One thing that really bothered me when I first moved to Italy was all the 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 on beaches.
Since then I’ve seen that, thankfully, Italy does seem to be weaning itself off its plastic bottle addiction. But filtered water is here to stay, and now, I think it’s for a pretty good reason.
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, which will of course usually be branded, bottled mineral water.
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 – it’s just that 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.)
Of course the water quality 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.
And 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.
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”.
Small plastic bottles of water are ubiquitous in Italy in summer. Photo: AFP
As well as the potential taste and purity issues, another problem is that water in Italy 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 kettle quickly gets all furred up with calcium deposits.
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.
Meanwhile, American friends lament the lack of water-softening systems apparently found in many homes in the US (I’m told the technology is available here in Italy should you want to install it).
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. After moving here, the idea of washing your face with mineral water no longer sounds 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.
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 husband’s family used to stock up on six-packs of 1.5 litre plastic bottles of water from the supermarket several times a week, much to my dismay.
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 likes to inform me, “it’s very clean and modern”.
(In case you haven’t noticed, “clean and modern” is the ultimate seal of approval from any Italian mother-in-law.)
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 a restaurant table. Let’s hope the trend continues.
Refilling bottles at a filtration station in Italy. Photo: AFP