There are countless restaurants ( ristoranti) and other eating places in Italy, including the following:
- tavola calda (literally ‘hot table’) – a cheap, self-service establishment;
- osteria – essentially a wine bar offering a small selection of dishes;
- rosticceria – serving mainly cooked meats and a selection of take-away foods;
- trattoria – traditionally a family-run establishment, simpler in cuisine and less expensive than a ristorante proper, although the two have become interchangeable terms and there’s usually little difference between them, except perhaps in price (a trattoria usually being cheaper).
Small grocery shops ( alimentari) also sell sandwiches to take away, while ice-cream ( gelato) is sold in a gelateria, although good home-made ( produzione propria) ice-cream isn’t as easy to find as it used to be – a tell-tale sign is a gelateria with a queue of Italians outside.
Restaurants rarely open for lunch before 12.30pm and for dinner before 7.30pm (up to an hour later in the south), and they usually close on one day per week, generally a Sunday or Monday.
Many restaurants offer a choice of cheaper set meals. The tourist menu ( menù turistico) or meal of the day ( menù del giorno), sometimes called simply the ‘fixed price menu’ ( menù a presso fisso), often includes two courses (e.g. pasta and a meat dish), but not drinks, for around €12 to €20.
The à la carte menu is divided into starters ( antipasto), usually salads or cold meats; first courses ( primo platto piatto) of pasta or rice; main courses ( secondo), a fish or meat dish accompanied by vegetables ( contorno); cheese ( formaggio); and desserts ( dolci or frutta – as one of the options is usually fruit).
You aren’t obliged to partake of all the courses on offer but you should order at least two, as few restaurants look kindly on diners who limit themselves to a plate of pasta or salad.
If you want water with your meal, tap water ( acqua semplice) is safe to drink just about everywhere and free. However, you must be sure to specify this, or the waiter may bring you mineral water ( acqua minerale), which Italians usually drink alongside their wine. Mineral water is available fizzy ( gassata) or still ( non gassata).
Italians usually drink wine with a meal. Most drink house wine ( vino della casa) or a local wine ( vino locale), which can be ordered by the carafe ( caraffa/vinosfuso vino sfuso) or in quarter-litre ( quartino) and half-litre ( mezzo litro) measures, although even good quality wines are fairly inexpensive in all but the most upmarket restaurants.
You should expect to pay around €10 for an average bottle in a restaurant or around double the supermarket price. Note, however, that many restaurants, including most trattorie, stock only a limited selection of wines and mostly cheaper varieties.
Before a meal, many Italians like to have a Campari with soda and ice or a home-made fruit cocktail, usually non-alcoholic ( analcolico). After a meal, as a digestivo, liqueurs are popular and include limoncello, which is pure alcohol infused with lemons; the herb-based amaro, strega and galliano; the widely popular grappa, a strong, clear liqueur made from grape skins (whose bitter taste is certainly an acquired one!); amaretto (almond based); sambuca (a sweet liqueur made from aniseed); and maraschino, made from the cherries after which it’s named.
The bill ( conto) usually includes a cover charge ( coperto) of between €0.75 and €3 per person, which may include bread ( pane e coperto). There may be an added service ( servizio) charge of around 10 to 15 per cent. Tipping is often a casual affair, with bills rounded up to the nearest banknote rather than a specific percentage added. It’s unusual for Italians to share restaurant bills, so beware if you suggest going out for a meal with a large group of friends!
Restaurant guides are plentiful in Italy and most book shops have a section on gastronomy, including excellent guides such the Touring Club Italiano’s Guida Touring Alberghi e Ristoranti d’Italia, La Guida d’Italia (l’Espresso) and Gambero Rosso’s Ristoranti d’Italia. For English-speakers, the Michelin Red Guide to Italy is invaluable, while those on a tight budget may be interested in Cheap Eats in Italy by Sandra Gustafson.
Italian Cuisine & Eating Habits
Cooking (and eating) is an art form in Italy – one that stretches back thousands of years. Painted tombs show Etruscans enjoying huge banquets and the Romans were notorious for dining on delicacies such as flamingo tongues, peacock and crane.
The modern Italian is no less interested in food, and eating is one of the nation’s greatest pleasures. Italian cuisine ( cucina) is one of the finest in the world: light and healthy, yet full of flavour. The fact that Italy’s status as a unified nation is somewhat recent explains the huge regional differences in cuisine. In the north, many dishes are reminiscent of France – rich and creamy and, surprisingly, often butter-based – while as you move south the dishes become hotter and spicier, and are cooked in olive oil rather than butter.
However, most Italian cuisine is based on a few essential ingredients, notably pasta.
When most people think of Italian food, they think of pasta dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne and tortellini, which originated in Emilia-Romagna. Each region and many towns in Italy have their own pasta specialities, using a multitude of different shapes, sizes and colours. Short, tubular pasta, such as penne or macaroni ( maccheroni in Italian), is best with rich, thick, meaty sauces, whereas long pasta, such as spaghetti and tagliatelle, is ideal with creamy or light sauces.
In the north of the country, pasta is often replaced by other staples such as polenta – a mixture of maize flour and water, which is slowly boiled and then sometimes fried – or rice, which is widely used in dishes such as risotto. Another Italian dish popular throughout the world is pizza, which originated in Naples. The ‘basic’ pizza, the margherita, which contains tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, is named after a former queen of Italy.
As well as these world-famous dishes, Italy boasts a vast range of regional and local culinary delights, such as cured ham ( prosciutto) from Parma, Liguria’s pesto served with sun-dried tomatoes and foccacia focaccia bread, Venetian risotto, a rice dish served with seafood or meat, Sienna’s famous panforte, a rich fruity Christmas cake, Sardinia’s spit-roasted piglet, Sicily’s delicious desserts such as cannoli, zabaglione, granita, marzipan and cassata – a rich sponge-based dessert with ricotta cheese, liqueur and fruit – and, of course, Italian ice-cream ( gelato), which is reputed to be the best in the world.
Italians are particularly fond of salad, especially green salads, which may include chicory, celery, cress, artichokes, radicchio, rocket and tomatoes. Italy also produces an amazing variety of cheeses, including mozzarella (used in pizzas), parmesan, gorgonzola, pecorino, ricotta and provolone. Salami and other pork products are another speciality, including the famous hams of Parma, mortadella from Bologna, San Daniele from Friuli and speck from Trentino-Alto Adige.
Italian eating habits are similar to those of other southern European countries. Breakfast ( prima colazione) is continental style: a coffee (maybe a cappuccino) and a pastry, often taken standing in a bar or café.
Lunch ( pranzo), served between 1 and 3pm, is traditionally the main meal of the day and a social occasion, when the world’s affairs are discussed and put to rights (Italy’s affairs usually take a little longer to fix); as many as four courses may be served.
However, as modern living (and the outside world) encroaches ever deeper into the Italian culture, the long lunch tradition is gradually being eroded as more and more businesses work continuous days. Dinner ( cena) is served from 7 or 8pm onwards and is traditionally a simpler meal than lunch, although it’s hardly a snack and usually consists of a cooked meal.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.