Just by looking at my name (Elana Horwich) and the name of my business (Meal and a Spiel) you might be skeptical that I am actually an expert on the subject at hand. So if you don’t know me personally or haven’t been following my blog, let me establish myself for you as an esperto on all things Italian.
I lived in Italy for five years and have a graduate degree in Italian studies. When I go to authentic Italian restaurants here in Los Angeles, the waiters are awed by my almost native command of the language, interspersed with humorous quips of Roman dialect. They thank me for teaching women to cook, praying my influence will reach the American girls they date. They are deeply relieved to discuss the horrific state of food and eating in this country with a local who understands their culture.
Trust me. I know exactly why your Italian waiters are laughing at you.
1. You order a cappuccino after a meal. Restaurants in Italy that don’t cater to tourists won’t make you a cappuccino after a meal. They don’t have the frother, and might not even have milk. This faux pas is based on digestive logic. Coffee and milk together is a morning treat, to be enjoyed with a cornetto (croissant). After a meal, this combination will create an acidic and gassy stomach. An espresso will help you digest, but a cappuccino will do the opposite.
2. You add a topping to your pasta. Innovation is not the power of Italian cuisine. Respecting tradition is. When you walk into a trattoria in Rome, the menus will essentially be the same. Carbona, Amatriciana, Cacio Pepe. No one is trying to reinvent the wheel. They are recreating a long established masterpiece for your pleasure.
When you ask for shrimp to be added to your Carbonara. ( a waiter from a known high end Italian restaurant here in Los Angeles had to tell me all about a diner who did this), you are disrespecting tradition. To add a delicate seafood to a pasta that has creamy egg and fatty bacon is a laughable choice. Eggs, pancetta, and shrimp don’t come from the same earthscape. The first two are of the land, the latter of the sea. It’s geographical culinary idiocracy.
Chicken doesn’t go on pasta. People in my family do this one, and I lower my head in shame as they do. I know exactly what the waiters are thinking. If you want protein in your meal, at the very least order the grilled chicken breast (something that Italians don’t eat to begin with because it’s considered the dry, flavorless part of the bird) as a secondo. A hunk of meat on pasta dampens the flavor of the sauce and ruins the texture of the dish.
3. You order pizza and pasta in the same meal. It’s too many carbs and is an indigestible combination in one sitting. Italians think a lot about digestion. If you get up from a meal and feel sick or bloated, they consider it to be a poor reflection of the cook. But if you are ordering food that overloads your stomach with improperly matched dishes, than it is a poor reflection of you. And yes, your waiter is noticing.
4. You ask for cheese on a spicy pasta. This is another one about digestion. (I’m telling you Italians really think a lot about digestion and this could also be part of the reason that they eat liberally and still stay thin). The combination of hot peppers and cheese is a recipe for curdling, acid, and gas. Furthermore, cream dampens the fire of spicy so flavor-wise, this is an incompatible pairing.
5. You ask for cheese on a seafood pasta. You are essentially putting a cow’s babyfood on a fish and eating it. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this further.
6. You eat the whole bread basket before the meal starts. Bread is not a course. Historically, bread was to be eaten as a way to extend the meal. Italy was traditionally a poor country and using bread to soak up the sauce of the typically small piece of meat is a way to fill your belly.
In Italy today, bread is not usually put on the table until the appetizers or even the main course arrives. (Restaurants in Italy that serve bread when you arrive are catering to tourists, and those that do it here are simply giving Americans what American think they are paying for.)
7. You eat bread with your pasta. Again, adding carbs to your carbs is laughable for Italians. Pasta is a revered course. It is to be eaten immediately and quickly while it is still hot. The pasta is about texture as much as flavor. To add a piece of bread to the mix is a disrespect for the pasta itself and indicative of someone who cannot appreciate the subtle delicacy of the primo piatto.
That said, it is totally acceptable to fare la scarpetta. Swiping your bread along the plate of leftover sauce once the pasta itself has been finished is a way to let nothing go to waste, to fill your belly in hard economic times, or simply to enjoy every molecule of the love-filled sauce.
8. You cut your spaghetti. Not only will this one make an Italian waiter laugh at you, it is possible you will give him heart failure. Lo spaghetto, the singular of spaghetti, is perhaps the single most apotheosized entity of Italian culture, in close competition only with the Ferrari. To take a fork or knife and cut the spaghetti, (or break it before throwing into boiling pasta water) is a flip act of irreverence. But, “why, why why,” the waiter will ask himself, “did you order spaghetti if you only planned to hack it apart and desecrate it’s most sacred quality?” It’s length. The beauty of the spaghetto is it’s specific texture when twirled and shoved in your mouth. Eliminating the twirling in spaghetti-eating mutes the entire point of spaghetti. Watch this video to learn how to twirl your spaghetti like an Italian.
FYI: Italians do not twirl spaghetti to such perfection that none ever hangs out of their mouth. They just slurp it up, noiselessly, and get it all in there. Try digging your fork in near the edge of your plate so you get just the right amount on there for a neater twirl.
If you are a victim to any of these Italian faux pas’, don’t worry; awareness of the problem is the first step to recovery. Have you witnessed additional things that are not on this list that people do that make their Italian waiter laugh? I love hearing from you so please leave a comment below or email me (email@example.com) with your stories!