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Italian Customs: 48 Things You Should NEVER Do in Italy

Don't make a faux pas, here are the most important Italian customs to know BEFORE you visit Italy

by Michele
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Italian Customs and Traditions in Italy
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Understanding Italian customs before you visit Italy is just as crucial as knowing the best time to visit or picking up helpful Italy travel tips. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in an embarrassing situation where locals are shaking their heads and muttering, Ma che cavolo stai facendo? (What the heck are you doing?)! 

So, let’s take a look at some key aspects of Italian customs, language, and cuisine to ensure that your adventures in Italy are filled with pleasant surprises instead of uncomfortable moments! 

Italian Food Customs

Italians take immense pride in their culinary heritage. Mention one thing wrong about Italian cuisine, and you’ll likely witness more fervor than a heated political debate (and political discussions in Italy can be intense…).

1. Never speak badly of Italian food

Italians may grumble about various aspects of their country – the politics, the bureaucracy, or even their fellow citizens – but one thing that remains sacred is their culinary heritage. They’ll fiercely defend it, even if it means putting friendships on the line! So, watch your tongue before you declare that Italian pizza is just like any other or suggest that nonna’s lasagna is a breeze to replicate. The response can be quite passionate!

2. No cappuccino after 11am

Milky beverages like cappuccino (espresso topped with velvety, foamed milk), caffè latte (coffee with milk), or latte macchiato (hot milk with a shot of espresso) are strictly reserved for breakfast hours or for a delightful morning indulgence – as long as the clock hasn’t struck 11am, which marks the beginning of aperitivo time. The thing is, Italians believe that introducing milk to a full stomach disrupts digestion! So, while it’s technically possible to order a cappuccino post-carbonara, expect some seriously puzzled looks. The solution? Order a caffè macchiato instead! It’s an espresso with just a hint of milk, perfectly acceptable at any hour of the day.

3. Don’t expect a big breakfast

Italians typically start their day with a simple colazione (breakfast), opting for caffè e biscotti (coffee and cookies) or cornetto e cappuccino (croissant and cappuccino). So, unless you’re staying in a high-end hotel offering an American-style breakfast, don’t be surprised if you don’t find pancakes or scrambled eggs on the menu. However, what awaits you in most Italian hotels is the so-called continental breakfast buffet consisting of pastries, fresh fruits, assorted breads, cured meats, cheeses, and, of course, coffee. In B&Bs, on the other hand, your morning spread may include packaged croissants and rusks and single-serve honey, jam of Nutella, often accompanied by tantalizing local treats. 

4. Never spill salt on the table

Spilling salt on the table is one of the most common Italian superstitions, believed to bring years of bad luck. That’s because, back in the day, salt was a very precious commodity and spilling it was like throwing away money. Now, if you accidentally tip the salt shaker, here’s what to do: grab a pinch of salt with your right hand (considered the hand of God), toss it over your left shoulder (the side associated with the Devil), and poof! Bad luck avoided!

5. Never put cheese on fish dishes 

Planning to cover your spaghetti alle vongole with a mountain of Parmesan cheese? No no! Italians have a strict no-cheese policy when it comes to fish-based dishes, in stark contrast to practices in other cultures (in France, for instance, mussels are enjoyed with Roquefort cheese!). This whole no-cheese rule goes way back to ancient Rome, where it was believed that mixing fish and cheese triggered a chemical reaction detrimental to digestion. This belief has cemented the separation of these two ingredients, enduring to this day as a strict rule of Italian cuisine – one that Italians take very seriously!  

