All countries have peculiar social customs and Italy is no exception. As a foreigner you’ll probably be excused if you accidentally insult your host, but you may not be invited again.
Italians are stereotypically viewed as being a hot-blooded, intense Mediterranean people with a close-knit family structure and a passion for food and wine. Many Italians are in fact culturally defined by their family customs and their wholehearted investment in everyday things that Americans often take for granted, such as food and clothing.
Italians are much more formal than most foreigners imagine and newcomers should tread carefully to avoid offending anyone.
Greetings in Italy
Italians generally are effusive in their public behavior. There is a great deal of public embracing and kissing upon greeting people. It is also polite to sit close to people and to interact by lightly touching people on the arms. Italian gazes are intense. It is felt that someone who cannot look you in the eyes is trying to hide something. Elders expect and get respect. They enter a room first. Men stand for women and youngsters for adults. Children tend to be used to run errands and help any adult, certainly any adult in the family. Gazing intently at strangers is common, and Italians expect to be looked at in public. Traditionally, younger women deferred to men in public and did not contradict them. Older women, however, joined in the general give and take of conversation without fear. Italians have little respect for lines and generally push their way to the front. There is great care given to preserving one's bella figura, dignity. Violating another's sense of self–importance is a dangerous activity.
In Italian custom, it is polite to display enthusiasm for another person by touching, hugging and kissing him, particularly when saying hello. Extended eye-contact is also considered polite, and an unwillingness to meet someone's eyes is considered a sign of untrustworthiness. It is traditional for family elders to be the first to enter a room and for children to stand when adults come into their presence as signs of respect. Personal dignity is of great importance, and Italians show respect for one another's dignity by observing these customs.
- Greetings are enthusiastic yet rather formal.
- The usual handshake with direct eye contact and a smile suffices between strangers.
- Once a relationship develops, air-kissing on both cheeks, starting with the left is often added as well as a pat on the back between men.
- Wait until invited to move to a first name basis.
- Italians are guided by first impressions, so it is important that you demonstrate propriety and respect when greeting people, especially when meeting them for the first time.
When you’re introduced to an Italian, you should say ‘good day’ (buongiorno) and shake hands (a single pump is enough). ‘Hello’ (ciao) is used among close friends and young people, but it isn’t considered polite when addressing strangers unless they use it first. Women may find that some men kiss their hand, although this is rare nowadays.
When being introduced to someone in a formal situation, it’s common to say ‘pleased to meet you’ ( molto lieto). When saying goodbye, you should shake hands again. It’s also customary to say ‘good day’ or ‘good evening’ ( buonasera) on entering a small shop, waiting room or lift, and ‘good day’ or ‘goodbye’ ( arriverderci or, when addressing only one person, arrivederla) on leaving (friends say ciao).
Buongiorno becomes buonasera any time after the lunch break (around 1pm), although if you choose buonasera (or buongiorno), don’t be surprised if the response isn’t the same. Good night ( buonanotte) is used when going to bed or leaving a house in the evening.
Titles should generally be used when addressing or writing to people, particularly when the holder is elderly. Dottore is usually used when addressing anyone with a university degree ( dottoressa if it’s a woman) and employees may refer to their boss as director ( direttore) or presidente. Professionals should be addressed by their titles such as professor ( professore), doctor ( dottore), engineer ( ingegnere), lawyer ( avvocato) and architect ( architetto).
If you don’t know someone’s title, you can use signore (for a man) or signora (woman); a young woman may be addressed as signorina, although nowadays all women tend to be addressed as signora.
Kissing in Italy
Italian families and friends usually kiss when they meet, irrespective of their sex. If a lady expects you to kiss her, she offers her cheek. Between members of the opposite sex the ‘kiss’ is deposited high up on the cheek, never on the mouth (except between lovers!) and isn’t usually really a kiss, more a delicate brushing of the cheeks accompanied by kissing noises.
There are usually two kisses – first on the right cheek, then on the left. It’s also common in Italy for male relatives and close male friends to embrace each other.
Lei & Tu
When talking to a stranger, particularly older Italians, you should use the formal form of address ( lei). Don’t use the familiar form ( tu) or call someone by their Christian name until you’re invited to do so. Generally the older or (in a business context) senior person invites the other to use the familiar tu form of address and first names.
The familiar form is used with children, animals and God, but almost never with your elders or work superiors. However, Italians are becoming less formal and younger people often use tu and first names with colleagues. It’s customary to use lei in conversations with shopkeepers, servants, business associates and figures of authority (the local mayor) or those with whom you have a business relationship, e.g. your bank manager, tax officials and policemen.
