50 Fun Food Facts About Italy Food Culture and Italian Food
Before you head off to Italy to eat, chew on these 50 fun food facts about Italy and Italian food first!
Italian food is a global sensation, and we all know why. But do you know how much pasta Italians really eat in a day or what part of Italy to visit if you’re gluten-free? Or what to order for happy hour in certain parts of Italy? These and other Italian food facts can help you in countless ways to understand more about the incredible Italian food culture.
Whether it’s their adherence to seasonality and use of fresh, local ingredients, or their elevation of simple cuisine to an art form, Italians know how to cook. And one thing is for sure when you visit Italy for the food — you’re guaranteed an experience that will keep you coming back time and again!
But before you dig in, let’s whet your appetite with some truly interesting facts about food in Italy and all about Italian food that will lend an even greater appreciation for the country’s tasty traditions.
Table of Contents
Food Facts About Italy Food Culture and Italian Food
The Italian Meal
Facts About Italian Pizza
Origin of Pizza in Napoli
Facts About Italian Pasta
Types of Pasta
Facts About Italian Breakfast and Drinks
Interesting Facts About Italian Dessert
Traditions and Superstitions
Food Facts About Italy Food Culture and Italian Food
Italian food is rooted in a rich history of passing down recipes from generation to generation. It is an art that Italian people take great pride in, an example of how well they’ve preserved their heritage, and the level of hospitality that defines their culture.
Dating back to the Roman Empire and their love for feasting, the Italy food culture evolved with each new conquering army and resulting cultural influence which brought new flavors to the cuisine. Wine, olive oil, bread, cheese, and other Roman staples are all still eaten throughout the country.
We've put together a list of more such fun and delicious facts about Italy food that will tell you everything you'll need to know for your next visit. Let’s dive in!
The Italian Meal
One of the most famous Italian sayings about food, l’appetito vien mangiando, which roughly translates to "eating awakens the appetite," is the best way to describe an Italian meal. And it just so happens that the glorious Italian meal comes with its own set of facts, with the possible exception of breakfast in Italy, which as you’ll read may not be considered a meal after all.
For instance, every meal has a list of courses that detail the perfect way to proceed for maximum enjoyment and digestion.
So keep reading to see how knowing a few food facts about Italy can be a real game-changer on your Italian food journey.
Traditionally, an Aperitivo is one of those carbonated low-alcoholic beverages that Italians like to drink before meals to stimulate their appetite. The word aperitivo comes from the Latin word "aperire", which means to open, and this cultural ritual is meant to "open" the stomach before dining.
The classic cocktails you’ll find in Italy range from a Negroni, Aperol Spritz (made famous in Venice), Hugo Spritz in northern Italy, and Vermouth (made famous in Turin). The further south you go, the more you’ll find red wine on the Aperitivo menu, and cocktails like Limoncello Spritzes.
2. Aperitivo is More Than a Drink
6:00 p.m. in Italy is the epitome of ‘la dolce vita’ or the sweet life. Be it a before-dinner beverage or a post-work drink with friends, this is a welcome time in local eateries across the country.
This custom is strongest in northern Italy, and highlights the country’s love for good food, good wine, and good company. You can expect it to come with accompaniments that range from olives, breads, and cheeses to much more.
Cicchetti in Venice is equivalent to the famous Spanish tapas, or Turkish mezze. These are small dishes that vary by season, and sometimes even by the day and hour!
4. Bacaro bars
You’ll find cicchetti in small restaurants or wine bars called bacaro. Venetians eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Delicious polpette, crostini, panini, and tramezzini are the usual variety offered.
The best way to wash a cicchetto down is with some affordable local wine or an aperitivo. It's the perfect Venetian start to your meal.
5. How Much Wine Does Italy Produce?
Italy is the world’s biggest wine producer, even ahead of Spain and France. Wine is produced in every region in Italy, and its production is one of the main economic sectors of the country. Drinking wine is always a part of any good Italian meal.
Beverages and drinks in Italy play a great part in the Italian meal. In the same way an ideal evening meal begins with a pre-dinner aperitivo, it ends with a digestivo. This practice finds its root in a collection of Amari or Italian bitters.
