expect a lot of fretting and having to lift up your plate while someone whips out a tablecloth and covers the table.

Once the meal is finished, whoever is in charge will scoop up the tablecloth and take it outside, where they shake out the crumbs in the yard or over the balcony (unless you live in an apartment, in which case you shake them out onto the floor and sweep them up). Then, if it's not stained, you fold it up and put it back in the drawer for the next meal. Or snack. Or random cookie...

An example of un primo piatto: pasta with ham, peas, onions, and cream sauce.

Tip #3: ...but It's for a Good Reason

There are surely many reasons why a tablecloth is such a staple. It protects the table from spills. It looks nice. It makes things feel "civilized" and "fancy." But there is one reason that takes precedence above all other reasons in my heart and many others': the bread.

Bread is something that no meal in Italy can go without. There is always bread on the table and it is always fresh (if you're thinking about that bag of square-shaped sandwich bread in your cabinet right now, think again: hardly anyone eats that here). Many Italians go to the panetteria to get bread every day. Some even have fresh bread delivered to their door every morning!

And when you are eating that bread, you keep it on the table, not on a plate, which is why you need the tablecloth. Now it all makes sense!​

This is a strangely important thing to keep in mind for us Americans. Back home, I would always keep my rolls and biscuits or other bread items on the edge of my plate, but when I tried to do that here once to keep things clean and tidy, I received some very shocked, almost scandalized looks from the other dinner participants. After dinner was over, my husband explained this bread "rule" to me, and now I am explaining it to you (ahead of time, which I personally would have appreciated...) so you don't make that particular faux pas.


Skipping to dessert: some Sicilian croccantini!

If you are interested in learning more about what it's like to live with Italians on a daily basis (or would just like to hear more about my sometimes hilariously embarrassing attempts to fit in with them), you can read more in How to Be an American in Italy, or on the An American in Italy blog.


Our cat, Gabbi, is an expert at Italian table manners.

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