As one of the world’s most renowned culinary traditions, it is unsurprising that Italian cuisine can be very good. That said, there are also many tourist traps that serve overpriced and mediocre food. Finding the right place to eat is therefore important; ask locals for their recommendation if possible, or perhaps even ask your hotel or look at online review sites for recommendations. The downside is that it is rare to find English-speaking waiters in the non-tourist-trap restaurants, so be prepared to have to speak some Italian.
Italian food inside of Italy is different than what they call “Italian food” in America. It is truly one of the most diverse in the world, and in any region, or even city and village you go, there are different specialities. For instance, it could be only misleading to say that Northern Italian cuisine is based on hearty, potato and rice-rich meals, Central Italian cuisine is mainly on pastas, roasts and meat, and Southern Italian cuisine on vegetables, pizza, pasta and seafood: there are so many cross-influences that you’d only get confused trying to categorize. And in any case, Italian cuisine, contrary to popular belief, is not just based on pasta and tomato sauce – that’s only a tiny snippet of the nation’s food; rice, potatoes, lentils, soups and similar meals are very common in some parts of the country. Italian food is based upon so many ingredients and Italians often have very discriminating tastes that may seem strange to visitors.
For instance, a sandwich stand might sell 4 different types of ham sandwiches that in each case contain ham, mayonnaise, and cheese. The only thing that may be different between the sandwiches is the type of ham or cheese used in them. Rustichella and panzerotti are two examples of sandwiches well-liked by Italians and tourists alike. Also, Italian sandwiches are quite different from the traditional Italian-American “hero”, “submarine”, or “hoagie” sandwich (which by the way mean nothing to any Italian). Rather than large sandwiches with a piling of meat, vegetables, and cheese, sandwiches in Italy are often quite small, very flat (made even more so when they are quickly heated and pressed on a panini grill), and contain a few simple ingredients and often without lettuce or mayonnaise.
The term panini may be somewhat confusing to travellers from Northern Europe where it has erroneously come to mean a flat, heated sandwich on a grill. In Italy the term is equivalent to “bread rolls” (plural – the singular is panino) which can be simple rolls or sometimes with basic filling. However instead of a sandwich why not try a piadina, which is a flat folded bread with filling, served warm and typical of the coast of Romagna?
Americans will notice that Italian pasta is usually available with a myriad of sauces rather than simply tomato and Alfredo. Also, Italian pasta is often served with much less sauce than in America. This is, in part, because pasta in a restaurant is usually regarded as the first course of a three- or four-course meal, not a meal in itself.
Structure of a traditional meal: Usually Italian meals for working days are: small breakfast, one-dish lunch, one-dish dinner. Coffee is welcomed at nearly every hour, especially around 10:00 and at the end of a meal. At the weekends and in restaurants (for other occasions), a meal typically consists of: antipasto (appetizers: marinated vegetables, mixed coldcuts, seafood, etc.), primo (pasta or rice dish), secondo (meat or fish course) often with a side dish known as a contorno, and dolce (dessert).
Like the language and culture, food in Italy differs region by region. Local ingredients are also very important. In warm Naples, citrus and other fresh fruit play a prominent role in both food and liquor, while in Venice fish is obviously an important traditional ingredient.
Breakfast in Italy: this is very light, often just a cappuccino or coffee with a pastry (cappuccino e cornetto) or a piece of bread and fruit jam. Unless you know for certain otherwise, you should not expect a large breakfast. It is not customary in Italy to eat eggs and bacon and the like at breakfast – just the thought of it is revolting to most Italians. In fact, no salty foods are consumed at breakfast, generally speaking. Additionally, cappuccino is a breakfast drink; ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered strange and considered a typical “tourist thing”. A small espresso coffee is considered more appropriate for digestion.
Another enjoyable Italian breakfast item is cornetto (pl. cornetti): a croissant or light pastry often filled with jam, cream or chocolate.
Lunch is seen as the most important part of the day, so much that Italians have one hour reserved for eating (and in the past, another hour was reserved for napping). All shops close down and resume after the two hour break period. To compensate for this, businesses stay open later than in most other European towns, often until 8 pm. Good luck trying to find a place open during the so-called “pausa pranzo” (lunch break), when visiting a small town, but this is not the case in the city centers of the biggest cities or in shopping malls.