A digestivo consists of alcohol-infused with herbs, spices, flowers, or citrus and sweetened with a touch of sugar syrup. It was often believed to be a treatment for ailments and help in digestion. Over time, this amari or digestivo was served at the end of a meal, and a new tradition was born.
Most digestivos are consumed neat and at room temperature. They also have a higher alcohol content than an aperitivo.
In southern Italy, the popular limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur) is the digestivo of choice. Sambuca and Grappa are other digestivos of choice. What remains common throughout Italy is to end the evening on a splendid note.
8. No Big Salad
Though eating a big salad as a main meal is becoming more available in tourist areas, the concept of eating a salad as a meal is more familiar to Americans than Italians. In Italy, salads or Insalata is generally served as a portion of greens on the side. You’ll find this listed under Contorni on the Italian menu.
Salads are meant to be eaten with the meal — as in the case of sauteéd spinach or escarole — or after the meal to help you digest the meal. Unlike in the US, Italians don’t serve or eat their salads before the main meal.
9. Bread in Italy
There are a few things you might be surprised to find about eating bread in Italy. First, don’t be surprised when it’s awful. We often assume that Italian bread is some of the best bread in the world. And it can be… but it can also be the worst.
Some breads you’ll find around Italy are not the crusty, yeast-y, gluten-y kinds of bread we often think of as Italian. Some breads made in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna (and I’m sure other places in the country as well) are made with little to no salt, and therefore have very little taste.
Finally, Italians don’t eat their bread as an appetizer, so don’t expect it. It will arrive with the meal to sop up what’s left on your plate!
10. Garlic Bread
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about garlic bread, which is almost redundant when you think about it considering how much Italians use garlic! Sorry to disappoint you with this one but garlic bread is definitely not Italian! Italians make bread with their local ingredients, which are enough on their own.
Facts about Italian Pizza
Italian pizza comes loaded with not only a delectable array of toppings, but also its own share of food from Italy facts that we absolutely adore.
Tomatoes were brought to Europe from America by the Spanish via the Aztecs. It may have been the Sephardic Jews or Eleanor of Toledo, wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who ultimately brought it to Italian soil, but they only made their appearance in Tuscany around the mid-1500s.
Pizza is actually believed by some to have originated in Egypt, Greece, and Sardinia, where ancient documents have pointed towards the existence of a pizza-like dough. If you’ve seen Stanley Tucci searching for Italy, you may have seen his segment in Naples which gave some very interesting history of pizza in Italy.
Round pizzas were traditionally only eaten during dinner time. If someone wanted pizza during the daytime, they’d have to go to a bakery instead of a pizzeria.
13. Pizza Toppings
Italy has a wide range of pizza toppings from fresh cheese to herbs, meat, and fish. But what you won’t find in Italy are pineapple and pepperoni. In fact, to the average Italian, they’re almost unimaginable!
Origin of Pizza in Napoli
We can’t talk fun facts about Italian foods without mentioning historic Naples and the significance of pizza on the world! It should really be its own food group ;-). And if you love Neapolitan pizza as much as we do, you’ll be in food heaven. No matter when you visit, ingredients to make the sauce are always in season, and is always good pizza to be had or a good pizza food festival going on.
14. The Birthplace of Pizza
It’s true you can find good pizza throughout Italy, but the city of Naples is the true birthplace of pizza as we know it today. Neapolitan-style pizza or Pizza Napolitano is a source of great pride in Napoli. After all, it is one of the world’s greatest comfort foods!
15. Cucina Povera
Pizza became a popular food among the poor in Naples in the 18th century — you could say it was the original cucina povera, or food of the poor. Until then, tomatoes were considered poisonous and not fit for consumption.
16. Pizza Marinara
Pizza Marinara is as old as Pizza Margherita, though it was one of the pizzas presented to but not favored by the Queen. Pizza Marinara was first named after the mariners who began eating this humble food along the city’s waterfront.
17. The Original Pizza Maker
The Neapolitan baker Raffaele Esposito introduced cheese as a pizza topping in 1889. He also pioneered and created the famous Pizza Margherita, which has since become a great source of pride for Italy.
18. Pizza Margherita
The most traditional pizza in Italy is undoubtedly the tri-colored Pizza Margherita. It was named for King Umberto I and Queen Margherita who visited Naples in 1889 after the unification of the northern and southern kingdoms of Italy.
