So, how do you dine out in Italy?
How do you pick a restaurant?
How in the heck does a non-Italian speaker navigate through an Italian menu?
How do you successfully manage to eat all of the foods in Italy that you’ve been reading about and dreaming of?
Every time we go to dinner, I am baffled by the menu, the language, and the overwhelming amazing amount of food and courses.
HOW TO CHOOSE A RESTAURANT
Pizzaria – Guess what? These places serve pizza! Now, be careful because if you go to another restaurant and ask for pizza, you will be told this is a restaurant and not a pizzeria. No, really I promise. We have had it happen! So, if you want pizza, simply go to a pizzeria. You can usually order other types of food here, too, but normally it does not work the other way around.
Trattoria – A trattoria is typically a small restaurant owned by a local family with a small menu. The food is simple, but very tasty, and cooked like an Italian grandma would make. Picture red and white tablecloths draped over five or six tables with your grandma in the kitchen and your cousin, Sal, serving you dinner… What’s not to love!?
Osteria – An osteria is a step up from trattoria in the sense that these restaurants like to pair your foods with wine. Often, the waiter or waitress will help you choose the perfect wine for your meal. As an avid wine lover, when I have the opportunity to drink and disguise it as eating, it’s a win-win for me!
Ristorante – This is normally a high-end restaurant with large dining rooms and an even larger menu. This is where you go when you want a large meal with all the frills.
WHEN TO DINE OUT
Do not plan to dine out in Italy at 6 p.m. because, well, nothing will be open! Not being able to go eat dinner until 7 p.m or later used to drive me insane! At 8 pm., I’m ready for my fuzzy socks and Netflix, but, when in Italy, eat like an Italian! Normally, restaurants that are open for lunch are open between 12:00-2/2:30 and then they close until 7 p.m. and will stay open until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., sometimes later, depending on the restaurant. Can I tell you have many times our family showed up to a restaurant wanting to enjoy a late lunch or early dinner and nothing, and I mean nothing, is open. Of course, if you are in a touristy area, the above-mentioned hours may vary in an effort to feed the masses, but in other places, those hours are the standard.
Don’t be impatient – Italian food and restaurants are made to be enjoyed and savored. In case you have not noticed, nothing is fast when living it Italy… except the driving. The driving is fast, with one hand on the wheel and the other hand talking to the others drivers with wild hand signals… but, that is another post in itself, so, if you go out to dinner, expect it to last a long time. Just embrace and enjoy!
WHAT TO EXPECT
Reading the menu – Do you have to eat all of the courses? Can you only order from certain sections? Why is everything so slow, and why has no one came to my table for 20 minutes? Well, expect a slow experience, so, take your time to read over the menu. Many of the Italian words are easy to decipher because the ingredients and titles are words commonly used in the States, too.
Close your menu – If you have your menu open, usually no one will come to take your order. Quite possibly, even if you close your menu, no one will come for quite some time, either… but rest assured someone will come eventually. A sign to show you are ready to order is having your menu closed. Read it, pick your meal, then close your menu.
Drinks first? Uh, no – The wait staff will not run to the table to take your drink order first – they are expecting you to order everything at once. This is unlike the American dining system where drinks are ordered right away so at least you can have a cocktail or glass of wine while you wait at the table with tired and crying children (oh, sorry. Is that just me?)
WHAT TO ORDER
Antipasti – This is the Italian word for “appetizer.” Antipasti will normally include items like brushcetta or a nice arrangement of salami and local cheese as well as a plate of roasted veggies and olives, too. Honestly, I can eat this for dinner and the antipasti is my absolute favorite part of the menu.
Bread – Bread is given at most restaurants… it is to be eaten with your meal and not devoured prior to the main course… even though we are guilty of this pretty much overtime we go out. In fact, I’m pretty sure every time we return to a restaurant, the staff starts hiding all of the bread. With that being said, bread is not served with olive oil and vinegar. That is not an Italian thing; that is an American thing. If you must have it, then you will have to ask, at least twice, and ignore the eye rolls. I know we do.
