Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Italian Dining Etiquette

If you're in Italy, most likely a large amount of your time will be spent eating. Make sure you do it right and read the do's and don'ts of the Italian dining table. 

Since Italian writer, Monsignor Giovanni Della Casa, published his 1558 treatise "The Galateo of Giovanni della Casa" (the word for "etiquette" in Italian is still "il galateo") on polite behavior in the 16th century, etiquette has become an important part of Italian society. It was the first of the modern books on etiquette that was not written for a special class of people. Centuries later, Alberto Presutti is convinced that etiquette still holds the key to "an effective communication between each one of us".  
Alberto Presutti, a Florence-based etiquette instructor who offers courses on anything from dining to business etiquette, gave The Local his tips on Italian dining.
Don't arrive early or on time. Fashionably late is the norm, as Italians are not famed for their punctuality. It pays to remember this fact when you’re invited to a dinner party. “Always arrive a few minutes after the appointed time – never before,” advises Presutti. “Take for granted that your host will still be preparing the food.”
"Buon Appetito" is likely one of the first expressions you learn in Italian. It's also one of the first you should forget.
One of the first phrases you may have learned in Italian is “buon appetito”; it’s also the first one you should forget. “Wishing someone ‘buon appetito’ in Italy is impolite,” says Presutti. “This is because in Italian courts in medieval times, the prince would sometimes offer banquets to his best servants and wish them “buon appetito” – meaning: ‘eat as much as you can because you may not be invited to another feast if you don’t behave yourselves.” Coincidentally, Etiquipedia has heard that this is the case in France as well. So forget the French phrase "bon appétit" if visiting there.
Place napkins on your lap only after the food has been brought to the table.
Hands should be seen. “Wrists should be on the table, but never your elbows. And don’t cross your hands,” warns Presutti. “That’s considered rude - it may look to others as if you’re hiding something," or even - God forbid - "touching yourself".

Regarding napkins, says Presutti, “These should be placed on your lap only after the food has been brought to the table. Use one by all means to wipe your mouth, but take care that the dirty part of your napkin is hidden.”

Regarding bread, rolls or breadsticks, Presutti advises “In Italy, we are big bread-eaters,” says Presutti. “It must always be served on a small plate to the left of your main plate, and broken off rather than cut with a knife – it’s the Christian way.” Stuffing yourself with bread before the meal arrives should be avoided. Presutti suggests nibbling on some grissini (breadsticks), which looks more elegant, if you really can’t wait to eat.
This knife and fork set, while unusual, is obviously for the fish course.

Always try to reach for the right fork. “In Italy, fish must be served with a special three-pronged fork and a knife similar to a butter knife,” says Presutti. However, he warns, don’t whatever you do use the knife to cut the fish. “The purpose of the knife is to remove the skin of the fish – you can use the fork to cut the flesh.”

Most people know that food and wine in Italy are like yin and yang. Don’t expect to have one at a meal without the other. “You’ll find that the wine will only be brought out with the food. This is because each wine is designed to go with a specific dish. Red wine will always be served with meat, whereas white wine will always be produced for fish –because it has a more delicate taste.”
Forget about your diet. “Being on a diet and having a meal are considered a contradiction in terms - so avoid mentioning to the host that you’re trying to lose weight,” says Presutti. Having said that, you will be forgiven for declining dessert. If you’re a vegetarian, you may be happier visiting a different country altogether: “In Italy, vegetarians are regarded as aliens from another planet.” And take note that a gathering with Italians can tend to be a bit noisy, with several people all speaking at the same time and talking over one another. Culturally, this is normal Italian social interaction and should not be mistaken for rudeness.
As with dining in any other country, watch your host. “You should only pick up your cutlery when the most important person in the room starts eating,” recommends Presutti. “At a private dinner party, this could be the hostess or simply the oldest guest at the table. At a business lunch, it would be the boss.” However, he adds, “in a restaurant, it’s fine to start first if your meal arrives before the others.”

With regard to the head of the table; “In Britain, hosts will nearly always sit at the far ends of a table - but in Italy, they sit in the middle of the longer sides of the table,” says Presutti. What if it’s a round table? “Imagine that there’s an invisible line going through the centre: the hosts will sit at either end.”


The main article referenced for this post appeared in Italy's, "The Local"