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Offal and midnight pastries: Six surprising Italian food customs

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Offal and midnight pastries: Six surprising Italian food customs
Italian pastries: not just for daytime. Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

You may think you're an expert on Italian cuisine - but there are some traditions that will come as a surprise to anyone who's yet to experience Italy's food culture up close.


You've learned to keep cream out of your carbonara, and that meatballs on spaghetti is an American invention.

But there are some Italian food customs that you probably won't pick up on until you've spent some time in Italy.

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Whipped cream on ice cream

If you've ever looked down at your ice cream and thought "this is nice and all, but what it really needs is more cream", then Italy is the country for you.

Up and down the length of the peninsula, you'll be hard-pressed to find a gelateria whose servers don't offer to put panna, or whipped cream, on top of your gelato.

When and where this tradition began is unclear, but the fact that in Milan it costs extra while in Rome and the south it tends to be free has been the subject of some recent controversy, with the papers variously describing the variance as a "war" between the two cities and as "panna-gate".

Sauceless pasta

You might think you like pasta... but can you really declare yourself a true pasta-lover unless you've tried - and loved - pasta without any sauce on it?

Pasta aglio olio e peperoncino, or pasta (specifically spaghetti, linguine or some other long pasta) with garlic, oil and chilli pepper flakes is a dish that originated in Naples and quickly became popular all over the country as a low-cost, low-effort meal.

READ ALSO: Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

While you wouldn't be surprised to hear this kind of food is regularly served in people's homes, it's also not uncommon to find it on the menu in informal restaurants, where diners will part with good money for a plate of pasta with oil and garlic (and maybe some chilli and parsley) on it.


Even more basic is pasta in bianco - in its purest form, plain pasta with a pat of butter on it, and if you're lucky some cheese - though you're unlikely to find this offered in a restaurant. Related options include pasta with olive oil and bitter greens, and pasta with butter and asparagus.

Potato on pizza

A country for keto dieters, Italy is not. 

Carbs are king here, so it's only natural that some one at some point came up with the idea of putting potato and pizza together.

Despite how bland it sounds, pizza con patate is actually delicious - a thick and crispy white pizza bianca base topped with well-seasoned, thinly sliced potatoes sprinkled with rosemary.

READ ALSO: Five tips for ordering pizza in Italy

You won't tend to find this option on the menu at sit-down pizzerias - but go into any bakery serving up trays of pizza al taglio, or pizza by the slice, and you're bound to see potato pizza sitting alongside margherita and foccaccia.

Biscuits dipped in wine

The British are partial to biscuits dipped in tea on occasion, but Italians prefer an altogether more decadent variation: biscuits soaked in wine.

Dipping cantucci (what most anglophones refer to as 'biscotti') in sweet vin santo dessert wine after a meal is a Tuscan tradition, but it's popular enough that you'll see it on the menu at plenty of restaurants in other regions.


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The legend goes that vin santo - 'holy wine' - is so named because in the 1300s, as a plague swept through Italy, a Franciscan friar in Siena started giving his parishioners alter wine in the hopes of curing them. It may not have done that, but a sip of the wine did provide some relief; so much so that people started believing in its miraculous properties.

As for where the custom of dipping biscuits in the wine came from - people probably just realised it tasted nice.

Midnight pastries

If you're the kind of person who starts craving breakfast at midnight, you'll want to head to certain southern Italian cities where some bakeries turn out cornetti and other pastries into the early hours.

Don't expect to find these kinds of nocturnal or 24-hour bakeries in touristy neighbourhoods or the fancier parts of town; they traditionally tend to be based a bit further out, and cater mainly to workers starting or coming off their shift or students who are up all hours of the night.

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That doesn't mean they're not worth making the journey to if you're a night owl. An institution like Il Pangocciolaio, for example, in Rome's Ostiense neighbourhood, serves cream-stuffed sweet breads and mini-pizzas from 7pm until between 3 and 5 in the morning, and is rarely without a lengthy queue out the door.


Italians are not squeamish when it comes to offcuts; from tripe to oxtail to tongue and even brains, you can pretty much guarantee that if it comes from an animal and is edible, in some part of Italy, it's regularly used in cooking.

READ ALSO: From fried brains to 'sexy' cakes: The Italian foods you might not expect in Italy


Roman cuisine is particularly known for its emphasis on offal, but it's far from the only part of the country where you'll find unusual food items; from Tuscany, where lampredotto cow stomach is a popular sandwich filling, to a range of southern regions where pig's blood is traditionally used to make the sanguinaccio dolce chocolate dessert.

A new year's eve delicacy from Emilia Romagna is zampone - a pig's trotter stuffed with pork meat - while in Puglia and in Catania on Sicily's eastern coast, you'll find horse meat widely available at food stalls and in restaurants.


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Chris 2023/09/15 11:38
I asked for linguine with aglio olio e peperoncino,in my local restaurant only to be told in no uncertain terms, "NO! You must always use spaghetti for this dish. While we are on the subject of plain pasta dishes, my local restaurant also serves pasta with sage and butter. Delicious.

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