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I was once told by someone that in Italy it is offensive to the chef if you finish your plate of food clean. That you should leave a small portion. I'm not finding anything about this online. Is there any truth to this and how serious is this offense? Is it perhaps just an old rule of etiquette that is not followed anymore?

Update: Wow! I didn't think this question would be so interesting for people. Yesterday I was in Florence, Italy and I asked a chef a nice restaurant directly this question. He spoke good English and confirmed what @Hatef stated including mentioning the part about La Scarpetta. Its possible that this is different in different parts of Italy. I'll ask in Rome too. It is rather interesting that various countries around the world are split on this tradition. One could make an interesting world map.

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    In old Chinese culture, the host always wants to offer more than enough food for the guests in order to show one's hospitality, so if you finish every bit on the dish then the host may feel bad (thinking that he/she might not have offered enough food for you) but will not be offended. – Alex Jul 10 '17 at 18:41
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark Mayo Jul 12 '17 at 1:40
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    I cannot write an answer to a protected question and as an Italian I agree with those who say "no". However, you might be interested about where this story comes from: many years ago it was considered to be "good etiquette" or a sign of "I am not starving since weeks" and this old and outdated tradition is still discussed on websites and stuff like that. Nowadays however it's different and we usually finish the food. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jul 14 '17 at 13:35
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I would say it's the other way around. Italian chefs don't like to see leftovers on the plate as it could signal that you didn't like the food. Once, in a local bar in which I have lunch every day, I left with an unfinished plate on the table, and I was interrogated the next day to make sure nothing was wrong with the food.

However, there is another activity in Italy called: Fare La Scarpetta, which means, after finishing your food, you clean the plate from the sauce with a piece of bread (like this).

As written in this article:

Italy could be divided into two groups: those who do the scarpetta, and those (few) who don’t.

Doing Scarpetta is considered an informal activity and you rarely find people do it in the restaurants (especially in the northern parts of Italy).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark Mayo Jul 12 '17 at 1:42
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    My family comes from the southern half of Italy, and we do the Scarpetta during meals where bread is offered. – ggiaquin16 Jul 12 '17 at 20:33
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    This scarpetta thing also exists in France and Belgium, where it's called "Saucer", in French. It's as informal here as you state it is in Italy, although I myself don't hesitate to do it in a restaurant as client is always right ;-) – Laurent S. Jul 13 '17 at 13:56
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As Hatef already told you in his answer it is really the other way around!

Said that, the thing is a bit more complicated and it is much more context-dependent than Hatef said.

First of all, you said chef/host, so I guess you are interested in local customs in private situations. In that case it depends greatly on the situation. In general if you don't finish your food you may be asked why, especially if you didn't stop who served the food from filling your plate. You can get away with the explanation that you are already full, or that you are almost full, and the room left over in your stomach is for that tasty-looking cake you know will come next! :-)

Of course, if you are in an informal situation and you are in friendly relationships with the host, you could also say the truth and say that you wanted to try that food, but just discovered you didn't like it too much.

Note that in some parts of Italy, especially in the center and southern part of the country, especially in informal situations, it is customary to show hospitality by filling the plate of a guest to the brim! Or to serve a lunch with way too many different courses! So, if you are not a "great eater", be prepared to an effort! :-)

In a restaurant the things are not always as Hatef said. The description he gave is correct for high level restaurants (i.e. where waiters are dressed formally or wearing a uniform), but most commonly you won't be asked why you left something in your plate, unless you ate almost nothing. It is much more common, after you finish a course, to be kindly asked if everything was fine.

Moreover, in many pizzerias and restaurants "with an informal attitude" (for a lack of better term) you won't be treated with all such ceremonies. I don't mean they are rude, they simply are too busy and the personnel will just take the orders and deliver the dishes without much formalism (this is more frequent in those that are less expensive).

Yes, sometimes you find some chef that gets irritated if customers don't like his dishes, but it is something fairly uncommon, even in high level restaurants (for the price they charge, they usually don't want the client to get annoyed!).

BTW, "fare la scarpetta", which once was considered very rude because it was the hallmark of poor people (who were considered underlings, especially when Italy was still a monarchy), now is fairly customary (if you liked the food) and not frowned upon in most situations. Nowadays it is just considered a bit inelegant, especially in very formal situations. For example: a team of engineers or teachers going out for lunch during off time could well be caught doing "la scarpetta" and no-one will care. During a formal lunch where a CEO of a company meets potential industrial customers, probably you won't see that behavior.

