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Italian Restaurants

Choosing the right restaurant in Italy could be a very confusing process. Many tourists often ask themselves, "What is the difference between ristorante, trattoria and osteria?" The old adage used to be that it went in the order of fancy to casual, with a ristorante being the fanciest. Today in Italy that theory goes out the window. Trattorias and osterias can be just as fancy and elaborate as any ristorante, but a ristorante is always fancy. It all depends on the type of food, how it is served, and the price. Unfortunately, the old habit of posting menus and prices in the windows has fallen from fashion, so itís often difficult to judge variety or prices. Invariably the least expensive eating-place is the vino e cucina. A simple establishment serving simple cuisine for simple everyday prices. Almost always, the fancier the atmosphere the more expensive the restaurant, though none of these points have anything at all to do with the quality of the food.

ē Prices

If youíre uncertain, do as you would at home and look for lots of locals. If the menu or bill says "servizio compreso" that means that the tip is included in the prices. (If not, it will say servizio non-compreso, and youíll have to do your own arithmetic. Usually about 15% is customary. Additional tipping is at your own discretion, but never tip in family-owned or family-run places).  Please keep in mind that bread is not automatically included in the price of the meal and needs to be ordered.

People who havenít visited Italy for some time may remember the days when you could eat like a king for about $10. Prices have gone up recently. In some respects, eating out in Italy is still a bargain; especially when you figure how much all that wine would have cost you at home. In many places, youíll often find restaurants offering a "menu turistico", which is full set meals that are basic cuisine for L20,000-30,000. More imaginative chefs often offer a menu "degustazione"- a set-price gourmet meal that allows you to taste their daily specialties and seasonal dishes. Both are less expensive options than ordering the same food a la carte.

  Restaurant price categories:
Very expensive
over L80,000
below L30,000

When you leave a restaurant you will be given a receipt (scontrino or ricevuto fiscale), which by Italian law must be taken with you. If you arenít given one, it means the restaurant is probably cheating on its taxes in which case, they are probably offering you lower prices.

ē Eating on the Run

The original Italian fast food alternative, a buffet known as the Ďhot tableí (tavola calda) serves traditional pastas and other easy to make Italian specialties. Bars often double as panicotecas (which make hot or cold sandwiches to order, or serve tramezzini, little sandwiches on plain square white bread that always taste much better than they look); outlets selling pizza by the slice (al taglio) are common in city centers. At any grocerís (alimentari) market (mercato) you can buy the fresh foods to fix your own meal. Some will make the sandwiches for you.

ē Regional Differences

What comes as a surprise to many visitors is the tremendous regional diversity at the table. To the outsider, nothing on the menu may look familiar due to the disguise of a local or dialect name. Expect further confusion, as many Italian chefs have begun to shy away from traditional dishes and are constantly inventing dishes.  If your waiter fails to explain, you may want to consult your dictionary before you order.

Northern Italy

Northern Italy traditionally prepares their dishes with butter and cream. Egg pasta and risotto are favorite first courses, while game dishes such as liver, bollito misto (mixed boiled meats), ossobuco (veal cooked in tomato sauce), seafood and sausages appear as main courses. Towards the Trentino-Alto area the cooking has an Austrian influence, with goulash and smoked meats with rye bread and bratwurst instead of sausage.

Central Italy

In Emilia-Romagna, Italyís self proclaimed gourmet region, the land is full of delicious tortellini and lasagna, parmesan cheese, parma ham, balsamic vinegar and a hundred other delicacies. It is the land of beans and chickpeas, game, tripe, salt cod (baccalŗ), porchetta (whole roast pork with rosemary), Florentine steaks, saltimbocca alla romana (veal scallops with ham and sage), and freshwater fish. Tuscan and Umbrian cooking use fresh, simple, high-quality ingredients flavored with herbs, olive oil, and the local porcini mushrooms or truffles.

Campania and the South

The further south you go the dishes get spicier and oilier, while the puddings and cakes get richer. Southern Italy is the land of homemade pasta, wonderful vegetables and superb seafood, often fried or laced with olive oil. Naples, of course, is the birthplace of pizza and home of rich tomato sauces. Regional specialties are often seasoned with condiments like capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, olives and fennel.


