Coming To Italy? Here’s Some Food For Thought

I’ve now lived in Rome for over two years. Here’s what I'd have liked to have known as an American before moving to Italy.

coming to Italy
Campo de' Fiori market in Rome. Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash.

Everyone moves for different reasons and at different stages in their lives. I moved when I was 18 for college. At ages 26 and 34, I moved for work and, finally, at 37 for love and adventure. I packed up my American life and moved to Italy. I was basically living in a Nora Ephron movie. I just didn’t realize Nora Ephron also wrote really long, dramatic sagas. 

I relocated only weeks before Italy entered a nation-wide lockdown. My husband, who at the time was my boyfriend, decided that lockdown would be easier if we stayed with his parents. Ahem. (Please hold for dramatic pause.) Of course, his parents are lovely people. But living with other people’s families is never a breeze. And on top of cohabiting a space, let’s add in a pandemic, language barriers, and enough cultural differences to make a 90s sitcom. 

During the pandemic, I realized I didn’t understand many Italian customs, and I hadn’t done any real research prior to moving apart from watching Under the Tuscan Sun and Roman Holiday. You may be surprised to hear that these films did not prepare me for my cross-continental move.

So, let me tell you a couple of things I wish someone had told me before packing up my Samsonites.

When I first traveled to Rome, I was lovestruck. How could anyone not be? The ruins, the history, the cobblestone streets, the little enotecas. The city is charm personified, and I was smitten. When you’re in this starry-eyed version of a person or place, everything is romantic and inviting. The people are lovely, the city’s easy and the language is poetic. Then, after the romance fades and the reality sets in, things can take a bit of a nosedive. Reality takes the wheel, and I think it’s the realness that you need to be aware of. The shiny version of everything eventually fades, but it’s not bad when things fade. It doesn’t mean the magic ends. Rather, you see what something is — what it really is behind the curtain, and you can decide to love it more, if you want.

Here’s a list of little things I wish I knew prior to becoming an American expat in Italy. 

Some things to know about Italian food

No cappuccinos after 12pm

I don’t follow this rule, but it is frowned upon. Even after two years in Italy, my husband’s family continues to make the same joke whenever I order a cappuccino after lunchtime. 

Can you do it? Yes, every bar will happily give you a cappuccino at any time of the day, especially in the city centers. But know that not every restaurant will offer a cappuccino after lunch or dinner. I’ve been turned down much more than once. 

In fact, there’s this great traditional trattoria tucked away in Testaccio (Rome) called Flavio, which unabashedly states in its menu: “For Americans: no cappuccino, no spaghetti and meatballs, no Fettuccine Alfredo and no, we are not in a hurry.” What can I say? They got tired of the questions? 

Okay, so what is the reason behind no cappuccinos after lunch? I’ve been told it’s for digestion. Italians don’t want to consume milk products after lunch to avoid upsetting the stomach, which would be fine if half the Italian menu didn’t consist of milk products. 

Photo: Alisa Anton on Unsplash.

You don’t need to tip

Let’s circle back to Flavio’s menu. It’s true, the service industry is different here. Not different in the actual attitude of the service. Good and bad service are literally everywhere in the world, but I have noticed maybe the attention to detail is different. When you’re paying a 20% tip as you do in America, your expectations may be a bit higher. And when you’re not paying a tip and no one’s rushing to turn your table, you can actually start to appreciate the ease in Italy. Instead of hyperventilating that your bread basket hasn’t been refilled and that you’re going to deduct that from the waiter’s tip, you can take a breath.

By the way, you can tip, but it’s more or less adding a few euros to the table, not doubling or tripling the tax. And since I brought up bread baskets, you should know they typically aren’t free. They’re usually about two to three euros, and more often than not, the basket of bread is just brought to your table without request. So if you don’t want it, you can say something or just write it off as a service fee. 

