The Joy of Eating in Italy
There’s no doubt that travelers, especially Americans, have a strong love affair with Italy. It seems most travelers I meet are going to Italy and it continues to be Europe’s top travel destination each year. A huge part of traveling to Italy, involves enjoying all of the great dishes, recipes and food that Italians actually eat. Eating in Italy has always been pure joy for me. I believe it is one of the best ways to get better acquainted with Italian culture. Italians, as with everything else, are very passionate about what they eat, where they eat and how they eat it. The joy of eating in Italy first begins with a couple of explanations. Understanding the basics on the various types of places to eat, how to order and pitfalls to avoid, will help any traveler have a more enjoyable time eating in Italy.
Where to Eat & Types of Places to Eat
- Bar: Serves drinks of all sorts, especially coffee. Also, serves some snacks and sandwiches. A bar in the USA and a “Bar” in Italy are very different.
- Gastronomia: Like a bar but with more sandwich, snack or food options.
- Café: Like a bar but with a lot more places to sit both inside and outside.
- Tavola Calda: A very casual place with already prepared food. Great for the busy traveler.
- Osteria: A casual, inexpensive eatery serving simple rustic traditional food.
- Trattoria: A bit up the latter from an Osteria. Very casual, inexpensive, small, family owned place to eat with a limited menu of fresh seasonal food. Nowadays, in big cities and in touristy places, they do vary in sizes and price range.
- Ristorante: A restaurant with a full menu. Usually, the priciest option.
The masterful art of Italian cuisine boils down to two basic concepts: finding the freshest ingredients and simple cooking. All Italian cooks and chefs remember their first lesson from their mother or grandmother: do not get in the way of the ingredient but enhance the flavor. First, there is really no such thing as “Italian” cooking as we think of it internationally. Yes, most Italians know what a lasagna and pizza are but they will look and taste dramatically different. In Italy, there is an overwhelming spirit of campanilismo (local patriotism). This stems from the pride each Italian has over the village or region they come from. There is a special place in the heart for such regional cuisine especially since it has been passed down for generations. This is incredibly important to understanding the seasonality, freshness and unique nature of the cuisine throughout Italy.
Portions will be much smaller compared to American portions. Also, some main dishes are served on their own. Don’t expect a protein, starch and veggie on every plate. There is a slight possibility a main may have something next to it. If it does there will be very little. Vegetables are meant to be ordered separately. Pastas will not be drowning in sauce or in layers of cheese. Also, pasta portions are small because they are intended to be a first course. In a pasta dish, the main event is the noodle or the key ingredient on the pasta (i.e truffles, caccio e peppe, artichoke, etc)
Eat Like a Local
Remember, to pay local prices, take your coffee standing up at the counter or “banco”. Prices will be posted for both “banco” and “tavola” (counter vs table). Prices double or triple once you sit down outside. If you have time to enjoy the view and relax, why not? You’re in Italy!
Also, take advantage of times like aperitivo aka Italian Happy Hour. Pop into the local Bar or Cafe for a pre-dinner drink and you will have a variety of different snacks and small dishes of great food all included in the price of your drink.
Passeggiata is the time honored tradition of strolling down to the piazza with your loved one or friend. This is best with your favorite flavor of gelato firmly in hand. Take advantage of this time, on every night. It’s a great opportunity to make friends or people watch.
Tourist Traps and What to Avoid in Italy
Stay away from the places with the bright “We speak English” signs. Or places with plastic menus in seven different languages. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but avoid places like this. They cater to hordes of tourists and are mostly interested in a business transaction. It is unlikely you will be served local and fresh cuisine in an establishment like this, let alone treated with respect.
An Italian waiter will never bring you the bill (check) unless you ask for it. Italian meals are meant to be enjoyed and savored over time. There is no rush! The table is yours so stay as long as you like.
Never order anything without knowing the price and always double check the prices listed on your check.
Don’t forget you will be charged for pane e coperto. This is the €1-€2 per person charge for bread and a sort of cover charge. It should also appear on the menu. This is customary especially in restaurants or busy touristy areas.
A servizio charge may appear on your check. If it does, take note that is also has to appear on the menu. If not, politely ask for it to be removed. This is a % gratuity added to the bill. This often happens in touristy places in big cities. It’s another way of getting more money from unsuspecting tourists. Tipping in general is very optional and not required. Italian waiters, due to strong labor laws, make more money than your average waiter in the US. If you are delighted with the service, round up your bill, if anything. My Italian friends do not tip.
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