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Food and Drink

Italy - Food and Drink

Italy does not have one specific national dish or national drink, but there are some foods that are strongly associated with the country and could even be described as national dishes because of their distinctly Italian identity. To most of the world Italian food may imply pizza and pasta, but (although these are distinctly Italian cuisines) they represent only a small fragment of the diversity of Italian food.

Pizza and pasta

The creation of the modern pizza is typically traced back to Naples. Traditional or authentic pizza, as you will find in Italy, is widely regarded as the best, and is quite different from the variants that are popular across the world. Pizza in Italy is thin and flat, and does not come with familiar international dressings like pineapple and sweet corn. Pasta, which has been one of the traditional staples of Italian cuisine, is a rather broad term for a variety of dishes prepared with varying shapes, sizes and lengths of noodles, and accompanied by a choice of pasta sauces.

Other Italian cuisine

Food in Italy is very regionally distinct, with a wide variety of local cuisines and specialty foods, from the Tyrolean ham and dumplings of the north-eastern region to the French-influenced, creamy and truffle-rich food of the northwest, the fish and pine nut dishes of Liguria, steaks from Tuscany, ham and salamis from Umbria, and of course the famous Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet, which has come to be regarded as one of the healthiest diets today, is traditional in southern Italy, and comprises of plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, typically dressed in olive oil.

Risotto and polenta are probably the other best known dishes from Italy. Risotto comes from northern Italy and is a rice-based dish that is cooked in a vegetable, fish or meat broth. There are many variants of risotto, but the dish typically has a creamy consistency. Traditionally it is served before the main course.

Alcohol and other beverages

Across the world, Italy is most strongly associated with coffee, and the drink is widely consumed within the country too. Espresso – black, strong, thick, and in small servings – is the most popular, followed by cappuccino (frothy, and with milk added), as well as other milkier variants like caffe latte.

Cold coffee (caffe freddo) is more often drunk during the hot days of summer, which is when other cold, refreshing drinks are also popular – fruit juices, granitas, and more. Granitas are made from shaved or crushed ice, with various fruit and other flavourings that range from lemon and strawberry to mint and almonds.

Italy also has a number of unique and well reputed alcoholic beverages, including limoncello, grappa, and of course Italian wine. Of the liqueurs, limoncello is probably the most well known – a sweet, lemon-infused liqueur. There are also other liqueurs like fragolino (strawberry), nocino (green walnut), and maraschino (cherry) that are widely available.

Grappa is another popular Italian drink, a grape brandy made from pomace – the leftover skins, seeds, pulp, and stems from the winemaking process. Although grappa is made from what could be considered waste, it is certainly not to be looked down upon. It is a strong, often fragrant spirit that is drunk as a digestive after meals, and is part of other Italian traditions as well. For example, grappa is also used in caffe corretto, where it is added to espresso.

Italy is also the home of many famous aperitifs – prosecco, Aperol, as well as three of the most popular vermouths – Martini, Campari, and Cinzano.

Food & drink customs

Italian eating habits and meal times are not very different from most populations across the world. Breakfast is naturally the first meal of the day and is generally quite sparse. It is usually had between 7 and 11 am, and typically includes something light like a croissant or biscuits, along with a fruit, and cappuccino or coffee. Breakfast is usually had at home, but many Italians today have their breakfast at coffee shops and bars on their way to work.

Lunch is an almost sacred ritual in Italy, and has always been the main meal of the day. This is one reason why riposo has become such an important Italian cultural phenomenon. Most Italians return home during this afternoon break to have this meal with the entire family. With increasing globalization and corporate work culture, this trend has unfortunately taken a beating, with many Italians being forced to cut back on their easy-going lifestyle and choosing to have a working lunch or a quick bite on the go. Some now skip the huge lunch, and instead have a heavier dinner.

In most parts of Italy however, lunch remains the most important and elaborate meal of the day. Most big meals like lunch or dinner traditionally include at least two savoury dishes. On weekends, lunch or dinner, or both, often feature several courses, usually starting with antipasti, followed by soup or a pasta dish, then by meat or fish, along with vegetables or salad, and ending with dessert. These elaborate meals typically also include fruit and cheese.

Weekend lunch is also often a family affair, with extended family, usually at the house of one of the elders in the family, and with the meal lasting for hours.
Meals in Italy are typically taken with only water or wine. Beer is an occasional exception to this rule. There are of course aperitifs, which are taken before meals, and digestifs, which are taken after meals. In general, coffee is treated with a certain amount of respect in Italy. It is usually consumed by itself rather than as an accompaniment to a meal. If coffee is taken with a meal, it will usually be at breakfast (with only a light pastry), or else at the end of a meal, as a sort of indication that the meal is done.

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