Eating in Italy

E A T I N G   I N   I T A L Y 

Sampling the various cuisines in Italy should be one of the top priorities on every visitor's to-do list. Each region in Italy has its own specialty dishes and within each region slight variations in these dishes can exist from town to town. furthermore, within each town the same dish can taste differently depending upon which family or restaurant is cooking it. Our advice is to sample as many dishes at as many places as possible as you never know what delicious surprise you might get.

Understanding the basics
The first step in having a delicious meal in Italy is to learn the basic difference between the various types of restaurants throughout Italy. This is especially important while traveling off the beaten path where Italian is often the only language spoken.

Types of Italian restaurants:
  • Ristorante - Full service restaurant. Some have fixed menus.
  • Bar - Corner cafe where you can get a quick sandwich, pizza slice and cafe or cappuccino.
  • Trattoria - A restaurant that is typically located off the main avenue.
  • Osteria - Very much like a Trattoria but perhaps one grade below in service.
  • Taverna - A small eatery with a heavy focus on drinks.
  • Tavola Calda - This is as close to fast food as you get but the quality nothing like fast food.
  • Pizzeria - Serves mainly pizza but it is possible to get other types of foods too. Pizzeria taglio you purchases slices. At a regular pizzeria you buy a pie and sit and eat it.
  • Rosticceria - Place where you can pick up pre-cooked foods to take home.
  • Paninoteca - sandwich shop.
  • Birrieria - Italian version of a pub.

Types of Meals
  • Prima colazione Breakfast, 7:00am - 10:00am - Breakfast typically consistes of a cappuccino or expresso with a croissant or brioche filled with something delicious like jam, custard or chocolate.
  • Pranzo Lunch, 12:30 or 1:00pm to 2:30 or 3:00pm - Lunch times can differ depending on the region, municipality or town. Traditionally, Italians eat their lunches at home which consists of an appetizer, fist course and second course.
  • Cena Dinner, 8:00pm to 10:00 or later in some areas. Dinner may sometimes include cheeses, deserts, coffee and after dinner liquor in addition to the three courses traditionally served for lunch.

Types of foods
Italian food is as varied as its regions, towns and municipalities.The same dish can taste dramatically different depending upon where you are eating and in which reason. There are also many dishes throughout Italy that are region-specific. A great resource for foodies traveling to Italy is The Hungry Traveler: Italy. This book has a ton of information on everything food-related in Italy.

Typically, Italian dishes are made with the freshest available ingredients.  This means that where you go to eat you're sure to have a decent meal (though there are exceptions!).

For more on this topic: Italian food.

Hours of operation

If you are used to grabbing a bite to eat at all times of the day then the Italian restaurant schedule might come as an initial shock. Indeed, the Italian work schedule might come as an even greater shock. From 1-3 p.m. Italians stop everything and take a 2 hour break; seriously, the shops close up and even the dogs stop barking. Advice: get up and get going early or forget about it until about 3:30pm.

Restaurants in Italy generally follow the same rule in that they are closed for 2 hours during the early afternoon and typically reopen for dinner which can often be past 7pm. Always remember to call in advance - when possible - to make a reservation or to confirm restaurant hours as restaurants often have one day where they are closed for business.

Additionally, restaurants take giorno di riposo (day of rest) each week. Many shut down for the month of August and several weeks in winter. It is strange to us that restaurants would want to close during the busiest tourist months but this is a great example of how Italians put life before work.

Eating etiquette
It is always a good idea to greet the cameriere (waiter) with a buongiorno (good day) or buonasera (good evening).

It is typical for Italian to only drink water and wine with their meals. You can have naturale (natural) or gassata or frizzante (sparkling) water with your meal. You can have rosso (red), rosato (rose) or bianco (white) wine. Sodas are not popular to have with meals.

While tipping is not necessary (especially if a service charge is already included) it is an appropriate way to show your gratitude and pleasure with the meal and service.

Always say goodbye to your waiter. An "arriverderci" or "buonasera" will suffice.

To tip or not to tip?
Tipping is not expected in Italy. In fact, even if it is, the tips are usually minimal. More often then not, the conto (bill) will include a service and cover charge that can sometimes be as high as 20% of the bill itself! Tipping in our opinion, is an ideal way to show your satisfaction with the meal and the service but is by no means necessary if there is a service and cover charge already. In sit-down restaurants we find that 10-15% tip is not only customary but also quite generous.

Avoid being taken advantage of
Not only are tourists in Italy a prime target of thieves, but tourists are also targeted by some not so honest restaurants. Having said that, while there are a few shady  restaurant establishments, the overwhelming majority of the restaurants that we've eaten at have been terrific and law-abiding.

We had the unfortunate experience, however, of a restaurant's attempt to take advantage of us along with our 20+ guests on the eve of our wedding in Tuscumbria. What was even more shocking to us at the time was that we had eaten at this restaurant at least once every visit and had nothing but memorable experiences.

To make a long story short, our wedding planner and the management of the restaurant had agreed on a per person price weeks in advance of our rehearsal dinner. On the night of our wedding rehearsal our wedding planner escorted us and our guests to the restaurant and then, as planned, had to leave for another event she was attending too. We became suspicious after a lengthy delay by the wait staff to bring any food or drinks to our tables. When we approached the manager about the delay he said that they were not "prepared" to serve our large group until an agreed upon price had been settled on. As you can imagine, we were livid and without our wedding planner to confirm our reservations she had made we had had few options. We either had to negotiate a new per person agreement, walk out (which we weren't going to do as finding a place to accommodate such a large group with no advance notice would be impossible) or threaten to call the Guardia di finanza (The Guardia di Finanza is similar to the IRS and has the power to slap heavy fines or shut down law-breaking business establishments). We decided to go with the latter option and after we applied a little pressure on the management everything went very smoothly and the food came out swiftly too.

The most feared police in Italy. Really!

Apparently, after having shared our experience with other people we learned that this tactic of agreeing on a per person price and then disregarding the agreement once the party arrives is a common tactic employed by some of the less then honest restaurant establishments in an attempt to drive the price up.

Our story above is only one way that foreigners can get taken advantage of while eating at restaurants in Italy.
Here is a terrific article "How not to get ripped off  eating in Italy"  that outlines many other ways tourists can be taken advantage of and even offers ways to turn the tables on the offending restaurant and regain the advantage. This article is definitely worth the read.

Highlights of the article include:
  • The farthest away from a tourist site you eat the less likely you are to be ripped off.
  • Don't sit down in an Italian Cafe. 
  • Know what you do and don't have to pay.
  • Avoid giving the waiter the power to decide what, or how, much to bring.
  • Make sure you get an itemized receipt.
  • Ripped off? Want to take action?
  • Fiscal vs. Non-Fiscal Receipts.

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