20 Quirky Things Americans Will Never Understand About Italians

No two cultures are entirely the same. While most Western cultures are fairly similar, there are still minor differences that make each culture beautifully unique. Sometimes these differences seem strange or even counter-intuitive to foreigners. For example, Italians struggle to understand why Americans insist on building everything “bigger” in hopes of making it “better.” Americans, on the other hand, often have trouble understanding these 20 quirks in Italian culture.

20 quirky things

This article is part of our Bilingual Blog series, where we share useful information and tips about non-language related aspects of Italian culture such as food, music, travel and more. These articles have been written in Italian and English to give our readers the opportunity to improve their reading skills whilst learning something new about Italy.

1. The Bidet

A bidet is a must-have appliance in Italy. Almost every bathroom, both private and public, will have both a toilet and a bidet in Italy. In private homes, it is common to find a towel rack positioned alongside the bidet for conveniently drying oneself after using it. It’s uncommon to find public toilets with bidets, and even when there is one, no Italian would use a public bidet for hygienic reasons. Conversely, it’s quite common for public restrooms to lack toilet paper, so it’s always a good idea to carry some tissues.

Toilet bowl and bidet in the modern bathroom.

2. Beware Wet Hair

Leaving the house with wet hair is considered a significant health risk in Italy. If your hair is wet, you are likely to catch a cold – or so says every Italian mamma. While this belief may have some scientific basis or simply be a product of superstition, every Italian household and hotel is equipped with a fon (hairdryer) to ensure that Italians step out looking their best and minimize the risk of falling ill.

little girl playing with wet hair in front of the mirror after taking a bath

3. Peeled Fruit (Including Grapes)

I remember how shocked my Italian host family was the first time they saw me stuff a grape (chicco d’uva) in my mouth, skin and all. Many Italians prefer their fruits peeled: apples, pears, peaches, and even grapes! You will come across some Italians who don’t mind consuming their fruits intact, but they constitute the minority. The majority of Italians will cut their fruit into smaller pieces using a knife and fork.

Woman peeling mango

4. Cappuccinos after 12pm

Cappuccinos are undeniably delicious, and you may find yourself craving a little sweet coffee in the middle of the day. However, Italians avoid consuming large quantities of milk after breakfast. For this reason, most Italians consider cappuccinos as a morning drink, to be enjoyed before or with breakfast. The substantial amount of milk is considered “heavy” on the body and is believed to disrupt digestion if consumed too late in the day.

That being said, especially among the younger generations, this “rule” is changing. It is now less scandalous for a young person to be seen drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon, although never with a meal, as it is considered too “heavy” for the body.


5. Il Bacetto

When greeting someone in Italy, it is very common to follow Ciao, buongiorno, come stai? (Hello, good day, how are you?) with a couple of cheek-kisses. These kisses are light, and often not even directly touching your check.

This practice is generally accepted among friends and family but not typically practiced among colleagues, especially someone you’ve just met.

two multiethnic z generation friends greeting cheek to cheek in park before jogging

6. No Swimming After Eating

You may have heard it said: you should wait 30 minutes after eating before going swimming. Italians, however, take this suggestion seriously. Some Italians believe you have to wait a whole 3 hours between the last bite of food and the first dip in the pool. During this time, your body is able to digest all of the food, thus leaving your body prepared to exercise and swim. Healthy digestion is very important in Italian culture.

Swimmers doing freestyle in lane

7. Il Colpo d’Aria

Italians suffer from a handful of unique ailments unknown to Americans. One such ailment is colpo d’aria – literally “hit of air” – believed to cause various health issues ranging from earaches and sore throats to headaches and stomachaches. Italians attribute these problems to exposure to cold air, including a cold blast from an air conditioner or a chilly breeze hitting the skin when one is sweaty. As a precaution, Italians often wear scarves and layers for protection, even when the temperature starts to rise outside. Colpo d’aria is considered a genuine health concern among Italians, but Americans? Not so much!

Frozen young manager wrapped in plaid sitting by workplace in front of laptop and working in the net

8. Don’t Break the Spaghetti

Sometimes, I will break my spaghetti noodles in half before I cook a single serving so that they fit entirely in the small pot. Maybe you do too. But mi raccomando (listen to me and take my advice), don’t try that in front of a native Italian. It is a personal offence. Spaghetti is meant to be kept whole. The spaghetti, as it cooks, will soften and slip into the water. Don’t break the spaghetti, whatever you do.

This rule applies, not just during cooking, but also while eating them. In fact, you will never see an Italian cut his or her spaghetti with a knife, unless it is to help a young child. The beauty of spaghetti lies in twirling them around the fork, ensuring each bite is coated in delicious sauce!

Spaghetti pasta with Bolognese sauce of minced meat, tomato juice, garlic, wine and spices with cheese and fork in a plate, vegetable oil, spicy herb on a light wooden board background

9. Late Evening Dinner

Italians tend to prefer their dinner later in the night. Up north, most Italians consider 7 or 8pm to be the ideal dinnertime. Further south, however, Italians will often finish cooking dinner and start eating as late as 10 o’clock!

Shot of a family having a meal together at home

10. Children Out Late at Night

For that same reason, most Italians don’t conclude their serata (evening) until much later in the night. It is not uncommon to see entire families, including small children, out and about at 9 or 10 p.m. on weekends. This is not a sign of poor parenting, but an appreciation for quality family time. In Italy, the lives of children are not separated from the lives of adults. Children eat the same restaurant food as the grown-ups (no menus for children) and stay out as late as the adults.

