Italian habits For Members

Dressing up and slowing down: The unwritten rules of an Italian Sunday lunch

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
Dressing up and slowing down: The unwritten rules of an Italian Sunday lunch
Interior view of a Rome restaurant. Photo by Anna Church on Unsplash

Sunday lunches are a cornerstone of Italian life and society, but if you've been invited to one what exactly should you expect?


Sunday lunch is an important tradition in many countries, but Italy's pranzo della domenica takes things to another level.

Far from being just a meal, it's a key part of Italian society providing families and friends with an opportunity to come together and celebrate their bond over food and wine.

READ ALSO: Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

If you’ve been living in Italy for some time, or have relatives in the country, chances are you’ve already attended a traditional Sunday lunch. But if you’ve just been invited to your first, what can you expect?

Everyone dresses up

You may think of Sunday lunch as a relaxed situation where participants are more or less free to wear whatever they want as long as they look half presentable. 

Fashion-conscious Italians however aim to look smart even on occasions when none but close family members or friends are present, just to make una bella figura, or ‘a good impression’.

It’s not at all rare for Italians to turn up to Sunday lunch with fancy outfits and flashy accessories. Keeping this in mind when picking out your own attire may well spare you some funny looks from across the table later on.

You’re there for the long haul

Think of a very, very long meal, then add a couple of hours, and you may get close to the average length of an Italian Sunday lunch. 

Pranzi domenicali are no brief business and it’s not just because of the unconscionably large quantities of food being served, but also because Italians like to take things slowly, and try to extend social occasions for as long as they can. 

Overall, it’s not rare for a Sunday lunch to last three, four or even five hours in some areas of the country.

Restaurant, Campania

Customers sat at a restaurant in Ravello, Campania. Photo by Sterlinglanier on Unsplash


Food to feed an army

Starter (antipasto), first course (primo piatto), second course (secondo) and sides (contorni), cheese or fruit, and dessert – all served in generous portions. 

That’s the very minimum you can expect from a Sunday lunch.

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The jury is still out on exactly how Italians can get through food marathons of this scale on a regular basis, but what’s certain is that you’ll find it hard to keep up with them, at least for the first couple of outings.

If you can’t finish your food, don’t worry: an overly dramatic non ce la faccio piu’ (literally, ‘I can’t take it anymore’) will usually get you off the hook.


The digestivo ritual

By the time lunch comes to an end, you’ll likely find yourself wondering how many working days your body’s going to take to process all of the food you’ve just eaten.

Luckily, you’ll get a chance to give your stomach a helping hand by drinking a digestivo, a highly alcoholic, intensely flavoured liqueur which Italians swear by when it comes to digestion issues.

READ ALSO: Are Italians really drinking less wine?

Whether it is an amaro, a limoncello, or some fiery grappa, the digestivo will be served neat in a small shot glass (but shouldn’t be guzzled in one go like a shot).

You may hear some Italians refer to the digestif as ammazzacaffe' (or 'coffee killer') as it generally deadens the caffeine buzz of the espresso consumed at the end of lunch.

Pennichella time

Sunday lunches in Italy can be a bit hard on people with low noise tolerance (Italians aren’t exactly known for being soft-spoken, and that tends to get worse after a few glasses of red).

But you can generally expect the chatter to fizzle out pretty quickly after the last round of digestivi as most people drift into the quintessential pennichella – a post-lunch snooze revitalising body and soul.

You can either join the others in the land of Nod, or sit back and enjoy the longed-for silence.

Do you think we've missed anything? Let us know in the comments below.


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Lynn 2024/02/23 19:09
For years when invited to dine " a mezzogiorno" I would arrive at noon only to find that none of the other guests were there yet. Finally I realized this had nothing to do with an exact time but was merely a way to say come to lunch and I adjusted my arrival to somewhere between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Ed 2024/02/23 18:49
Three decades in (northern) Italy, married to an Italian wife and previously a long term Italian girlfriend. I often read about these mega Italian family Sunday lunches, but have never experienced one. My wife absolutely refutes that they are a "cornerstone of Italian life". Possibly this is more of a Southern thing, or it depends on the family involved.

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