  • @Fattie Take a look at OP's profile and the update on the question, and please reconsider your statement. – Mast Jul 12 '17 at 9:11
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This could be regional. My mother-in-law (born in Italy) will bring another plate of whatever it was if you empty it – you can't have had enough first time. It took a long time for me to convince her to ask me first.

The problem is, she'll bring a plate of something different if you didn't finish the first plate – you obviously didn't like it. After numerous experiments, I think I've found the sweet spot of how much to leave to keep her happy. Certainly less than a mouthful!

She comes from a rural area, where manual labour is the norm – and appetites larger as a result, and I can see where it might make sense there.

As such, I think the answer is context sensitive – North/South, City/Rural, Restaurant/Home. Good luck getting it right!

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Italian here: Leaving a "Little bit" of leftover is not too offensive however is quite unclassy, it is a behavior typically associated with the "new riches", as if "I used to be hungry now I can even leave the food on my plate". If you can, avoid & enjoy the whole plate of (great) food.

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I believe you're overthinking this. Unless you are clearly a local (so that you're expected to know the local customs), nobody in a restaurant will be offended if you finish your plate, or if you leave something on it.

Barely touching your food and leaving your plate quasi full will be noted in most places and can naturally be offensive to the cook. Though if I really didn't like the food, I wouldn't force myself to eat it just to please someone.

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    A long time ago before I knew it was a problem, I whistled indoors at one of my wife's (Russian traditions) friend's house. They were shocked that I whistled and it created an argument. So no, I don't think I'm overthinking this. Subtle differences in customs between cultures may seem mundane from the outside but to those that consider it taboo can be quite offensive. – deltaray Jul 11 '17 at 7:18
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    @deltaray There's a difference between your friend's house and a restaurant. If a waiter is easily offended by people of different cultures and can't keep it to himself, he's clearly the wrong person for his job. Also I can assure you that for many Russians hospitality towards strangers comes before superstitions. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jul 11 '17 at 9:07
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    People are generally forgiving/understanding of foreigners if they know that some things are cultural. But there are people who think that the way they were raised is obviously the only way. Unfortunately, USA appears to have a higher percentage of such than anywhere else I've been. – WGroleau Jul 11 '17 at 15:03
  • @WGroleau Frankly, I assumed that most people are aware of that. I have dozens of friends and acquaintances in Russia who would make a remark if I start to whistle indoors or shake their hand through the doorway. None of them made a remark when my French colleagues did the same, though some of them (my Russian friends) were visibly surprised the first time. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jul 11 '17 at 15:58
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    I wish it were true. I've met some who aren't aware. And many who realize people are different but think that the way they do things is obviously the most sensible way.... – WGroleau Jul 11 '17 at 16:07
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It is possible that the person who told you that is mistaking Italy for Thailand or China. Other users have already pointed out that this particular custom is actually the opposite in Italy, so my guess is that either the person who told you that is from the period where that applied, or they just misunderstood their own source and thought it was about Italy.

http://www.learnthaiculture.com/thai_culture_thai_eating_etiquette.shtml states the following about finishing your plate:

Don't eat all the food on your plate. That's it. If you finish all the food on your plate, you are insulting the cook or host. You are telling them that they didn't feed you enough, and that they are poor cooks. For a westerner this rule may be a little hard to follow. In western culture we are taught to 'clean your plate.' 'How dare you not eat your beans, there are starving kids in Ethiopia!' But don't worry this rule isn't followed to often. At restaurants its perfectly ok to clean your plate. If you are invited to eat a Thai persons house where an elder cooks the meal, then follow the rule. I have once even seen the cook of the meal herself intentionally scoop some rice to the side of her plate to be polite.