Legend has it that Queen Margherita summoned Raffaele Esposito to make three unique pizzas for her. His creation inspired by the colors of the Italian flag — red for the sauce, white for the mozzarella cheese, and green for the fresh basil that adorns the top — was so beloved by the Queen that Esposito named the pizza after her and even garnered a Royal Seal.
19. An Edible UNESCO Dish
The art of making Neapolitan pizza is so regarded in Napoli, it has even been granted the much sought-after "Intangible Cultural Heritage" status by UNESCO.
20. No Pepperoni
Like Spaghetti and Meatballs, a pepperoni pizza is not something you’re likely to find in an authentic Italian pizzeria. If you push it, you may find they’ll throw some cured meat onto the pie to appease you, but not without an awkward glance.
Facts about Italian Pasta
21. Spaghetti and Meatballs
Next up on the list of facts about Italian food is about a common misconception, and one to know if you’re bringing the kids to Italy. Spaghetti and meatballs is not a typical Italian dish, at all. Though it’s the meal most often associated with Italy (by Americans) it may be hard to find, if you can find it at all. We have had meatball appetizers, a giant meatball served a la carte. But you won’t find it on a bed of spaghetti.
22. Most Popular Italian Food
Tied with pizza, pasta is the number one dish people associate with Italy. And for a good reason: pasta is a typical Italian food, and the locals are crazy about it!
It is estimated that the average Italian eats more than 51 pounds (23 kg) of pasta per year! By comparison, if you consider that France and the US combined consume just 17 lbs (8 kg) of pasta a year — you‘ll understand how much pasta Italians really eat. Thatzalottapasta!
types of pasta
24. Over 400 Shapes
Did you know there are more than 400 different pasta shapes in Italy! Every one of Italy’s regions has its own distinct climate, terrain, cultural practices, and…pasta! While 400 types of pasta shapes is saying something, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing Italy’s range of pastas.
Between the silky golden sheets of egg pasta found in Northern Italy, the diverse north-meets-south range of pastas found in central Italy, and the semolina flour pasta of southern Italy, 400 begins to seem like way too little!
25. Which Comes First (the Dish or the shape)?
Pasta shapes range from thick noodles, short twists, fluted pasta, "pen" or "quill" (penne), orecchiette or "little ears," and so much more. But did you know it’s the dish itself that most influences the shape of the pasta used in it? Pasta shape is all about surface area and standing up to the other main ingredients used in the dish.
Pasta dishes that are used in hearty stews and soups are generally smaller and thicker, and hold up to the longer heat of cooking. More intricate pasta shapes and pasta with ridges lend themselves well to creamier sauces like cheese and pesto.
26. The Popular Pastas
Italian cooking is extremely simple and features minimal ingredients. What's more is that Italians are extremely particular about using the farm-to-table approach, and their pasta dishes reflect that with their superior produce and ingredients. The most common types of pastas are:
Pasta alla Carbonara - Made with three simple ingredients, eggs, guanciale, and freshly grated pecorino romano, its origins lie in the Apennine hills of Central Italy. Today, it is a celebrated global favorite.
Bucatini all'Amatriciana - It is a combination of a sweet and tangy tomato sauce with guanciale and sharp pecorino romano. Its uniqueness lies in the bucatini itself, which is a thick spaghetti-like pasta found commonly throughout Lazio.
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe - This has only three ingredients - spaghetti, pepper, and cheese. Difficult to master but the ultimate go-to Italian delicacy, it is another one of Lazio’s gifts to the world.
Lasagne alla Bolognese - This classic dish is starkly different from the lasagne found in the United States. Instead of the usual ricotta and mozzarella cheese, it features delicate layers of fresh pasta sheets with a thin coat of ragu bolognese and béchamel.
Pasta all'Arrabbiata - Given to Italy by the Romans, it is quick to make and comes with intricate layers of flavor. Its tangy tomato sauce marries well with a hint of garlic and crushed pepper and is a prime example of the wonders of Italian cooking.
Spaghetti al Pomodoro - This is a dish that is renowned across the entire country and is a true representative of its rich culture. It features only five simple ingredients, with the tomato being the highlight.
Pasta al Pesto - Originating in Genoa, this pasta typically comprises freshly-crushed basil, olive oil, pine nuts, sea salt, and garlic. It is traditionally paired with croxetti or trofie, two shapes that come from the northwestern region.