Dinner (i.e. the evening meal) time varies by region: in the north it is usually around 8 pm (even 7 pm in the homes), but it gets progressively later the further south one goes, up to 10 pm.
In Italy, cuisine is considered a kind of art. Great chefs such as Gualtiero Marchesi and Gianfranco Vissani are seen as half-way between TV stars and magicians. Italians are extremely proud of their culinary tradition and generally love food and talking about it. However, they are not so fond of common preconceptions, such as that Italian food is only pizza and spaghetti. They also have a distaste for “bastardized” versions of their dishes that are popular elsewhere, and many Italians have a hard time believing that the average foreigner can’t get even a basic pasta dish “right”.
Do not expect the kind of dedicated, focused service you will find in American restaurants. In Italy this is considered somewhat annoying and people generally prefer to be left alone when consuming their meal. You should expect the waiter to come and check on you after your first course, maybe to order something as second course.
Italy’s most famous dishes like pizza or spaghetti are quite lame for some Italians, and eating in different areas can be an interesting opportunity to taste some less well known local specialties. Even for something as simple as pizza there are significant regional variations. That of Naples has a relatively thick, soft crust while that of Rome is considerably thinner and crustier. (Both styles are thin-crust compared to American-style pizza, however.)
When dining out with Italians, read the menu and remember that almost every restaurant has a typical dish and some towns have centuries-old traditions that you are invited to learn. People will appreciate when you ask for local specialties and will gladly advise you.
In Northern Italy, at around 17:00, most bars prepare an aperitivo, especially in cosmopolitan Milan, with a series of plates of nibbles, cheese, olives, meat, bruschetta, etc. This is not considered a meal and it is considered gauche to indulge oneself in eating it as if it were dinner. All this food is typically free to anyone who purchases a drink but it is intended to be a pre-meal snack.
Cities and regions have their own specialties, including:
- Risotto – Carnaroli or Arborio or Vialone Nano (etc.) rice that has been sautéed and cooked in a shallow pan with stock. The result is a creamy and hearty dish. Meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and cheeses are almost always added depending on the recipe and the locale. Many restaurants, families, towns, and regions will have a signature risotto or at least style of risotto, in addition or in place of a signature pasta dish (risotto alla Milanese is a famous Italian classic). Risotto is a typical dish in Lombardy and Piedmont.
- Arancini – Balls of rice with tomato sauce, eggs, peas and mozzarella cheese that are deep fried. A Sicilian specialty, they are now common nationwide.
- Polenta – Yellow cornmeal (yellow grits) that has been cooked with stock. It is normally served either creamy, or allowed to set up and then cut into shapes and fried or roasted. It is common in northern mountain restaurants, usually eaten with deer or boar. In the Veneto region, the best polenta is “polenta bianca”, a special, tasty, and white cornmeal called “biancoperla”.
- Gelato – This is the Italian word for ice cream. The non-fruit flavors are usually made only with milk. Gelato made with water and without dairy ingredients is also known as sorbetto. It’s as fresh as a sorbet, but tastier. There are many flavors, including coffee, chocolate, fruit, and tiramisù. When buying at a gelateria, you have the choice of having it served in a wafer cone or a tub; in northern Italy you’ll pay for every single flavour “ball”, and the panna (the milk cream) counts as a flavour; in Rome you can buy a small wafer cone (around 1,80€) a medium one (2,50€) or a large one (3,00€) without limit of flavours, and the panna is free.
- Tiramisù – Italian cake made with coffee, mascarpone, and ladyfingers (sometimes rum) with cocoa powder on the top. The name means “pick-me-up”.
