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Food, travel and language blunders to avoid in Italy

By November 9, 2022March 12th, 2023No Comments

Travel is no longer just an escape or something reserved for the higher tiers of society (think 18th century Grand Tour). The options available to the modern traveler have made the world smaller in the last centuries. Because of the opportunities of global transit, travel is now an educating, mind-opening and personal growth experience. It’s crucial however that we travel responsibly, sustainably and in an informed, respectful manner. The environmental impact of travel can no longer be ignored. Arguably the best option to improve our carbon footprint is not traveling at all. But it’s not something many people are willing to give up. Especially after two plus years of travel abstinence.

travel to italy

Environment aside, behavior and safety also play a huge role in how we are meant to approach travel outside our borders. Expecting to find the familiar abroad is futile. Not being respectful of the local traditions, customs and culture is an embarrassment. It’s important that newbie (or forgetful post-pandemic) travelers be mindful when visiting a new place.

Working in the travel industry, we are embracing an unprecedented volume of travelers to Italy. We are somewhat unprepared, joyful and excited to be welcoming tourists back to the Bel Paese again. Over the years we have witnessed a change in how people travel. Now coming to Italy, is a more educated, attentive traveler who puts experience and memory-making special moments above ticking boxes and following guidebook clichés.

In a decade of working in the travel industry, we have also heard, witnessed and recorded an impressive number of blunders. Here are a few food, travel and language blunders to avoid in Italy.

TRAVEL TRANSGRESSIONS

It seems unbelievable, especially in our current social media-driven world – where our whole lives are displayed online – that some people could still be so clueless about other parts of the world. Unfortunately, that is very much the case. It is especially baffling when considering that tourism is the lifeblood of many destinations in Italy. Tourists from all over the world, particularly the U.S., Canada and Europe, visit Italy in significant numbers. And yet, the reality is there are still many common misconceptions and wrong perceptions about Italy that rub the locals the wrong way. Here are some of the most common.

“We’re visiting Florence and then going to Tuscany.” 

This is a pet peeve. Tuscany is one of twenty regions of Italy. Florence is a city located INSIDE Tuscany, and it’s the capital of said region. Like Miami is the capital of Florida. Siena is also a city in Tuscany. Pisa, Lucca, Livorno, Pistoia, Cortona, Grosseto, Pienza, Montepulciano, San Gimignano, down to the smallest cypress-lined village in the Val di Chiana: all located in Tuscany. Elba is an island off the coast of Tuscany. So is Isola del Giglio. Don’t people look at maps anymore? 

Google search comedy 

While it’s commendable to do your homework and study up a place before you visit, it’s also important to have a basic grasp of the country’s geography and history. What follows are the top Google searches for the keywords “Italy+travel”. This is not a joke. You can’t make this stuff up. 

There’s first of all curiosity surrounding the name:

  • what was italy called before italy
  • what was italy called before 1946
  • what was italy called before unification
  • what was italy called before rome
  • what was italy called before ww2
  • what was italy called before 1871
  • what was italy called before it became italy
  • what was italy called before it became a country
  • what is the old name of italy
greece, not italy

In addition, there’s a fair amount of geographical confusion, particularly with Greece:

  • is greece part of italy
  • is sicily part of italy or greece
  • is malta part of italy or greece
  • should i go to italy or greece
  • what part of italy is closest to greece
  • is greek close to italian
  • what part of europe is italy and greece
  • are greece and italy the same country
  • is greek and italian the same language
  • did italy take over greece
  • why did italy lose to greece
  • did italy copy greece
  • was italy part of ancient greece
  • was italy part of france
  • was italy a part of the ottoman empire
  • is northern italy near greece
  • is italy close to greece
  • what country does greece belong to
  • what continent does greece belong to
  • what region does greece belong to
  • is greece its own country
  • where is greece located now
  • is greece a free country
  • what type of country is italy
food, language and travel blunders to avoid in italy

And also questions raised regarding the identity of Italy:

  • when did italy become a country and why
  • what was italy called in the roman times
  • what was italy called in ancient times
  • what was italy called in biblical times
  • what did the romans call italy
  • what was italy before 1946
  • who founded italy in 1946
  • is italy a third world country
  • is southern italy a third world country
  • is italy a first second or third world country
italy travel

Safety first

Many online searches also address the issue of safety during travel to Italy. Particularly after Covid and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, which many fear as too close to Italy. You can find useful travel safety pointers and general Italy travel common sense listed in our Top 15 Italy Travel Tips. Also, travelers fearful of visiting Naples can check out our 12 Naples and Amalfi Coast travel tips.

