It’s always a good idea to research local etiquette before heading to a destination. It’s a great way to avoid embarrassing situations and possibly insulting your hosts. With 2013’s Travel Blogger Destination Italy just over a month away, we thought we’d share a few things we’ve learned on our travels through Italy.
Ordering coffee sounds easy enough but depending where you are, things may work differently. In small towns you can usually order first and pay later. In big cities it’s normal to pay first and give your receipt to the barista to prepare your drink. Unless they offer table service, in which case you sit or are seated and wait for your server. Remember that ordering and enjoying your beverage while standing at the bar is cheaper than sitting at a table.
If you order coffee, you’ll be served an espresso so if you’re used to ordering a drip coffee, try an americano. Want to stick out like a sore thumb? Order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Milky drinks are reserved for the morning, you may get away with an espresso macchiato after eleven but ordering something with more milk will surely peg you as a foreigner.
Visiting the market and supermarket
Markets are a great place to observe local culture and discover new foods but don’t touch! Unlike North American markets where people are usually allowed to touch the produce and pick what they want to buy, in Italy you should not. Tell the vendor what you would like and they will get it for you, if your Italian isn’t up to snuff, point at the item. You can always refuse produce that doesn’t look fresh. Some vendors will hand you a plastic bag which means it’s ok to pick your own produce.
If you buy produce at the supermarket make sure to use the plastic gloves (usually found near the weighing station), weigh your produce, print a label and stick it on. If you bring an unweighed item to the cashier, you will be sent back to weigh it.
In the shops
This one I (Nat) learned the hard way. If you’re in a nice shop and want to touch something you should ask permission. Most likely the clerk will get it and hand it to you. In my case, this is how it happened, the clerk offered me a bag, I pointed at another one and grabbed it myself. I didn’t realize it was a faux pas and continued to look around with the clerk giving me “the look”. When I asked for a business card so I could easily find the shop later on I was told they didn’t have any, even though they were clearly placed on the counter. Learn from my mistake, don’t over step your boundaries.
A few things about meals
Repeat after me, dinner starts at 8 pm. Italians eat late and make it last. It’s not uncommon for dinners to last 4 or 5 hours but they will never start early. If you find yourself starving at 6 pm, take part in the wonderful custom of aperitivo, an Italian happy hour of sorts, most bars will give you a snack when you order a drink at this time.
If you want pepperoni on your pizza, don’t ask for peperoni, otherwise you’ll get peppers, not meat. Ask for salame piccante and you will get something more to your liking.
Another thing that comes to mind is the bill, if you’re done and ready to leave ask for “il conto” otherwise you will find yourself sitting there and getting pissed off when all they’re waiting for is a sign from you.
Although not necessary and not expected, if you get good service it’s ok to leave a little something by rounding up.
Don’t forget your receipt
We were told by several people to always keep receipts from purchases and meals. Although it never happened to us, the Financial Police in Italy are allowed to stop you and ask for a VAT receipt if they see you leaving an establishment and suspect a transaction took place. Failure to produce a receipt used to mean that the customer and seller incurred a fine but since 2003 that only applies to the seller. So if you’re offered a receipt, don’t ask why they insist, just take it.
Learning a few key words
We’re always surprised when we hear people talk negatively about their Italian vacation. We’ve heard it all, Italians are rude, they refuse to speak English, they’re not friendly etc… We have never had any problems communicating, whether it be with words or sign language, we eventually get our point across. An effort, as minimal as a smile and a few words, will go a long way. Here are some words you might find useful:
Per favore: Please
Grazie: Thank you
Prego: You’re welcome
Come sta?: How are you (formal)
Buon giorno: Good morning
Buona sera: Good evening
Buona notte: Good night
Dove siamo?: Where are we?
Few and far between, public toilets do exist but make sure to bring change as most, if not all, are pay toilets. If you have to go, you may as well stop at a bar, have a rest and have a coffee or drink and use their toilets.
We hope you find these tips useful. We believe that a little bit of research and a few simple tips can make a trip much more enjoyable, in any country. If you go to Italy, let us know if any of these were helpful to you.
What other tips would you add to this list?
Together for close to a quarter of a century, A Cook Not Mad‘s Tim and and Nat have indulged their passion for life and experience to the fullest, but they feel most alive when traveling, cooking and eating. An award winning chef, Tim has dedicated his life and career to cooking and the pursuit of honest food. As a professional photographer, Nat records their adventures with incredible pictures of everyday life and the extraordinary. They believe that everyone should get to know a culture by learning about the foods they eat and living like locals as much as they can.
