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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 the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

Some of Italy’s foreign residents may still be wearing t-shirts, but Italians are preparing for the most stressful style-related event of the year: the summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch. Silvia Marchetti explains what it’s all about.

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

People have always said to me that Italians stand out (particularly abroad) because of the way they dress, the style of their clothes, the designer labels, the gorgeous bags and shoes. 

But it’s not because they really do dress better than others, rather they are extremely picky about what they wear, and when they wear it, at which precise time of the year. 

Italians are dead serious about adapting their dress code to the different seasons in response to dropping or rising temperatures. The ‘wardrobe switch’ is a major event that consumes entire days of a family’s weekends or spare time. From the kids to granny, all must change their apparel. I remember my grandparents used to mark it on their calendar, a bit like when you have to take the car for the annual check called the tagliando

There are four major wardrobe switches, as many as the seasons. The most tiring is the summer-to-autumn one, which usually occurs mid-September when the summer heat abates. 

Summer clothes are taken out of the closet and laid on the bed, then autumn apparel is plucked out from an upper closet space and neatly laid on the other side of the bed to be scrutinized. 

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

It’s then time to do some clearing out: the switch is the time to try on autumn clothes and see if they still fit or are no longer wanted or liked (meaning you’ll be shopping for new ones). 

This stage can take hours, if not days. Jackets, which usually take up more space and are kept in the cellar or attic, are also cleaned of dust and tried on. 

Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

The summer apparel is then packed away and replaced by the autumn clothes, which are laid out in the same spot where the t-shirts and shorts once were. The same goes for shoe switches. Back in the box with those flip-flops, which are a major no-no after September 20th, and back on the shelves for boots and sneakers. 

When an Italian decides that summer is over, summer is over even if it’s still 25 degrees outside. My boyfriend just switched from shorts to trousers, even though he’s sweating most of the time. 

And it may seem that there’s a particular dress code that everyone follows. Autumn calls for ‘camicette’ shirts, light leather jackets, jeans, and bright little stylish scarves in silk or cotton to protect against the first potential cold air. Rain coats and casual jackets dubbed spolverini (dusters) are also taken out of storage.

The motto is ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, meaning ‘to dress like an onion’, with layers of shirts and sweaters that can be peeled off throughout the day depending on temperature swings. 

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

It’s a way to avoid sweating at noon or getting too cold in the evenings. But it’s also a stylish dressing habit to show that we are fully equipped, including financially, to cope with the changing seasons. If you don’t buy at least one new item of clothing per season, that’s just ‘not cool’.

A ‘booster’ wardrobe switch happens again in December, when the piumini, or hardcore winter ‘duvet’ coats, and knitted wool sweaters are taken out to reinforce the autumn apparel. 

Even if it never gets that cold in Italy compared to some countries, Italians still like to wear wool hats, gloves and some even wear furs, heavy boots and mountain-climbing uniforms – perhaps just for the sake of showing off some of their cool skiing apparel. 

Whether in autumn, winter, spring, or summer, the wardrobe switch is also an excuse to go shopping. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Then when spring arrives, winter clothes disappear and autumn attire starts mixing with some t-shirts, sleeveless jackets, and lighter cotton pants. 

But it’s still too early to wear shorts for men or skirts without stockings for women: showing off white bare legs is so unstylish.

Alas, when it’s finally summer, flip flops and sandals pop out again and the switch is an occasion to throw away unwanted summer clothes from the previous year and buy new bikinis, skirts, tank tops and fancy colorful shirts. This can be quite painful if you happen to have gained weight during the cold months. 

Italians are serious about wardrobe changes given their reaction even to just slight temperature drops or hikes.

I know that for foreigners seeing Italians wearing coats now in September even if it’s not yet so cold can be quite shocking in the same way it is for Italians to see Americans or Germans wearing t-shirts in December. 

READ ALSO: ‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

But climate change is disrupting the traditional wardrobe switch. My granny used to say that the so-called ‘middle seasons’ in Italy which are those between summer and winter (she meant autumn and spring) were luckily very long and pleasant. But nowadays even Italy has very short springs and autumns. In recent years there’s been a sudden jump from hot summers to half-winter seasons. 

This affects the way Italians are dressing, as I see fewer leather jackets around or raincoats unless it’s actually raining. The other day I was swimming in a pool and in the afternoon when I came back home there was a strong wind and I had to put on my piumino (long duvet coat) plus a hat. 

Luckily I have a huge walk-in closet so the left part is for winter, the right part is for summer and in between are all those items that used to fall within my granny’s ‘middle seasons’. So I always have everything at hand to cope even with the uncontrolled effects of climate change.

Friends of mine are already going into depression because they’re planning the wardrobe switch for next weekend – but they already miss the summer and don’t want to give up on the sexy shorts and elegant sandals. 

There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to clothes, most Italians can be very fussy indeed.

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