Last summer, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. To say it was pretty damn amazing is a massive understatement. As the nutrition student and authentic culture-obsessed cook that I am, I went into the trip feeling excited to eat all the amazing food and learn about the culture. I'd been there before, but I knew that by studying in Italy for a few months, I’d come away with new insights.Yet in no way did I expect to be blown away by the little food tricks and Italian food rules that had life-changing results.

1. There's a proper wine for every time

wine, alcohol, red wine, grape, liquor, white wine
Priya Mehra

That got your attention, right? Wine pairing is huge in Italy (as it is many other places in Europe). Italians are big on drinking certain wines with only certain foods, and only during certain times of the day. For example, Europeans typically don't drink red wine when it's hot out, such as mid-day or some summer evenings. They typically do drink red wine with hearty meals, red meat, and hearty pasta dishes, but white wine with vegetarian dishes, fish, or lighter pasta dishes.

However, wine is life in Italy. EXPERIENCE IT. While the house wine at restaurants in the US is probably mediocre at best, the house wines at Italian restaurants are usually very good. Italian house wines are locally grown and produced in small batches, specific to the owners' tastes. Wine bars, or an enoteca, are also hot spots to hit up. Food is a side, and you'll have your pick from a list a mile long, learn so much from the owners, and socialize with the best people.

Basically, wine is everywhere and I'm not complaining. 

2. Food pronunciation is key 

bread, toast, cheese, vegetable, tomato, bruschetta, garlic bread, butter, canape
Priya Mehra

Exhibit A: Bruchetta.

Pronounce it now: BRU. SKET. AH.

It's not, /broo-shet-uh/, which is how most Americans say it. I accidentally said it this way in front of my professor, who proceeded to scold me for it, then gave me a 10 minute-long lecture. It was in the middle of a restaurant with some of our class, I kid you not.

He told me about how Italians are very particular in their ways, such as food, pronunciation, and staying true to your culture and history. Somehow, in the US (and elsewhere outside of Europe?), we began mispronouncing the word. Let's stop that. Don't be that person. 

3. Always salt your tomatoes

vegetable, tomato, pasture, cherry
Priya Mehra

First off, obviously tomatoes taste way better in Italy. This is due to a few things, such as the location they are grown, the ancient seeds that are used, and the care that goes into handling all produce. Not only that, but it was summer when I was in Italy, which is prime time for produce. Normally, I don’t salt my food much, since I rely on other herbs/spices for extra flavor. Also, I’d never even thought of salting tomatoes, especially when they were already so good, as I didn't think I'd need salt to heighten the taste.

But once you try it, you will never go back. A sprinkle of salt brings out the sweetness that tomatoes have, but also enhances the umami and savoriness they possess. It works the same way as when people salt their watermelon or mango. It's a trick I learned from my mom, and still love to use.

The best way to incorporate this is on sliced tomatoes in a salad, in a tomato salad, and on bruschetta.

4. Pasta was made to be "al dente"

Priya Mehra

You don’t know al dente pasta until you come to Italy. According to Merriam-Webster, "al dente" means, "Cooked just enough to maintain a somewhat firm texture."

It's like, you go around your whole life, cooking, reading magazines, watching food shows and reading the back of the box, all of which say, “cook until al-dente," and you think you are doing it properly. Then you go to Italy, you take your first bite of pasta, and feel how the pasta has a textural bite to it: it is firm, yet still a little chewy. Your whole views on food have changed.

The longer I stayed, the more I ate out, and then practiced cooking the pasta to perfection at home, I finally achieved that "bam!" moment where I was able to create that perfect texture. You can make perfect pasta too. But if you visit Italy, don’t come back to the US expecting it that way everywhere else also, sadly. I'm pretty sure it also has to do with the fact that most pasta is fresh, and not dried.

5. Dine at Tratorias

wine, beer, coffee
Priya Mehra

Tratorias in Italy are the quaint family-style "restaurants." They started out as a small family business, kind of like a cafe-style restaurant, 100% family owned and run, with food like you'd cook at home in a cozy restaurant setting. Now they've grown in popularity, and they're everywhere. The food at each restaurant will be unique—in what dish is offered, and the taste of traditional dishes from place to place—but each dish will leave you happy and satisfied. 

While the touristy sights will be littered with restaurants, and most of them will be at least fairly decent (it is still Italy, after all), walking a street or even a few blocks away to find a tratoria to dine at is so much more satisfying. The huge tourist trap restaurants will most likely all have the same menu. Staying away from those restaurants is a must.

6. Don't eat bread before a meal

bread, wheat, toast, flour, cereal
Priya Mehra

This is a huge misconception in the US, where bread, olive oil (and maybe vinegar) are served before a meal, because we think that's what all Europeans do. However, bread is filling, and especially so with the edition of EVOO. Thus, Italians traditionally do not serve it at the beginning of meals at restaurants, so everyone can focus on eating the main meals. Now, certain restaurants have started serving bread + dips at the beginning of a meal just for Americans and other tourists, because we are apparently oh so needy.

Normally, bread is served as an appetizer if you eat it as bruschetta. Otherwise it may be served just moments before the meal comes out, and would later be used to scoop up any extra sauce from the dish, rather than eating the bread straight.

7. Enjoy food, enjoy life

beer, coffee, tea, wine
Priya Mehra

I knew the lifestyle in Italy was much more relaxed. Most people know this. But living there and seeing it vs. vacationing there and seeing it is so, so different. Breakfast is social: stopping at a cafe (a coffee shop) and getting a coffee and a scone while socializing. Lunches are long, then there's a two hour time to rest or nap.

The afternoon has appretivo: the time for drinks and light before dinner, at home or at a restaurant. You have dinners that last hours, whether they are intimate and with a few friends, or larger with a group. You drink wine, eat course after course of fresh, good, local food, and laugh and socialize. You meet new people, make new friends. You live life to the fullest, every day.