High in carbs and bursting with fresh flavors, Italian food is often seen as comfort food devoid of strict conventions and etiquette. But according to the advice of Italian chefs and experts, eating and preparing southern European cuisine is loaded with as many rules as any other cuisine. That’s if you want to get it right, anyway.
Pop-up restaurants offer “real” Neapolitan pizzas with a soft topping and a thin, chewy base. Fresh pasta continues its long-standing goal of outselling canned goods in supermarkets. And we’re running out of excuses to brazenly commit Italian food faux pas.
To save us the embarrassment of sipping negroni while eating papparadelle or dipping pizza crusts in ketchup, we asked some of Italy’s top chefs to reveal the most squeaky mistakes diners and cooks make.
“One of the biggest mistakes restaurants can make when making spaghetti carbonara is using cream instead of egg yolks,” says Antonio Tonelli of La Tagliata restaurant in London. That’s because the cream is heavy and cloying, but the eggs add richness.
“Also, never cook pasta in boiling water without sea salt,” he adds. “Pasta will never be seasoned enough if you add salt after cooking. And never put Parmesan cheese on seafood or clams in spaghetti or linguine, as it overpowers the delicate flavors.
Jordan Clairethe group’s chief executive Fucin in LonTo don, likewise can’t understand why the cooks add double cream or butter with pasta. “In Italy olive oil is the key ingredient,” he says.
“When it comes to food and rules, Italians are adamant and I approve,” says Silvia Baldini, 2015 winner of the TV show Chopped on Food Network – Baldini is a veteran of Michelin-starred cuisines.
“Pasta is never a side dish. You can’t have pasta and steak. And of course, meatballs don’t go over spaghetti. Or chicken. In Italy there are no pasta and chicken dishes,” she says. “Also, oIt should not be added to pasta cooking water. Pasta dressing – and oil too – should only be added after draining it of its cooking water.
As for the pasta itself, she adds, “Spaghetti Bolognese is a big no. Tagliatelle is the right way to go. But my kids disagree with me on this one.
“And save the ketchup for your fries. Thanks.”
“The worst mistake cooks make when creating the classic Italian dessert tiramisu is not using egg whites,” says Tonelli of La Tagliata. “These should be whipped until they form soft peaks and added to the custard as they give the pudding a much lighter texture. Many chefs also add cocoa ahead of time, but it should always be added just before serving to prevent it from becoming soggy.
While drinking flat white or a frappuccino or other inauthentic prepared drink is acceptable to some, Italian food purists adhere to strict rules about coffee. “Drinking a cappuccino anytime other than for breakfast or an afternoon snack is a big no,” says Baldini. “The reason is very simple. A cappuccino is made with milk. It’s basically a meal in itself and quite high in calories. Instead, order an espresso or a macchiato or a corretto if you need a little nudge.
“Drinking cocktails throughout your meal is also not the right way,” adds Sclare. “A cocktail is an aperitif, while wine and beer should be consumed with food. And never ask for tap water. To drink still and/or sparkling only”, he adds.
Shaving Parmesan cheese over anything hot enough to melt it is another mistake hated by Italian chefs. “Asking for grated parmesan on every dish is a huge faux pas,” Sclare points out. “An Italian would never put parmesan on a crab linguine or a shrimp tagliatelle.”
The same goes for dishes containing truffles, Baldini says, because it kills the delicate balance of flavors.
Sclare adds that burrata, soft white cheese, is mistakenly served cold in most restaurants. “In fact, it should be served warmer than room temperature,” he says.
In the UK, bread is often used to mop up pasta sauce and even to accompany pizza. But we have it all wrong. “In the UK, customers want their bread basket to be just warm, but in Italy it needs to be warm and crispy,” says Sclare. “Italians would also never pay for a bread basket or ask for butter with their bread.”
“Don’t eat bread with pasta or rice,” adds Baldini. “It’s carbo-loading”.
“Italians never have pineapple on their pizza,” says Sclare.
Cutting pizza into segments and eating it with a fork, rather than folding slices, is also a big no-no.