Definition of a Tourist [too r-ist], noun: a temporary second class citizen in someone else’s country.
During my first trip to Italy back in the first Ice Age, I noticed the Italians doing something a certain way. I don’t even remember what it was that caught my attention. But when I asked my Italian tour guide why the Italians had this certain custom, he shrugged and said “Is the way.” And it still, in a lot of ways, “is the way.”
But truthfully, it’s not easy being a tourist in any country. No matter how smart or how educated we think we are, we all do a certain amount of bumbling around when we’re tourists abroad. I realize nobody likes to be told what to do or how to behave, but here are a few things I’ve seen tourists do, or even things I’ve done myself that, if we knew better, would make us better visitors to Italy. I will call them The Ten Little Boo-boos.
1. Drinking cappuccino after 11:00 a.m. or noon is a small sin. Like overcooking pasta. Italians consider cappuccino a morning drink. They don’t drink it after a meal because it’s full of milk and they don’t believe in putting milk into a full stomach. You can drink it if you want after a meal–a waiter will bring you one because they are polite.
2. Do not overtip. Italian wait staff make a living wage. There is no need to tip 20 percent–or more–in a restaurant just because you do it back home. The Italians themselves don’t like tourists driving up the tip rate because as one Italian friend said to me, “I have to live here.” Many restaurant checks (il conto) already have, say, a 12% servizio charge. You need to be sure to check if they do. If not, in the bigger cities leave 10-12 percent. In the smaller towns it’s okay to leave just an extra 5 percent. If you’re just having a coffee, leave some small change.
2a. Another note about restaurants. You will notice on every bill a small charge, one or two euro, for pane e coperto. This is a charge for bread and a “cover charge.” They charge you for the pleasure of letting you dine with them. It is not the tip but goes to the owner. If the restaurant is small and family-run, I know Italians who don’t then leave a tip. Is the way.
3. Pizza usually is served in individual portions on a plate in a restaurant. Use a knife and fork. Unless you’re eating it from a take-away place that sells by the slice. If you want that, go into Campo de’ Fiori and get a slice of white pizza at Il Forno. You will not be disappointed.
4. Don’t ask for doggy bags. It’s not customary for Italians to cart uneaten food home in a container. So only order what you plan to eat.
5. If you’re shopping in the produce department of an Italian grocery store, be sure to put on a pair of plastic gloves as you thump the melons and feel up the tomatoes. Bare hands are a no-no. And if you forget, either the produce person or another shopper will set you straight. By the way, the gloves are available all over the produce department, usually next to the plastic bags. You must also weigh and slap a price sticker on your produce bag before heading to the check-out line. When you’re at an outdoor market, just point to the produce you want and the seller will bag it and weigh it for you.
6. Cafe/bar etiquette: Never buy your food/drink inside and then take it to the outdoor tables to enjoy. There are two prices at an Italian cafe, the indoor (lower) prices and the outdoor (higher) prices. You literally pay more for the sunshine, the umbrellas and the special wait staff. If you want the lower price, imbibe indoors. Me…I’m hooked on the umbrellas and the sunshine. [Note: it is acceptable if the place is busy to go inside and give the barista your order for a waiter to bring out to you.)
7. Get that train ticket stamped! Before you board an Italian train, while still on the platform, find one of the yellow boxes usually attached to a post, and get your ticket stamped. Otherwise, you’ll encounter a grumpy conductor on the train who will sigh and roll his eyes and who has every right to ask you to get off at the next station. Usually they don’t–probably because at least half the tourists on board haven’t stamped their tickets.
8. In my experience, there are three types of salad dressing served in Italian restaurants: vinegar and oil, vinegar and oil, and vinegar and oil. The variation is that many restaurants will offer balsamic as well as regular red wine vinegar. Don’t ask for Thousand Island or Green Goddess or Newman’s Own as they won’t have it.
9. Theft: If you think that your camera is safe by keeping it right next to your dinner plate at an outdoor restaurant, think again. That’s how my friend lost an expensive DSLR camera. A thief must have cased him before taking a run past his table, snatching the camera without breaking stride and disappearing down a narrow street in the Trastevere section of Rome. End of story. End of camera.
10. Yes, you will pay for the famous-name bottled water that you can buy at home. That’s okay But in most restaurants you can order water by the caraffe. It’s the local water. We’ve never had trouble drinking it and while a few restaurants will charge you, most places serve it for free. Save that money for jewelry-buying on the Ponte Vecchio instead. I have my priorities.
So these are the ten mistakes tourists make in Italy. Those are the don’ts. There’s one really big DO: eat pasta every day you’re there.