Pasta etiquette in Italy: What you need to know

October 29, 2014
orecchiete con gamberi
Pasta etiquette (Photo courtesy of Flora Pinotti Sano)

Ingredients for pasta etiquette (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

I met blogger and journalist Flora Pinotti Sano during our recent trip to Emilia Romagna. In this guest post, Flora shares what she’s learned about “pasta etiquette” as an ex-pat living in Bologna, Italy.

When it comes to certain occasions, especially dining, it’s always good to know what others expect you to do (or not to do). This becomes even more crucial when you’re away from home in a foreign country.

Here in Italy, the number one rule of table manners is to have fun. Families, friends and strangers meet around food to relax and celebrate pleasant moments. But there are some generally accepted etiquette rules to be observed—particularly when it comes to one of the most serious issues of this country: eating pasta.

That said, here is a little list with suggested dining etiquette for those who face a pasta dish. I swear, it’s not a matter of being fussy; the results will improve the taste as well as the experience!

On the plate

When it comes to long shaped pastas (including fresh ones like tagliatelle or papardelle, etc.), two bits of advice:


Of course, it’s much easier to grab little pieces of cut pasta with a fork than to roll them around it, but here in Italy, that is one of the most horrible things someone can do at a table.


In Italy, it is very common to use the spoon to taste a lot of dishes (e.g. pretty much anything that is creamy or a contains a lot of sauce). However, it’s not acceptable to use a spoon to help you roll the pasta around the fork in a restaurant. The correct way to roll it on the fork is by using your plate to do so.

On adding grated cheese

Here we’re entering even more dangerous territory. There are some clear rules, but also many controversies when it comes to the relationship between pasta and grated cheese.

  • The only golden rule is that if a pasta sauce contains fish or seafood, topping it with any kind of cheese is forbidden (at least 99% of the time). In some places, particularly in the south of Italy, breadcrumbs sautéed with a little bit of olive oil are used to garnish the dish.
orecchiete con gamberi

Orecchiete con gamberi (shrimp) – never with cheese  (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Vongole (clams), another no cheese dish (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Pasta with vongole (clams), another no cheese dish (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

  • If the sauce already contains cheese, especially fresh ones such as mozzarella di bufala, avoid adding more.
  • Also, pay attention to the kind of cheese you add to your plate. Although cheeses vary from region to region, the most common ones are:

Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano 

These are both aged for at least six months and with very strong tastes. (In fact, these two are actually the original versions of what is called “parmesan cheese” outside of Italy.) Both cheeses are usually served with sauces that contain meat (e.g. “Bolognese sauce”) or with pesto, mushroom, butter and sage, or white sauces (e.g. béchamel). But, trust me, not much more than that.

Tagliatelle with ragu and parmigiano (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Tagliatelle with ragu and parmigiano (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Rigatoni ai funghi (mushrooms) with parmigiano (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Rigatoni ai funghi (mushrooms) with parmigiano (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)


This hard cheese, made from sheep’s milk, can be “sweeter” or saltier. Pecorino works well with sauces without tomatoes (in bianco), particularly those containing vegetables or meats other than red ones, like pork (including sausages) or rabbit, etc.

Ragu di coniglio with pecorino cheese (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Ragu di coniglio (rabbit) with pecorino cheese (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

Pecorino cheese is more a gender than a species, available in an incredible variety of flavors and intensities, so it can potentially be a good match with pretty much any ingredient. Also, choosing pecorino is sometimes just a matter of the region where you are dining, since in some places sheep’s milk is much more common that the cow’s one. 

Ricotta salata 

Ricotta salata is a dry and almost salty ricotta that works well with fresh and delicate sauces, particularly ones with tomatoes and vegetables. A classic example is the Sicilian pasta alla norma, with tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, basil and sometimes mint. If you’ve never had it before, try the combination of tomatoes, basil and ricotta salata.

The most popular pasta sauce in Italy and, perhaps, all over the world is the classic tomato sauce. In general, any kind of cheese works with that.

Among other classic Italian sauces are the typical Roman ones like alla carbonara (guanciale [pork cheek] and egg), caccio e pepe (that is already made with pecorino cheese and pepper, but it’s okay to add some more!) and all’amatriciana (with guanciale and tomatoes).

On the stove

Not all pasta is consumed in Italy, of course. When you’re cooking long, dry pastas at home (e.g. spaghetti and linguine), NEVER break them in order to make them fit more easily into the pot. A secret is to “twist” the amount to be cooked with both hands and drop it into the boiling water. In this way, the pasta spreads uniformly around the edges without forming clumps. After that, you just have to be a little patient to push the few remaining ends out of the water inside – you can do this with a fork or with your hands.

Selfie of the pasta "twist" (Photo courtesy of Flora Pinotti Sano)

Selfie of the pasta “twist” (Photo courtesy Flora Pinotti Sano)

At the end of the day, it’s always good to remember that nothing in the Italian kitchen is taken too seriously. It all depends on each person’s taste and on how much someone cares about people twisting their noses at you.

In fact, when it comes to cheese, if you don’t want to make una brutta figura (a bad impression) in a restaurant, the best advice is to simply ask the waiter whether you should add cheese or not. In this way you’ll be able to taste the dish exactly how the chef imagined it and the chances of success can only increase!

I’m gonna stop now because the water of my pasta is boiling…

About the author:

Mezzo Italian, mezzo Japanese and born in Brazil, Flora Pinotti Sano graduated with a law degree but decided to run away to Bologna to eat well and to live life even better. “I realized that good wine doesn’t make you fat and that the Italian accent makes any dish even more delicious,” says Flora. “Not being in my hometown, however, makes me want to share everything with my dear ones – and, why not, also with the rest of the world,” she adds.

Flora speaks English, Italian and Portuguese and blogs in Portuguese at FloCIBO

Flora Pinotti Sano

Flora Pinotti Sano

Also on More Time To Travel:

On YouTube: How to Eat Pappardelle

    Leave a Reply