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8 Italian Food Rules To Follow To Eat Like A Local

Published on: May 12, 2019 | Last Updated on November 16, 2021
8 Italian Food Rules to Follow (Credit: Irene S. Levine)

When in Rome…

Or for that matter, wherever you travel in Italy or anywhere elsewhere in the world, you’ll find that locals have different customs and traditions than your own. Experiencing different cultures is one of the allures of travel.

But because Italy is so food-centric, rules about what and how to eat have been ingrained for generations. Of course, food rules vary among regions (The country was only unified to become Italy as we know it today in 1861). For example, even the types of pasta and breads consumed in different parts of the country vary from place to place.

Italian food rules are always somewhat of a generalization because they aren’t written in law and aren’t observed by everyone. But if you want to eat like a local, here are some rules to follow:

8 Italian Food Rules to Follow

Food rule #1 – Don’t eat fish with cheese

8 Italian Food Rules - Seafood pasta: Hold the cheese

Seafood Pasta: Hold the Cheese (Credit: Jerome Levine

While grated cheese works well atop most pasta dishes, don’t even think of asking for grated cheese on top of your seafood pasta. Cheese doesn’t go with fish. The reasoning? Fish is delicate and cheese is strong, which obscures the flavor of the fish, cookbook author Julia della Croce, an expert on Italian cuisine told AtlasObscura.com.

Food rule #2 – Cappuccino is only a breakfast drink 

Italian Food Rules- Cappuccino: A faux-pas after dinner (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Cappuccino: A faux-pas after dinner (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Most Italians won’t drink cappuccino, considered a breakfast drink, after 10 AM. If someone is jetlagged or woke up late—perhaps, they’ll stretch the window until noon. But ordering a cappuccino after that, and particularly after dinner, is simply cringe-worthy. Italians believe the rich foamy milk of the drink interferes with digestion.

Food rule #3 – Pasta is usually a first course, not a main dish or a side dish

Fettuccine with Ragù alla Bolognese (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Fettuccine with Ragù alla Bolognese (Credit: Jerome Levine)


Italians categorize dishes into two courses, a primo (first course) and secondo (second course). Different types of pasta with sauces are often served as a first course. (Second courses are typically meat, fish or poultry.) At lunchtime, pasta is often eaten as a main dish. Lunch portions of pasta tend to be heartier than those served as first courses at dinner.

Food rule #4 – Spaghetti isn’t eaten with meatballs (A corollary of the above)

While a dish of spaghetti and meatballs is an Italian-American favorite, most Italians living in the homeland eat their pasta as a primo and enjoy their meatballs (polpette) as a secondo. Writing in Smithsonian.com, Shaylyn Esposito suggests that one reason spaghetti got coupled with meatballs was that Americans were used to have a starch with their meal. Another Italian food fact: Italians don’t eat pasta and meat off the same plate.

Food rule #5 – Eggs aren’t eaten for breakfast

Italian Food Rules: Eggs for Breakfast: NO (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Eggs for Breakfast: NO (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Just because eggs are often served on breakfast buffets at Italian hotels, don’t be misled. Italians don’t eat eggs for breakfast. They’re considered too filling so early in the morning. An Italian breakfast is generally simple and quick, usually a hot coffee-based drink with a sweet pastry, croissant or roll, or slice of bread with jam. Italians are more likely to eat eggs for lunch, sometimes in the form of a frittata. Those hotel buffets menus are geared to please international travelers rather than Italians.

Food rule #6 – Dinners aren’t eaten before 7 PM

Danilo e Patrizia Ristorante (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Danilo e Patrizia Ristorante (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Italians tend to eat later than Americans, usually about 8 PM or after. In fact, if you are visiting Italy, you aren’t likely to find a restaurant open for dinner before 7 PM.

Food rule #7 – Don’t ask for salad dressing 

Italian Food Rules - Salad waiting to be dressed with oil & vinegar (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Salad waiting to be dressed with oil & vinegar (Credit: Jerome Levine)

While Americans are used to a variety of salad dressings, Italians don’t use bottled dressings. In Italy, there’s no such thing as Italian dressing or Caesar dressing. (The origins of the latter are said to be in Tijuana, where an Italian-American restaurateur created Caesar salad.) Italians typically dress salads with olive oil alone, or with oil and vinegar (often balsamic). 