Oh I love how much etiquette differs from country to country, or even just region to region in the same country. It’s always fascinated me. Thanks for the info!
Thank you, glad you enjoyed it.
Great list and good suggestions.
We always have the most difficulty getting il conto (the bill) in Italy. It doesn’t seem to matter where we dine (very upscale or casual) or how terrific the service was otherwise, we always have to ask several times to get a check.
Maybe we’re simply not dining long enough (4+ hours) and the server doesn’t think we’re really ready.
You have a point, they’re probably trying to make you slow down 🙂
You got all the points right. Another thing I’d add is that in some places, mostly the smaller towns and villages, shops and some businesses close at lunch time to only reopen after 4.30/5 pm.
Great tips! 🙂
Thanks Franca, it means a lot coming from you, an Italian. I thought of the lunch time closing and a few other tips but then the article would have been too long. Will just have to write another one at some point. 🙂
Interesting read, thanks so much for sharing! Will definitely keep these tips on hand when I visit. x
Italy has always been my #1 fantasy destination, and hopefully I’ll finally get there in 2014 after Southeast Asia. I’ve gotta’ tell you, these are really useful tips, practical things to know that will give you a great way to experience Italy. Awesome post!
Thanks Ryan, you will love Italy!
Great tips! It does annoy me a little when people think certain countries are ‘rude’ yet the visitors didn’t take the time to learn about their culture or a little bit of their language. I lived in France for a year and people always complain to me that the French are rude. But some of my favourite people are French – as with any country, in some places they just do things a little differently
You’re right Carmen, we’ve met a few rude people in a couple countries but would never say the whole population is rude 🙂
Those are some solid tips. I have made the mistake of bringing produce to the front without weighing before and getting in trouble. I will probably stick out like a sore thumb on the espresso however. I like some milk in my coffee all times of day.
I used to like a lot of milk in my coffee too but the coffee is so delicious in Italy that you might want to try a straight espresso or an espresso macchiato (espresso with a spot of milk).
and if you order latte that is what you will get, “hot milk”. Great post.
That’s right Paula, only kids order latter 🙂
I meant latte, not latter, obviously.
great article and some tips which should come in handy! Its funny/scary how different the customs are in different countries
Yep, you can see how a little research is good, especially that in certain countries some things could get you in a lot of trouble.
Well, i enjoy reading this post. 🙂 It’s a very interesting piece of writing.
ugh, i hate pay toilets
I’ve never heard anyone say “hurray, pay toilets” 🙂
Oh Italy! Who doesn’t love it? These tips are great; thanks a bunch for sharing 🙂
Cheers, glad you enjoyed it.
I really appreciate that Italians and certain other cultures don’t bring the bill until you ask for it. I noticed that was the case in Turkey. I hate when American waiters bring the bill when we haven’t asked for it. It just lets us know that they’re in a rush to get us out and new customers in, hence more dollars! We Americans need to brush up on our hospitality skills!
Agreed! Especially when they bring the bill with your order and add “no rush”.
Very good observations! A couple of things: espresso coffee in cafés in smaller towns costs the same at the bar or at the table. You can order a cappuccino in the middle of the afternoon, although some people don’t appreciate, but the wrong thing to do is to order it after a meal! In Italy we are very attached to our eating habits and sometimes foreigners make fun of our do’s and don’ts.
Hi Stefania, these are general tips, mostly applicable to bigger cities. Things in small towns are much different and from town to town, as you know. Thanks for your comment. We would never make fun of Italian customs which is why we want people to know before they go.
Couldn’t agree more on learning a few words in Italian. It’s amazing how interactions change when you at least make the attempt. That goes for any country.
I’d only add that to enjoy Italy, try not to be too self conscious about what you are wearing. Especially in cities, the locals will always be more stylish than you are (okay, than I am).
You’re absolutely right. It’s hard to keep up to Italians, fashion wise.
very good list of do’s and don’ts when in Italy. Lovely written. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks London Drivers, very kind of you.
🙂 such a fun article to read, I always love to see how foreigners describe their experiences in Italy!
I think etiquette is important in any culture and it’s especially important to learn etiquette of places you are going to visit.
I like your tips on the Italian language. Knowing words and phrases as basic as those will get you pretty far in any foreign country. And you make the note about physical language too…that’s a big one!
It can definitely help keep you out of trouble.