Have you heard that Italians don’t drink wine with pizza? Several knowledgeable websites inform me they prefer beer, or even (gasp) Coke.

That’s the thing about Italy: You can always learn something you didn’t know.

When I was a starving student in Bologna, my classmates and I liked to fill up on before-meal bread in cheap restaurants, to save money on expensive entrees.

And in my favorite working class trattoria, I learned to twirl my spaghetti with a fork, using a big spoon as a base.

Later I learned that both of these acts were American faux pas.

Even today, if you’re planning a trip to Italy and you Google “Italian food customs,” you’ll find a bewildering and contradictory array of so-called rules that sound like something from an Emily Post etiquette guide.

Here’s what I gleaned from an hour of net surfing:

• The trendy American custom of dipping bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar as an appetizer is almost unheard of in Italy; it may have started in San Francisco.

• Bread is eaten only after the pasta course, often used to mop up sauces.

• One twirls long pasta only with a fork, and no one over the age of 6 ever cuts it.

• Cappuccino and other milky coffees are morning drinks in Italy; asking for them in midafternoon is frowned upon.

• Italians don’t put ice in their drinks.

• Italians don’t do “to go” coffee in paper cups.

• A salad is a side dish to a meal, not a starting course.

• With a main meal, Italians drink only wine or water.

• But with pizza, it’s beer or colas.

So it seems Italy’s dining customs are as confusing as its wine laws. Don’t get me started. Still, I wouldn’t worry about feeling inappropriate if you visit Italy. It’s a friendly, relaxed country. They’ll forgive you an Americanism or two – especially if you make an attempt to speak a bit of Italian.

If you get to Tuscany – and that’s a very good idea – here are some nice Chiantis to try. (Incidentally, they all go great with pizza).

Highly recommended

• 2010 Cecchi Chianti Classico DOCG, Tuscany (90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent colorino): floral aroma, rich red plum and anise flavors, full-bodied, intensely fruity; $15.

• 2009 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, Tuscany (cabernet sauvignon, canaiolo nero, sangiovese): hint of oak, crisp aromas, flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, long finish; $18.


• 2010 Cecchi Chianti DOCG, Tuscany (90 percent sangiovese, 5 percent colorino, 5 percent canaiolo nero): floral aromas, tart cherry and chocolate flavors; $11.

• 2009 Cecchi “Riserva di Famiglia” Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, Tuscany (90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent colorino): hint of oak, spicy black cherry and espresso flavors, full-bodied; $30.

• 2011 Banfi Chianti Classico DOCG, Tuscany (cabernet sauvignon, canaiolo nero, sangiovese): floral aromas, black plum flavors, big, ripe tannins, full-bodied; $13.

• 2011 Banfi Chianti Superiore DOCG, Tuscany (75 percent sangiovese, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon and canaiolo nero): floral aromas, sweet black cherry flavors, medium body; $11.

• 2010 Villa Cerna Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, by Cecchi, Tuscany: (90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent colorino): pure, intense tart cherry and black coffee flavors, spicy, with soft tannins; $24.

• 2011 Placido Chianti DOCG, Tuscany (100 percent sangiovese); light body, black cherry flavors; $10.

• 2011 Bolla Chianti DOCG, Tuscany (90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent canaiolo nero): floral aromas, light body, crisp and fruity, with tart cherry flavors; $8.

Note to readers: With holiday bills coming, I’m writing a column of reader suggestions for the very cheapest wines that are acceptable to drink. Send suggestions to