Discovering Italy Guide to Eating Like a Local

Ok, so we know Italy can be overrun with tourists, all looking for that special something that they think is the real deal. Confusion abounds especially in the height of the madding summer, when Italians themselves leave the cities in droves and head to the coast, leaving behind puzzled tourists who may well be faced with little choice beyond the obvious tourist traps and franchised food establishments.

In Italy, the food culture is steeped in tradition and comes with a whole set of rules that may seem quite strange to the uninitiated. But it is so worth getting to know how things work and what rules to follow if you want to find that genuine experience. You will appreciate food and the way to find it so much more. However, the first, and perhaps the most important thing to know is, where NOT to eat.

 Places to Avoid

Steer clear of those obvious tourist hot spots

If the place is full of diners eating their evening meal at 6PM or certainly before 7:30PM then it is likely to be filled ONLY with tourist. No Italian would consider dining before 8PM, usually much later and most restaurants do not open their doors for the evening before 7:30PM.

If you come across a cheerful looking place with many national flags outside and a “Tourist Menu” sign, with someone playing cheesy “Italian” music and pictures of food, beware; it is most likely a typical tourist trap. There may well be some exceptions but it is on the cards you will be served with some frozen and then microwaved food. Hardly what you have travelled all this way for! These places are usually found on the main streets and piazzas as their aim is the continually passing tourist mass, enticing them in with signs that may, at first, seem comforting.

These places often include a “spruiker” or a “host” standing out front coercing you inside, waving a menu at you that promises to be in YOUR language. In Italian they are called “battitore” which translates as “hitter.” Keep walking!


- AVOID - His job is to stop tourists and entice them in - AVOID -

Having said that, Discovering Italy’s home base in Italy is in Orvieto - that magical medieval town sitting high on an ancient rock with the magnificent cathedral dominating all around it – and, most of our favourite ristorante and trattorie include menus in Italian, English and German. There is no denying that Orvieto is a “tourist” town and the local establishments would be crazy not to take advantage of that but also, to work to make tourists feel welcome and more comfortable. That is fine, because in no way is the cuisine or the passion for creating great traditional meals compromised just to draw in the crowds. Having lived there over many years and through all seasons it is easy to see that the mainstay of all of these places is the local community.

The tourist trade is very welcome but the real business is protected by the loyalty of its own Italian locals, keeping everything authentic and just as it should be. This is the kind of dining experience you should be seeking out. Like all good restaurants they have a relatively short menu, being assured in knowing that everything they offer is good food. No Italian will accept anything less.

Good Food - Authentic - Good Price

If you are looking for good, authentic cuisine, you will not find it in a fast-food place. If you are looking for cheap places, you can still find cheap, good, authentic food in all cities. So, finding restaurants with good value food that is the REAL deal is easy, IF you choose carefully and IF you know what to avoid.

Things to Look Out for

Coperto - Cover Charge: This is one thing that often catches the first-timer unawares. It is quite a legitimate per person charge, over any meal or drinks you order and is set to cover the bread or breadsticks that just arrive at the table. The rate varies widely but can be anywhere from €1 or €2 but typically around €2.50. It can be higher in some tourist areas. By law, it must be added to the menu, usually in smaller print at the lower edge. I never mind this cover charge as long as it is not too over the top.

Servizio - Service Charge: This one is a further surcharge that can be added, and that I do avoid. You will see it a lot in places like Venice, especially places with great views over a canal but also in high tourist areas close to Piazza San Marco. This can be 12% and up to 15% ON TOP of your final bill. So do check this one. It is also meant to be written clearly on the menu but I do also make a point of asking before entering some places. If you are dining out of high season, meaning they are more concerned to fill tables, you can often convince them to waive this addition.

Surgelati - Frozen: All food places in Italy are required by law to inform customers if any part of their dishes includes frozen food. There are stiff fines if they do not comply. Typically, there is a disclaimer added to the menu. Sometimes particular dishes will have an asterisk (*) next to the item in question with an explanation below, such as: “prodotti surgelati”. But you may also come across a sentence attached at the very bottom og the menu that says something like: “alcuni prodotti potrebbero essere surgelati” (some products may be frozen), which usually means that whether dishes are frozen or fresh depends on the season. You can always ask to be sure. The key word to look for is: “surgelati” which means “frozen.” In some cases you may find this acceptable as long as it restricted to some vegetable types but for whole courses or especially fish I do recommend you avoid those items. If the menu is clear and up front, you can always choose another fresh dish.


