Drinking in Italy is first and foremost a social experience. Friends and family gather together, converse and why not, open a bottle. Getting drunk is never the end goal and drinking by oneself, rare. Alcohol is a social lubricant and part of a cultural identity. Wine especially is considered part of a culinary experience, to be appreciated and enjoyed at a slow pace.
What the Law Says
The legal drinking age in Italy is 18 and establishments can get fined for serving or selling alcohol to under-aged people. It is a criminal offence to serve someone under 16 and can warrant a prison sentence of up to one year. On the other hand, serving someone over 16 is just considered a minor offence which would result in a fine.
Drinking on an Empty Stomach
As soon as the weather is nice, people will flock to bar terraces in the evening for the aperitivo. For a set price, most establishments provide a drink and an open buffet with appetisers.
Some places offer such an abundance of food that a patron could skip dinner altogether. The aperitivo concept demonstrates how much food and drinks are interrelated in the minds of Italians.
Drinking, especially in the first part of the evening, is never done on an empty stomach. The aperitivo is usually followed by dinner which obviously also includes alcohol, mostly as a pairing to the meal. Dinner can be followed by more drinks in a club, but there again, the objective is to have a good time, not reach an embarrassing level of drunkenness.
Most Italian parents are happy to introduce their children to wine, after all it’s part of their cultural heritage. Older generations have a much more tolerant view on alcohol than the younger one that just joined the world of parenting.
A typical snack when the grandparents of today where children used to be peaches soaked in wine and sugar! Nowadays, when children reach a certain age (usually 14 and over), they might be offered a bit of wine as a tasting experience.
The fact that overall, alcohol is quite easily accessible doesn’t seem to drive teens to drink excessively. Obviously, teens will be teens and will always needs ways to discover where their limits lie, but overall you rarely see drunken teenagers in the streets.
The first time I came to Italy with a group of girlfriends, I was 18, and I don’t remember being carded once. Unless you look extremely young, you will probably never be asked for an ID at a bar, club or grocery store.
Though the law is clear that the drinking age is 18, some places will turn a blind eye to have access to the teen clientele while others will have stricter rules. There seems to be a divide between beer and wine on one side and stronger liquor on the other.
No one will blink an eye if a 16 year old orders a pint, especially if he or she is accompanied by an adult. Should a parent or older sibling buy alcohol for a younger person, there is no problem consuming said drink in public.
Drinking and Driving
Though most people don’t go out of their way to get drunk, Italians still seem a bit behind the times when it comes to drinking responsibly. The police often set up roadblocks to catch revellers after a night out and sadly, many are still found with high blood alcohol contents.
This is due in big part to a lack of public transportation and taxis, especially in remote areas. The younger generations seem to have finally caught on to the idea of a designated driver but people of an older generation, still feel impervious to the dangers of drunk driving.
Should you be on holiday in Italy and would love to partake in some wine or drinks without sacrificing a member of your group on the sobriety alter, I strongly recommend using a car service. Taxis can be hard to find in small towns and rural areas where the views are breathtaking and the wine abundant.