How to Dine Out in Italy

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.

Well, allow me to help you out a bit!

 

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.

How to dine out in italy
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!?

How to dine out in italy
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!

How to dine out in italy
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.

How to dine out in italy

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.

How to dine out in italy

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.

How to dine out in italy

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?)

This is a shot from our table at one of our favorite tratorrias!

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.

How to dine out in italy
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.

How to dine out in italy
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.

How to dine out in italy

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.

How to dine out in italy

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!

How to dine out in italy

 

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.

 

How to dine out in italy

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).

How to dine out in italy

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.
How to dine out in italy
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.

How to dine out in italy

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.

How to dine out in italy

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.

 

How to dine out in italy

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!
BasketsLife

 

 

 

46 Comments

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  • I definitely enjoyed the food in italy. It's always been my go to comfort food. Pizzas and tratorias are love.
  • Reply February 1, 2017

    Alina Popescu

    Oh, I love this post! When I first when there, the first meal was in a pizzeria and I was starving. It was a long time ago, the internet was new, so I didn't know the idea of sauce on top of the pizza was enough to puzzle the server. I did get a few mumbles and probably a little under-the-breath swearing, but who cares. I've never been to a proper restaurant in Italy, we were high school students so a tratoria or osteria was super high end for us, so my first proper Italian restaurant experience was in Germany. They are a lot nicer there and the service is faster, so I have to go back to Italy for a proper experience :D
  • Reply January 31, 2017

    Chrysoula Manika

    That is a great guide to Italian food that I simply adore. My favorite place is usually a trattoria where the food is heavenly. I have never managed to order all the courses and I alaways save place for my favorite italian dessert. I didn't know about the cheese and seafood.
  • Reply January 31, 2017

    travelingilove

    Wow! That's something! I mean, when I start reading, I was a little surprised by the topic (why anyone ever wanted to write about I thought obvious thing like dining out in Europe), but you get so much into the details and give such a great tips I have never heard about. It's a really great job! Thank you :)
  • Reply January 31, 2017

    sara | belly rumbles

    Such a great guide for those wanting to eat out in Italy. We lived there for a while when my son was 4. I feel your pain of not being able to head to dinner until 8pm when places open. We found a couple of local places near where we were staying that opened early, which made life so much easier with a toddler.
  • Reply January 30, 2017

    Vicki Garside

    Great tips! We made the mistake of sitting with the menu open the first night we were in Rome and didn't eat for hours! I think we eventually walked out of that particular restaurant! Shame on us! But we soon learned! And oh the pizza and pasta that followed was amazing!
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    atlifestylecrossroads

    I´m incapable of missing out any post with italian food lol never thought of these slight differences between trattoria and osteria - now I´m finally well-informed! And as to the schedules it´s even worse here in Spain, the restaurants usually open around 8.30 for dinner, and it´s soooo late.... #TheWeeklyPostcard
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    pswdarlene

    Awesome! Italy is the land of good food and I am dying to eat there! all those pizza and prosciutto! As well as cannoli and gelato! I think i'll gain a lot when i go there. Italy does take their food seriously. Cool tips!
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    Jim ~ ReflectionsEnroute

    Why, oh why did you post that picture of mouthwateringly delicious looking tiramisu??? I must have it!
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    Hrakaridi

    This is a very useful guide! i love Italian food and i think that pizzeria and trattoria are the best in Italy
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    danik

    Great post and good tips here. When I first went to Italy all I was seeing was Pizza restaurants! They were everywhere!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    galanda23

    Ah, your post made me so hungry! You have some very useful information about dining in Italy. I could never get bored of Italian food. #TheWeeklyPostcard
  • Reply January 29, 2017

    traveling9to5er

    I lived in Rome for a semester and this is a great breakdown. I wish I read it before I went. Eat (and anything else) is all about taking your time and enjoying the experience, aka being patient! Thanks for bringing back some great memories.
    • Reply January 29, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Thank you for reading ~ well now you will have to come back to Italy :) Yes exactly it is about the experience!
  • Reply January 28, 2017

    Upeksha

    What an interesting read. We went to Italy many years ago and can identify with many of the observations in your post (especially the one about SQ and pricing by weight - we didn't know and ended up ordering the biggest fish they had in the restaurant and paid over 100 Euros!). Thank you for sharing your experience with us. #theweeklypostcard
    • Reply January 29, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Thank you for reading - Yes we found out the hard way to once night in Venice My husband almost had heart attack when he go the bill! YIKES
  • Reply January 28, 2017