Gnocchi con Gorgonzola, Noci, e Pere - Hailing from north Italy, this pasta dish is made from a combination of gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, and pears. It's flavors are reminiscent of homemade regional cuisine.
Tagliatelle al Tartufo - This is a typical Tuscan dish made with truffles that are abundantly available in the Tuscan countryside. It comes alive with warm butter, a hint of garlic, salt, and pepper.
Spaghetti alle Vongole - This Neapolitan pasta dish is the perfect ode to Italy and a true winner. With white wine, clams, and peperoncino, it is light yet defined and extremely flavourful.
While talking about pasta and food facts in Italy, you'll be hard-pressed trying to avoid the controversial debate on whether or not it originated in China. And if you're asking "Well, did it?", we're not too sure ourselves.
27. Did It really Come From China?
Some claim that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the far East. However, many also disagree with this opinion. Many argue that Marco Polo’s "discovery" was not really a discovery, but rather a rediscovery of a food once commonly eaten by the Etruscans and Romans.
However, it should be noted that while the evidenced Etrusco-Roman noodles are made from the same durum wheat as pasta, they are still quite different from our modern-day pasta. Arabic influences can also be seen in the becoming of pasta as we know it today.
But to put an end to the confusion, let's just say that it is highly unlikely that pasta originated in China.
28. pasta in Northern Italy
Pasta found in Northern Italy is typically made from a soft wheat flour that grows in the region. The addition of egg results in silky and golden sheets of pasta, a local specialty. Some pastas found in the region include Trofie in Liguria, often served coated with their signature Ligurian basil pesto, and Bigoli pasta in Veneto. But you’re just as likely to find dumplings in northern Italy, the further north you go. Look for the tri-colored dumpling dishes that have a purple dumpling (made with bettroot) and green (made with spinach).
29. Central Italy’s Pasta
In Central Italy, pasta is traditionally made with flour and eggs or water. Pastas found in this region include Bucatini in Lazio, Pappardelle with Ragu in Tuscany, and Spaghetti in Rome often served in Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe.
30. Southern Italian Pasta
In the South of Italy, you will find pasta varieties made from durum wheat flour and water. These pastas usually do not need eggs due to the high protein content of the durum flour itself. Some pastas found in this region include: Orecchiette in Puglia and Paccheri in Campania.
Facts about Italian Breakfast and Drinks
Breakfast in Italy is a simple yet fixed fare. You'll typically find yourself relishing the warmth of a good milky coffee or cappuccino and a pastry (dunked in the cappuccino of course) of your choice. It's what sets the stage for the rest of your day, and you should trust the Italians because you just can't go wrong with such a simple and straight-forward start.
31. No Milk After Breakfast
Milky coffee isn’t really a thing after breakfast. You will be faced with some confused stares if you ask for a cappuccino in the afternoon.
Instead, we recommend a classic shot of Italian black coffee, because when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Besides, coffee anytime, anyplace is a treat in itself! Ask for an espresso, which is the drink you will usually be offered when you ask for a cafe anyway.
32. Hit the Bar for Coffee
If you’re in the mood for a coffee, head to a bar. You'll find that Italian bars are quite different from the American kind, in that they stay open all throughout the day and serve more than just alcoholic beverages.
33. Baristas Are Our Friends!
Being nice to your barista is a must. It’s frowned upon if you don’t greet the barista on entering and when leaving the bar. It’s a social experience after all, and the Barista is often the owner.
34. This isn’t Starbucks
There’s one size for a cup of coffee in Italy. You won’t find the complicated system of small, medium, or large — or the pretty ridiculous Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta sizes at Starbucks despite their Italian-sounding names. Coffee is a straightforward concept in Italy, made even better by the simple way in which it is enjoyed.
35. Stand Up or Sit Down
You’re either going to have coffee al banco (at the counter) or alla tavola (at the table). There is no system of taking your coffee-to-go, and you’ll only invite confusion if you ask.
36. Brush Up On Your Italian
Not surprisingly, coffee has Italian names in Italy, and you might not find English translations. Therefore, we suggest brushing up on your Italian coffee drinks and start prepping for ordering.
