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Italians Still Look Down on Taking Your Leftovers Home

Despite how the growing issue of food waste, one in four Italians currently believes the concept of taking home leftover food from a restaurant is a sign of poverty, bad manners, or even vulgarity.
August 20, 2015, 8:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Coal Miki

As I'm sure you probably don't recall, First Lady Michelle Obama briefly became the subject of scorn among ornery Italians back in 2009 when she oh-so-callously asked for a to-go bag at a Roman trattoria.

Well, get ready to hang on to your Sicilian sarongs, because the state of affairs in Italy—as far as taking home leftovers goes—hasn't really changed in the least since then. A recent survey led by the Italian farmers' association, Coldiretti, has found that citizens of the Mediterranean nation still largely take issue with the practice of using a "doggy bag," or bringing leftover food home from a night spent painting the town red in marinara.

The survey has been cited as saying that one in four Italians currently believes the concept of taking home leftover food from a restaurant is actually a sign of poverty, bad manners, or even vulgarity.

In the hopes of avoiding such indignity, a solid 28 percent of all Italians feel it is simply best to eat all the food on their plates, according to the survey.

Of course, that doesn't mean all Italians are standing by the oft-wasteful status quo when it comes to their personal habits. The survey also found that 25 of polled Italians would on occasion ask for a doggy bag for any leftover meals. While that certainly isn't the surge of opinion some are hoping for, it seems to signal a shift in the right direction. It is said that almost two-thirds of all Italians have lowered their food waste at home to an average of 76 kilos per person.

Ironically, the history of the doggy bag has been traced back to sixth-century BC Rome. Lore has it that it was considered a compliment to your Roman host to bring a napkin from home and to take some of your dinner home in it.

But it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century in the good old US of A that doggy bags really became popular—and the name we now use for them was coined. According to the Smithsonian, the first doggy bags really were for doggies. They became popular—and accepted—during the 1940s when rationing made feeding your pet more difficult. In America today, of course, we have no compunction about asking for a doggy bag.

But in Italy, "Un Doggy Bag, per favore?" may still be a major faux pas. Some attribute this to the Italian made-to-order mentality. Their food is made with care, and is meant to be eaten hot and fresh. Others say Italian restaurants—unlike their American counterparts—feed their customers size-appropriate servings. Therefore, there is no need to wrap up and take home the remnants of a meal there.

Whatever the reasons may be, some in Italy are really pushing for a change. Comieco, the Italian national consortium for recovery and recycling paper and board packaging, has joined up with Slow Food to launch an initiative called "Doggy Bag—Eat your Leftovers." The project aims to promote a different mind-set in order to reduce the amount of food waste. They've even designed some takeaway containers that put the foil swans of your childhood to shame. Seventy-five restaurants in the Lombary area of Italy have signed on to encourage the use of doggy bags.

So what can we Americans do to encourage Italians to see the virtue of the doggy bag? Well, America, here's our advice. Next time you have the good fortune to visit the beautiful country that is Italy, be sure to strap on your fanny pack, talk in a really loud voice, complain about there not being any ice in your water, search for a Starbucks whenever possible … and don't forget to ask for a doggy bag.