If you’re invited to dinner by an Italian family (a rare honour), you should take along a small present of flowers, pastries or chocolates. Gifts of foreign food or drink aren’t generally well received unless they’re highly prized in Italy such as single malt whisky. Some people say you must never take wine, although this obviously depends on your hosts and how well you know them. If you do bring wine, it’s unlikely to be served with the meal, as the wine will have already been chosen.
Flowers can be tricky, as some people associate them with certain things (e.g. chrysanthemums for cemeteries), but a florist will be able to advise you. It’s common for Italians to send a small note or gift the following day to thank people for their hospitality or kindness.
Italians say ‘good appetite’ ( buon appetito) before starting a meal. If you’re offered a glass of wine, wait until your host has made a toast ( salute!) before drinking. If you aren’t offered another drink, it’s time to go home. You should, however, go easy on the wine and other alcohol, as if you drink to excess you’re unlikely to be invited back! It’s common in Italy to invite people to come after dinner ( dopo cena), e.g. from 9.30pm, for dessert and wine.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- Do not give chrysanthemums as they are used at funerals.
- Do not give red flowers as they indicate secrecy.
- Do not give yellow flowers as they indicate jealousy
- If you bring wine, make sure it is a good vintage. Quality, rather than quantity, is important.
- Do not wrap gifts in black, as is traditionally a mourning colour.
- Do not wrap gifts in purple, as it is a symbol of bad luck.
- Gifts are usually opened when received.
Dress Code in Italy
Italians dress to be seen and expect to be watched in public -- they do not consider it bad manners to stare openly at strangers. This means that they tend to be invested in their clothing and in dressing appropriately, generally more formally than is common in America. They choose elegant styles that coordinate with the seasons. Italians take pride in their appearance and may judge people negatively who dress too casually.
Italians dress well and seem to have an inborn sense of elegance and style. Presentation and impression are all-important to Italians and are referred to as bella presenza or bella figura (literally ‘beautiful presentation or figure’). Italians generally dress well and appropriately, tending to be more formal in their attire than most northern Europeans and North Americans.
However, although they rarely loaf around in shorts or jogging pants, they also tend not to go to the other extreme of tuxedos and evening gowns. Italians judge people by their dress, the style and quality being as important as the appropriateness for the occasion. Italians consider bathing costumes, skimpy tops and flip-flops or sandals with no socks strictly for the beach or swimming pool, and not the street, restaurants or shops. (Italians believe that many foreigners are shameless in the way they dress and act in public and have no self respect.)
They also choose the occasions when they wear jeans carefully, as these aren’t thought appropriate for a classy restaurant or church.
Bella figura refers not only to the way you look, but also to the way you act and what you say. It’s similar in some ways to the oriental concept of ‘face’, and Italians must look good and be seen in the best light, always appearing to be in control and not showing ignorance or a lack of savoir-faire. It’s important not to show disrespect or ridicule an Italian, even if it means biting your tongue on occasions.
You should introduce yourself before asking to speak to someone on the telephone. Although the traditional siesta is facing a battle for survival, it isn’t recommended to telephone between 2 and 4pm, when many people have a nap ( pisolino). If you must call between these times, it’s polite to apologise for disturbing the household.
If you have a business appointment with an Italian, he will expect you to be on time, although he will invariably be five or ten minutes late. If you’re going to be more than five minutes late, it’s wise to telephone and apologize. Italians usually exchange business cards ( biglietti de da visita) on business and social occasions.
Nightlife in Italy
Italians are gregarious by nature and their lifestyle revolves almost exclusively around socialising. All towns and cities are constructed around squares ( piazze), where people meet and congregate, particularly in the evenings. Bars and cafés remain open long into the evening, often into the small hours. Many bars in major cities have live music in the evenings and in recent years many ‘pubs’ have opened.
These are more sophisticated than a typical British or Irish pub – more like a nightclub without the music – and drinks are usually expensive. British and Irish bars have also recently appeared on the scene, particularly in Rome and northern cities. Discos ( discoteche) in Italy tend to be enormous establishments on several floors with different kinds of music in different areas. Unfortunately, the prices are usually equally gargantuan.
Local newspapers and entertainment magazines are the best source of information on nightlife, particularly in the major cities where the most ‘in’ places change constantly. Local government departments also publish information about local entertainment.
The stereotypes of Italians having a special relationship with food are based in truth, and Italian family meals are often more formal than the average American family meal. Italians do not need a special occasion to set an elegant table. They also have specific ideas about which foods and drinks are suitable for which times of day; for example, Italians drink cappuccinos in the morning and not the afternoon. They pair beer with pizza and water or wine with other afternoon and evening meals.