37. Add a Shot of Something
Fancy something a bit stronger in your coffee? Try Caffè Corretto (literally, "corrected coffee"). It's a popular drink in Italy that is essentially a shot of espresso mixed with liquor, usually grappa, brandy, or Sambuca.
38. Don’t ask for a latte!
If you’re a fan of latte, be careful how you ask for your morning latte or you may end up with a glass of milk. If you’re craving a milk coffee after breakfast, ask for a macchiato instead.
39. Stir your coffee
Stir your cuppa before drinking it, even if you take it without sugar. This is a must. Also, keep in mind that licking your spoon after mixing is seen as bad manners. So just put it down on the saucer, and enjoy your drink.
40. Water first, then coffee
A glass of water will be offered to you as a cleanser. The custom is to cleanse your palate with it before enjoying your coffee, and we can't second this enough!
Interesting Facts About Italian Dessert
The beloved Tiramisu has many disputed origin stories. Some believe that it is a relatively modern dessert that only came to be in the 1970s. Others say that this Italian dessert was created to be a "pick me up" for soldiers in the Second World War, with the coffee and alcohol providing a much-needed boost.
Still others believe that it dates back to 17th century Tuscany, which according to some evidence, had a similarly layered dessert. Whatever the facts are, this is definitely one dessert that we cannot get over.
Gelato is believed to have originated during the Italian Renaissance. It is said that the famed Medici family aided in making this ice cream a widespread favorite, which at that time, more closely resembled a modern-day sorbet.
Its popularity increased in the 1500s when it was offered to the visiting Spanish king. Today, it’s found in gelaterias across Italy and is a treat to be enjoyed, no matter the time of the day.
Traditions and Superstitions
The Italians have some interesting traditions and superstitions to follow at mealtime, which the rest of the world is yet to fully know about. Some of them even pertain to Italian food and lifestyle, like the ones listed here:
43. Right Side Up
The breaking of bread is associated with the Last Supper, when Jesus passed it around the table and let it stand for his body which he was about to sacrifice for humanity. Italians honour the religious significance of bread by kissing any breadcrumbs or crusts before throwing them away.
Never place your bread upside down. The story goes that during the medieval era, executioners didn’t have the time to swing by the bakery when there was an execution due. The baker would then reserve one loaf of bread upside down for him. The others avoided this loaf from fear of the evil eye.
Even today, you’ll rarely find bread being placed upside down for fear of bringing bad luck!
44. Seat Your Friends in Pairs
Never seat 13 people at the dinner table! Italians are extremely mindful of this, as it’s considered bad luck to have 13 people at mealtime. This finds its reasoning in the famous Last Supper, which also had 13 people at the table, and we all know how that turned out.
45. Don’t PAss (or Spill) the Salt
Don’t spill oil or salt while at the table. Apart from just creating a mess, spilling salt or oil while at the table is thought to be bad luck. This is probably come from how expensive food items were to procure in olden times.
Two guests at the table who pass each other the salt shaker hand to hand (without putting it down on the table first) will get into an imminent fight with one another.
46. Buon appetito!
For toasts on every occasion other than a wedding, the host gives the first toast and says "buon appetito." Only after this does everyone begin eating.
47. Patience is Polite
Always wait to drink your first sip of wine till after the clinking of glasses. Also make sure to not cross arms with the person next to you when you clink.
48. A Watered-Down Toast
Never toast with a glass full of water, it's considered bad luck, not to mention pointless!
49. Backhand is For Tennis, not Wine
Don't pour wine backhanded, unless you want to attract some wary, suspicious glances. In ancient times, pouring wine this way was often done when poisoning someone! Rings that people wore used to come with a hidden compartment that held poison, which was flicked open while pouring wine.
50. The Eyes Have It
Always look into the other person’s eyes while toasting. This tradition is long held throughout Europe and speaks to two important qualities at the heart of any good toast — sincerity and trustworthiness. Italians also think you’ll have 7 years of bad luck.
Rich in tradition, Italy's food is truly a religion in its own right. Knowing the etiquette and important facts about food in Italy is just as important as knowing about the cuisine itself, in order to really understand the country. We hope these facts have succeeded in offering you a small glimpse into the rich history and customs surrounding the glorious food of Italy.
Pack your bags and go to truly experience the Italian way of life!