Pizza is a quick and convenient meal. In most cities, ‘Pizza al taglio shops sell pizza by the gram. When ordering, point to the display or tell the attendant the type of pizza you would like (e.g. pizza margherita, pizza con patate (roasted or french fries), pizza al prosciutto (ham), etc.) and how much (“Vorrei (due fette – two slices) or (due etti – two-tenths of a kilogram) or simply say “di più – more” or “di meno – less, per favore”). They will slice it, warm it in the oven, fold it in half, and wrap it in paper. Other food shops also sell pizza by the slice. Italians consider those a sort of second-class pizza, chosen only when you cannot eat a “real” pizza in a specialized restaurant (pizzeria). Getting your meal on the run can save money—many sandwich shops charge an additional fee if you want to sit to eat your meal. Remember that in many parts of the country pizzas have a thinner base of bread and less cheese than those found outside Italy. The most authentic, original pizza is found in Naples – often containing quite a few ingredients, but most commonly pizza margherita (tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella di bufala) or margherita with prosciutto.
The traditional, round pizza is found in many restaurants and specialized pizza restaurants (pizzerie). It is rare to find a restaurant that serves pizza at lunchtime, however. Do not expect to find the American-style thick-crust pizza in Italy.
Take-away pizzerias (pizzerie da asporto) are becoming ubiquitous in many cities and towns. These are often run by north African immigrants and quality may vary, though they are almost always cheaper than restaurants (€4-5 for a margherita on average, though sometimes as low as €3) and are also open at lunchtime (a few are also open all day long). Some will also serve kebab, which may also vary in quality. Though take-away pizzas are also considered “second-class pizza” by most Italians, they are quite popular among the vast population of university students and they are usually located in residential areas. This is not to be confused with the ever so popular “Pizza al Taglio” shops in Rome. These are a sort of traditional fast food in the Capital City and can be found at every corner. Quality is usually very good and pizza is sold by the weight; you choose the piece of pizza you want, then it is weighed on a scale and priced.
Cheese and sausages:
In Italy there are nearly 800 types of cheese, including the famous Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, and over 400 types of sausages.
Open-air markets offer a variety of cheeses and meats and are always open on Saturdays and usually other days, except Sunday, as well.
Restaurants and bars:
Italian bars in the center of major cities charge more (typically double whatever the final bill is) if you drink or eat seated at a table outside rather than standing at the bar or taking your order to go. This is because bars are charged a very high tax to place tables and chairs outside, so since most people do not use tables anyway, they had decided long ago to only charge those who do. The further away you are from the center streets, the less this rule is applied. When calling into a bar for a coffee or other drink you first go to the cash register and pay for what you want. You then give the receipt to the barman, who will serve you.
Restaurants always used to charge a small coperto (cover charge). Some years ago attempts were made to outlaw the practice, with limited success. The rule now seems to be that if you have bread a coperto can be charged but if you specifically say that you don’t want bread then no coperto can be levied. This has happened mainly because of backpackers who sat at a table, occupied it for an hour by just ordering a drink or a salad and consuming enormous amounts of bread.
Some restaurants now levy a service charge, but this is far from common. In Italian restaurants a large tip is never expected. The customary 15% of the United States may cause an Italian waiter to drop dead with a heart attack. Just leave a Euro or two and they will be more than happy.
The traditional meal can include (in order) antipasto (starter of cold seafood, gratinated vegetables or ham and salami), primo (first dish – pasta or rice dishes), secondo (second dish – meat or fish dishes), served together with contorno (mostly vegetables), cheeses/fruit, dessert, coffee, and spirits. Upmarket restaurants usually refuse to make changes to proposed dishes (exceptions warmly granted for babies or people on special diets). Mid-range restaurants are usually more accommodating. For example, a simple pasta with tomato sauce may not be on the menu but a restaurant will nearly always be willing to cook one for kids who turn their noses up at everything else on the menu.
If you are in a large group (say four or more) then it is appreciated if you don’t all order a totally different pasta. While the sauces are pre-cooked the pasta is cooked fresh and it is difficult for the restaurant if one person wants spaghetti, another fettuccine, a third rigatoni, a fourth penne and a fifth farfalle (butterfly shaped pasta). If you attempt such an order you will invariably be told that you will have a long wait (because the time required for cooking isn’t the same for all the types of pasta)!
When pizza is ordered, it is served as a primo (even if formally it is not considered as such), together with other primi. If you order a pasta or pizza and your friend has a steak you will get your pasta dish, and probably when you’ve finished eating the steak will arrive. If you want primo and secondo dishes to be brought at the same time you have to ask.