6. Don’t put ketchup on pizza or pasta

The only red sauce allowed on pasta and pizza is a rich tomato sauce, so save the ketchup for your fries. Adding ketchup to these iconic dishes will ruin their delicious and delicate flavors. Check out the reaction of a Neapolitan waitress when a tourist requests ketchup for their pizza here

7. Don’t ask for a pineapple pizza

Pineapple pizza is not Italian – it comes from Canada, courtesy of a Greek chef. Plus, Italian pizzas are celebrated for their savory toppings, steering clear of the sweetness typically associated with fruits. Sure, there’s been some buzz about Sorbillo, the renowned Neapolitan pizza maestro, daring to put pineapple pizza on the menu, but let’s be real – it feels more like a marketing strategy than a genuine culinary creation. The only fruit topping you’ll find on Italian pizzas is fichi (figs), paired with prosciutto – two flavors that perfectly complement each other! There’s even an Italian saying coming from the Roman dialect that celebrates this union, mica pizza e fichi (it’s not like pizza and figs), used to suggest that something isn’t ordinary but rather special, as pizza and figs were once considered humble fare.  

8. Never break spaghetti

There’s a reason why spaghetti are long and it’s not for the thrill of breaking them! If you like shorter pasta, there are plenty of other varieties to choose from. Spaghetti are meant to be enjoyed in their full-length glory, gracefully twirled around your fork, generously coated in sauce. Not sure how to accommodate their elongated shape in the pot without breaking them? Simply bring the water to a boil, then place the spaghetti on an angle in the pot, allowing the water to gradually soften them until they submerge whole. And in case you’re wondering – no, breaking spaghetti won’t magically speed up their cooking time! 

9. No ice in the wine 

If you dare to drop frozen cubes into your wine, be prepared for the collective gasps of dismay from your Italian companions. Italians take their wine seriously – it’s practically a national treasure! So, why would you sabotage such a masterpiece with ice? Wine has its own specific flavor profile, and adding ice totally disrupts that delicate balance of aromas. 

10. Avoid asking for Italian dishes that are actually American

Alfredo sauce, garlic bread, chicken parmesan, Italian dressing, and pasta with meatballs might seem like staples of Italian cuisine to you, but surprise, surprise – they’re as American as apple pie! Yep, these tasty treats are actually American inventions masquerading as Italian classics. They owe their existence to the influx of Italian immigrants to the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. They brought with them their rich culinary heritage but had to adapt to the limited availability of certain ingredients in their new homeland. As a result, they ingeniously adapted their traditional dishes, thus giving rise to Italian-American cuisine. So, when in Italy, stick to the original dishes on local menus!

11. Never rush through meals

In Italy, dining is not merely about filling your stomach; it’s about enjoying the company and conversation. So, forget about devouring food on the go or hastily munching at your desk. 

Italians take their time and indulge in a leisurely dining experience. As the famous Italian proverb goes, A tavola, non s’invecchia mai (You never grow old at the dinner table), highlighting the rejuvenating effects of sharing a meal with loved ones. 

The only time you’ll see Italians eating while walking is when they eat a gelato, even then they often sit in a piazza or slowly peruse shop windows.

12. Never swim immediately after eating

This is the summer nightmare of any Italian children, one they also carry into their adulthood. Italian mothers insist that their children should wait at least 3 hours before swimming, out of fear of la congestione (the congestion). The belief is that the cold water after a meal may shock the stomach, disrupting circulation and causing the interruption of the digestive process, potentially even leading to drowning! While this rule may sound overly dramatic and lacks strict medical backing, adhering to it can spare you from disapproving glances from Italian nonnas! 

13. Don’t expect the bill without asking

In Italy, where meals are savored slowly, once you’ve finished eating, don’t assume the waiter will promptly present the bill. Waiters won’t interrupt your lingering until you signal your readiness to pay with a little wave and a friendly Il conto, per favore! (The bill, please).

14. Beware the upside-down bread

Placing bread upside down on the table is another cardinal sin in Italy, particularly among the older generations. It’s not just superstition; it’s almost sacrilegious! Why? Well, for Catholics, bread symbolizes the body of Christ, so flipping it over feels like disrespecting the sacred.

