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Italian Food Culture

Simply put, Italians love food. The ceasefire of commercial hostilities in the middle of the day is largely so that everyone can go home and have a rollicking-good lunch. Various kinds of food cultivation and production have been part of the physical landscape for thousands of years, becoming deeply ingrained upon the psyche. Food is feted and celebrated, newspapers carry olive oil reviews, mention of a classic dish brings an appreciative murmur in almost any social situation.

Breakfast almost does not exist in Italy. At home most Italians have a large bowl of warm milk with a squirt of coffee in it and biscuits or a croissant. In a coffee bar it might be one of the myriad styles of coffee with a custard-filled brioche or light pastry.

We’ve actually written a short essay on the subject, the “Little Green All-About-Caffeine”, but this could be an encyclopedia.    -> Download Little Green All-About-Caffeine


Our best coffee advice is to observe what Italians order, learn the names of the coffee variations and try them when you feel adventurous.

Lunch is the main game and can have several courses, typically one of pasta and one of meat, along with vegetable side-dishes, salad, bread and wine. Dinner is much the same thing and can be extended with an antipasto such as bruschetta, soup, dessert, coffee, digestives and fruit.

Italians say siamo alla frutta (we’re at the fruit) to indicate that they have almost finished something; if it’s the end of an Italian meal, it might have been a long road indeed! Decoding your dinner menu doesn’t require the help of Da Vinci. The order is antipasto (little cuts of meat and cheese, usually, as an appetizer), then a primo (usually a pasta dish), a secondo (usually meat dishes) and contorno (cooked vegetables on the side), then dolce (dessert), caffé (you know this one), and maybe even a digestivo (also called an amaro), a bitter little liquor drunk (supposedly) to help you digest your meal. Remember that you are not obligated to buy each course, or even in the Italian order. As for restaurants, Italians have a classification of tavola calda (the place keeps things hot and it may be buffet style), taverna (tavern-style), osteria (simple restaurant, possibly cheaper), and ristorante (where you can expect all the courses, and usually more expensive).

Wine is the accompaniment par excellence to the food of Umbria. Wine-production has taken place in the region since Etruscan times and is still an important industry today. Various types of wine within Italy are classified into doc labels where only those made to a certain formula and style are entitled to identify with traditional names.

Vegetarians please note that animal fat, often pig fat, is used in the preparation of some cakes and breads. If you are particular about this then avoid products containing strutto and lardo. Ask to see the list of ingredients if in doubt.

Have allergies? Use the following phrase with the appropriate word at the end: io sono allergicoalle noci (nuts)…alle fragole (strawberries)…al pepe (pepper)…ai frutti di mare (seafood)…al glutine (gluten)… agli idioti (morons).

Here we present some common terms, though remember that Italians frequently use the preposition a where we would use with: linguine al pesto would be linguine with pesto sauce, while penne all’arrabbiata means penne with hot sauce (literally “angry penne!”).

thomas davisthomas davis