Most restaurants do not offer diet food. The few that do usually write it clearly in menus and even outside.
To avoid cover charges, and if you are on a strict budget, many Italian railway stations have a buffet or self-service restaurant (Termini station in Rome is a great example of the latter). These are reasonably priced and generally the food is of a high quality.
A gastronomia is a kind of self-service restaurant (normally you tell the staff what you want rather than serving yourself) that also offers take-aways. This can give a good opportunity to sample traditional Italian dishes at fairly low cost. These are not buffet restaurants. The food is sold by weight.
Bars, like restaurants, are non-smoking.
Italians enjoy going out during the evenings, so it’s common to have a drink in a bar before dinner. It is called Aperitivo.
Within the last couple years, started by Milan, a lot of bars have started offering fixed-price cocktails at aperitivo hours (18 – 21) with a free, and often a very good, buffet meal. It’s now widely considered stylish to have this kind of aperitivo (called Happy Hour) instead of a structured meal before going out to dance or whatever.
Italian wine is exported all over the world, and names like Barolo, Brunello, Prosecco, Valpolicella and Chianti are known everywhere. In Italy wine is a substantial topic, a sort of test which can ensure either respect or lack of attention from an entire restaurant staff. Doing your homework ensures that you will get better service, better wine and in the end may even pay less.
So before reaching Italy, try to learn a little about the most important wines of the region you are planning to visit. This will greatly increase you enjoyment. Italian cuisine varies greatly from region to region (sometimes also from town to town), and wine reflects this variety. Italians have a long tradition of matching wines with dishes and often every dish has an appropriate wine. The popular “color rule” (red wines with meat dishes, white wines with fish) can be happily broken when proposed by a sommelier or when you really know what you are doing: Italy has many strong white wines to serve with meat (a Sicilian or Tuscan chardonnay), as well as delicate red wines for fish (perhaps an Alto Adige pinot noir).
Unlike in the UK, for example, the price mark-ups charged by restaurants for wines on their wine list are not usually excessive, giving you a chance to experiment. In the big cities, there are also many wine bars, where you can taste different wines by the glass, at the same time as eating some delicious snacks. Unlike in many other countries, it is unusual for restaurants to serve wine by the glass.
The vino della casa (house wine) can be an excellent drinking opportunity in small villages far from towns (especially in Tuscany), where it could be what the patron would really personally drink or could even be the restaurant’s own product. It tends to be a safe choice in decent restaurants in cities as well. Vino della casa may come bottled but in lower-priced restaurants it is still just as likely to be available in a carafe of one quarter, one half or one litre. As a general rule, if the restaurant seems honest and not too geared for tourists, the house wine is usually not too bad. That said, some house wines can be dreadful and give you a nasty head the next morning. If it doesn’t taste too good it probably won’t do you much good, so send it back and order from the wine list.
Italians are justly proud of their wines and foreign wines are rarely served, but many foreign grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are increasingly being used.
Although wine is a traditional everyday product, beer is very common as well. Beer did not belong to the Italian tradition in the way that wine does, but in the last 30-odd years there has been an explosion of English-style pubs in every town, big or small, with usually a huge selection of any kind of beer, ale, stout and cider, from every country in the world.
Major Italian beers include Peroni and Moretti and these are usually the ones offered by daytime cafes. If you are serious about beer drinking, there are many bars that specialise in serving a wide range of bottled beers (see city articles for more details), as well as Irish pubs and similar establishments. There is an increasing number of micro-breweries around the country. They often are run by local beer enthusiasts turned brewers, running small breweries with a pub attached. Their association is called Unionbirrai.
In the Trieste region it is far more common to drink Slovenian beers and the most popular brands are ‘Union’ and ‘Zlatorog’. Surprisingly it is often cheaper to buy Slovenian beer in Italy (Trieste) than in Slovenia itself.
