Dining in Italy. Not only is Italian the language of love, but it is the also the language of food. For many of our readers who are visiting Italy in the next few months and especially for those who are making their first journey to the country, we have prepared a short guide about the names associated with the various dining establishments.
Perhaps the first thing to realize is that if you were to look up the terms ristorante, trattoria and osteria, they will all share the same definition – a restaurant. There are important differences, though. A ristorante is the most formal of the three and usually a bit pricier than a trattoria, which is less formal and is usually family-run. In Italy, it is considered rude for a waiter to interrupt your meal, so in a trattoria or ristorante, you will have to call a waiter over to ask for the bill.
An osteria, sometimes also called a hostaria or tavern, not to confuse matters, is more of a budget conscious option. In the past, an osteria would serve wine, while patrons would bring their own food. The distinction between the three is becoming less important, many osterie have shifted slightly upmarket, serving a limited menu, while some ristoranti call themselves trattorie to seem less stuffy and a bit cozier. If you would like to stop somewhere for a drink, head to an enoteca, wine bar or birreria for beer, which will often serve small appetizers as well.
When you encounter a tavola calda, which translates to hot table, you will find a takeout restaurant. There will be a selection of hot food prepared that day, to be reheated to order. Typical offerings will be several warm pasta and meat dishes, as well as salads, pastries and often pizza, too. You will find these along the Autostrada and are a great place to stop for cookies, candy and taralli.
A bar and caffè are typically the same. Often, they will stay open late, serving alcohol and/or aperitivo in the evening, but unlike bars in the U.S., by day they are the go-to place for your coffee and pastry. In a caffè you will place your order, get a receipt, then go to the register to pay, while they put your order together. Another thing to keep in mind is that not all caffès have takeout, so be sure to ask if you can get a caffè da asporto, a coffee to go. Some of Italy’s caffès are remarkable for their decor. Historic and opulent, the interiors are absolutely breathtaking.
Next to consider is the pizzeria. Most pizza in Italy is significantly smaller (and better) than you will find stateside. Ordering by the slice is available in some pizzerias and is called al taglio.
When you encounter a menu a prezzo fisso, it is a fixed price menu. You pay a certain price for one of a limited range of dishes and a drink or coffee (espresso) is often included. It might be an option (sometimes expensive) for the less than adventurous diner, but the fare will include simple, popular dishes. Be forewarned, if you see turistico (tourist menu), you will get tourist food, in other words, mediocre at best – so stay away!
In the selection of your courses, there will be primo and secondo. Primo normally is a pasta or risotto, while the secondo is usually a type of meat dish and may be further divided into mare, denoting seafood and terra for meats and vegetarian dishes. Another term indicating fish is alla pescatora, fisherman’s style.
Secondi are often served alone, without any vegetables or other sides, so if you want an accompaniment, order something from the contorni (side dish) section too. You can order both a primo and secondo, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to choose one. This is the norm if you’re planning to have an antipasto, contorno or dolce, as well.
Usually found on the menus at bars and caffes, are the terms Al tavolo (at the table) and al bar (at the bar). There are different prices depending upon whether you want to have your espresso and pastry while standing at the counter or sitting at a table. There will be a surcharge for the latter. Normally, the price difference is about 50 cents per item. Also note, a cappuccino is not usually served in the evening like in America.
Another item that may surprise first-time visitors is the coperto or cover charge. It is usually mentioned at the bottom of a menu and will be found in all restaurants. This includes pane (bread) or grissini (breadsticks). The price is usually between €1 and €2 per person. If it is much more than that, you are probably in a fancy restaurant! Although this in not absolutely a sign that you will receive a less than spectacular meal, you might want to look for any other signs that the restaurant is not the place for you. Steer clear of checkered tablecloths, ostentatious signage and menus with pictures. Unlike the U.S., where even service industries like dry cleaners have a tip jar out, in Italy you would only leave a little extra (5-10%) if you truly enjoyed the experience. You might simply tell the waiter tenga il resto (keep the change).
In Italy, it’s illegal to serve previously frozen food without informing customers with a disclaimer on the menu. This is typically done in one of two ways. Some establishments will attach an asterisk to certain dishes, with an explanation at the bottom: Prodotti surgelati. Alternatively, at the end of long menus, you might come across a phrase, alcuni prodotti potrebbero essere surgelati (some products may be frozen). This usually means that dishes are frozen or fresh depending on the season. You can always ask your waiter to clarify. On the other hand, if you see any dishes marked with the description Di nostra produzione (made by us), that indicates that the dishes are fresh. It might also be described as fatto/a/i/e’ in casa (homemade).
The traditional advice for choosing a great Italian restaurant is to go for one which only has a short menu. However, it is increasingly common for chefs to add more items onto the menu. Often these are in popular tourist areas and include crowd-pleasing, previously frozen dishes with the assumption that tourists will not know the difference. These restaurants still devote special attention to their signature dishes, so make sure to check first.
And finally, if you are looking for an authentic Italian dining experience, getting it right might appear to be daunting at first, especially since Italians have many unwritten rules when it comes to food. So feel free to ask the concierge at the hotel desk for recommendations and use our guide as a reference. Enjoy ‘mangiare en Italia.’ Buon appetito!