Primi – This is the first course of the meal; normally, there are multiple courses, and yes, you eat them in the order unless you want “foreigner” stamped on your head and a mumble of “Non Ci Credo” from your server.
The primi course is normally pasta or risotto – something creamy and filing. Many types of pasta and sauces are offered in this section of the menu. Depending on the area, the restaurant will normally have their own local pasta and specialty sauce. You are usually safe with al pomodor, which is homemade tomato sauce; aglio olio which is olive oil and garlic & sometimes you will see pepperoncino (hot red peppers) thrown in as well.
My son’s two favorites are ragù alla bolognese, a hearty, red meat sauce, and all’amatriciana which is a tomato sauce with pork (guanciale), and pecorino cheese. There are many kinds for you to try. They will probably ask you what kind of noodle you prefer, then you match the noodle with a sauce. Don’t be nervous – if you are not sure what to choose, the wait staff can tell you what pasta to put with what sauce. If you have never had risotto, give it a try! Risotto has become one of our favorite dishes and is normally cooked with seafood or truffles or a simple cheese. It’s a big fat bowl of creamy carbs that melt in your mouth and will make you want to slap your momma!
Note — If you order pasta with seafood – do not, I repeat do not ask for parmesan cheese. You will be told that cheese does not go with seafood or fish, and they may refuse to bring it. If they do bring the cheese, they are most certainly talking about you in the kitchen, the next table over will for sure be up in your business and whispering about “how could you put cheese on seafood?!” So, mind your cheese manners.
Secondi – Meaning the second dish. This is the second course, and remember – you should order this when the waiter finally makes his way to grace your table with his or her presence.
Second course usually are meats, fish, or seafood (carne, pesce, or frutti di mare). There are several options such as beef (manzo); steak (bistecca); chicken (pollo); lamb (angnello); salmon (salmone); and a variety of seafood called frutti di mare, or shrimp (gamberi).
My personal favorite is pasta with clams (vongole). If you get stuck and your waiter does not speak English, make animal sounds to matches the food you would like to order. My sons get a little bit embarrassed when I oink like a pig to get my point across, but hey, it works.
Here are a few key words to describe how you would like your meat cooked. Grilled is griglia, baked is al forno, and fried is fritto.
If you have an SQ by the item, it is priced by the weight – and most likely this is expensive, so ask before you order.
Note: You do not have to order from every course. You can order one item from any menu. The staff may look at you suspiciously, but this is most certainly permitted. Also, your meals do not come with sides; you will have to order them separately on the contori section of the menu… as if you have not had enough food already.
Dolci – Dessert, which comes last, or sometimes first for us. If you have not had authentic, Italian Tiramisu or a cannoli, you have to try one. To die for! Dessert makes all the waiting so worth it! This is a photo of tiramisu I made at home. Oh, yes, people – I can rock some amazing recipes from Italy, too! My time here has certainly paid off in the kitchen! If you want the recipe check it out here, Tiramisu Recipe.
Digestivi when you dine out in Italy, is a must. The Italians feel the need to drink something to help all that food digest. So, if you ate four courses, and need to roll out the door, order a digestivi… and what the heck you – have already been there four hours. What’s a few more minutes?! Try the limoncello, grappa, or amaro, which have become our after-dinner favorites.
Last tip before you go – when you dine out in Italy – do not order cappuccino after dinner for heaven’s sake! It is totally forbidden and against the law. Okay, okay… not really against the law but it might as well be. Italians think the milk in cappuccino stops the digestion process, and it is frowned upon having to make you one after 10 a.m.
I hope these tips help, and please come back to read more on our life in Italy. Thank you for reading!
Do you have a crazy restaurant story you want to share? Please share in the comments below! We would love to hear about it!