15. No cocktails with your meal

In Italian dining culture, beverages are carefully chosen to complement rather than dominate the flavors of the meal. Thus, water and wine reign supreme at the dinner table, harmonizing effortlessly with the dishes served. This emphasis on balance means reserving sparkling Prosecco or elaborate cocktails for the convivial pre-meal aperitivo hour, where their flavour profile can be fully appreciated without overshadowing the food. 

16. Avoid excessive drinking in public

Going overboard and turning into the life of a drunken party in public isn’t exactly a bella figura (good impression) in Italian culture – more on that later. For Italians, drinking isn’t about getting intoxicated; rather, it’s about cherishing the experience and the convivial atmosphere it fosters. Wine, in particular, holds a special place at the Italian table, where every significant moment in life – be it the arrival of a new family member or the simplest of gatherings among friends – is celebrated with the ritual of raising a glass in a toast. Thus, every Italian basically grows up with this culture of convivial drinking. Moreover, Italians like to savor each sip, relishing the complexities of flavor and the fragrances that evoke memories of vineyards across the country. 

17. Don’t expect early dining

In contrast to countries like the UK, US or Australia, where dinner can be as early as 5-6 pm or Norway where it’s practically a tea-time affair at 4pm, the evening meal in Italy rarely starts before 7:30 pm. I know, it may sound late to some, but consider that there is always aperitivo, the tradition of having a drink and some nibbles to whet the appetite before the proper meal. While you might stumble upon a few spots catering to early diners in touristy areas, they could be sneaky tourist traps! So, it’s best to adjust to local Italian traditions to fully enjoy an authentic Italian dining experience. And don’t worry about early closures, like in the UK or the US, where by 9 pm most kitchens are already in hibernation mode. In Italy, you’ll find restaurants bustling until at least 11 pm.

18. Avoid restaurants with tourist menus

You know those eateries with big menus printed outside in multiple languages, and possibly even images and flags? Or worse yet, those with waiters stationed outside encouraging you to come in for your next meal? They are likely tourist traps. Authentic restaurants feature menus exclusively in Italian (perhaps with English translation upon request), offering a small selection of regional delicacies. So, don’t expect to find burgers and fries here – just pure, unadulterated Italian food! Some places may also offer a menù a prezzo fisso (fixed-price menu) during lunch hours. While not always the pinnacle of culinary excellence, these menus typically cater to local workers, providing a good option to savor local flavors at a small cost. 

Italian Social Customs: Language & pronunciation

Understanding certain aspects of the Italian language is essential to avoid awkward moments, ranging from embarrassing mispronunciations to unintended misunderstandings when imitating accents or expressions for amusement. 

19. Don’t rely solely on English

In smaller towns and rural areas of Italy, English isn’t always spoken or understood, which can pose challenges when trying to communicate and you don’t know a word of Italian. That’s why it’s good to have a list of basic Italian phrases always with you at all times, whether you need to order a gelato or ask for directions to the nearest train station.

20. Don’t greet everyone with “ciao“

While it’s tempting to greet Italians with a cheerful ciao (hello) in Italy, it’s important to note that this is an informal greeting. Italians appreciate nuances of formality, distinguishing between the familiar (tu) and the formal (Lei) modes of address. So, save ciao for friends or those younger than you, and opt for salve (hi), buongiorno (good morning), or buonasera (good evening) when engaging with strangers or in formal settings. 

21. Avoid mimicking the Italian accent with southern expressions

Attempting to speak Italian and master its pronunciation is admirable but it’s important to avoid turning this into a source of mockery. Portraying the Italian accent in a comedic manner can be offensive, particularly when it reinforces stereotypes and distorts the reality of how Italians communicate. So, while exaggerating the accent using phrases like paisà (a common word in southern dialects (such as in Sicilian) to indicate someone from the same village) or baciamo le mani, boss – kiss hands, boss, may seem like innocent fun,  it can actually be upsetting to Italians.

