1. You call pasta “noodles.”
Italy actually has a law stating that dry pasta is only authentic if it’s made from durum wheat flour, preferably semolina (although in recent years, this restriction has become less enforced). The stringy, unleavened wheat-based product sometimes made with eggs is a lot heavier than traditional pasta, and is more common in German or Asian cuisine. Calling it maccheroni is a bit more acceptable, but keep in mind that, like spaghetti, these are merely types of pasta; ordering based on its actual name, like pappardelle, gemelli, or orecchiette, makes you sound like a badass.
2. You have no idea what real pizza is like.
Legit Italian pizza is a work of art. It’s not something pushed out with generically sourced toppings so that it arrives at your doorstep, cold and mottled, in 30 minutes or less. It’s not even really eaten in evenly cut, triangular slices, or meant to me shared. Pizza napoletana is more sauce than cheese, more crispy than fluffy, and more of a casual snack than a full-blown meal. Toppings are alright but are more of a bother (let me know how your peperoni pizza turns out…) than just enjoying some tomato, basil, and mozzarella wood-fired perfection.
3. You can’t properly pronounce things like pasta e fagioli, manicotti, prosciutto, guanciale, braciole, and bruschetta.
Don’t you dare try and order an Italian dish without knowing how to actually pronounce it. I cringe every time I hear an English bastardization of the things my nonna used to make for me.
4. You’re expecting to eat stuff you’ve ordered from the Olive Garden.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a good plate of chicken parm, fettucine alfredo, shrimp scampi or mozzarella sticks — it’s just not stuff you’ll find in authentic Italian restaurants. Places in the tourist districts of any Italian city will be happy to serve you these familiar dishes at exorbitant prices, but my nonna doesn’t even know what marinara sauce is.
5. You think that if it doesn’t come with pasta, it’s not really Italian.
We eat a lot of carbs, but depending on where you are, you’ll find some great pasta-less dishes as well. Meals like ossobuco, cacciatore, and soups/stews like ribollita, are usually served pasta-less. Pairing a dish with polenta, risotto, sautéed vegetables like endive, fennel, rapini, and even roasted potatoes, are all still very much Italian.
6. You still order cappuccino with your dessert.
Cappuccinos are not some light, cinnamon-spewed, fun version of coffee — the Italian version is designed to send you into hyperdrive. Cappuccino’s rich mixture of milk and espresso is considered as much of a breakfast meal as it is a morning drink. Espresso is more of a production/scientific term in Italy (simply known as caffè), and is also a very important component of Italian socialization. Black coffee or tea is served to help suppress the appetite, but it’s really just better to end the meal with more booze.
7. You dump grated cheese over everything.
Formaggio is something Italians enjoy on its own; a few slices paired with some fruit or salume is better than using cheese as a topping, like how people use salt or pepper. It can be used to flavor sauces, or create a balanced sharpness for particularly bitter meals, but some Italians think it insulting to abuse parmigiano-reggiano in any other way. There’s a lot of debate surrounding the use of cheese and Italian seafood dishes, so don’t be surprised if your Italian hosts are offended or surprised as you lightly dust your buridda.
8. You’re expecting some sort of elaborate display of exotic ingredients.
Italian food is so awesome because it doesn’t take much to make an amazing meal — tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, maybe some cheese and/or wine, and whatever meat, fish, or pasta you’re adding it to, are all you really need. Tuscan cuisine is my favorite kind of Italian food because every dish is based on what peasants used to have lying around their kitchens. Also, Italian food need not be intricately plated; the mixture of colors and shapes present themselves in a naturally appealing way.
9. You think it’s all the same cuisine, from Milan to Palermo.
You can drive from the north of Italy to the southernmost tip in a day, but the food you’ll taste will vary drastically from region to region and coast to coast. That doesn’t even include what you’ll find in Sicily, which is like a whole other world, with its sardines and cannolis. There’s even some German influence found in northern Italy near Trentino, where you can eat apple strudel and sauerkraut with canederli.
10. You feel that a one-course meal enough food.
Even for casual dinners, Italians like to serve three to four courses, distinctly defining the flavors and foods presented. Pasta is its own course, not an accompanying side. Some form of antipasto, salad, hot vegetable, main course, dessert, and coffee, are brought out at different times to lengthen out the occasion, and some super-traditional folks will have alcohol (in addition to wine) before and after everything has been devoured. If you’re not spending at least three hours at the table with friends and family, you’re doing it wrong.
11. You order spaghetti and meatballs for Christmas Eve dinner.
Hardcore Italian Catholics stick by the tradition of a meatless meal on Christmas Eve. It’s a nice excuse to gorge ourselves on seafood dishes that are otherwise too expensive to have other times of year. Experiencing a Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes) is definitely worth it, but don’t be surprised if your dinner host serves up to 15 different types of fish and shellfish.