We’ll be the first to admit that Italians have some bizarre customs and habits. It took us a while to get used to them and just accept them as fun Italian quirks! What’s strange to us is second nature to them. Here’s some of our favorite bizarre and fun customs you may encounter while in Italy!
Coffee Protocol: Italians are very particular about their coffee, especially when and what to drink throughout the day. Cappuccinos are traditionally a breakfast drink so you won’t often see an Italian ordering it after 11. Espresso and macchiato are also drunk in the morning but also throughout the day, even after lunch and dinner in decaf form to help aid digestion. You’ll sometimes see them adding a little liquor (caffe corretto) as a post meal treat. Cafes and restaurants will of course serve you when you order a cappuccino after dinner for a sweet dessert but just be ready for an occasional funny look.
Ordering to go: Ordering stuff to go is a very American concept but Italians are catching on! With the small size of the espresso and cappuccino, most Italians drink them right at the counter instead of getting them to go. Espresso means express for a reason! Same things go with food. Places will give you a to go box when you ask for one but lots of Italians don’t bring home leftovers since the produce is so good and it’s easy to whip up a delicious salad or pasta. Lots of pizza places will let you order a full pizza to go, which is great after a long day of train travel!
Ice: Traveling through Italy in the summer? Be ready to not see ice that often. Most places serve chilled water but don’t expect a glass of ice with your soda unless you ask for it! Italians aren’t big on super chilled drinks, they really think so quick and drastic temperature changes to your body can get you sick. You’ll see ice served more with cocktails but you might have to head to the touristy spots to find an iced soda. Always feel free to ask for ice though if you’d like some to cool down and refresh! Just remember to ask for ghiaccio!
Air-conditioning: Similar to the ice issue, you will have a hard time finding air-conditioning all over Italy. It’s becoming more common now but it’s incredibly hard to install unsightly AC units or even get permission to install one in historic buildings (where are you going to hide that ugly outdoor unit on a pretty facade?) They can be expensive to install and to run so lots of Italians opt not to even have one. Lots of the older buildings are incredibly well insulated since they have thick stone walls so you might not even feel the need for one in some villas. Italians also don’t like the chilled air on their bare necks or skin. I’ve had friends wrap scarves around their necks when the AC was blowing in a restaurant on a hot summer day for fear of the colpo d’aria or “punch of air.”
Siesta: Definitely a quirk but one that we love! The afternoon siesta, or la pausa, happens daily usually between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm when stores close for a few hours. Each store has different hours but they usually fall during that time. Traditionally, stores close at that time for folks to go home and have lunch with their families. Students at school typically go home and have lunch too. After lunch and a quick nap, stores open back up for the afternoon to evening shift before aperitivo…
Aperitivo: Aka Chelsea’s favorite time of day :) In the late afternoon in Italy, bars will have what’s called an aperitivo hour or appetizer hour! It’s a quick drink and snack to wake up your appetite before heading to a late and lengthy dinner. Like an American Happy Hour, the bars serve up drinks. Better than Happy Hour is that the bars serve tasty snacks with the drinks! Sometimes it’s a bowl of chips, peanuts and olives. Sometimes it’s a full buffet of mini sandwiches, pastas, crudites and more! Each bar does it a little different...sometimes the buffet is included with the price of your drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and other places will have a special price to partake. Places that charge a little more usually have a bigger spread and charge more because it can be a big enough (and delicious enough) spread to substitute as a small dinner!
Ferragosto: If you’re traveling through Italy throughout August, you might notice a lot places are closed up. August is typically the hottest time of the year so lots of Italians plan their vacations then. They’ll ditch the hot temperatures along their city streets and head to the coast to cool down! In the bigger cities you’ll still be able to find lots of open shops and restaurants (they love the summer tourist crowds!) but it may be quieter in the smaller towns where they get less foot traffic.
Bread: Does the Tuscan bread taste funny to you? You’re not alone in thinking they left out the salt! This is an old tradition throughout Tuscany to have basic table bread without salt. We've heard a few different stories but either way years and years ago Tuscans were deprived of their salt shipments and decided to bake their bread still out of spite! The tradition stuck and now we have saltless bread in Tuscany. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing...Italians use the bread more for helping scoop their pasta or even dipping in the extra pasta sauce, rather than eating a few slices before the meal even arrives. Don’t worry though, the focaccia is usually sprinkled with salt across the top which makes it a delicious treat!
Late meals: Oh Madonna...Italians like to eat late. While dinner in the states can start as early as 6:00 pm, Italians are usually just heading to Aperitivo at that time! When Chelsea worked in Italy, they didn’t even serve dinner at the study abroad center until 7:30, and even that was early for Italian standards! Especially in the summer months, a dinner can start around 8:00. Which is lovely when you can dine outside! Then add a few courses and it’s not unusual to stroll home until 10:00...that is, if you don’t stop for a gelato along the way first!
Do you also have a favorite (or least favorite) Italy quirk or custom? Comment below!
Written by Chelsea Ward, the host and founder of Wanderful Retreats