First thing first, even if I don’t drink coffee I know for a fact that any Italian would cringe at the sight of someone drinking it with a meal. Coffee is to be drunk at the end of it, a bittersweet taste overtaking those of lunch or dinner: the only acceptable times for someone to drink it is either in the morning, to wake up, or in the afternoon. And cappuccino, a beverage dearly loved by Americans visiting the Bel Paese to accompany lunch, is strictly a breakfast item and it’s what makes tourists so recognisable. Cappuccino is too sweet to mix well with the saltiness of main or second courses.
I was eleven the first time I visited Ireland with friends and since then I have a difficulty to accept ketchup as a substitute for tomato sauce. In Italy, pasta doesn’t go with ketchup. If you ever tried suggesting it to a typical Southern grandmother, she would kick you out of her house and beg God to forgive you for your sins. And I’m not even exaggerating: every Italian waiter dies a little bit inside whenever a tourist asks for seasonings different from salt and oil to go with pasta. Save waiters and try some traditional Italian sauces like Puttanesca or Matriciana.
3. Bolognese Sauce
Talking about sauces, the infamous meat-based one is never used with spaghetti. When I moved to London I was taken aback by all those restaurants offering the “typically Italian” dish when, in reality, the ragu’ alla Bolognese is usually served with flat-shaped pasta such as tagliatelle or, in extreme cases, with rigatoni. The most famous dish created using this sauce is the lasagne alla Bolognese (lasagna, the name used in English, actually indicates the type of pasta used, not the whole dish). It should also be said that there are different types of Bolognese: the traditional recipe wants sausages to be included in the mixture, turning the taste a little bit sweeter; a more Northerner version leaves out the sausage and adds in rosemary.
Admittedly, the topic of pizza should take an article of its own considering how big of a thing it is for Italians. But, alas, I promised to myself I would make this quick and painless so I’m going to keep it short. In Italy, there’s various school of thought about pizza but only two are widely spread around the country: the Pizza Napoletana has been officially recognised by the EU as a typical product of the union and is the one acknowledged as original, with a thick crust and only tomato sauce and mozzarella as toppings; the Pizza Romana has been created after the Second World War in the capital, it has a thinner crust compared to the Napoletana and it reigns uncontested over the North of the country. Italians don’t accept meat easily on their pizzas (correct plural: pizze). You won’t see chicken or beef as toppings, but ham, sausage, and bratwurst have been considered acceptable as long as no weird combinations are made.
In case of pizza, less is best.
Yes, I know it’s not cuisine but it relates to kitchen equipment. You know those white and red checkered tablecloth? Those so often used in films to represent the typical Italian restaurant (re-watch Lady and The Tramp and you will see some during the meatball scene).
Well, sorry to break it to you, but you won’t see them in Italy unless you visit a restaurant owned by someone who decided to exploit the stereotypical image foreigners usually have: unfortunately, in certain cases, films damage the image of a country so much that business owners are forced to live up to expectations by creating an image which is not at all traditional.
Like Spaniards, Italians have a tendency to eat late by British standards. Be certain that most of the people sitting in a restaurant in the afternoon are going to be tourists, and that only in the case business stays open after two o’clock. If you visit a city with great cultural interest where it is expected to have great masses of tourists looking for something to eat, then you’re going to be lucky because in less renown cities restaurants tend to close for an afternoon break and reopen around dinner time, usually at seven. Most of the owners are going to be welcoming (well, of course, you’re going to be paying) but if you come in near closing time don’t be surprised when they start giving you the stink eye.