How Do Italians Really Eat Spaghetti?

by Chris Atwood

As a foreigner in Italy, it can be hard to figure out the proper way to eat your pasta. Should you dust your penne in parmesan? Or, do you leave the sauce alone? How do real Italians eat pasta after all?

Is Italian Food Different in Italy?

Pasta in Italy is quite different from what’s served in Italian restaurants in America:

Alfredo sauce barely exists in Italy.

Rigatoni is a main dish—not a side.

Meatballs and spaghetti don’t go together.

If you didn’t grow up in Italy, all this pasta talk can feel perplexing. Luckily, if you follow these 10 simple rules below, you’ll be noshing like a Roman in no time. (Read all the way to the bottom for our easy recipe for classic carbonara).

Click here to unlock where to find the best pasta carbonara in Rome, Italy.

10 Ways Italians Actually Eat Pasta

Italian Pasta Rule #1:
Add cheese only when offered some

As any Italian grandma will tell you, it takes time and skill to simmer up the perfect sauce. So, when you add a dollop of grated cheese before even tasting your pasta, it’s a bit like telling the cook that they forgot the salt. Most of the time, your sauce will be seasoned enough already. This is especially true for pasta with seafood. With dishes like tagliatelle alla bolognese or carbonara, though, an added sprinkling of extra cheese is customary. As a rule of thumb, only add grated cheese to your pasta dish if the waiter offers you a spoonful. If not, skip the cheese and savor your saucy goodness.

Italian Pasta Rule #2:
Pasta Portions are More Petite in Italy

American diners are used to being served mountains of spaghetti — Lady & the Tramp style. But, like cars and clothes, food portions are smaller in Italy. This is certainly true for pasta. When you order a plate of pasta in the mother land, don’t be surprised if they bring you an individual portion. Italians consider pasta tasty when just cooked, so there’s no doggy bag or leftovers here. If you’re still hungry after your tortellini, feel free to order a second course (secondo)—usually meat or fish.

Italian Pasta Rule #3:
What you eat in Rome. . . stays in Rome

Italy was a patchwork of disparate republics and kingdoms for most of its history — each with its own own customs and cuisine. An attentive diner in Italy will quickly notice that there is no such thing as Italian food. While Romans like to relish rigatoni all’amatriciana, Sicilians like their pasta to swim in a sauce flecked with swordfish.

Before heading to Italy, do a little homework. Research which dishes the places you’ll be visiting are famous for. This way, when you’re in Rome, you’ll actually get to eat like the Romans do. If you’re not sure what to order, just ask the staff for the regional specialità – it’s guaranteed to be the tastiest, most authentic thing on the menu. Click here to unlock our 5 Favorite Historic Cafés in Rome.

Italian Pasta Rule #4:
Al dente is king. . . everywhere

Even if the sauce will change from town to town in Italy, there is one constant when it comes to pasta – mushy noodles are a big, big no-no. Al dente – signifying “to the tooth” in Italian” – is Italians’ preferred pasta texture. Generally, this means your pasta will still have a little bite when served. No matter where you travel on the Italian peninsula, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mountain of gluey, starchy goop.

Italian Pasta Rule #5:
Water and wine are pasta’s best pairing

Dinner is a sacred ritual in Italy – a time when family and friends gather, unrushed, around a shared table. As with any sacred rite, there’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior when eating in Italy. To learn how to eat spaghetti like the Italians, a good place to start is with your drink.

When eating pasta, Italians sip only two substances: water and wine. No Coca-Cola. No cappuccino. No juice. Beware, though, that water must be ordered by-the-bottle in Italy – either still (acqua naturale) or bubbly (acqua frizzante). Unlike in the U.S., Italian waiters won’t fill your glass with water.

Italian Pasta Rule #6:
There’s more to life than red sauce

Tomatoes and their saucy offspring are synonymous with Italy. But, tomato-based sauces are mainly eaten in the country’s South. In other Italian regions, a panoply of tomato-free options abound – including cacio e pepe (Rome), radicchio and gorgonzola (the Veneto), and squid ink sauce (seaside areas). So, relish your red sauce from time to time. . . but be sure to try out the other pastabilities.

Italian Pasta Rule #7:
Bread Only Sops Up Extra Pasta Sauce

Italian restaurants in the U.S. commonly crown their tables with a basket of rustic bread. This is less true in Italy. When Italians go out to eat, bread is generally an afterthought – used, sparingly, to sop up any sauce left on your plate. It’s not even eaten alongside the pasta or before. ((This may explain why Italians eat pasta each day and can still fit into those tight European jeans!)).

Italian Pasta Rule #8:
No meatballs. No chicken parm. No marinara.

Before you step foot in Italy, you need to accept one simple fact: American Italian food is not Italian food. Say it with us one more time, “American Italian food is not Italian food!”

Most of the dishes you’ll find in an American Italian restaurants evolved in the U.S. So – when in Italy – you won’t find pasta with meatballs, chicken parm. or alfredo sauce – unless they’re trying to serve you Americanized junk. What you will find in Italy are hand-shaped tortellini, pillowy gnocchi and luscious lasagna.

Italian Pasta Rule #9:
Twirl your fork (but you won’t seem more Italian)

To twirl or not to twirl? That is the question. Somewhere, somehow, Americans became convinced that real Italians twirl their spaghetti on a fork and spoon. Mind you, this is a fine way to eat your pasta. Go ahead and twirl, twirl, twirl. Just know that folks in Italy don’t necessarily eat pasta this way. You can just fork your fettuccine into your mouth. Translation: there’s no 100% “proper” way to eat spaghetti.

Italian Pasta Rule #10:
Don’t Limit Yourself to Just One Pasta Type

Italy boasts hundreds of pasta varieties. That’s enough for a lifetime of tasty trips. So, when you go to Italy, let your taste buds wander off the beaten track. Instead of ordering the same pasta over and over, try a new kind in each ristorante or region. We promise — your palate will be pleased. What’s more, you’ll likely discover your new favorite pasta along the way.

Hungry for Authentic Italian Pasta Recipes?

Hungry for more authentic Italian pasta recipes? Click the button below to download our Italian-approved classic carbonara recipe—try out this Italian recipe in your own home kitchen:

Easy Carbonara Recipe

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