What is it with Italians and bottled water?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
What is it with Italians and bottled water?
Bottled water in an Italian supermarket. Photo: DepositPhotos

Have you ever had trouble ordering tap water in Italy or been dismayed by the plastic bottles everywhere? Here's a look at what that's all about.


One thing that really bothered me when I first moved to Italy was the number of plastic water bottles I saw on tables up and down the country.

I couldn't stop noticing them in every home and restaurant - or worse, discarded in the street and littering beaches.

Since then I've seen that, thankfully, Italy does seem to be weaning itself off its plastic bottle addiction. But filtered - if not bottled - water is here to stay, and I've learned that maybe that's not such a bad thing.

While both water and wine are essentials on any Italian table, many visitors to Italy complain about not being able to order tap water in restaurants. In fact, you'll usually be asked if you want frizzante or naturale (sparkling or still) as soon as you sit down, and this will be branded, bottled mineral water in the vast majority of places.

Just know that the insistence on bottled water isn't one of Italy's famous restaurant scams targeting tourists - unless you're later overcharged for it, of course.

A water bottling plant in central Italy. Photo: AFP

The water is perfectly safe to drink all over Italy, and you can ask for tap water if you want. But no one usually does, and your waiter might not want to bring it to you.

Their reluctance probably has more to do with the unpleasant taste of the local tap water than them wanting to upsell you an expensive bottle of mineral water (especially as upselling in restaurants doesn't really happen in Italy - at least, not outside of the most touristy areas.)

The water quality obviously isn't the same everywhere. As in most countries, the further you get from big cities, and particularly when you get into the mountains, the better the tap water is. It might even be brought directly from mountain springs into homes without processing, and restaurants in these regions are rightly proud of their delicious local spring water.

But visitors arriving in cities or coastal regions will no doubt find the taste of the water a lot less pleasant.

Hence waiters' concerned expressions, warnings, and insistance on bringing bottled water in many areas of the country. Even at the simplest cafe or motorway service station, if you ask for a glass of water (which is common, and should be free) with your coffee, they'll pour it from a bottle and not the tap. Usually into a plastic cup.


And in a country so obsessed with hygiene, drinking tap water is seen as potentially dirty or even dangerous by some.

This view is especially prevalent among older Italians, many of whom have little faith in the country's water purification and sanitation services - or perhaps the safety of the water pipes in older buildings.

These concerns are not totally unfounded. Just last year, the city of Matera warned that its drinking water had become contaminated, while an outbreak of legionella in northern Italy was blamed on contaminated water in industrial cooling towers. Such incidents are rare, but they do nothing to reassure extra-cautious Italian nonni.

Overall though, Italy has some of the safest drinking water in Europe, so it's unclear why the same fixation with bottled water isn't seen in neighbouring countries.

Some people blame intensive marketing by Italy's many bottled water producers.

You might notice that as well as advertising the various supposed health-giving properties of the bafflingly wide range of bottled mineral waters on sale, advertisements here also boast of the water's cleanliness. (In fact, if you've watched many Italian TV ads, you'll know that all kinds of foodstuffs are promoted as being “clean” - which you would hope was a given.)

Small plastic bottles of water are ubiquitous in Italy in summer. Photo: AFP


One simple reason you might not want to drink the water in Italy is that it tends to be very hard, or full of calcium.

This is something every British person learns immediately after moving here: making a cup of tea requires using filtered water, otherwise your tea tastes chalky and your precious, imported kettle quickly gets furred up with calcium deposits.

Aside from the taste, when you see the state of the inside of that kettle after a few weeks in Italy, you might also wonder how good it is for you to be processing that stuff through your body.

My own solution of using a filter jug, of the variety you keep in your fridge, for tap water has raised many an Italian eyebrow - and brought us back to the preoccupation with hygiene. But how can you know it's clean?

I've found I have little choice but to keep a supply of bottled water on hand for Italian visitors who find the idea of drinking tap water, filtered or not, beyond the pale.


Meanwhile, American friends lament the lack of water-softening systems apparently found in many homes in the US (though I'm told the technology is available here in Italy, should you want to install it - it just doesn't seem to be that well-known.)

Many people – myself included – complain that the hard water doesn't do your hair or skin any favours, and can leave it dry and dull. The idea of washing your face with mineral water no longer sounds all that eccentric, although I haven't resorted to doing this myself - yet.

There's also the fact that, with environmental concerns not exactly top of the agenda here in Italy, drinking bottled water is still seen as fashionable and "modern" by many.

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But the good news is that Italian restaurants and households are now increasingly ditching the plastic bottles I was once so disturbed by.

My Italian in-laws are a typical example: they used to stock up on six-packs of 1.5 litre plastic bottles of water from the supermarket several times a week, and were forever hauling them up from the car to their apartment, and carting the recycling back down.


But after a filtered water station was set up on a nearby street, costing five euro cents per litre of filtered water, my mother-in-law now takes her six refillable glass bottles down there instead. She's still pretty excited about doing it every time as, she informs me, “it's very clean and modern”.

And the even better news is that more and more restaurants across Italy are now installing water filtration systems and using refillable glass bottles to serve both naturale and frizzante.

It's been a few months now since I've seen a plastic bottle lurking on an Italian dining table, either in a restaurant or family home. Let's hope the trend continues.

Refilling bottles at a filtration station in Italy. Photo: AFP


Comments (2)

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Anonymous 2019/10/10 16:26
We have wonderful mountain water in Turin, but plastic bottles dominate. And one might also think about the fact that your water is in plastic which may not be good for you. But you don't put water softeners on your drinking and cooking line ever. The rest, yes. Water filter on drinking line, yes. But all those minerals are good for you. We have at least as much calcium in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever see this great Roz Chast cartoon? We have the mugs here in Torino.
Anonymous 2019/10/10 09:12
A water softener is an "addolcitore". They are common here in Umbria where the water is very hard indeed.

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