"I love places that have an incredible history. I love the Italian way of life. I love the food. I love the people. I love the attitudes of Italians." – Elton John
Although travel in Europe seems like no big culture shock for Americans, there are some Italian customs and habits that might just be perplexing, confounding and downright infuriating for Americans! If you are lucky enough to be contemplating a trip to this incredible country, here is some of my best advice for enjoying it and avoiding pitfalls. Also realize that Italy is very culturally diverse so one rule does not apply everywhere. Sometimes the North and South of Italy can seem like different countries altogether!
This is by no means a complete list but I tried to pick out what tips I would have found most useful on my very first trip.
One of the main things you go to Italy for is the incredible food! But Italian restaurants have their own way of doing things. Unless catering to tourists, dinner is often not served until 8pm and lunch around 1pm. And expect to be there a very long time! No fast food here!
1. Tipping is very different. Waiters are paid a decent living wage so a 15 to 20% tip is unnecessary. But that’s not to say don’t tip at all! If you are in a cafe, leave a few coins behind if you feel your service was good. In a fancier restaurant a 5 to 10 euro note is usually sufficient. The restaurant will often add a “coperto” or service charge, usually around 3 Euro, to compensate any other costs.
2. Waiters don’t hover, this is seen as rude. They will arrive to take your order and to bring and clear food but if you want something in the course of the meal motion discretely to them to call them over. They will also not bring the check until you ask for it. Sitting for a very long time after the meal is commonplace in Italy and they don’t want to hurry you out.
3. Mixed salad is considered a side dish and the waiter won’t bring it first unless you ask them to. It’s generally brought to the table with bottles of oil and vinegar so you can then dress the salad to your own tastes. Bread is not provided with butter and usually not with oil (no, Olive Garden is NOT just like Italy!) it is there to accompany your appetizer or to help sop up the sauces on your plate. You are not usually provided with a bread dish either.
4. Cheese is not eaten with seafood as a rule, especially in Southern Italy. While some chefs are staring to break this rule, most Italians feel that the delicate flavors of seafood are overpowered by cheese. Plus it’s also bad for the digestion. The best and purist way to serve fish in Italy is with a combination of lemon juice, olive oil, parsley and garlic.
5. Resist asking for changes or substitutions, this is not acceptable. Italians take great pride in their food and how it is made and served.
Coffee is such a focus of Italian life that it's useful to know the rules.
1. Be specific when you order. Many baristas are used to Americans and might assume you want an American coffee unless you ask for an espresso. And the reverse is true as well. And if you order a latte you will get a glass of warm milk, not coffee.
2. Cappuccino is a breakfast drink in Italy, usually not taken after lunch. I do encourage my guests to order it any time of the day if they really want it, but they will get some sighs when they order. Also espresso is served after the meal. Coffee is never taken with a meal other than dessert.
3. Many coffeeshops have a cashier that you visit first to pay. Then you take the receipt to the barista who makes the espresso for you. Often you stand at the bar or a small high table while you drink. In Southern Italy a glass of water is often provided as well.
4. Afternoon coffee is very popular. If you have a sweet tooth, you can ask for one of my favorite things, an affogato, which is espresso poured over a scoop of gelato!
5. It’s often more expensive to order at a table than at the bar. You pay anywhere from 10 to 50% more for the table and service. Unless everyone else is doing it, don’t order at the bar and take your drinks to a sit down table! This is often true of gelato restaurants as well.
My husband once accused my family of having every discussion end up in the toilet, we were not above bathroom humor! But this is exactly where the biggest culture shock comes into play for many Americans.
1. The first thing you’ll notice, especially if you are a woman is that the toilet seats are often missing in public toilets. You’ll either have to develop strong thigh muscles or perch on the rim. The idea behind this is sanitary, Italians believe that a toilet with seat attached is a breeding ground for bacteria, better to get rid of it entirely and have only the rim to clean.
2.Many public restrooms have attendants. You should leave around a .50 to 1 euro coin for them, it is their job to keep the toilets spotless and have plenty of towels on hand for you.
3. Bidets. Most hotels and private homes have them. They are for cleansing your unmentionables after using the loo or engaging in some more intimate pursuits. While Americans rely on tons of toilet paper, the modern bidet is more efficient and leaves you much fresher!
4. And speaking of toilet paper, always carry some kleenex with you. It’s not always reliably present!
5. Toilets often have 2 flush buttons, either on the wall or on the tank. The smaller one for liquids, the larger is for solids.
Italy is known for shoes, leather goods, ceramics and food. When shopping for any of these, heed these tips.
1. Always acknowledge the shopkeeper when you enter a shop and thank them when you leave. To do otherwise is thought of as rude.
2. Sales tax is always included. This can be very high and if you spend quite a bit ask for a VAT tax refund form. You will need to have your passport and follow the rules at the airport to obtain your refund, but it can really add up if you buy pricey items.
3. Opening and closing hours can be perplexing to Americans. Italians believe in a long family lunch so stores can be closed from 1 to 4 in the afternoon. Don’t fret, go to the beach, take a siesta, or better yet, indulge in that long lunch!
4. Shopkeepers are much more engaged. Service is given and expected in Italy so don’t be surprised if the salespeople seem pushy. And in small vegetable and food shops observe other customers before handling the produce. Many shopkeepers will select and weigh the items for you; handling the fruit and veggies yourself is frowned upon. It is their job to select the best food for you and they take that very seriously! Also, do not handle expensive art or ceramics yourself!
5. ALWAYS ask before you take photos! Many shops have no photo policies, please respect them!
I’m not even going to address driving in Italy, that’s just insanity. Just Google it. But public transportation is excellent, trains, boats and busses will get you to most places you want to be and big cities have great metro systems.
1. If you take a bus or some smaller local trains always validate your ticket when entering. The bus has a machine to stamp your ticket next to the driver and the train just on the platform. Larger trains will have a conductor who comes o your seat to stamp your ticket. Not having or validating you ticket can cost you hefty fines, ignorance is no excuse! You’s be surprised how many Americans try to say, “But I didn’t know!” That will just get you a larger fine.
2. You often have to buy your tickets at a Tabbachi, a small tobacco or convenience store located near the bus stop. Some busses sell tickets on board but don’t assume this is true. Check before boarding.
3. Don’t try to hail a taxi on the street. In most cases you have to call ahead or line up at a taxi stand.
4. Intercity busses are often quite large, cheap and comfortable but at peak tourist times they can pack you in like sardines. Get in line early to get a seat, or be prepared to stand!
5. Boats are useful for moving around the coast but like anything else, the faster the boat, the more expensive it is! Hydrofoils are pricier than ferries, so if your voyage has a chance for a scenic trip, slow down, save money and enjoy the view! Also be aware that weather can scuttle your plans so have a back up bus or train option if the weather is rough
1. Italy is on the metric system, so have a conversion app or chart handy! You’ll need it, especially for weather forecasts! Also a currency converter is handy to have.
2. Time is often in a 24 hour format, after 12 PM, start adding! 1 PM is 13:00, 8 PM is 20:00, midnight is 00:00.
3. Dates are listed day/month/year. So April 15, 2016 would be listed as 15/4/2016.
4. Unless listed otherwise, most fountains have perfectly clean, drinkable water coming out of their spouts! So bring a battle or travel mug and fill up at those beautiful historic fountains!
5. Relax and enjoy yourself! Italy is the land of dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing! Stop rushing and checking your phone, just slow down and have some gelato!
Remember, when you travel with In Splendid Company you will always live like a local! With us you'll enjoy the most authentic Italian experience possible! See what we have to offer at www.insplendidcompany.com!