22. One for men: forget “ciao bella” 

When greeting women in Italy, especially those you’re meeting for the first time or don’t know well, it’s best to avoid using ciao bella (hello beautiful). While well-intentioned, this phrase can often be misinterpreted as flirtatious, potentially leading to eye rolls rather than smiles. Instead, opt for safer options like buongiorno (good morning) and buonasera (good evening), or  simply ciao (hello) for more informal settings. However, among close female friends, ciao bella is perfectly acceptable as a casual and friendly greeting alternative to just saying ciao.

23. Avoid imitating hand gestures improperly

In Italian culture, hand gestures are an integral aspect of communication, often conveying nuances and emotions that words alone cannot express. However, while integrating gestures into your speech can enrich your interactions in Italian, it is crucial to do so with respect and awareness. Improper use may unintentionally offend, earning you more than just a raised eyebrow but possibly an Italian dito medio (middle finger) in response!

24 Limit the use of “grazie”…

In Italian culture, the excessive use of grazie (thank you) may come across as insincere, inadvertently creating a sense of distance. This arises from Italy’s deeply rooted hospitality and open-heartedness, where gestures of assistance and kindness are extended out of genuine affection rather than obligation. So, by avoiding excessive usages of saying grazie, you maintain the warmth and spontaneity of interactions, ensuring your conversations remain authentic and sincere.

25. Don’t overuse “per favore”   

Similarly, saying per favore (please) too often would sound a bit too formal. Italians don’t really use it that much because in Italian culture, politeness is often conveyed more through the tone of voice than by the frequent repetition of particular phrases, as I explained in this video.

26. Don’t forget to use scusa/scusi – in moderation!

When chatting in Italian, saying scusa (excuse me – informal) or mi scusi (excuse me – formal) works wonders to show respect and politeness. But let’s not forget that Italians aren’t big on constant apologizing like it’s customary in other cultures, so use this little word moderately! 

27. Say “carne”, not “cane” 

Carne, which means “meat,” rolls off the tongue with that distinctive “r.” But if you don’t pronounce it properly, you might accidentally say cane (dog) instead. Imagine saying, voglio mangiare carne stasera (I want to eat meat tonight) and suddenly, you’re ordering a plate of Fido (dog – Fido is a classic Italian name for canine friends, often used colloquially as a synonym for “dog” itself)!

28. Say “penne”, not “pene” 

Penne is the plural form of penna (pen). In culinary vocabulary, it also refers to the cylindrical pasta you may find yourself ordering at the restaurant (like the famous “penne all’arrabbiata”). When doing it, make sure to articulate that double “n” clearly (pen-neh) or else you’d end up saying pene, which refers to, well, the penis – not exactly dinner conversation material!

29. Say “anno”, not “ano”  

Anno is the Italian word for “year” and is crucial to master, especially when asking one of the first questions in Italian: Quanti anni hai? (How old are you?). A simple oversight of doubling the “n” sound can turn an innocent conversation about age into a discussion about posterior anatomy. The word ano with only one “n” means anus, so you’re effectively asking the person how many anuses they have!

Italian customs and superstitions

Understanding key Italian customs is essential for avoiding cultural misunderstandings while interacting with locals. Below are some key Italian social customs to keep in mind, from avoiding certain flowers as gifts to embracing your Italian heritage with finesse.

30. Stop cheek kissing everyone you meet

Kissing on the cheek is a common Italian greeting among friends and family, governed by specific protocols. You first lean to the left, presenting your right cheek, followed by a lean to the right. And here’s the thing: contrary to the term “cheek kissing”, it’s more of a tender graze than an actual kiss! It’s more of an air kiss. Also, it’s important to note that cheek kissing is to be avoided with someone you just met. However, occasional exceptions occur and a new acquaintance might bid farewell with a kiss on the cheek, but that’s got to do more with someone’s personality rather than social etiquette. So, when you introduce yourself to someone new, stick to a firm handshake and a cheerful piacere (pleasure) to keep things breezy and avoid any puzzled looks.

