Everyone expects to eat well in Italy—after all, it’s where the Slow Food Movement started. Most restaurants and other food venues have been providing “fresh and local” for generations. However, there are a few tips to avoid those who cut corners and may disappoint.
Don’t settle for the restaurants that are close to a major tourist attraction. If you see a choice of menus in several different languages (English, German, etc), move on. Just a few blocks away you might discover where the locals go. Search for a chalkboard menu or something similar that lists the daily specials. If it’s all in Italian, don’t worry. Most waiters know enough English to explain their fabulous local dishes.
It’s always nice to make a reservation for a restaurant tha’s been recommended. If you’re staying at a hotel or B&B, you can ask the staff to call for you. Often, when we are out and about and we see a spot that is crowded with happy customers, we make a reservation in person for the next day (or even that evening). We have always received a very warm welcome upon our return. I think the owners appreciate being able to plan better.
When traveling, we Americans often think that we have to try something new each day. However, the Italians follow a different tradition. They are very partial to their “regular” customers and they love to be chosen. So, if you enjoy a coffee bar or restaurant, be sure to return again if you can. The barista will probably remember your order and expect you to get the same thing. The restaurant owner will greet you with a smile and lead you to an even better table. Try it.
Italy’s “Fast Food”
Although you might find a McDonald’s or Starbucks in some major cities, Italy has much better options for take out. Look for shops that say Salumeria, Tavola Calda, Forno or Casalinga. A Salumeria is similar to a great Deli with many more options. A Tavola Calda offers fresh, homemade, hot dishes to go. The Forno is a bakery that specializes in breads, but often sells wonderful pannini sandwiches and more. A Casalinga is a fresh pasta shop that also supplies the homemade sauces. However, they are mostly open in the mornings, so get there early and you can sometimes watch the pasta wizards doing their work.
Lunch vs Dinner
We like to eat our main meal at noon for several reasons. First, you are probably out and about, so it makes sense to relax in a restaurant. The same excellent entrees will be less expensive on the lunch menu. Look for some of the daily specials (piatto del giorno), which often are a tasty specialty and also a better deal.
Three Course vs Five Course
You don’t have to order every course offered on an Italian menu. Italians often order only one or two courses—and it’s OK to share “uno per due, per favore”. But they do follow a few rules. Unlike in America, salads are not an appetizer. You’ll find them in the “Contorni” section that usually follows the main course. To avoid confusion, just tell your waiter what you want first, second and so on. Desserts are usually served alone, followed by a coffee (espresso) at the end. But you can always ask to have them together. Italian waiters are very flexible.
The Italian Happy Hour—the Passeggiata
Since most restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 8 p.m. and usually later, we often have a light dinner during the evening Passeggiata—the traditional evening stroll that goes from about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Almost every Italian town has a favorite route where locals gather to meet up and relax with an aperitivo or an early gelato. Many bars offer special prices for drinks, as well as complimentary appetizers. Supplement the freebies with a few small plates and you have yourself a wonderful meal—at a great price, too.
If you see a pizzeria promoting Forno di Legno, you will find an establishment the makes wood fired pizza. It’s not just the special oven that makes this pizza better. These restaurants are probably following the Slow Food tradition of making their pizza dough from scratch and not using a frozen batch with extra additives.
Real Gelato vs the others
Not all gelato shops are equal. Sadly, many shops use fillers and artificial coloring. However, it’s not hard to tell. The photo to the right shows the colorful, fluffed up fake gelato. Don’t be fooled. The true, artisan gelato is usually made onsight and will be stored in those stainless steel containers. Some have lids, but the shop keepers will be glad to give you a sample (“posso assaggiare?”). The great gelato will never by in a puffy mound. And by the way, true “Pistacchio” is more of a brownish color, not bright, neon green.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Italian cuisine. Check out my Restaurant Tab at the top of this blog for specific suggestions. I have a great list of Artisan gelato shops in the major cities. I only list places I have actually visited and enjoyed.