Sicily is Italyís unsung gastronomic paradise featuring pasta dishes loaded with tomato sauces. Sicilians donít use many herbs and spices to confuse the flavors. Fish dishes are in abundance along with lamb, but perhaps the greatest part of the Sicilian meal, if it is possible to choose one, is the dolci (deserts). Sicily is known for wonderful deserts including the "cannoli". A sweet ricotta cheese filling put inside a crusty cylinder (no description could possibly do a good cannoli justice).

ē Reservations, Service, and Tipping

Reserving a table in a restaurant can be seen as a sign of respect and commitment to all Italians. Reservations for dinner in small restaurants may be hard to come by, especially during the busy seasons. It is usually not necessary to make a reservation for lunch, except in the most formal restaurants.

Do you call to cancel a reservation if you canít keep it?

Someone at your restaurant will probably understand English, unless you are in a rural family establishment. In any event, Italians are great communicators and will try to figure out what you are saying. Many country restaurants donít take credit cards, so be prepared to pay in lire.

The tip (mancia) should be left in cash. How much depends on the quality of the service, the type of restaurant, and the size of the cover and service charges. Most restaurants impose a fixed cover charge for occupying a set table, which is listed on the menu as coperto. The variation depends on type of restaurant, crystal, silver and flowers on the table all mean a higher coperto. The "servizio" is a percentage for service automatically added to the total cost of your meal. The higher the cover and service charges, the lower your tip should be. If the servizio is more than 15 percent, the tip should be reduced to one small bill per person. There is no excuse for poor or surly service, which should never be rewarded with a tip.

*Note that Italians are very relaxed people, who take eating very seriously. In some cases they may take up to twice as long to finish a meal as we do in the U.S. In fact many of them donít understand why Americans rush through meals. As a result, donít expect to see the waiter come back to you every ten minutes to check on your status. You may not see him/her for 30 min if you donít try and get their attention. To Italians this is not bad service, actually it is being polite. They donít want to interrupt your meal or rush you.

In many cases you have to ask for ice.

ē When to Eat

There is no excuse for skipping a meal or not eating in Italy. Meals are almost sacred to the Italian people.

You can have breakfast (la colazione or la prima colazione) at your hotel or in a bar-caffe. Hotels and pensione usually offer a continental breakfast: a choice of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or caffe latte (small pitchers of American-style coffee and milk), plus fresh rolls, muffins, butter, preserves, and maybe croissants (cornetti).

Breakfast in a bar-caffe - usually served between 7:00 and 10:30 a.m.- is a far better choice. The coffee will be richer, the pastry fresher, and the scene worth watching. However, if you sit at a table, prices may increase anywhere from 50 to 300 percent. Most Italians stand at the counter for their breakfast. The procedure may seem confusing at first. You look over the pastries, then go to the cashier (cassa), state your order, and pay for it. Youíll get a receipt, which you give to the barman or place on the counter as you restate your order. Use a 50 or 100-lire coin to weigh down your receipt. It is the tip for all this confusion. The coffee choices in a bar-caffe may seem endless, but the classic breakfast drink is a cappuccino.

Around 10:00 a.m. light breakfasters may be ready to eat again. Order a panino (sandwich), toast (a grilled ham and cheese on American-style bread), pastry, or a quick shot of espresso all of which are always available at any bar-caffe for in-between meal hunger.

Lunch (pranzo or colazione) starts at 12:30 or 1:00 and lasts anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours. Time, cost, calories, and hunger may be factors in what you decide to do for this meal. A stand-up snack or self-serve lunch is a possible alternative to a restaurant meal.

Dinner (cena) is served from 7:30 on, although most Italians dine around 8:30. The before-dinner aperitivo can be taken in a bar. On the coast in the summer, where life is less formal, dinner often starts after 9:30. Italians dress casually, yet with great elegance, when they dine out. Restaurants require neither jacket nor tie but please, no athletic attire. After dinner, head to the nearest Piazza to help walk off your meal and mingle with the locals.

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