Food /
Food culture

Italian Hospitality: The Invite

 More than a simple gesture

“Come, I’m buying you a coffee.” 

The most typical of Italian-style icebreakers. The opening of a thousand friendships, or an offer of peace. 

Behind the invitation lies the desire to spend time with a person, especially if you haven’t seen them for a while and want to give them attention with the excuse of a quick coffee. 

“Come on, just five minutes!” Spoiler: it won’t be that fast, probably. 

But in theory everyone has five minutes to escape for a coffee, you just can’t refuse, that’s why it is the most  used formula to “hook” someone, sit together at the table, or sip an espresso leaning with your elbows on  the counter, have a word or two while waving the little sugar packet. 

It’s coffee, so to speak. 

It’s not about the drink. Most of the time the drink itself is totally extra. Inviting, in Italy, is part of the culture of sharing, of the pride in showing and enjoying the pleasures of life, of taking the first step, of trusting the other, of welcoming someone. 

To offer a coffee at the bar, even to strangers, is a classic part of the Italian lifestyle, it’s true. But the invitation, the sacred one, we know best in the style of the South, where welcoming and sharing is part of the socio-cultural education that is acquired during childhood. The guest is untouchable, even if barely known. Keywords: “add a seat”.

The locals are ambassadors – like it or not – of this notion of welcoming, sometimes fictional and exaggerated, but always authentic. A role that comes naturally, learned through sharing a snack and hosting friends for holidays by the sea, to name a few examples. 

Offering is an automatic gesture from one’s teenage years, a mandatory transition to adulthood. Inviting strangers to your home or paying for them at the bar is what distinguishes this warm and sometimes noisy hospitality,  which as a foreigner – as a “stranger” – makes you part of the context, welcoming you as a friend. 

Especially in small towns, whether it’s Lombardy or Sicily, a stranger is almost prevented from paying. For  example, in Sardinia we happened to meet a group of workers on a lunch break: after having looked at us with doubt (we looked way too much like tourists) and having stated our origins and intentions, they invited  us to drink (“cumbidato“, to drink together, to share food, in Sardinian). Each one of them. No, no bright and popular exaggeration of southern clichés: just a welcome act. Alla salute! (remember to knock the glass on the table and look everyone in the eye before drinking). 

We all have heard our grandmothers and mothers say “where five of us eat, six of us eat”, and so on. 

Let me tell you about a recent and sincere example from a trip with my boyfriend to the uninhabited village of Ingurtosu. Disoriented and a bit worn out by the challenging road, we stopped to ask for information from the only family within reach. We noticed them busy setting lunch in the garden in a surreal silence. A little small talk – “who are you,  where are you going and what are you looking for” – were enough to make them decide to invite us to lunch, or at least a digestif and fresh prickly pears. 

Monica, a friend from Puglia, cares to underline how much this is not a forced folkloric expression, but a loving reality to be proud of, which has its roots in ancient Greek-Latin traditions. 

Invite the other, welcome them, at home and outside. 

Invite to play, share toys, share a snack. 

Being an adult, preparing dinner for five more people… just in case. 

Is there a friend of yours? Bring him/her too. 

Invite friends to your house, then let them stay for the night! 

Prepare bed and sheets for the guest, and a glass of water for the night. 

Have extra toothbrushes because you can never tell. 

My best friend’s grandmother had six PJs at home, just in case, for her granddaughter’s friends to stay for  the night. 

A mantra, a lesson that you learn as a child, you see it done, it is just like that, it is “a trademark”. You don’t have to pay anything, I will! 

Do not bring anything, I will take care of everything you need, just bring yourself and “your company” or “your appetite”. 

But be careful: always bring something – whatever – to thank your hosts. Whether bought shortly before, or  handmade by you, it is good manner to bring a gift to thank for the invitation. 

It is an unwritten pact, a sign of respect for all the work done, and a way to give back in return for the trust and affection that will be given to you. Thus you establish a referral connection, you are the counterpart of a grateful host. Not doing so means turning up your nose a little and appearing ungrateful. 

Bring something, even small but heartfelt. 

Some ideas: olive oil, homemade liqueur, a donut with yogurt, a tiramisù made the night  before. If you do not have time, or if you are on vacation, some sweets from the pastry shop, a good wine, cold cuts and cheeses, or even flowers will be fine. 

You will hear the answer “But you shouldn’t have”, but trust me, it’s better that you did. You have sealed a wonderful exchange. 

And if for some absurd reason you want to refuse an invitation that may be uncomfortable or difficult to return, proceed with cleverness and caution. Declining an invitation requires a lot of delicacy and, above all, a convincing alibi. 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that there is an chapter entirely dedicated, “Ways to Reject an Invitation”, on Italian Pod. 

It is absolutely not an option to say “I’m sorry, I can’t.” without alternatives. You need to have a really good reason to refuse an invitation, especially in the south. You must emphasize the task, the urgency, the serious nature, the necessity as much as possible. If possible, be a little dramatic and curse the event itself to be a bit more convincing. 

“I’ve already got this annoying thing to do, if I could I would not think twice about letting it go.” There you go. If  necessary, run for cover and calm down with the intention to make up for it: “Come on, next time I promise…”

Last, you know you have a real friend when you can just say, “No, I’m not coming today. No, I don’t want to”, and even refuse the “staffa” (the last glass before going home). They should welcome your refusal only if they are really close, and not insist more than once… or maybe twice. 

There is a reason why “Italian hospitality” has become a recognized global trademark of Italianness, but it is not enough to hang a certificate at the door of a restaurant to fully understand it. 

So, if on holiday in Campania, or Sicily or Basilicata, you are invited to have lunch at a grandmother’s place,  or to have a drink at one of the locals’, consider yourself lucky. You are witnessing the most authentic and  most sincere manifestation of doing something for pleasure and desire to share time and words with you.  You are welcome. 

Be grateful and don’t forget to bring wine, or pastries!