The differences between Italian and American food culture that I experienced firsthand on my recent trip abroad.
Traveling is always an opportunity to try something new and exciting. It’s not only a time for relaxation or exploration, but a time to break from your daily routine. When I go somewhere new, I try to really dig deep and embrace local customs to get the most out of my trip.
This spring, I spent a week in Italy enjoying incredible art, culture, and (of course) food. When in Rome, I had to “do as the Romans do.” I tried all the local dishes and did my best to change my routine to be more Italian.
You guys… food culture in Italy is so different from the USA!
It was an experience that completely changed my relationship with food. But ultimately, it changed for the better! Whether you’re anticipating an upcoming trip, you’re just curious about what Italy has to offer, or you’re looking for mouth-watering food pics, this article is for you. Here are some of the major differences between Italian and American food cultures.
Fresh ingredients are a must
Italy is a small country compared to the USA (it’s roughly the same size as Arizona). That means they often source food locally and don’t need to use a lot of preservatives to transport food over long distances. As someone who often experiences bloating and indigestion, eating food with fresh ingredients meant that I didn’t have to worry about stomach pain during my trip.
***Disclaimer: In America, the ability to eat a diet containing all fresh ingredients is a privilege. If you don’t have the access or the time to cook with fresh ingredients, that is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it inherently unhealthy!
Breakfasts are small (and sweet!)
Breakfast usually consists of a cornetto pastry (i.e. an Italian croissant) and an espresso or cappuccino. As a certified brunch enthusiast, this is the only part of Italian food culture that left me disappointed… I need a big, savory breakfast!
But, I embraced the Italian breakfast (and maybe also consumed a protein bar along with it). After all, their pastries were like nothing I’d ever tasted before!
Starbucks is nonexistent (and so is iced coffee)
Fun fact, there’s only a handful of Starbucks in Italy. But, you’ll never fall short on your caffeine fix.
Locally-owned “Bars” serve coffee on every street corner. However, it’s not like your American coffee shop. Your ordering is limited to a few options, usually an espresso, americano, or cappuccino (Latte means milk in Italian; if you order that, you’ll just get a cup of milk. I learned the hard way).
Instead of having one venti-sized drink in the morning, you get a small drink and then have another one as a midday pick-me-up.
Prepare to eat late
Growing up in the midwest, lunch was between 11 and 12:30 and dinners were always between 5:30 and 6:30. In Italy, prepare to eat much later.
Most eat lunch between 1 and 2pm, but don’t eat dinner until 8 or 9 at night! A lot of restaurants close at 3pm for an afternoon break and don’t open until 7:30 for dinner, but stay open until around midnight.
…But stay as long as you like!
Eating in Italy is a social experience. Instead of having a get-in-get-out mentality, having a meal at a restaurant or cafe is a time to catch up with friends and family. People eat slower, laugh more, and have a great time. Leisure is the name of the game!
Because waiters are paid a living wage, they don’t rely on tips and don’t need to worry about rushing you to get the table filled with their next customers. In fact, they don’t even bring the check until you ask for it!
Appetizers & pre-drinks are a whole thing
Because dinner is so late, the hours before your evening meal consist of aperitivo, which is sitting down with friends to a fizzy cocktail and snacks (Drinks before dinner? Count me in!).
The most common combo is an Aperol spritz with some chips, nuts, and olives. It’s a delicious combo that holds you over until dinner and acts as a fun social event.
You walk it allllll off (seriously)
On my trip to Italy, I averaged 22,000 steps per day. Granted, I was a tourist, so I was determined to see everything the country had to offer.
However, the average Italian still walks more than the average American. Their cities are very walkable, so that’s one of the main modes of transportation! Walking everywhere made my appetite stronger, but also helped with digestion. Being constantly active meant that I could enjoy food more and not feel like it was sitting heavily in my stomach. This means that not only did the food look and taste good, but it felt good too!
My overall thoughts
What I love about Italian food culture is that they don’t just view food as fuel. They view it as a work of art; something that should be high quality and savored by those who consume it. There’s no stigma of needing to do anything to “deserve” food; walking a lot makes you hungry, and when you’re hungry, you eat. No room for toxic diet culture here!
While there are some things I’ll leave behind (*cough* late meals and no brunch), incorporating some elements of Italian food culture into my daily life is the starting point of a better relationship with food. This trip taught me that food is something to be enjoyed with friends and appreciated as something incredible and good.