Let’s be honest, when we travel as tourists, we often fell into the trap of judging how locals and tourism operators behave with us, forgetting to carry out the same type of analysis to ourselves: are we trying to merge and follow the local rules or are we merely applying our own standards?
Mind you, there’s a difference: there are tourists who have a sense of superiority and deliberately force their customs to the visited countries, but the majority is represented by well-meaning people who are just so used to their own country’s rules of conduct that they suppose they’re simply the same everywhere.
For example when in restaurants while abroad (especially in touristic areas), we are so focused on trying to detect if the staff is somehow scamming us (you’re right to always be aware of that!) that we forget to ask ourselves: “Am I behaving according to the situation?”, “Is my conduct somehow offending the employees or the other customers?”
Today I’m here to help you out and list for you some common faux pas tourists do while in restaurants in Italy, so that you can recognize and avoid them.
1) SIT AT A TABLE WITHOUT ASKING IF IT’S FREE
Unlike, for example, some areas of Germany, in Italy it’s common practice to ask the waiter where you can sit, even if there are plenty of free tables. The best way to act is to ask: “C’è posto per noi? Siamo in X persone” or “C’è posto per X persone?” (Is there place for X people?) and to let the waiter guide you to a suitable table. In this way you won’t sit at a reserved table nor occupy one which is set for more people. It’s a way to make the work easier for the restaurant. Obviously, if the place the waiter suggests doesn’t suit you, you can ask for an alternative.
2) MOVE TABLES
I’ve learned that in some countries it’s quite normal to move tables according to one’s preference or to put different tables together to accommodate a large party of people. Just as stated in the previous point, ask the waiters before taking such initiatives. They might have different plans and consider it might be deemed as rude as you’re basically moving someone else’s furniture, after all.
3) PICK A MENU FROM THE WAITERS’S COUNTER
You will notice that informal restaurants might have menus written on a board or already set on the table, whereas some others (more or less refined) will have them collected on a counter. Don’t pick a menu by yourself. Some people think that, by doing that, the whole process of ordering will be quicker, but this is actually something which could irk waiters. Sometimes food options come in different lists, so just let the waiter manage the procedure.
4) COMPLAIN ABOUT OPENING HOURS
Please guys, understand that, especially in areas where there’s no mass-tourism, it’s not possible to find restaurants working all day long. It’s not economically viable for small- or medium-sized businesses to have shift workers in the kitchen. There’s often only one cook, who has to cover both lunch and dinner. Also, it takes time to prepare food and sort out supplies, it’s not like people stop working when the restaurants close to the public.
As a consequence, please don’t complain with the staff about the opening hours and don’t assume they close in the afternoon to make the infamous “siesta” (which doesn’t even exist as a word in Italian, by the way). As an alternative, check bars since they are often open all day long and frequently offer panini(s), pizzette, bruschette, salads, desserts.
5) WALK BAREFOOT AND/OR DRESSED INAPPROPRIATELY
Especially at the seaside or in a mountain environment, some tourists tend to enter restaurants dressed scantily or to take off their shoes and roam around barefoot. Restaurant owners are usually understanding in certain situations, aware that people might be back from a hiking or from the seaside, however there are limits which should not be crossed. Going to eat something in a bikini and sarong is ok only if you’re in a kiosk at the beach; heading to town, even if close to the strand, requires people to have, at least, a tank top or a t-shirt.
As someone who has worked as a tourism operator up in the mountains, I can testify that several foreign tourists take off their hiking shoes and walk around barefoot in hotels and restaurants. Walking barefoot in a public space is not something considered hygienic nor respectful. Also remember that in Italy we grow up with mothers who don’t even allow us to walk barefoot at home, so don’t be surprised if local people seem shocked or look at you sideways. It’s better to change your hiking boots with more comfortable shoes, leaving the formers in the car or putting them in your rucksack.
6) CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH OPEN/MAKE NOISE WHILE EATING
In some Asian cultures, making noise while eating is a sign that shows you are enjoying your meal. In Italian and in the Western culture in general, this is not the case: chewing with one’s mouth open or noisily sucking the spaghetti are considered impolite behaviours.
If you want to show your host your appreciation, eat all you have on your plate and consider to make the so-called “scarpetta”.
7) EXPECT TO BE GIVEN THE BILL WITHOUT HAVING TO ASK FOR IT
This is a trap several Americans fall into. In Italy waiters are taught never to hand the bill before the customer is finished, as it’s considered extremely rude. You don’t want to give the customers the impression you want to rush them whatsoever. Restaurants are not supposed to just amass as many people as possible, they are also supposed to provide an environment where patrons can relax and enjoy themselves. Waiters will give customers a time limit only if the table they’re sitting at is reserved afterwards. Just enjoy your meal and ask for “Il conto perfavore” when you want to leave the restaurant.
I hope this small guide will be helpful and that you don’t take some observations the wrong way. Customs and circumstances are different according to the country and culture and it’s good to be aware of them in order not to offend nor misjudge people.
Were you aware of some of these unwritten rules? Let me know in a comment!