(Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Dining in Italy
Dining in Italy is easy...if you're Italian. If you're reading this, you're probably not from Italy so you are looking for answers. Well, you've come to the right place...kinda. It took a few mishaps and some due diligence before I understood what to order and how to order during my time in Milan, Rome and Bellagio. Below is a little crash course in dining that will help you next time you're in Italy. Like me, you will probably get the hang of it...about an hour before your flight back home.
Osteria, Trattoria & Ristorante: What's the difference?
In Italy, practically every dining establishment will have osteria, trattoira or ristorante in the name. Let me break down the differences:
Ristorante - This is your classic, full service restaurant with a sommelier, servers and a full menu with wines. They typically tend to be the most formal of the three. Ristorantes usually have a printed menu, a knowledgeable staff and higher prices. This does not necessarily mean the food tastes better though.
Trattoria - Usually more laid back, trattorias are typically quaint restaurants that tend to be family owned. Expect a smaller menu with less items serving fresh homemade dishes. Prices are usually much cheaper than a ristorante and you may find grandma in the back cooking with mom taking orders and Jr. working the cash register. Meals are usually served family style.
Osteria - A step down from a Traittoria. They typically have smaller menus with a focus on regional dishes and wine. Many times, there are no printed menus, so you have to look on the wall for a list of the day's offerings.
In Italy, you don't go to a restaurant to eat then leave. You go to socialize and fellowship with loved ones (or strangers). After eating, don't get offended if the waiter takes forever to bring your bill. Unlike America, European culture encourages after-dinner conversation. After you finish your entree, don't expect to see bill until you request it. The time after dinner is meant for lingering and enjoying a cup of coffee, another glass of wine or a digestif.
Breakfast - In America, especially in the south, breakfast consists of scrambled cheese eggs, bacon, grits, sausage and toast. And biscuits. And pancakes. And orange juice. And mimosas. In Italy, breakfast consists of coffee and a pastry. That's it. If you are like me and prefer saltier fare in the morning, some places offer tasty buttery croissants.
Lunch - At home, it's not strange to see someone dip out the office at 11:30 am for an early lunch. Like every meal in Italy, lunch comes later than it does in The U.S. You will find most people enjoying lunch around 1 or 2 p.m. (13:00 or 14:00).
Apperitivo - America has happy hour, Italy has apperitivo. The difference between an American happy hour and apperitivo is that happy hour is all about getting discounted cocktails and food. The purpose of Apperitivo is for opening up the palate with wine or a cocktail in addition to socializing. It has nothing to do with 2-for-1 long islands. The typical drink or aperitif is wine or a Campari spritzer cocktail. Italian cocktails are nothing like American cocktails by the way, but I'll get into that later. While you sip, most bars offer complimentary bites to go with your drink. These bites vary depending on the bar. For some its simple snacks like popcorn, olives or chips, while others offer heartier options like pizza or mozzarella. Apperitivo time is usually anywhere from 6-9 p.m.
Dinner - Dinner in Italy is served late by American standards. It's not weird at all to see people sitting down to eat at 8 or 9 pm on a typical day. Here are a few terms to help you navigate your way through dinner.
Digestif - Meant to help the food in your tummy settle, these after-dinner drinks are typically either bitter or sweet. My go-to digestif is Limoncello, a sweet lemony concoction served in a small glass for slow sipping.
Antipasta - An appetizer. Fresh mozzarella or bruschetta are great ways to open up the palate.
Primo - The first course which is usually a soup or salad.
Secondo - The meat entree. Usually poultry or fish. This entree doesnt come with a side.
Contorni - Side dishes. Order one or two with your meat.
Dulce - Dessert. I was usually way too full to eat by dessert time but guess what? I ate anyway. When in Rome...
Additional Notes: Do not ask for spaghetti and meatballs. If you see spaghetti and meatballs on a menu, rest assured that you're in a full fledged touristy restaurant. Stop being a wimp and try something other than spaghetti. My go-to entrees were cacio e pepe (a simple but amazing cheese and pepper pasta) and prosciutto pizza. I tried other things but these were my absolute favorites. I knew I wouldn't get food like this once I was back home so I ate as much as I could.
Cocktails in Italy - Like I said earlier, cocktails in Italy are quite different than they are at home. In general, the whole cocktail/ mixology scene is fairly new in Europe. In The States, you can walk into any bar and ask for practically any type of cocktail with no issue. In Italy, expect most cocktails to be mixed with aperitifs like Campari or Aperol. I personally think Aperol is disgusting and I haven't had a single cocktail that tastes good with it as its base. Try it anyway though! You may enjoy it. If you want to order a classic Italian cocktail, ask for a Negroni or an Americano or a spritz. Sidenote: If you ask for something like vodka and sprite, or rum and coke, they will pour the liquor in your cup and the chaser in another cup then look at you like you're crazy. You've been warned!
Coffee In Italy
Coffee to Italians is like junk food to Americans. They just love it. After a week in Italy, I did too. When it comes to ordering coffee in Italy, take everything you have learned at Starbucks and throw it in the spazzatura (translation: trash). Also, please don't ask for a tall or grande coffee. You will look dumb. Most Americans drink any type of coffee at any time of day. In Italy, certain coffees are preferred at certain times of the day. Because of the high milk content, lattes and cappuccinos are reserved for mornings. Also, don't ask for a to go cup. Coffee is to be enjoyed briefly standing at a countertop or at a table. Stop rushing! You're in Italy now!
Caffe (called Espresso here in the States) is served black in one shot on a saucer with an itty bitty spoon and sometimes comes with a complimentary chocolate or biscuit.
Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk. Only sip this before 11 am!
Caffè latte: Espresso with more steamed milk and a little bit of foam. Another drink reserved for mornings.
Latte macchiato: Classic expresso with a splash of milk. Can be enjoyed all day.
Cafe Americano - Italians don't drink this. It's an expresso that has been diluted with water to mimic American coffee.
Marocchino - This was my go-to coffee while in Italy. A blend of cacao powder and expresso with a little bit of foam. If you love cappuccinos, the marocchino is a great option that is acceptable to drink all day.
This guide just touches the surface when it come to eating and drinking in Italy. More than likely, you will still order something wrong or do something extremely American. That's ok! Those moments make the best travel stories. Bon Apetit!