Food in Daily Life
Food is a means for establishing and maintaining ties among family and friends. No one who enters an Italian home should fail to receive an offering of food and drink. Typically, breakfast consists of a hard roll, butter, strong coffee, and fruit or juice. Traditionally, a large lunch made up the noon meal. Pasta was generally part of the meal in all regions, along with soup, bread, and perhaps meat or fish. Dinner consisted of leftovers. In more recent times, the family may use the later meal as a family meal. The custom of the siesta is changing, and a heavy lunch may no longer be practical.
There are regional differences in what is eaten and how food is prepared. In general, more veal is found in the north, where meals tend to be lighter. Southern cooking has the reputation of being heavier and more substantial than northern cooking.
Many a tourist has walked tummy grumbling out of their hotels in the morning. Italians are not big on the "most important meal of the day". Breakfast in Italy is usually a croissant and an espresso.
Luckily for some of us most Italian hotels are catching on and now serve plenty of cereals, yogurt, fruit, cold meats and bacon and eggs.
Lunch and Supper
(Tea and dinner) The menu is usually the same for both and depending where you are in Italy the main meal could be either lunch or supper. Meals are made up of "antipasto" - starters, then "primo" - a pasta or rice dish, "secondo" - the main meal, usually white or red meat. (Remember vegetables, fries and salads must be ordered separately.) After that comes cheeses, breads and salami and /or other cured meats. Lastly is "dolce" - sweets, which can be desserts or fruits. And finally an espresso (not a Cappuccino) or a liqueur (like Amaretto).
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions
There are special foods for various occasions. There is a special Saint Joseph's bread, Easter bread with hard–boiled eggs, Saint Lucy's "eyes" for her feast day, and the Feast of the Seven Fishes for New Year's Eve. Wine is served with meals routinely.
The Italy food culture is celebrated by what can only be described as diet busting Italian food festivals. Bring it on. In Rome it feels like a food festival every weekend. If money belts are supposed to be buckled tighter nobody mentioned that to the Romans. Oil, gold and property mortgages may drop and fluctuate but restaurants in Rome are doing a brisker trade than ever!
Most food festivals, or rather, more food festivals happen in Summer. In Rome and Lazio (amongst others):
- Amatrice in Rieti celebrate Amatriciana. The full name is "Sagra degli spaghetti all'Amatriciana". The 30th and 31st August. They celebrate their Amatriciana pasta - fried bacon and tomato sauce.
- Ariccia in Castelli Romani (just outside Rome) celebrate "Sagra della Porchetta" in the 1st week of September. There is a youth festival with music and good food (good prices).
- Montefiascone (Viterbo) has a BIG and widely praised wine festival, dedicated to a white wine called "Est, Est, Est!" A Cardinal named Johannes de Fuch was sent by King Henry V to mark the best cellars with the words "Est" - "IT IS!". Apparently the cardinal was so impressed with the wines from Montefiascone he marked "Est, Est, Est" on the taverns, what's more, after having done the wines thorough justice he was later buried in the graveyard of San Flaviano Montefiascone.
If invited to an Italian house:
- If an invitation says the dress is informal, wear stylish clothes that are still rather formal, i.e., jacket and tie for men and an elegant dress for women.
- Punctuality is not mandatory. You may arrive between 15 minutes late if invited to dinner and up to 30 minutes late if invited to a party.
- If you are invited to a meal, bring gift-wrapped such as wine or chocolates.
- If you are invited for dinner and want to send flowers, have them delivered that day.
- As in most countries you start with the outside cutlery and move your way in after each course.
- Napkins are on the right and bread will be on the left.
- Napkins are placed on the lap and forearms (not elbows) should rest on the table, not on the lap (as in Anglo-Saxon fashion).
- Remain standing until invited to sit down. You may be shown to a particular seat.
- Table manners are Continental -- the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.
- Follow the lead of the hostess - she sits at the table first, starts eating first, and is the first to get up at the end of the meal.
- The host gives the first toast.
- An honoured guest should return the toast later in the meal.
- Women may offer a toast.
- Always take a small amount at first so you can be cajoled into accepting a second helping.
- Do not keep your hands in your lap during the meal; however, do not rest your elbows on the table either.
- It is acceptable to leave a small amount of food on your plate.
- Pick up cheese with your knife rather than your fingers.
- If you do not want more wine, leave your wine glass nearly full.
Word of warning: If you do get invited to lunch with some italian friends, do expect a few courses. Go easy on trying to impress the host by eating gigantic pasta proportions (for which you will be heartily encouraged) rather pace yourself for the food assault that's about to follow!
PHOTO: Steve McCurry