31. Don’t wish “happy birthday” the day before 

Sure, you want to be the very first to wish your Italian friend a happy birthday, but make sure you wait until the actual day! Giving early birthday wishes might earn you some bad glances, as Italians believe it can bring bad luck, like you’re tempting fate! 

32. Don’t forget to pay for your birthday guests

Speaking of birthdays, if you happen to be spending your birthday in Italy and want to celebrate with your Italian friends or family, consider that the festeggiato/a (the person being celebrated) usually pays for everyone (birthday cake included) – unless, of course, it’s a surprise party!

33. Beware the “colpo d’aria” 

In Italian culture, cold air holds significant weight, as encapsulated in the term colpo d’aria (literally, a hit of air). Italians firmly believe that exposure to a sudden blast of cold air can lead to all sorts of problems, from neck pains to sore throats and even upset stomachs. That’s why you won’t catch Italians idling near drafty doors or air conditioners. Additionally, stepping outside with wet hair is a strict taboo, believed to increase exposure to illness such as catching a cold, as going out in such a state is thought to chill the head, potentially causing headaches! So, if you’re with Italians, especially the older folks, it’s best to steer clear of these behaviors to avoid drawing disapproving glances.

34. Avoid falling into stereotypes  

While movies and television series like “The Godfather” and “Gomorrah” might offer gripping narratives, please remember they’re fiction. So, when chatting with Italians, it’s best to avoid asking questions and making assumptions based on stereotypes like “Italians are all mafiosi” or “Naples is dangerous”. Instead, keep an open mind and embrace the opportunity to explore Italy’s multifaceted identity – its diverse regions, dialects, and unique Italian traditions are way more fascinating topics to explore!

35. Never arrive empty-handed

If you receive a dinner invitation to someone’s home in Italy, here’s the golden rule to follow: never arrive empty-handed! A bottle of nice wine, some dolci (sweets), or perhaps even a lovely potted plant or fragrant bouquet of flowers are perfect gestures to show your appreciation for the invite. And don’t forget to familiarize yourself with common Italian compliments to admire their home, such as che bella casa! (what a beautiful home!) – it’s not only a delightful gesture but also an excellent conversation starter.

36. Never gift chrysanthemums

If you’re thinking of gifting someone a bunch of chrysanthemums, stop right there! In Italian culture, this flower symbolizes death and it’s typically reserved for adorning tombs in a cemetery.

37. Avoid wearing purple to weddings

When picking your outfit for an Italian wedding, steer clear of purple! In Italian tradition, purple is seen as a bad omen, kind of like bringing funeral vibes to a celebration. Ladies, steer clear of black or white attire: the first commonly symbolizes mourning, while the second is traditionally reserved for the bride. You gents are off the hook since wearing a suit/tuxedos is usually black! So, better play it safe and avoid being the center of unwanted attention, right?

38. Skip the beach clothes when visiting churches

Unless you’ve found a miraculous beach chapel that’s totally chill with it, leave those flip-flops and skimpy outfits behind. Seriously, nothing screams “I’m a tourist” louder than beachwear in a holy space. Sure, some churches can feel more like museums than sacred spaces, but they still deserve our respect. So, go for something modest to wear, and make sure your knees and shoulders are covered up.

39. Never jump in a fountain

You’re strolling through the sizzling streets of Rome in August, feeling like you’re roasting, I get it. But as tempting as it may be, resist the urge to take a dip in the Trevi Fountain or any other ornamental fountain in Italy. Unless, of course, you’re after a scolding and a hefty fine! That’s because these fountains aren’t just pretty decorations; they are as historically important as, say, the Colosseum and the Vatican. So, let’s give them the respect they deserve!