Horizontal shot of stylish Asian couple spending winter evening with their toddler daughter walking together holding hands

11. La Pausa Pranzo

An old-time tradition that is still held by many Italians in small towns is the envy of every American: a 3-hour lunch break. The pausa pranzo is a long break meant to bring families together for the traditionally most important meal of the day: pranzo (lunch). During this period, both workers and students have ample time to return home and enjoy a delightful meal with their families, with sufficient time afterward to indulge in a post-meal nap, or pennichella.

Front view of a multi-generation Caucasian family sitting outside at a dinner table set for a meal, eating, talking and serving each other food.

12. My Birthday, My Treat

In American tradition, the birthday boy or girl is usually treated to dinner by their dear guests. However, in Italian tradition, especially in the south, it’s the other way around. The party guests are treated a special dinner paid for by the birthday boy or girl. For this reason, it is becoming increasingly common for young people to host their birthday dinner at their own home, serving home-cooked food, in order to keep costs low.

That said, some people still love to throw lavish birthday parties for very young kids, even though they won’t remember a thing later on!

Waist up portrait of multi-ethnic group of friends smiling at camera happily while enjoying Birthday party or prom night

13. High Carb Diets! They Work!

By some miracle, most Italians have a fabulously slim figure. But why is that? The foods Italy is most famous for are high in carbs! How is it possible that Italians have such lovely, thin shapes when they eat pasta, pizza, and panini daily? The truth most likely lies in other aspects of Italian culture, such as the tradition of walking where you need to go or the use of high quality ingredients with fewer preservatives.

Dad and mom with a small son, walking on the street

14. Alla moda

Athleisure may be perfectly acceptable to wear out of the house in America, but in Italy, your sweatpants will need to bear the Gucci symbol in order to be considered out-of-house appropriate. Italians have a near-magical ability to dress well all the time – even in luxurious fashionable athleisure. Italians (actually, many European cultures) have a concept of “house clothes” and “normal clothes”. Your comfiest sweatpants are only meant for wearing around the house after school or work. The clothes you are seen wearing outside must always make you look well put-together according to Italians.

Cheerful young woman expressing gladness while looking at her boyfriend with rose bouquet

15. Downing Espresso

Espresso is meant to be downed in one go – like a shot. It is not meant to be sipped and savoured like an American coffee. In fact, most Italians drink their espresso standing up, right at the cafe counter where they bought it.

italian espresso coffee and cheese cake over white wood table

16. No Tips

In America, we tip everyone. Taxi drivers, baristas, the pizza delivery guy, the waiter at the restaurant, everyone! In Italy, they don’t. Unless the patron received exceptionally excellent service, Italians typically don’t leave a tip, nor do the workers expect one. One of the few exceptions to this “no tipping” rule is for private services, such as a private driver, tour guide, or the porter at your hotel if you’ve got huge and heavy luggage.

Finances. Money on the table

17. Hand Gestures

Most languages have a form of Sign Language for deaf and hard of hearing communities. Italian has a formal sign language, of course, but they also have an agreed-upon hand gestures used by everyone. Without using any spoken words, Italians can convey sentences such as “this girl is crazy”, “I think Giulio and Martina are an item now”, and “let’s leave this place” with hand gestures alone. Additionally, these hand gestures are used in conjunction with the spoken language. It is very hard for Italians to talk and keep their hands still. Speaking with one’s hands is an intuitive part of the Italian language!

Young african man in scarf and hat showing italian gesture that means what do you want over yellow background. Studio shot

18. Crazy Drivers

Italy is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture. One of the not-so-beautiful aspects, however, is their driving. Italians are notoriously crazy (dare I say, reckless) drivers. Traffic laws, traffic signs, and stripes on the road are not hard-set rules; instead, Italians view them as mere suggestions. They merge without using blinkers, they create their own parking spaces in the middle of road medians, and Vespas and motorbikes have the right to drive in between lanes and cut through traffic wherever they fit. Don’t get me started on Italian roundabouts – they are the thing of nightmares!

Angry male car driver yells at other drivers and pedestrians who obstruct traffic, mature adult businessman in a business suit is late for a business meeting in a car.

19. Sweet Breakfast

Breakfast in Italy is a sweet and simple affair. You won’t see Italians piling their plates high with loads of breakfast foods. And you certainly won’t see them eating something as savoury as bacon and eggs. A typical Italian breakfast consists of caffè or cappuccino and a sweet pastry or even a few cookies.

20. Smoking

In recent decades, the United States has had a change in public view of smoking thanks to propaganda and statements by the Surgeon General. Nowadays, most Americans view smoking as a bad habit. This social attitude is not generally shared by Italians. In Italy, smoking is extremely common. Approximately ¼ of the Italian population smokes socially. You will even find ash trays on most outdoor restaurant patios.

That said, some cities are implementing rules that prohibit smoking outdoors when there are children or pregnant women and within five to ten meters of anyone else without their explicit consent.

Young stylish woman in striped sweater with eyeglasses smoking a cigarette standing outdoors on the street in Paris

Bonus: La passeggiata

While Americans rely on cars to go pretty much anywhere, Italians hold a deep reverence for the art of walking. However, in Italy, walking transcends mere transportation; it is a cherished ritual of relaxation. Known as la passeggiata, this leisurely stroll is less about reaching a specific destination and more about immersing oneself in the city’s vibrant atmosphere, engaging in delightful people-watching, and savoring una boccata daria (a breath of fresh air). Whether strolling with friends, in contemplative solitude, or enjoying a family outing, la passeggiata offers an opportunity to rejuvenate one’s spirit and embrace the simple pleasures of living in the moment.

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