Anyone having Italian relatives certainly knows that Italians are an incredibly superstitious population (especially the farther south you go). Personally I think it’s related to very old-school Catholicism, which is heavy on ritual and the idea of physical objects and relics blessing (or cursing) individuals. In any case, a few of these have fairly logical origins I’ll mention. Here are some Italian food and wine superstitions:
- It’s bad luck to spill olive oil. Serious bad luck…I dropped a jar of this in a small grocery store once and the little lady working in the shop made a sign of the cross! This is a logical superstition when you consider how valuable olive oil is and has been throughout history.
- It’s bad luck to avoid eye contact when toasting. You must look directly in the eye of the person whose glass you are bumping with your own.
- It’s bad luck to bump glasses with non-alcoholic drinks. Drinking wine? Have a toast! Drinking soda? Don’t even think about touching those glasses!
- It’s bad luck to toast with plastic, or any other non-glass cup material. You can still toast and bump cups but you have to touch back-of-the-hand to back-of-the-hand instead of cup-to-cup.
- Spilling salt is bad luck. This is unsurprising if you think about how valuable salt has been historically, sometimes being used as a currency (along with wine) for paying Roman soldiers – hence why our word “salary” is actually derived from the word “salt”! There is however another more sinister angle on the salt superstition. Ancient civilizations (including some debated stories of Ancient Rome salting Carthage after the third Punic War) were sometimes known to salt the earth of conquered cities, making the ground sterile as a sort of punishment. I guess when it comes down to it, salt is something to be respected and definitely not spilled.
- Bread should never be upside down on the table and thrown away only if it’s totally inedible. There’s a lot of respect for bread in Italian culture, and this surely relates to the religious significance of bread in the Catholic faith (ie, the communion wafer and biblical stories involving bread).
- When pouring wine, the women at the table should be served first and the server should always pour themselves some wine last. This is more a matter of manners than superstition.
- 13 People seated at one table is bad luck. Do a head-count of people at the Last Supper and you may understand why.
- Spilled wine should be dabbed behind the ears lest you bring bad luck upon yourself.
- Spilling wine on a new dress or table cloth is oddly enough good luck!
- On New Years Eve it’s considered good luck if you eat lentils at midnight.
- You shouldn’t cross your silverware on your plate when you finish or you will have a fight with someone.
- “Una donna non dovrebbe mai avere le ultime gocce di vino dalla bottiglia.” = A woman should never have the last drops of wine from the bottle. This Italian proverb is seemingly aimed at single women, as the curse falling upon the bottle-finishing lady is that she will never get married (something pretty horrifying for Italian culture to imagine).
Some things which are more good manners tips and not superstition:
- Bringing wine or chocolates to a dinner party is a polite gesture. Flowers are also a good gift to bring to an Italian dinner party (but avoid Chrysanthemums because they are associated with funerals and keep in mind that red roses tend to have a romantic tone).
- When at the table, it’s really a dinner-fail to turn down food or wine. It can be painful when they keep insisting you eat and drink more but you have to suck it up and do it!
- It can be considered strange or rude to not have your arms on the table (think forearms but maybe not elbows). I’ve heard it makes you appear disinterested in the food and wine on the table.
- You shouldn’t pour wine for others “backhanded” (=with the back of your hand towards the table).
- It’s a compliment to the chef to mop up and eat the remaining sauces or oil from a dish with a piece of bread. This move in Italian slang is called the “scarpetta” (=the little shoe).