Dine like an Italian

There are rules around la tavola that need to be observed. Get them right and you will experience the full weight of Italian hospitality. Get them wrong and, well, you’ll learn.
A guide to Italian dining etiquetteKristina Soljo

Almost 500 years ago Giovanni della Casa (the June Dally Watkins of the Italian Renaissance) penned Galateo: Treatise on the Rules of Polite Behaviour, warning his nephew of the pitfalls of, “Not eating but gobbling.” Since then, the Italians have been refining the rules of dining all’ Italiana.

Don’t put cheese on marinara pasta, this one we know. And never order a cappuccino past 11am. Just don’t. Spaghetti should be twirled around a fork, not cut. And don’t ever question nonna’s recipe. Unless you do. Because debating food over food is also part of the national agenda. The quirks shift from region to region, and some have grown quirkier en route to Australia. So for the Italian-adjacent among us, the rules require frequent re-education (generously dished out over four courses). Ultimately, though, they all boil down to the core Italian belief, food is life and life should be enjoyed to its fullest. Let’s break it down.

Food is always a conversation starter.

Just don’t confuse it as a safe topic. There will be debate. Chef Brigitte Hafner has Bavarian roots but came of age as a chef in Italian kitchens. She learnt a lot working under chefs Guy Grossi and Stefano de Pieri and from team members at Tedesca Osteria. That’s because food is always under discussion. “It’s the build-up to eating – ‘What are we going to cook? Who is going to the market?’ Then it’s the discussion at the table and the recap the next day,” says Hafner, who is just as obsessed. “It’s the ritual of connecting with the food and each other, that gives the Italians so much joy.”

Don’t mess with the family recipe.

“If you’re served anything using the recipe from the village, then it’s the best version of that thing that there is – without question,” says chef Dan Hunter, co-owner of Brae. Growing up with close friends from southern Italian families and after two decades married to Julianne Bagnato, Brae’s co-owner and operations manager, who comes from a Calabrian and Sicilian family, Hunter, has been schooled in Italian eating his whole life. “I wouldn’t say polite Italian dining is something I’ve been exposed to, more like a whole mix of deep tradition, rules and raucousness both imported and further evolved here in Australia.” Of the lessons learned, Hunter lists a few. “If you’re served homemade wine then it’s easily better than anything you could buy. Not everyone can make cannoli, so leave it to the experts (the clever aunties).” And “The good, homemade wine (or Galliano) is for everyone to try but it stays on the floor under a chair while you’re eating – just to keep it rationed correctly.” Most importantly, Hunter has discovered the rewards of going with the flow. “If you’ve behaved and show any interest in the quality of the smallgoods then there’s always another salami stashed for you.”

Every meal is a special occasion.

Chef Alessandro Pavoni, co-owner of a’Mare, grew up in Lombardy, immersed in the customs of traditional family dining. He remembers everyday meals being laboured over with care. “In terms of setting the table, we never used paper napkins or tablecloths and always had a change of plates between first and second course.” And forget about racing through. “Wine was served with every meal, bread was broken and we had a minimum of two courses and a side dish (all of which I recommend to get the full Italian experience).”

Perfect your pour.

Travelling in Italy, chef Elizabeth Mitchell of Alberto’s Lounge fine-tuned her Italian table manners over meals with Sardinian friends, “I learnt very quickly to never pour a drink into a glass using my left hand (the ring hand),” she says. “It essentially means you want the recipent to choke to death.” While we are at it, never pour underhanded. This goes back to the days when assassins would drip poison into glasses from hollowed-out rings.

A well laid table is a table with everything.

Hafner credits former team member Joseph Demoz (now head bartender at Grill Americano) with instilling team lunches at Tedesca Osteria with Italian table setting tradition. “It wasn’t fussy, but everything was there; the bread, the butter, the water, water glasses, wine and wine glasses, so once the meal started we had everything at hand,” recalls Hafner. “We had a good time. But the meal would never proceed without all that done first. We would never start before everyone was seated. And don’t even think about looking at your phone.” On that note, once the food is served, there is one more ritual to observe. “Buon appetito” means “good appetite” or “enjoy your meal” and when said by the host, it’s your social cue to start eating.

The bread isn’t for snacking.

That ciabatta on the table isn’t there to tide you over until the antipasto arrives. It’s the carby mop you should use to swipe delicious sauces from your plate, in a sign of approval known as la scarpetta. “Italians love to see others enjoying their hospitality,” says Pavoni. “So don’t be afraid to use bread to wipe your plate clean – la scarpetta shows appreciation.”

Crack the cheese code.

If parmigiano is offered, go easy; one tablespoon is quite enough as to not overpower the dish – or elicit a wince from your server. “And of course, never ever commit the cardinal sin of requesting cheese for your seafood dish (I promise I didn’t),” says Mitchell. “You want to leave a bella figura (a good impression)”.

Related stories