Italian food is not what we Americans think it is

Now for the big shocks. Spaghetti and meatballs isn’t actually a dish here (spaghetti, yes, and meatballs, yes, but they’re not served together). Also, chicken parm is not Italian (it was created in the United States in the 1950s). And fettuccine Alfredo is not what you think. There’s a restaurant in Rome, Alfredo’s, that claims to have invented the dish, and for twenty euros you can order a big plate as they cook it for you table side. It consists of parmigiana, butter, and insanely delicate fettuccine. Of course, it’s delicious, but it isn’t something you see in authentic or traditional trattorias.

Another thing that surprised me when dining with Italians is that everyone orders their own appetizer and their own dessert. No matter where I’ve been in the world, I feel like I’ve always gone halfies when it came to apps and zerts. I found that Italians consume way more food (per meal) than Americans, but I guess it’s all the preservatives and in between meal snacking that keeps half of Americans checking their cholesterol levels. 

In Italy, when it’s time to pay the bill, no matter what you’ve ordered, everyone splits evenly. This, I enjoy. Only because I like to think things eventually break even with friends. And if they don’t, then you have shit friends. In Italy, there’s no, “Well, I only had the Caesar salad, so mine comes to 10.95.” This doesn’t happen. One, because everyone’s splitting and paying fifteen euros so deal with it, and two, there’s no Caesar salad in Italy.

(Well, technically, there is. I’ve ordered it before. It’s bad. It’s romaine, some weird version of chicken and the dressing was not Caesar salad dressing as we know it. It was basically just mayonnaise or yogurt, and she was real chunky. In fact, at traditional trattorias, salads don’t really make an appearance on the menus. Of course, I’m only speaking for the cities and towns I’ve visited. Yes, you can find salad to eat in cities, but if you’re going to authentic trattorias you won’t find many. And in my neighborhood the only lunch options if you’re getting something to go are pizza and kebabs.) 

Let’s talk doggie bags

Can you get a doggie bag in Italy if you don’t finish your meal? Yes. Do Italians do it? Not really.

Honestly, I don’t know why either. When I ask this to my husband, he answers my question with a question, “What Italian doesn’t finish their food?” Then I quickly realized, I opened the floor up for a lecture, “Jana, if you don’t finish your food in Italy, it means you don’t like it.” 

He usually then goes on to explain how bad it is to waste food, and at this point, it’s better that I bite my tongue before pointing out all the unopened jars of sauce and packages of cheese I’ve had to throw away because they expired before the “special occasion” we were waiting on never came. I digress, because I think it’s silly to think you have to clean your plate at a restaurant when lord knows the portions are huge. 

And let me finish the doggie bag portion with this: if you’re at a dinner table with Italians and get a to-go box for your pasta, expect comments and confusion, which you should just laugh off because if you’ve ever eaten cold pasta at 10am on a Sunday while watching reruns of Roseanne, then you know what’s good (but cold pasta and Roseanne aren’t a thing in Italy). The reason pasta isn’t saved for later in Italy is mainly because you’re not supposed to reheat it. Well, you can if you’re making a frittata in the morning, but other than that, it’s not something that’s really done.

coming to Italy
Photo: David Ramírez on Unsplash.

Know your pizza

Okay, I’ve just grazed some of the food rules, and I haven’t even touched on pizza.

Every region has its own style of pizza. The most famous being the focaccia, Roman, and Neapolitan. In Rome, there is pizza that you can eat at lunch and pizza you can eat at dinner. At lunch, you can have square pizza. Usually, this is served at a forno and you get a variety of different kinds and sizes. At night, you can eat the round pizza.

In Rome, if you have a round pizza during the day you are making a faux pas. Traditional Roman round pizza (pizzerias) won’t even be open during the day, and I’ve been told many a time that only tourists will eat round pizza for lunch, and it isn’t authentic. While yes, I have followed this rule (I don’t want to get divorced) I’m sure the pizza is still delicious no matter when or where it’s served.  This is just a Roman rule. In Naples, you can eat (Neapolitan style) round pizza in the afternoon and in the evening.