    Ruth

    So many good tips in here! Love how enjoyable to read you made this article. But, it is true, in Italy and in many more parts of Europe, you have to be patient when you are eating out. First, it takes some time to get service. In some places, I have waited 20 minutes to get initial contact with a waiter / waitress. It is not like they have five to six people working the tables. They may have one or two for an entire salon. Then, you have to wait for the food. So, yes, you better sit back and relax (and have some patience). #TheWeeklyPostcard
    • Reply January 29, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Yes very true it is meant as an experience not a eat and run as fast as you can! I personally am learning to enjoy it ! Thank you for reading!
  • Reply January 28, 2017

    Momma To Go

    I've spent lot of time in Italy and these are spot on! Also don't tip, and try not too be too American in asking for substitutions etc! Going to Italy in march, cannot wait!!!!
  • Reply January 28, 2017

    Anisa

    I was so impressed with the food in Italy! I wanted to order everything especially if it has truffle. Oh and the wine was wonderful too. You are bringing back so good memories. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.
  • I've been to Italy many times but this is helpful even for me! Especially the timing part. Great post, thanks for sharing :)
  • Reply January 24, 2017

    Helena

    These are awesome tips! I love the one about cheese on seafood and the cappuccino (my coffee of choice!!). I really enjoyed it!
    • Reply January 25, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Haha it is also my coffee of choice - and I order it after 10am all the time and get the hand and the eye roll LOL
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    clare

    I love the food in italy it is the best. A great post explaining the different type of restaurants, I never knew that. I normally just go into one that I like the look of and choose something from the menu :-)
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    kidsandcompass

    I'm glad that you spelled out the differences between the restaurants and the dos and do nots! I too have been at the receiving end of an Italian eye-roll. I'll try my best to stick to the rules this April when I'm next in Italy (although as I'm going with two little ones, it's going to be hard to hang on until 8pm for dinner!)
    • Reply January 23, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Yes that is tough, we have the same problem with our 3 kids. If you are in a touristy area you might find some other things open mid day.
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    Corinne

    Stacey, I should have read this before heading to Italy. I'm sure I've broken a few of these rules, especially asking for parmesan for my spaghetti vongole!
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    Castaway with Crystal

    Wow what a bunch of really great tips - I found them all SO interesting! I think I'm going to really enjoy Italy now...
    • Reply January 23, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Thank you
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    nlaguilera

    Great tips! I remember during my first visit feeling a bit confused and overwhelmed but now that I've spent a bit more time there it actually all makes sense. I actually think the Italians have it figured out more than we do back in the states!
    • Reply January 23, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Right I think they have the rules and the rules are to be followed - which is easier than no rules at all for sure!!
  • Reply January 23, 2017

    Kerri

    Reading articles like this reinforce why I love travel and food so much. The amount I have learnt over the years about cultures, people, food and language is just incredible And I learnt so much of it through food itself. I often joke that I speak amazing French and Italian food. I can read anything off a menu just about in any language, but can't always hold a conversation. Another good eg too of how we must not expect others to conform to our rituals and timings.
  • Reply January 22, 2017

    Aisha

    Your "do not's" are hilarious. They take serious pride in their food and dishes. Tradition is tradition lol.
  • Reply January 22, 2017

    Carolina Colborn

    Finally, learned how to dine in Italy!!! I would opt for a trattoria for lunch and an osteria for dinner therefore and order all five!!!
  • Reply January 21, 2017

    Nancy

    What a great article! Now I know why we get the rolled up eyes when we dine at the better restaurants in Italy! It's the bread! Haha! Never put that together before until you mentioned it!
    • Reply January 21, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Right we always get eye roll too! Thank you for reading! :)
  • Reply January 21, 2017

    Brianna

    I'm headed to Italy in April, so these are really helpful tips! I'll be traveling solo, however. Is it frowned upon to read a book, or write, or play on your phone while eating at these places?
    • Reply January 21, 2017

      BasketsLife

      Hi Brianna, Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful time in Italy. I will be posting many more items out traveling and living in Italy in the next few months so stay posted. For sure it is not frowned upon, especially if you are traveling solo to read a book, your phone or write. You will see many solo people reading in coffee shops, or in the Piazzas all over Italy. :)

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