40. Be respectful of historical sites and monuments

Similarly, forget the urge of leaving your mark on the Colosseum or sneaking a piece of Pompeii into your pocket as a souvenir. Not only is it foolish and disrespectful, but you will also get hit with a big fine or end up dealing with the local authorities!

41. Never use that tiny little towel for your face

You know those adorable little towels hanging next to the quirky sink positioned near the toilet in Italian bathrooms? Well, that sink isn’t just a fancy decoration – it’s a bidet, meant for keeping your private parts fresh and clean. And those small towels are specifically for drying off after bidet time, not for your face! So, save your cheeks from any surprise encounters and stick to the bigger towels!

42. Don’t always expect to pay with a credit card

You may come from a country where even a pack of gum in a tiny countryside shop can be purchased with a swipe of your credit card, but when you’re exploring Italy’s back roads, make sure to carry some cash. Credit cards are not always accepted, especially for small purchases (this may happen even in some urban spots!). So, always ask which credit cards they accept before making a purchase or ordering something, including jumping into a taxi. And if you’re an American Express cardholder, be aware that many places in Italy don’t accept it due to the high merchant fees. Again, always check ahead to avoid surprises. 

43. Don’t try to catch a taxi in the middle of the street

Forget channeling your inner Carrie Bradshaw in the streets of Rome – waving down a taxi in the middle of the street doesn’t work in Italy. Instead, you should either call a specific taxi number or find an official taxi rank. It’s also helpful to know some basic Italian to inquire about directions, such as dov’è il posteggio taxi più vicino? (where is the nearest taxi rank?).

44. Don’t expect UBER

In Italy, the traditional Uber service you’re familiar with doesn’t exist here. However, you can still opt for Uber Black in cities like Rome and Milan, which functions similarly to the noleggio con conducente (chauffeur service). This option may be a bit pricier, but it’s  the only way Uber can legally operate in Italy at the moment. However, there are other transportation apps you can consider, such as Free Now or itTaxi, which work similarly to Uber.

45. Forget punctuality

In Italy, time operates on its own rhythm. I’m not referring to individual punctuality, which varies from person to person, but rather to buses, whose timetables are considered more as a general guide than a strict time schedule. And it’s not uncommon for some public offices to take a leisurely approach to time as well. It’s all part of Italy’s laid-back attitude!

46. Never underestimate the power of “la bella figura”

The concept of la bella figura (literally, the beautiful figure) is a major part of Italian culture. It means to make a good impression in everything you do – whether it’s showing your skills, capabilities, having good manners, or just looking sharp. It’s like showing off your best self to win approval from others. Italians are raised with this idea drilled into them, with mums always reminding their kids not to embarrass the family with the iconic expression non farmi fare brutta figura! (literally, don’t make me do a bad figure!) Because doing well socially isn’t just good for you, it reflects on your whole family.. So, whether you’re chatting over a cappuccino or introducing yourself at a party, it’s all about leaving a lasting impression.

47. Don’t call everyone by their first name 

When you’re meeting Italians for the first time and they’re a bit older or hold higher positions, call them by their last name or use their professional title, such as Ingegnere (Engineer), Dottore (Doctor), Professore (Professor), etc. . Only switch to using their first name when they invite you to do so.

48. Celebrate your Italian heritage, but avoid exaggeration

It’s beautiful to honor your Italian heritage, but let’s stay rooted in reality. Calling yourself the next Caesar simply because your great great great grandmother came from Italy might be a bit of a stretch, don’t you think? Embracing your Italian roots is wonderful, but it’s equally important to recognize your current cultural identity. Perhaps you’ve been raised in a different country like the US, where Italian American culture has evolved into something uniquely its own (see no. 10 for more on that). Italians would appreciate it more if you identify as ‘Italian-American,’ for instance, as it shows your willingness to embrace your heritage while acknowledging the cultural nuances of your upbringing.

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Italian Customs and Traditions in Italy - 48 Things You Should Never Do

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