And to those of us who have always dipped our crusts of pizza in ranch or marinara sauce, unless you want to give an Italian a heart attack, do not ask for this. Italy is not as big on the dips as us Americans and so far, I haven’t successfully convinced an Italian of the beauty that is ranch dressing.

Everything changes depending on the region

Like the pizza, the other dishes that we all know and love are just as regional, and prior to moving to Italy, I wasn’t aware of how regional all the food was. In Rome, you have your four main pasta dishes: carbonara, gricia, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana. And you don’t order these dishes outside of Lazio. In mountain towns around Lazio it’s polenta and rabbit. In Bologna, it’s all about the tortellini, lasagna and bolognese. In Piemonte, it’s the tiny ravolini with meat and meat, meat, meat. In Sicily, it’s pasta alla Norma, which is pasta with eggplant and fried everything. In Liguria, it’s pesto pasta. In Puglia, it’s orecchiette and mozzarella, and so on. 

But no matter what region you’re in, if you’re at an Italian household for dinner, just buckle in for a three-hour meal. Honestly, it’s part of the charm, but I think I still have PTSD from quarantine when I had 65 three hour dinners in a row. And if you’re at an Italian’s home, you should check their house rules. In all of my husband’s relatives’ homes, there are no shoes inside. I’ve learned never to sit on a bed wearing my outside clothes. There’s also no tossing your purse or bag on the bed or furniture. In fact, take a look when you’re at a restaurant, you’ll probably notice there’s not one single purse on the ground. 

Other things to know before moving to Italy

Learn the language (just do it)

Learn it. It’s not like your taxes where you can just pay someone to do them for you. You actually have to sit down and do the work, and unfortunately, the words do not just come to you because you want them to. I never had an ear for anything — accents, music, people’s bullshit. Despite wishing really hard that one day Italian would just click, it didn’t work like that for me. And the longer I was here without being able to communicate, the stupider I felt. I could feel myself avoiding questions like, “How long have you lived in Rome?” After a year with only kindergarten grammar, I wanted to lie. I wanted to say I had only just arrived. I was avoiding the obvious comment, “But you still speak like a child.” 

Of course, you’ll pick up phrases and important keywords here and there solely by being here, but if you’re planning on a longer stay and want to immerse yourself in the Italian experience, you’re going to want to be able to express yourself. Not being able to fully explain how something makes you feel puts restrictions on your conversations. I really started to appreciate words even more by having limitations to them.

If you are coming for a vacation, you will get by just fine with English and miming gestures combined with learning some basic phrases like: How much?, Thank you, Where’s the train?, Please, Bill/check, etc. You’ll likely be staying in the center of bigger cities or visiting popular villages where most people speak a little English. However, if you’re here on an extended stay, you’ll quickly realize through meeting more people that a good amount do not speak English and even the people who do speak English don’t often like to. I’ve gathered that it’s usually the same reason I don’t like speaking Italian. It’s because I’m embarrassed about my pronunciation and insufficient vocabulary. 

So, sign up for the lessons and practice. In my experience, Italian conversations are had at a quick pace and no one is careful about your limited knowledge. I have sat through many dinner tables with Italians and you can either participate in Italian or you can sit quietly and twiddle your thumbs. At first, this bothered me, but I’m in Italy. I have to put on my big girl pants and study if I want to communicate with locals. 

And believe or not, speaking English louder doesn’t get your sentiment across any better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a restaurant and heard tourists shouting their orders to the waiters thinking that it helps. 

coming to Italy
Bridge in Rome. Photo: Jana Godshall.

Get used to the temperature

I’ll follow that up with my final note to my American friends. I know we like the inside of homes, restaurants, train/bus stations, stores, etc. to feel the opposite of what the outside weather feels like. We like the indoors to be really cold in the summer and really warm in the winter. This isn’t exactly how Italians feel. They want you to acclimate more, which to me just means wearing long johns in January and sweating my balls off in July. So prepare yourself and don’t make a fuss.  

