I love Italy, but sometimes being there makes me feel like I just transferred to a new middle school where I don’t know that I’m not supposed to sit in the front row of the classroom or that ordering chocolate milk at the cafeteria is only acceptable for first graders. While eating dinner with some friends in a small restaurant outside of Venice, I reached across the table for the parmesan because I love parmesan and believe it should be eaten with everything. Unfortunately I had ordered plump little pillows of ravioli stuffed with crab and floating daintily in a cream sauce.
As I shaved the first delicate curls of cheese onto my ravioli, a collective gasp erupted from the table before the waiter came over to educate the poor young woman who had lived over 20 years without realizing that you do not put parmesan on seafood dishes. The shame. I pouted, whined, grew indignant, and then scoffed at the absurdity but to no avail. The rule remained firmly in place and none of my American impetuosity could shake the firm conviction of the Italians at my table that the parmesan rule is non-negotiable. It was the first of a few non-negotiable rules in Italy. If you’re not familiar with them, spare yourself the shame and humiliation by reading up on lessons I learned the hard way.
Rule #1: Parmesan is Not Permitted with Seafood
Under no circumstances are you permitted to eat parmesan with a fish-based dish. Seriously. Do not mess with this rule. Ever. Appropriate use is limited to pasta with either a vegetable or meat sauce. Don’t even think about adding grated parmesan to salads or pizza.
Rule #2: Don’t Leave More Than a Few Centimeters Between Cars While Parking
If you don’t have to climb out of the sun roof to exit your vehicle then you’ve left far too much space between you, the building, and any other cars in the parking lot. Actually, if you’ve parked in a parking lot in the first place, you’re already doing it wrong. Rookie.
Rule #3: No Cappuccinos After Lunch
Don’t order a cappuccino after lunch. After 12:00, you order an espresso. Do not even think about drinking espresso and milk in the afternoon. Go ahead, try and order it. Italians believe the fresh whole milk will wreak havoc on your digestive system, and if they even serve it to you at all, it will be delivered with a mix of scorn, pity, and ridicule. Incidentally, don’t ever order your coffee to go.
Rule #4: Dinner Shall Not Be Eaten Before 8:00 p.m.
If you want to make an Italian laugh, suggest eating dinner before 9:00 p.m. When they realize your suggestion to eat dinner at 6:30 p.m. was made in all seriousness, they will give you a quizzical look before informing you that the restaurants won’t even be open then. If they are, you will be sitting in a nearly empty restaurant alongside a collection of British, German, and American tourists.
Rule #5: No Wine With Pizza
Wine? With pizza? Are you mad? You drink beer or water with pizza. Wine is reserved for everything else and though you might occasionally see wine and pizza combined, it’s considered decadent and will certainly result in a raised eyebrow. Frankly, I’m not sure why you would want to order anything but beer with pizza. Can we just all agree that this is a universal combination and be done with it?