One of the many highlights to any trip to Italy should be the restaurants in which you eat. Italians take their food very seriously. Centuries upon centuries of perfecting their gastronomy has resulted in one of the best and most recognizable cuisines in the world. If you are a fan of Italian food (who isn’t?!), you will be blown away by what you will be able to find in the country of its origin.
That said however, it can sometimes be hard for a first time tourist in Italy to experience the beauty of THE Italian meal. From tourist trap restaurants to a confusing menu layout, many people might find themselves more stressed than sublimely satisfied when paying their bill. Luckily, with some basic knowledge you can avoid this fate and order, more importantly eat, like a local. Here is an easy step-by-step guide to assuring an unforgettable Italian meal:
- Avoid tourist traps: Beware, especially if you are in a major city (Rome, Florence, Venice..), this danger is unfortunately high. Too many restaurants have sprouted up with the sole purpose of taking advantage of tourists. To avoid this, search for restaurants that are off the main tourist path; take a side street or walk a block or two away from major attractions. Also, look to see who is eating in the restaurant. If there seem to be many Italians, then it’s a pretty sure bet that the food is good.
- Dinner starts late: If you are going out to dinner, keep in mind that most authentic restaurants open late. Around 8 pm. Italians eat dinner between 8 pm and midnight (especially when going out). If you need something to hold you over, find a bar that does an aperitivo (order a drink and the waiter will bring you some free appetizers to munch on as well).
- Understand the menu: A typical Italian menu is laid out in the order of the traditional Italian meal. There are five courses and each course consists of one dish, for it is taboo to mix food on one plate! First, there is the antipasto. This is your appetizer and it usually consists of Italian cured meats, cheeses, bruschetta, grilled/roasted/pickled vegetables, and the like. Next, is the primo. These are all your various pasta dishes. After that is the secondo which consists of meats and fish. Remember that when ordering from this section, you will ONLY get the piece of meat or fish you ordered (no sides included!). For a side, order from the next course, the contorno. Contorniare your cooked veggies, salads, and potatoes. Last but by far not least, there are the dolci or deserts. To truly dine like an Italian, cap it all off with a digestivo (Italian liquor), desert wine, or coffee (coffee strictly means espresso!). Oh, and if you would like bread during your meal, you must ask for it. Bread in Italian is pane (pronounced “pahneh”).
- Know what to drink: For Italians, what you drink depends on what you eat. If you are having meat or pasta with a meat sauce, drink red wine. If you are having seafood or a light pasta, drink white wine. If you are eating pizza, drink beer. Also, most restaurants have their own vino della casa (table wine), that is affordable, good, and comes in convenient pitchers (quarter liter, half liter, and liter). For water, remember that you must ORDER a bottle and you must choose between naturale (still) and frizzante (bubbly).
- The bill: Your waiter will only bring you your bill when it is asked for and tipping is not expected as it is in the States. If you feel that you enjoyed your meal and the service provided, feel free to leave some extra euros on the table and it will be greatly appreciated.
- Most importantly, relax and enjoy your meal: The dining table is a sacred place in Italian culture. Chill out and take joy in the food you are eating and the company your with! Forget about time and all your troubles! Chat, laugh, drink, eat, and repeat. There’s no rush! As the Italian expression goes, “A tavola non si invecchia mai!” Translation: “At the table, one never ages!” Buon appetito!