In Italy, I found that it’s much more common to keep the house windows open in order to change the air. I’m constantly reminded that I need to open my apartment windows every four to five hours to let the rooms circulate, which is great, but I never had done this prior to moving to Italy. I suppose one reason we don’t do this as frequently in America is because nine times out of ten either the A/C or the heater is on, and to change the air in the states, we tend  to use our trustee ole humidifiers. I still laugh thinking about the times when my husband has come to the United States, and my mom reminds him to shut the door or the window because he’s letting all the bugs and hot air in. In summer in America, we’re the same way in our vehicles. We are addicted to the cool blasters being on in the car at all times, and if you are from warmer climates, the A/C just becomes an appendage.

I remember the first time I was driving from Rome to Sicily (‘driving’. I was the passenger. I still can’t drive a stick, which is something every Italian can do and only 18% of Americans can.) and we stopped at a gas station. I opted to stay in the car, while my husband went inside. Now, mind you, it was August. It was scorching out, and it never crossed my mind that the car would be turned off while I waited in it. I mean, unless someone was trying to Gone Girl me, why would you take the keys and risk me suffocating?  When my husband finally came back to find me dripping with sweat, I asked him why on earth he took the keys, which to him was such a strange question. He reminded me that, “If you’re hot, you come inside and don’t wait in the car. Why would anyone leave the car running? It wastes gas. It’s bad for the environment.” Well, I recycle. I avoid plastic. I compost when I can, but in 38 degrees (100 degrees, aka the dog days), I’m gonna need that A/C straight up blowing in my face. Otherwise, I will Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this operation. 

The point of that cute little marriage story is to say that when carpooling with Italians, maybe bring a little electronic fan with you. Actually, you should opt to pack the electronic fan regardless.  Now, that I’m thinking about it I remember in Tuscany going to some museums in smaller villages that didn’t have A/C.  The subways aren’t always equipped with A/C either, and actually, just last July, I was on a train from Rome to Salerno with a broken A/C, so it’s a lesson to be prepared because in the summer a little paper fan isn’t going to always cut it. (And ladies, unless you have waterproof mascara, you can save your maybe it’s Maybelline looks for the fall. Ain’t nothing cute about leaving the dinner table to go to the restroom only to find your perspiration has caused you to full panda-eye out of control.)

See you in Italy! (Ci vediamo in Italia)

Alright, I feel like these are useful tips for planning your move, your vacay, or your stay in Italy.  If you noticed, there are a lot more pointers and direction when it comes to food, and honestly, it’s because food is just that important in Italy. Food is basically the rotational force that keeps this country moving, and you gotta respect a country with a love language that comes in form of pasta and pizza and wine. Il cibo è amore. 

I hope I’ve helped prepare you to come for a week or two, a month, a year, forever … The truth is, whether it’s a vacation, a work move, a love move, an I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-with-my-life-anymore move, you should take the journey and listen to whatever voice is speaking to you, unless the voice only comes out at night or after you’ve been drinking. Then you should probably box that up and unpack it in therapy.  

Otherwise, Italy is here for your exploration and adventurous desires. The country is small enough that you can cover a lot of ground in a little time, and there’ll always be more to see. The curtain is drawn, but the magic of Italy still exists. It’s bewitched me body and soul … That’s what Mr. Darcy said to Ms. Bennet when he fell in love with her. No one’s ever said that to me, but I’m gonna say it about Rome and a bowl of pasta. 

*If you’re interested in learning more about visa applications, student visa vs resident visa & how to logistically make the move if you don’t have a retirement fund, then let us know because that’s a whole ’nother chapter.

  1. This is a wonderful introduction to the numerous differences between Italian and American culture. Have you ever considered writing a guide book for Roma targeting American tourists? You certainly have mastered the nuances and subtle cultural differences that might make an American’s visit to this wonderful city even more enjoyable. Cinzia

  2. Love Jana Godshall’s article! Such a fresh humor with a love for Italy, she has a flair for bringing the reader into a conversation about a beautiful country!

  3. Amusing article. Technically you can have a round pizza in the daytime in Rome but it’s small and we call it “pizzetta” 😀

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