One of the first things that I noticed about Italian food is that it is typically simple. In that I mean, the ingredients are fresh and few. Italian food is not mired down in too much of any one ingredient.
The recipes have been tried and tested for centuries. Each ingredient is allowed to shine while accompanying its partners for a simple balance of flavors.
Also Italian food is Italian food is very regional. Over time each region has perfected the use of local ingredients and thus, the food in the northern part of Italy is different than the food in Tuscany or the food in the southern part of Italy. Even within regions there are distinctions. The food in Parma is different from the food in Reggio nell'Emilia even though they are both in the Emilia Romagna region. In Parma you will find one of my favorite dishes, torta fritta. Torta fritta are yummy puffed up, lightly fried dough that forms a pocket in which one stuffs meat and Parmesan cheese. 20 minutes away if you ordered torta fritta, they would look at you confused because in Reggio nell'Emilia, they serve the exact same thing but it is called gnocco fritto.
All that being said, from what I can tell, the food that most Americans think of as typical Italian food comes from the south, but the southern Italian food has been altered significantly by gli Americani and it got me thinking about some Italian food rules:
Do not put Parmesan cheese on fish. Ever.
Do not drink cappuccino after 11:30. A cappuccino is a breakfast drink because it has all that milk. Milk is good for digestion up until 11:30. After 11:30, for some reason milk is bad for digestion. I never quite understood why, but that is the rule. They may begrudgingly serve you a cappuccino after 11:30 but they won't be happy about it.
Pasta and risotto are not side dishes that are served with meat. They are separate courses in the overall meal.
When cooking pasta, do not add oil to the water. Add the oil to the pasta after the pasta is cooked to keep it from sticking together.
This should be a given, but for some reason Italians think that Americans put ketchup on pasta and pizza. Personally, I have never seen ketchup on either pasta or pizza in the USA. It is a common practice in Sweden, but not in the USA. Maybe because tomato sauces in the USA are really sweet compared to the sauces in Italy they consider them to be ketchup? But, please, no ketchup on pasta or pizza.
Spaghetti Bolognese is actually Tagliatelle Bolognese. Spaghetti is the plural form of the Italian word spaghetto, which is a diminutive of spago, meaning "thin string" or "twine." Spaghetti is a long, thin, cylindrical pasta from Sicily and/or Southern Italy. Spaghetti is typically 50 cm (20 in) long. Tagliatelle, on the other hand, is pasta from Emilia-Romagna. Emilia-Romagna is the region where the city of Bologna is and where Bolognese sauce originates. Tagliatelle are long, flat ribbons that are similar in shape to fettuccine and are typically about 6.5 mm to 10 mm (0.25 to 0.375 inch) wide. So, what Americans call Spaghetti Bolognese is actually Tagliatelle Bolognese.
Pasta should never have chicken mixed in with it. Never. Which brings me to Fettuccine Alfredo - often served with hunks of chicken meat mixed into it in the USA. While Fettuccine Alfredo was invented in Rome. I have yet to meet an Italian who would eat it. It is considered a wholly tourist dish. There is a dish called fettuccine al burro - fettuccine with butter, which is similar, but doesn't add the heavy cream. And never has chicken mixed into it. Again, the chicken mixed with the pasta - for an Italian - yuck! The meat is always a separate course.
The traditional red and white checked tablecloth is a sure sign you are at a tourist restaurant paying high prices for mediocre food. I have never seen a red and white checked tablecloth in Northern Italy. I have seen them in Rome at a tourist restaurant. Look for the most common tablecloth in Italy, a very crisp, starched, white cloth.
Caesar Salad is not Italian. It is generally attributed to an Italian-American chef named Caesar Cardini who created the dish in either San Diego or Mexico. The history is unclear as he operated restaurants in both the USA and Mexico. Regardless of whether it originated in Mexico or the USA, it was not invented in Italy. Salad in Italy is generally a simple dish of lettuce with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And the practice of putting chicken in a Caesar salad, definitely NOT Italian.
Dipping hunks of bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is simply not done by Italians. I am not sure where this tradition started. There are a number of stories about it. One account traces the origin to Farrallon restaurant in San Francisco. I have never seen anyone except my son do this in Italy. Actually, in Italy bread is not eaten before the meal - why would you fill up on bread before your delicious meal arrived? Bread is used for sopping up sauce after you have eaten, not before.
Also, Italians do eat garlic bread as it is prepared in the USA. In fact, we never saw garlic bread in northern Italy. My husband made garlic bread for our Italian neighbors and they loved it, but they had never had it before. In Tuscany, you can find fettunta which is similar to American garlic bread. Unfortunately, you will not usually find fettunta, at a restaurant as it is considered a home food and unsuitable for a restaurant. Fettunta from fetta (slice) and unta (oily) is literally an “oily slice.” The bread is grilled over an open flame, and while warm it is rubbed with fresh garlic cloves then drizzled with a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
My best advice though: sit down, slow down and enjoy your meals, your coffees, your gelato. Italian food is meant to be savored and your meal may take 2 - 3 hours. Enjoy it. Even though you may only have a few days in each stop and you may feel the need to fit in as many sights as you can and rush from place to place, resist that feeling. One of the things that is nice about Italian culture is their appreciation for a slower pace of life. So my advice, take time out of your day to savor the fresh ingredients and the simple, classic flavors that have hundreds or thousands of years behind them. You won't regret it.