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Fare bella figura | Italy's Hotel de Russie in Rome

You’re in Italy. You’re armed with an insider guide (ours, hopefully). You know *all* the best places to go. So why are your attempts to order an afternoon coffee on a sunlit Roman piazza ridiculed? Why does requesting parmesan for your spaghetti alle vongole earn you instant presentation of the bill? And why, at the next ristorante, do you wait 45 minutes to settle up?

Fare bella figura | Karen Cleveland's Italian etiquette tipsThere are obvious answers (your pronunciation; cheesy clams are revolting; you didn’t ask) but, to pass yourself off as a seasoned Italy buff, you’re going to need more help. Which is why we’ve handed this post over to guest blogger Karen Cleveland (right) – doyenne of decorum, Huffington Post etiquette expert and Finishing School columnist – to unravel the intricacies of Italian customs…


Ah, the dolce vita. A warm welcome might have visitors to Italy feeling the love – and feel the love they should – but don’t let the convivial be mistaken for the blasé. Social codes run deep in Italian culture and are decidedly Italian. Non-smoking signs are brazenly ignored, men of any orientation stroll arm in arm, and caffeinated drinks are ordered on a militant schedule. A few insights into the nuances can increase one’s stock with the locals, and also help you fare bella figura – make a good impression.


  • While meals served family-style cry out for sharing, a dish intended for one diner rarely is rarely shared. Italians are serious about their food – fair play, it is fabulous – so you won’t see much sampling from co-diner’s plates.
  • Adding parmesan cheese to a seafood dish is grounds for judgement, if not a gesture towards the exit, from your server.
  • Do not assume that your empty plates signal that you are ready for the bill. Unless explicitly asked for (‘Il conto, per favore’), you will not get your cheque: no server wants their guests to feel rushed.
  • Coffee and churches | Italian etiquette tips from Karen ClevelandItalian coffee is taken as seriously as Italian food: typically, milky cappuccinos and lattes are preferred in the morning and espressos after lunch or dinner. Ordering a cappuccino at 4pm is not verboten, it just means that you’ll likely get a free smirk along with your beverage.


  • Lines and queuing are nice ideas rather than actual things in Italy. Do not be alarmed by crowds that move en masse. Chin up. Make your way to the front along with the group and if you smile and speak up, you will get served. (Eventually.)
  • Italians adore and respect their elderly – rightly so. Always defer to the most senior person in a situation, whether that means offering up your seat or inviting them to order first at the table.
  • Be respectful when visiting Italy’s gorgeous churches. Not only should shoulders be covered and phones tucked away on silent, but you should also not chew gum or even drink from your water bottle while inside.
  • Ciao‘ is too colloquial for strangers and is reserved for close family and friends. Instead, opt for a more formal good day (‘buongiorno’) or good evening (‘buonasera’) for greetings and goodbyes.


  • Both hands together with index fingers pointed to the ground means you’re planning something a bit naughty. Master this one.
  • Hands in prayer with a sincere, calculated shake is rooted in an appeal to the Mother of God. It signals exasperation: ‘Oh, come ON!’
  • Flicking the fingers forward from under the chin is a solid, ‘I don’t give a damn’. Use it sparingly, but with conviction.
  • The Italian gesture for ‘perfect’ is identical to how Europeans and North Americans (and divers) signal OK. Italians often add a horizontal swipe for extra emphasis, or double up with both hands, as though twisting the ends of an invisible moustache – perfetto!

Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: Italy – travel guide

Based in Toronto, Canada, Karen Cleveland tackles all things etiquette, from the traditional to the taboo. She has contributed to, and been featured by, media outlets that she likes so much, she blushes. Follow her on Twitter or drop by for a visit.

Find more How to… guides and cultural edification in our latest Italy guidebook, out now.

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