Something similar applies in China, according to the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/empty-plate-cultural-differences_us_5807822de4b0dd54ce368d7e

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    It is not as unheard of in Europe as you imply. My mother (Netherlands) will feel that she did not cook enough if all serving dishes come back empty and there is nothing left in the kitchen to send out. (And as far as I heard from Italian collegues, the mothers in Italy will feel the same.) – Willeke Jul 9 '17 at 18:41
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    @Willeke, I concur. The Italian side of my family would be horrified if you cleaned your plate and no food was left in the kitchen. I was always told as a kid when visiting my grandmother's house - who came from Italy to America in the early 1900s - to ALWAYS leave just a little on the plate otherwise grandma would be "sad". – user64707 Jul 9 '17 at 21:51
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    This is so interesting, in my culture leaving stuff on the plate means the opposite - you didn't like the food. Unless you are really full and you mention it so - but that's only done in informal / friendly occasions. – Burhan Khalid Jul 9 '17 at 22:07
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    In China this is definitely true and applies everywhere, including restaurants. One time dining with a group in China I forgot this rule and cleared my plate, then noticed the Chinese man next to me was glaring disapprovingly, gesturing subtly towards the group's noodle bowl. So I took a small amount of noodles, put it on my plate, and didn't touch it, just left it. He nodded approvingly. I think in Europe it varies: most hosts want confirmation the food was tasty, but older relatives may want to spoil you until you're stuffed (especially if they lived through post-war rationing) – user568458 Jul 10 '17 at 7:27
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    @JanDoggen I have posted a clarification on your Meta post on why I made this answer. – Nzall Jul 10 '17 at 9:07
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It greatly depends by region to region but mostly by person/family to person/family.

In south Italy and partially center they tend to give you lot of food and they don't usually care if you finish it or not as long you eat lot of it.

In north Italy the portions are usually smaller and for this reason they may ask questions if you don't finish the plate. This mostly because they think the portion they gave you was just right and if you don't finish it it could be because something is wrong.

It also depends by the context, in high class restaurants they will simply politely ask if everything was okay, often both if you finish or not the plate.

In "osterie" type restaurants the portions will usually be bigger but again, it will mostly depends by the waiting stuff.

If you eat in some family's home then the rules above about the region usually apply but there are good chances you may meet a southern family in the north and center of Italy because of a migration happened in the past when it was very difficult to find a job in the south.

To answer your question, there isn't a strict rule to follow. Be polite and try not to ask a lot of different plates just to try them all if you plan to eat just a very small portion of it. Italian dishes are usually very rich and are thought to be eaten as follows:

  • optional starter
  • one main course and/or second course
  • dessert
  • espresso (never cappuccino after lunch/dinner!)

If they ask you why you left anything in the plate it's usually enough to say that you eat too much. This will save you from the akward situation in case you didn't like the plate and will also make a compliment to the chef because he will think the portion was big enough to satisfy your appetite.

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    +1 for a great answer, my edit was just a minor spelling correction.. never curse the food :-) – Giorgio Jul 11 '17 at 15:38
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    Quite right, North and South Italy are as totally disparate culturally as any two regions on the planet. – Fattie Jul 11 '17 at 21:44
  • True about the North / South differences, which can even be very big depending on the subject. But on the subject of whether it is offensive to finish all the food in the plate, the differences are risible and the mainstream feeling is certainly "not offensive, rather a compliment". – SantiBailors Jul 12 '17 at 14:20
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My experience in Northern Italy (mainly Milan, where I currently live) is that you need to try to eat as much as humanly possible and attempt to clean your plate. At a friend's parents' house, I do my best to polish off all of each course, but try to stop them before they load more of said course onto my plate so I have space for the other courses. I might say, "No, thanks, I already had more than enough, but it was just so delicious that I couldn't stop eating!" Eating until in physical pain is totally normal here.

At a restaurant, I've luckily never been served something I didn't like, so I've never left a plate full. I do stop eating when I'm full. (I'm paying them!) And then my poor embarrassed Italian friends, already groaning that they're stuffed, eat the last of the food off of my plate to hide my rudeness aka dislike of physical discomfort. I try to tell them that I will bear the shame alone, but they just can't allow any remaining food on the plate!

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I am Italian and, as such, I am pretty sure the answer is NO. Perhaps in a formal dinner, avoid making the plate bright and clean, i.e., do not dunk bread in the remaining sauce to enjoy all of it. But this is mostly so that you don't look like you're starving. That is called "scarpetta" and is acceptable or even recommended in familiar or friendly environments, when big amount of sauce is left, and there isn't any more pasta on your plate. Indeed, a good homemade salsa di pomodoro or Genoese pesto deserves that. I do not do that unless I really feel like at home.

protected by JonathanReez Jul 12 '17 at 21:48

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