- Limoncello. A liquor made of alcohol, lemon peels, and sugar. Limoncello can be considered a “moonshine” type of product (although usually made with legally obtained alcohol) as every Italian family, especially in the middle-south (near Naples) and southern part of the country, has its own recipe for limoncello. Because lemon trees adapt so well to the Mediterranean climate, and they produce a large amount of fruit continually throughout their long fruit-bearing season, it is not unusual to find many villa’s yards filled with lemon trees bending under the weight of their crop. You can make a lot of lemonade, or better yet, brew your own limoncello. It is mainly considered a dessert liqueur, served after a heavy meal (similar to amaretto), and used for different celebrations. The taste can be compared to a very strong and slightly thick lemonade flavor with an alcohol tinge to it. Best served chilled in the freezer in small glasses that have been in the freezer. It is better sipped than treated as a shooter. A derived beverage is Crema di Limoncello, a mix of limoncello and heavy cream, giving it a milder flavour.
- Grappa is a highly alcoholic drink made by distilling grape skins after the juice has been squeezed from them for winemaking, so you could imagine how it might taste. If you’re going to drink it, then make sure you get a bottle having been distilled multiple times.
- San Pellegrino is the most famous sparkling water in Italy and considered among the best. It can be found throughout Europe and beyond, but the best place to enjoy its distinct experience is in Italy itself. San Pellegrino can be found in almost every Italian supermarket or grocery store, and is also served in many restaurants. It can be enjoyed at room temperature or chilled.
Limoncello and grappa and other similar drinks are usually served after a meal as an aid to digestion. If you are a good customer restaurants will offer a drink to you free of charge, and may even leave the bottle on your table for you to help yourself. Beware that these are very strong drinks.
Bars in Italy offer an enormous number of possible permutations for a way of having a cup of coffee. What you won’t get, however, is 100 different types of bean; nor will you find “gourmet” coffees. If you like that kind of stuff, better take your own. A bar will make coffee from a commercial blend of beans supplied by just one roaster. There are many companies who supply roast beans and the brand used is usually prominently displayed both inside and outside of the bar.
The following are the most basic preparations of coffee:
- Caffè or Caffè Normale or Espresso – This is the basic unit of coffee, normally consumed after a meal.
- Caffè ristretto – This has the same amount of coffee, but less water, thus making it stronger.
- Caffè lungo – This is the basic unit of coffee but additional water is allowed to go through the ground coffee beans in the machine.
- Caffè americano – This has much more water and is served in a cappuccino cup. It is more like an American breakfast coffee but the quantity is still far less than you would get in the States. It started as an attempt to replicate the type of coffee preferred by occupying American soldiers during World War II, hence its name.
So far so good. But here the permutations begin. For the same price as a normal coffee, you can ask for a dash of milk to be added to any of the above. This is called macchiato. Hence, caffè lungo macchiato or caffè americano macchiato. But that dash of milk can be either hot (caldo) or cold (freddo). So you can ask, without the barman batting an eye, for a caffè lungo macchiato freddo or a caffè Americano macchiato caldo. Any one of these options can also be had decaffeinated. Ask for caffè decaffeinato. The most popular brand of decaffeinated coffee is HAG and it is quite usual to ask for caffè HAG even if the bar does not use that particular brand.
If you are really in need of a pick-me-up you can ask for a double dose of coffee, or a doppio. You have to specify this when you pay at the cash register and it costs twice as much as a normal coffee. All the above permutations still apply, although a caffè doppio ristretto may be a bit strange.
Additionally, if you need a shot of alcohol, you can ask for a caffè corretto. This usually involves adding grappa, brandy or sambuca; “corrected” being the Italian expression corresponding to “spiked”. Normally it is only a plain coffee that is corrected but there is no reason why you could not “correct” any of the above combinations.
Then there are coffee drinks with milk, as follows:
- Cappuccino – Needs no introduction. If you don’t like the froth you can ask for cappuccino senza schiuma.
- Caffè latte – Often served in a glass, this is a small amount of coffee with the cup/glass filled up with hot milk.
- Latte macchiato – This is a glass of milk with a dash of coffee in the top. The milk can be hot or cold.
Finally, in the summer you can have caffè freddo, which is basically plain coffee with ice, caffè freddo “shakerato” (shaked ice coffee) or cappuccino freddo, which is a cold milky coffee without the froth.
This list is by no means exhaustive. With a vivid imagination and a desire to experiment you should be able to find many more permutations. Enjoy!