Italy is a country of many traditions and rituals, given its incredible cultural history. Much of this plays out in quite routine, quotidian activities. That said, it is important to be aware of Italian etiquette – the unwritten rules that dictate the execution of even the most basic of social rituals. A great example of this is the importance Italians place on their food and, more significantly, how one should eat it.
Italian’s are pioneers in celebrating the little things in life, the daily ins and outs of their routines. This also means there is an almost sacred importance given to small things like drinking your coffee, dressing yourself, greeting people and even spending a day at the beach. When done right, you yourself may be able to reach the nirvana of La Dolce Vita; when done erroneously, you could end up being the laughing stock of the restaurant.
The country may be thought of as a purveyor of the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you can do what you please. There is a difference between being late to a dinner and being late to a business meeting. There is a difference between relaxed style and looking like a tramp. And there is definitely a difference between a cappuccino and a caffè.
The restaurant, trattoria, osteria, pasticceria, or bar that you attend is perhaps the biggest minefield of all Italian social etiquette. There are several things to know about the pecking order, for example, in a restaurant. Do not question the chef – he takes pride in his dishes and has seasoned and prepared them as he thinks best. As a result, avoid asking for extra parmesan, salt, oil, vinegar, pepper, or anything. This is insulting to his skill as a cook. Definitely avoid doing this before tasting the dish – how can you judge his cuisine to be uneatable before even trying it?
That said, do use your waiter as much as you please. Unlike in other European countries, such as France, the waiters here are very much here to serve you, and will happily answer any questions. Similarly, they will not bring you your bill until you ask for it explicitly. Italian’s understand that clients should have the pleasure of enjoying their meal to the full, which of course includes lots of chatter with their companions and a digestivo.
On this point, it is important to point out that coffee, or espresso, is strictly a digestivo. Never order this drink before a meal, as Italians see it as unhealthy and strongly ill-advised. Similarly, don’t bother ordering a cappuccino after 10.00. This is a morning drink that you enjoy over a cornetto for breakfast. It certainly shouldn’t appear anywhere after midday, and never with a meal. In fact, Italians will also frown upon drinking coffee with a meal, if not thought of as dangerous. Coffee, after all, is meant to aid digestion once everything is in your stomach!
Tipping in restaurants, on the other hand, has much more relaxed rules. A generous tip would sit around 10%. That said, be aware that there is often a service charge of sorts already included. This is called the pane e coperto and covers the bread basket and table settings. This shouldn’t really exceed 3-4€ per person. On a side note, be sure not to gobble all the bread before your meal. Instead, save it for the left-over sauce from your primi or antipasti. It is a great compliment to mop up the sauce with a piece of bread!
On the topic of antipasti and primi, the famous four-course Italian meal comes into play. In reality, Italians usually only choose two courses, not four. This usually takes the form of an antipasto and either a primo or secondo. Of course, before all of this, you should indulge in an aperitivo which usually consists of a spritz or light wine, with an assortment of small, bite-sized snacks.
Speaking of alcohol, it is best to follow this simple rule: drink, but don’t get drunk. The spritz, a glass of wine with the meal and a digestivo of grappa or limoncello should be fine. The culture of simply drinking without food is not one you will find here. On the other hand, feel free to order wine with your lunch or even a casual weekday meal. It is normal to drink, but embarrassing to get drunk in public.
Finally, take your time! There is a reason you won’t find many business meetings over a lunch. You should enjoy your meal in a relaxed environment with friends and family. They are long and drawn-out affairs, with aperitivo often starting as early as 18.30, and last orders going on until midnight. This gives all a chance to revel in the warmth of the social embrace of their close circles. It is for this reason the waiters won’t bring you the bill in advance, and will leave the drinks menu with you all evening. The meal ends when you wish, and no self-respecting locality would ever dare kick out a guest unless it is well past closing time!
The main thing to bear in mind on an Italian beach is this: you are one of many and all have the right to enjoy the beach. Remember that Italians come here to escape their city jobs and lives, they are generally looking to relax and clear their mind. With this in mind, keep your phone on silent, don’t play your music out loud and control your children! Avoid shouting out, don’t take up too much space if you’re on the spiaggia libera and don’t just assume a sun lounger is available if there isn’t a towel on it.
As a general rule, private establishments take up most of the beach space. These rent out their sun loungers with parasols on a daily basis. There is usually a small area of beach for public use, though these are usually very busy and sometimes messy. It is worth ‘shelling out’ for a lounger (usually around 15€ per person) purely for your own space, shade, and slightly less sand everywhere!
Finally, you won’t find anyone shying away from a skimpy bathing suit or speedo in Italy. They are a proud people, and this is no different about their bodies. They know they have the right to be there, and won’t let any fickle ‘beauty standards’ stand in their way. So wear your Brazilian bikini and speedos with confidence. Last but not least, don’t bother with suncream. Or at least, don’t apply it obviously. After all, you wouldn’t want others to think you were trying to avoid that healthy tanned glow!
Out and About
Italy, especially during the summer season, bursts at the seams with tourists. You can spot them from a mile away with sturdy shoes, cargo shorts and cotton t-shirts topped off with a backpack. In a country that takes such pride in its incredible legacy of design and art, this is a most cardinal sin. Of course, comfort is important, but the Italian’s have cracked the key to a fashionable approach to this necessity in their scorching summers.
A top tip from sports tour agent Inspiresport is to dress appropriately. Linen is vital here. Men can sport a slightly-crinkled linen shirt and chinos. They would never dare appear in shorts in the city. That said, at the beach they like to go to the other extreme in speedos. Women can throw on a breezy linen summer dress, paired with low-heeled sandals or pumps. Comfort is definitely important to these people, but elegance and style are in their blood. Don’t overdress (who needs a tie to stifle them?) but don’t underdress (we can all do better than synthetic football shorts) – the Italian style is subtle but very deliberate.
A place it is extremely important to dress well is in churches. In the majority of Italian cities and towns, you will find noteworthy churches with some stunning art on display. But it is important to show respect. As a rule of thumb, you should cover shoulders and knees. The same goes for chests and backs.
You will often see Italians be intimate and touchy with friends. It is normal to kiss your friends on each cheek upon meeting them and again when you leave, starting with the right. That said, save this for friends, and stick to a handshake when meeting people for the first time. Though you might not go for such an embrace, don’t be afraid to broach otherwise taboo subjects. Italians don’t at all mind discussing their religion or politics with you. Just be sure you can defend your own point of view before espousing it. There’s nothing Italians love better than a friendly but lively discussion over an aperitivo. Don’t worry if your opinions differ, either, this is not taken as a sign of incompatibility amongst friends here!
During these debates, however, steer clear of the gestì or gestures. Famous across the world for their emphatic gesticulations, few know that each one has very a particular meaning! So as not to stray into offensive territory, therefore, it is best to avoid using them without direction or knowledge.
If you enter a shop, for the Italian etiquette, it is polite to greet the owner with “Buongiorno” or “Buona sera” after roughly 14.00. When speaking Italian, it is worth addressing them with Lei, not tu, out of respect. Despite the formalities, don’t be afraid to ask them questions, they will be more than happy to assist you in pharmacies, pasticcerie (bakeries), and forni (pizzas and panini) and any other smaller shops.