mìsula® magazine


Italy’s passion for the table has created some of the world’s most popular dishes, and along the way the rituals for best enjoying them. While Italians are enthusiastic and accepting hosts, they also admire those who “fare la bella figura”—make a good impression— by learning how to navigate their culinary landscape. You know never to order cappuccino after 11 AM, or have cheese on a seafood risotto—right? But there’s a lot more that savvy travelers should consider before sitting down at a trattoria and twirling pasta around their fork. We turned to Cassandra Santoro, founder and CEO of Travel Italian Style, a New York-based travel company specializing in custom Italian itineraries, for input. Santoro divides her time between the U.S. and Italy (where she spends six months a year) and chronicles her journeys on her popular Instagram site. Here are 19 of her tips for eating like a local whether traveling for business or pleasure.

  1. Don’t suggest a breakfast business meeting. Italian breakfasts are minimalist—a coffee and sweet, usually on the run, not the heftier versions we’re used to in the U.S. “I would stick to lunch, dinner or a coffee get together to discuss business,” says Santoro.
  2. Coffee meetings are usually in an office rather than at a caffè.
  3. At lunch or dinner don’t order salad as a first course. “Salad comes after the meal—it’s meant to help you digest, not fill you up. Salad is always pretty simple—no Caesar or Blue Cheese dressing. Before a meal I would just have antipasti.”
  4. Pasta rules, even when the weather is hot. “It is always the primo (first course) of choice, no matter the temperature. Families even bring pasta picnic lunches to the seaside! When at a restaurant by the beach it’s common to see dishes like spaghetti alle vongole instead of heavy cream or meat-filled pastas.”
  5. Don’t cut your pasta. “Ever! When I was engaged to a Neapolitan man I learned how eating pasta is an art. While I never cut my pasta, his mother shared a trick: take two strands of spaghetti and twirl it around your fork. This will give you the perfect amount to comfortably eat and look like local.”
  6. Wine is still very much a part of a business lunch. “It depends on the who, when, and where of the meeting, of course, but I like to have one glass of wine during business lunches. Just acqua minerale, or water, is OK too.”
  7. Go easy on the wine before the pasta is served. “Wine is often chosen to complement [or enhance] the taste of the pasta, so it’s best to savor the experience together. Italians feel drinking during meals without some sort of food is quite strange. They don’t like to fill up on drinks before or during a meal, even with water. You rarely see someone having a cocktail with their dinner—it would throw off the flavor of the dish. Of course, feel free to have a sip if someone is making a toast before the pasta arrives.”
  8. Keep pasta portions small if you’re having a second course. “A typical plate of pasta at lunch is about 5 ounces, or about half of what is served in the U.S.”
  9. Don’t overdo it with the cheese. “My Italian friends taught me one spoonful for pasta and select risotto dishes was enough. I believe this is the best way to get a true taste of the pasta.”
  10. Or the sauce. “Italians go lighter on sauce than Americans. As with cheese, one spoonful is often enough.”
  11. Don’t eat bread with pasta. “Typically Italian’s don’t like the idea of eating two starches together. However, you can use bread to wipe up the extra sauce at the bottom of the plate when finished; this is known as fare la scarpetta.”
  12. Keep it local. “Stay regional when choosing your pasta and entree. If I’m in Naples I wouldn’t order pasta alla Norma (a Sicilian dish) or bistecca all fiorentina (from Tuscany).”
  13. It’s hard to go wrong with classic pairings when ordering pasta. “Whether it’s spaghetti alla carbonara or orecchiette con cime di rapa, these dishes are what they are because the type of pasta and the combination of flavors in the sauce complement one another.”
  14. With the main course or secondo, in general let your location be your guide. “In the south of Italy choose a local fish, while in the north opt for a meat-focused dish.”
  15. Eat pizza with a knife and fork. “When you sit down at a table in a pizzeria or restaurant, use a fork and knife for the pizza. Take-away pizza, found in a forno or bread shop, can be eaten with your hands.”
  16. The cocktail hour can go as late as 8:30 PM. “Aperitivo time generally starts at 6:30 PM and runs for two hours. I would not look for a pre-dinner drink much after that.”
  17. Italians really don’t snack. “I worked in my partner office in Naples last summer and rarely saw someone snacking at their desk. After work whether for an aperitivo or to enjoy a beer, Italians might nibble on some peanuts, potato chips, or taralli, but they don’t overdo it.”
  18. Or over-indulge with sweets. “Fresh fruit, sliced pineapple, or macedonia (fruit salad) are more typical desserts except during the holidays when you’ll find such cakes as panettone or pandoro (at Christmas), schiacciata alla fiorentina (a Florentine orange-flavored cake typically served during Carnevale), or the pastiera Napoletana at Easter.’’
  19. Be moderate with the food shots.“When I started Instagram in 2015, Italians didn’t understand or appreciate my staging our lunch for photos. They are opening up a bit more. I recently took part in a blogging event in Sicily and while touring we were always camera ready for street food excursions and markets. However, during meals at restaurants we were mostly enjoying the food and not standing on top of tables trying to get photos. I do refrain from breaking out the phone during lunches or dinners with my friends’ nonni or parents, even though they always have the best food and the best opportunity for a photo op.” (By Catherine Sabino from Forbes.com)