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ITALIAN FOOD

Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

One of the things foreigners like most about Italy is the cuisine. But proceed with caution – there are some fairly rigid rules about what can be eaten and when. Break them at your peril.

Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of
Cheese on seafood pasta? Sacrilege! Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

No cheese on your main course

When in Italy, the overwhelming urge to gorge yourself on Parmigiano Reggiano and the country’s other famous cheeses can be difficult to resist. But be careful.

I recently sparked bedlam at a food stand in Rome after spooning grated cheese from a dish over a hearty plate of beef stew. A public shaming ensued.

Ma che cafone!” yelled a stranger pointing at me. Translation: “What an oaf!”

Ask an expert: ‘What’s the difference between Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?’

What followed was a five minute exposition of why Parmigiano Reggiano does not go on your secondo – main course – from the stand’s owner and various customers.

Apparently the hard cheese’s famous flavour can easily overwhelm certain dishes and its use should be limited to pasta and risotto – but even then, there are other rules.

No cheese with seafood risotto or pasta

In much the same way you should never put grated cheese on your main course, you must also never add it to risotto or pasta dishes that are made with seafood.

The general thinking is – much the same as the main course rule above – that the strong cheese flavour will overwhelm the delicate taste of the fish.

Interestingly, most pizzerias still offer cheesy seafood pizzas, which can be eaten without fear of rebuke.

No cappuccino or caffé latte after midday

Nothing makes you look more like a tourist than ordering a long, milky coffee past a certain hour, generally regarded to be midday.

Why is midday the arbitrary cut off point? Well, cappuccino and caffé latte are generally viewed as breakfast drinks and are considered too voluminous, which can’t be enjoyed immediately before or after lunch.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

After midday, order yourself an espresso – or if you insist on adding milk, make it a caffé macchiato: that’s an espresso topped off with a tiny head of frothed milk.

No hot drinks with food

While we’re on the subject, tea and coffee are never drunk with a meal.

While in the UK, you might go into a ‘greasy spoon’ café and get a mug of tea with your fried breakfast, and in America a coffee with your apple pie at the diner is par for the course – but in Italy it’s not the done thing. At all. Order them at the end!

Tea drinkers be warned: whenever you order a tea in Italy, it may be served with lemon, but not milk. Italians – like most Europeans – generally find the British fixation with milky tea bizarre.

No walking and eating

Although in some countries the practice of walking and eating is commonplace, in Italy it’s a little bit taboo and almost always wrong. Indeed, the county’s famous slow food culture revolves around sociable sit-down dinners.

Even legendary street foods, such as Sicillian panelle (chickpea fritters) or Roman supplì (deep-fried rice balls ) are not eaten on the go – although they can be eaten standing up if a convenient sitting spot can’t be found.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

There is one notable exception: gelato. One of the most enjoyable (and socially acceptable) ways to eat Italy’s famous ice-cream is during your evening stroll or passeggiata.

Photo: Tommaso Pecchioli/Unsplash

No salad as a starter

In what is a fairly steadfast rule, leafy salads are eaten last in Italy – not as a side dish or starter.

Salads are almost exclusively dressed with olive oil and vinegar and their position in last place is because they are thought to cleanse the palate and aid digestion.

One of the few exceptions is a crispy Roman salad of puntarelle, dressed in anchovies and olive oil, which is usually served as a starter.

No colourful foods when ill

Every culture has its own ideas about what to eat when ill.

Some swear by energy drinks, others by chicken soup, and bedouins heal themselves with camel’s milk.

Italians opt for ‘eating white’ or ‘mangiare in bianco‘ a practice which involves eating bowls of sauce-less spaghetti and white rice.

The idea is that these foods are less challenging for the body to digest. Without taxing your digestion you will have the energy needed to fight off what’s ailing you.

If you want some flavour you can season the bland dish with olive oil and mercifully, the rules even permit some Parmesan. 

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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why are Italians ranked among the ‘unhappiest in Europe’?

Despite the romantic image portrayed of Italians living 'la dolce vita', one study has ranked the country as among the unhappiest in Europe. Here's the data behind the discontent.

Why are Italians ranked among the 'unhappiest in Europe'?

Italy’s population has placed among the least content in Europe, according to a new study by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Happiness can be a woolly concept and hard to define, but the 2022 World Happiness Report has attempted to do that in a global survey of almost 150 countries.

Italy ranked 31st worldwide, faring well on a worldwide scale, but in Europe it lagged way behind some of its neighbours – who not only ranked highly in Europe but globally too. Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland took the four top spots globally.

In Europe, Italy also placed behind France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and slightly behind Spain and Romania.

Why were Italians ranked as being unhappy?

Based on scores over the period 2019-2021, the study took into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness index as it bore the brunt of the first waves of coronavirus infection in Europe in 2020.

Of course, there will be individual variations and happiness is difficult to scientifically define or measure.

Researchers used the following seven categories to assess each country’s happiness level:

  • Social support
  • Life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • GDP per capita
  • Perceptions of corruption
  • Positive and negative affects – dystopia (evaluating how much better life is in a given country in comparison to ones with bad living conditions).

“Our measurement of subjective well-being continues to rely on three main indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions,” the report said.

“Happiness rankings are based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives.”

Italy scored quite well in terms of its GDP, social support and healthy life expectancy, but respondents expressed a much lower value of freedom to make life choices compared to its European neighbours. Italians didn’t fare so well in dystopia either.

The report highlighted how Italy’s anxiety and sadness grew in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on social media analysis.

The Covid-19 pandemic could go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness ranking. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Five weeks after the outbreak of Covid, Italy showed the highest levels of anxiety globally. Levels of sadness grew too.

“On average, sadness reached its highest level three weeks after the outbreak, and remained stable for the following two weeks. The gradual increase of sadness terms occurred a while after stringency of social distancing measures increased, and remained high about two weeks later,” the report stated.

READ ALSO: Twelve statistics that show how the pandemic has hit Italy’s quality of life

Positive emotions also dropped in Italy as public health measures became stricter, the report noted.

However, throughout the turmoil, Italy ranked highly for supporting and taking care of each other – it was in fact the nationality least likely to simply take care of themselves.

Italy has consistently ranked poorly for perception of corruption: though there have been steady improvements over the past decade, it continues to rate as one of the most corrupt nations in Europe.

Despite the country’s overwhelmingly positive image abroad, Italy is in fact no stranger to poor rankings in various international comparisons on everything from corruption levels to English language proficiency.

You can find out more about those rankings below:

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