LANGUAGE VIOLATIONS

Italians are not snobs, far from it. But they take two things very seriously: their food and their language. Although English is widely spoken in tourist areas, if you plan to visit Italy, it’s wise to come prepared with a few basic sentences. This will make a difference not in the quality of service received, but in how you are seen as a tourist vs. a traveler. Italians are generally polite and friendly, and they will do their best to understand what you are saying even if you don’t speak Italian. But there are a few common language errors that will make some smile and the majority cringe.

espresso, nor expresso

Expresso

Asking for an ‘expresso’ at the coffee bar will set the barista’s teeth on edge, and confirm to everyone in earshot that you’re a tourist. The word for a classic single shot is espresso, or simply un caffè.

Panini”

The word panino is Italian for “small bread roll,” it more commonly means “sandwich.” The plural form is panini. Outside Italy, panini is for some reason often misused as a singular noun. So in Italy, if you just want one sandwich, make sure you ask for un panino

panino, not panini

Gratzy” / “Gratzia

Forgetting to pronounce the ‘e’ at the end of grazie or switching it with an ‘a’ is a direct route to confirming your foreign provenance. In Italian, almost every letter is pronounced, making the correct pronunciation of the word for ‘thank you’ more like GRAHT-see-eh.

Pepperoni

The familiar sliced salami that’s a common pizza topping in the US doesn’t exist in Italy. Peperoni (one P) is plural for bell peppers. One Italian pizza has spicy ‘nduja sausage as a less mainstream topping sometimes referred to as pizza alla diavola, i.e. in the manner of the female devil. This sausage is crumbled rather than sliced, it doesn’t look anything like what’s served on American pizzas, and most importantly, it’s never called pepperoni.

Latte

Order this at the coffee bar, and you’ll be served a glass of plain cold milk. What you really want to ask for is a caffellatte. 

food, language and travel blunders to avoid in italy

Chianti

Chianti is not a grape used for wine, it is instead the name of an area in Tuscany. The wine Chianti is named after its place of origin. The grape used for Chianti is actually sangiovese. Straw-covered flasks are a distant cliché. Like red checkered tablecloths.

Baloney

Bologna is the city where mortadella is originally from. This cooked sausage has nothing to do with the industrial product called baloney. I can understand the confusion but have you ever tasted real mortadella? Take a food tour with us and see for yourself!

Biscotti

This is the general term for ‘cookies’ (plural). Almond-studded and twice baked dipping cookies are actually called cantucci. They are a specialty of the city of Prato (in Tuscany).

food travel and language blunders

Brewsheda

Please, stop. It’s mortifying. Kindly use the correct pronunciation for bruschetta: it’s bru-SKET-tah. An onomatopoeic homage to the sharp sound of teeth clamping down into the crisp slice of charcoal baked sourdough bread, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with fresh garlic and salt. Sk! Sk! Think skyscrapers! Basket! Skipper! Helter Skelter! Brusketta! Yeah, that’s it.

Burada

This is a magnificent cheese and deserves to be called by its correct name which is burrata, (boor-RAH-tah) two Rs one T. Not buratta, Thanks!

CULINARY CRIMES

Crimes against Italian food rank higher than treason. Please avoid committing them. Italian cuisine, whether professionally procured or home-cooked, is a complex expression of the nation’s rich and multifaceted regional culture. Not sticking to these ticks Italians off. Tired of reading the ubiquitous “no cappuccino after noon time” rule? So are we. The savagery that follows is lesser known and yet even more irritating.

food, language and travel blunders to avoid in italy

Breaking spaghetti to fit the pot

Just while typing this, a nonna somewhere is having arrhythmia. Instead of breaking the strands of pasta, coax them down gently with a spoon into the boiling water, which will bend them. Also, use a bigger pot! To cook properly, pasta needs plenty of boiling water and space to move around. A small pot with little water will give you a sticky bundle of horror.

Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it

I’ve heard people abroad actually do this. More than a crime, adding pasta to cold water is a sin. Instead, add the raw pasta to water that’s already boiling.

food, language and travel blunders to avoid in italy

No salt in the pasta water 

Italians will tell you that it’s essential that the cooking water for pasta must be “salty like the sea” so leaving it out – or worse, adding it after the pasta – is a big no-no.

Overcooking the pasta

Flinging spaghetti on the wall to check doneness may be urban legend, hyperbole or a dated cliché, but at the same time there are still authoritative food experts who omit the al dente factor in their pasta cooking instructions. Packaged pasta usually has a standard cooking time expressed in minutes on the packaging. Some cooks rely more on their teeth. Minutes before the package suggests, Italians fish out a piece and bite it open. At the core is a chalky, under-cooked area that snaps lightly when bitten, and that is poetically known as l’anima, the soul of the pasta. The pasta continues to cook until the soul has barely faded. 

don't overcook the pasta

Rinsing cooked pasta with cold water

While many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians don’t do it. On the contrary, Italians save the precious starchy pasta water and use it to finish the sauce and make it creamy and wonderful. 

Adding olive oil to pasta cooking water

Unacceptable, for the same reason that the above listed is a culinary misdemeanor: the starch that coats the pasta as it cooks acts as a binder for sauce. Olive oil or water will wash off that precious binder and your pasta will not be evenly coated (if not coated at all) with your sauce. Heresy.

spaghetti bolognese is not italian

Spaghetti bolognese

The nerve. This is an insult to two unrelated culinary hotspots: Southern Italy – where spaghetti is an art – and to Bologna, where the precious ground meat ragù is reserved for hand rolled tagliatelle, pappardelle, lasagne. Also, nobody calls it “bolognese.” Spaghetti bolognese is like mixing two sacred foods into one devilish jumble, like breakfast pancakes topped with pulled pork.

Calling it carbonara

You can add whatever you want in your pasta sauce: cream, peas, mushrooms, ham, cilantro, avocado… simply don’t call it carbonara. Want to know more about the real thing? Read here.

Pasta in a can

SpaghettiOs (marketed to parents as “less messy” than regular spaghetti. Sad fact: more than 150 million cans of SpaghettiOs are sold each year). Rice-A-Roni is the San Francisco treat boxed food mix consisting of rice, broken vermicelli pasta, and obscure seasonings. Chef Boyardee brand of canned pasta was founded by Italian immigrant Ettore Boiardi in Milton, Pennsylvania in 1928. Why, though?

food, language and travel blunders to avoid in italy

Chicken in pasta

Italians don’t put chicken in pasta. Italians use many different meats in their pasta sauces: rabbit, hare, wild boar, duck, ground beef, lamb, pork in the form of pancetta, guanciale or sausages, offal… There are countless carnivore pasta recipes in Italy. None however include chicken.

Ketchup on pasta

What?

Olive oil as bread dip

In Italian restaurants you’ll notice that olive oil is almost always on the table along with vinegar, salt and pepper. But it’s there for salad dressing, not as a dip. With one caveat: if you’re having pinzimonio – a funny Italian word for crudité – you’ll dip your fresh vegetables in a small bowl of seasoned olive oil. Also, salad is a side dish, not a starter. 

Pineapple on pizza

In Hawaii, maybe. 

Garlic bread

Garlic bread is not Italian. To most Americans, Italian food means a lot of garlic, and garlic bread is expected as a local specialty. But it’s not. The only time garlic is used on bread in Italy is for brusketta. And even then, the original only requires a few simple ingredients: grilled and sliced bread rubbed with a fresh clove of garlic. How much each garlic guest rubs is their own choice. Then you drizzle extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle a pinch of salt. In summer, chopped fresh tomatoes are optional. Simple and perfect. No butter, cheese, parsley or garlic salt.

drink wine with food please

Drinking wine without food

Italians would never dream of pouring a tall glass of wine and drinking it without some form of snack to go with it. Whether this be a handful of taralli crackers, brined olives or some cheese. Wine is considered food, and a fine enhancer of dishes. Want to learn about Italian wine and cheese pairing? We organize virtual wine & cheese tastings.

Non Italian

Lastly, in Italy you will not find cioppino, shrimp scampi, chicken Parmesan, or muffuletta. These are all American evolutions of Italian food. They may be tasty, but they’re not Italian. Also, I hate to spoil this, but Italian dressing is purely an American creation.

Ciao!

food travel and language blunders to avoid in italy

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