Food rule #8 – Don’t order soda pop with meals 

Italian Food Rules: Wine or dinner with meals (Credit: Jerome Levine)

Wine or dinner with meals (Credit: Jerome Levine)

While Coca Cola and other soft drinks are available in Italy, Italians never order these sugary drinks with their meals. They always drink wine or water. The reasoning: Soda detracts from the flavor of foods. Also, Italians never drink coffee with a meal, only afterward. An exception, however, it’s okay to slug soda or beer with pizza.

When it comes to Italian food rules, there are always some exceptions!

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Italian Food Rules


  • Reply
    May 12, 2019 at 10:19 pm

    All true! Especially the one about cappuccino as a morning-only drink. No one seems to (or wants to) believe me.

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 13, 2019 at 10:08 am

      Many Americans use a cappuccino-after-dinner as an easy way to skip dessert!

  • Reply
    Jackie K Smith
    May 13, 2019 at 2:46 am

    Well, aside from the soda pop, which I avoid, I have broken and will likely continue to break every rule you listed. I am amazed at the number of courses an Italian meal involves and I am usually done in by the pasta course . . .and yes, I will admit to having eaten cheese on fish pasta but then I eat cheese on anything and everything and sometimes alone. Loved this post! (It made me hungry. . .)

  • Reply
    Lois Alter Mark
    May 13, 2019 at 10:02 am

    Well, rules are made to be broken, right?! Now you have me craving Italian food!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 13, 2019 at 10:05 am

      Well, now you know the rules. Up to you about whether they are to be broken:-)

  • Reply
    Suzanne Stavert
    May 13, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    LOL! All true!!! We just returned from two weeks in Italy and loved each and every morsel. Thank you for the reminders!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 14, 2019 at 8:46 am

      The food and wines of Italy are pretty spectacular! Sounds like you had a great trip!

  • Reply
    Jeff & Crystal Bryant
    May 13, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing these 8 rules to follow when dining in Italy. So many of us are unaware of the Americanized changes that we find commonplace. These can be big faux-pas when visiting Italy.

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 14, 2019 at 8:47 am

      I actually only ran into one “rule cop.” I ordered carpaccio as an appetizer, which I often do in the U.S. and he urged me to order it as a secondo. He said I could, of course, do whatever I wanted but I ordered a pasta dish instead:-)

  • Reply
    Marilyn Jones
    May 14, 2019 at 1:03 am

    I enjoyed your creativity with this post!! I did break rule #8 over and over again though. Diet Coke is my vice. 🙂

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 14, 2019 at 8:48 am

      I’m pretty addicted to Diet Coke myself but it is usually more expensive than a glass of wine in Italy so I always opt for the latter!

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    May 14, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    Well, I’ve broken a lot of these rules, but never the one about ordering pop! I’d never drink pop with Italian food, and rarely with any food. I have, though, been guilty of having grated parmesan cheese on my pasta with clams. Thx for sharing these Italian food rules with us.

  • Reply
    May 16, 2019 at 10:25 am

    This is great. As frequent travelers to Italy our first mistake was ordering a Cappuccino in mid-afternoon. I can’t stop smiling while reading this. Love the article and all true.

  • Reply
    Cindy Carlsson
    May 17, 2019 at 10:15 am

    Wow! So much I didn’t know. What an interesting (and useful) list. (No cheese with fish –there’s a mistake I’m sure I’ve made!) I wonder if any of these vary depending where you are in Italy or are they pretty much a given across the country?

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 18, 2019 at 7:45 am

      They probably vary from home to home:-) but these are general rules across the regions!

  • Reply
    May 19, 2019 at 8:45 am

    I was nodding my head for the most part as l read this :-). My husband is Roman and he abides by these mostly. I’m proud to say l am the cause because one in a while, I want an extra cappuccino when he has a “cortado” in the afternoon. I also found it hard to eat salad last like they do as opposed to how we eat it at the beginning but l am getting used to it. His mom has given up trying to make me do it their way..haha! .

  • Reply
    Sheryl Kraft
    May 22, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    Somehow, I can’t follow the no-cheese rule…

  • Reply
    Marilyn Scalf
    October 9, 2019 at 2:41 am

    And don’t use a spoon against your fork when twirling your spaghetti!

  • Reply
    Nancy J Hayes
    October 9, 2019 at 11:16 am

    Although my grandparents came to America as toddlers and went to American schools, their parents instilled in them all of those rules. We never had salad before dinner. We had soup or antipasti as a primo & never had meat mixed in with the pasta. The pasta was in one bowl & the meat in another. The meat was cooked in the sauce but never just dumped on the pasta.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2020 at 11:03 am

    Great article and very atmospheric pictures, thanks!!

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