Fatto in casa or Di nostra produzione - Made in-house or Our produce (made by us): always a good indication that the dishes are freshly made. Sometimes I have had clients question desserts that have been indicated as: fatto in casa” and yet they are presented in obviously takeaway type containers. All it means is that they are, in fact, homemade but typically made off-site and transported fresh to the restaurant each day. This might be especially so for the smaller establishments with limited kitchen facilities and especially those items more difficult to transport such as pannacotta.



What's in a Name?

Ristorante – Taverna – Trattoria – (H)Osteria – Locanda – Tavola Calda – Enoteca - Cantina - Bar – Pizzeria?

And then comes the confusing part of all, “What kind of place should I choose? ” A RISTORANTE is typically the most formal, with a hired waiting service and usually more pricey, while a TRATTORIA is less formal, usually run by members of the same family (often for generations) and slightly cheaper. An OSTERIA (or hostaria) or TAVERNA or LOCANDA were once like local wine bars with some limited lodging, where you might also bring your own food. Many are ancient establishments and in Venice, you will find some that used to operate as a Bacareto, one of the famed BACARI (from the Venetian dialect of far bàcara - to celebrate noisily) where you could drink a “shadow of wine” and play cards together in a cheerful and typically Venetian atmosphere. With the passage of time, these osterie or taverns transformed into typical Venetian style eateries, keeping the same kind of inviting atmosphere, offering a limited menu of local specialities for local clientele. But just to add to the confusion, the distinction between eateries is becoming less obvious with many osterie shifting up into the higher bracket while some true ristorante have begun to call themselves trattorie as it may seem to be a little friendlier and therefore more inviting.

But if all you want is a drink and some nibbles then head to an ENOTECA (wine bar) or BIRRERIA (pub) or CANTINA (wine bar with its own cellar). In Venice, of course, you head to a BACARI where you can find good wine and wonderful cicchetti (finger foods) of many local, freshly made varieties you buy by the piece. It is possible to make up a great small meal from some of the scrumptious offerings and it is definitely a Venetian experience you will not want to miss.


The bacari of Venice and endless cicchetti!


Just a word of warning . . .

Just a word of warning, if you want to sit and take a respite while you have your morning coffee or your aperitivo, do first check the boards to see if there are 2 different prices mentioned, one as AL TAVOLO and the other as, AL BANCO or AL BAR. There is often a surcharge for being seated. This is sometimes because there is a waiting service for the tables whereas at the bar, you simply order what you want and take it standing (like most Italians do). The price difference should not be great, maybe 50 eurocents or no more than €1. If it is more, either leave OR decide the ambience of where you are for that “once-in-a-lifetime experience” is worth it and don’t grumble. Some places are notorious for this extra charge – nowhere more so than in the Piazza San Marco in Venice where I have known unwitting tourists pay up to €15 for a cappuccino!!

On the other hand, a TAVOLA CALDA (literally a “hot table”) is a buffet-style cafeteria typically offering a self-service of hot foods (pastas, main courses and the like), as well as pizzas, salads and pastries – and the coffee is always good. Some, as in Rome, have been around forever and are a great way to get good food in the middle of the day at great prices – and you can sit to eat. The food is usually prepared each day and then kept in a bain-marie to keep hot. Many working Italians in Rome and other large cities, wanting a quick, hot lunch will head to their favourite tavola calda, a genuine indication that the food is not all that bad.

 Following the tavola calda idea is the PIZZERIA AL TAGLIO (pizza by the slice). At a full pizzeria, you can be seated and order your own pizza, but at these places you can browse the pre-made pizzas on display and buy just what you want, slice by slice and take it with you. Although do check these days as many municipalities have put a ban on walking around historic centres eating takeaway food. For this reason, I have noticed that some pizza al taglio places have started putting benches and chairs outside for patrons to sit. It really is a cheap way of getting a good lunch and there are some fabulous ones in Rome that offer as good a pizza as I have had anywhere.

If, after all this, you feel too overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all, use all the rules above to choose a place to eat and then look at the MENU A PREZZO FISSO (fixed price menu). It is usually as good a value as choosing individual items to make up your meal, as long as you had planned to eat all the courses that are offered as part of the fixed price menu and check that it includes some typical local foods. Also, be careful to make sure that it is NOT a prezzo fisso or menu fissi as part of a menu turistico (tourist menu). If it is, walk! This can be a way of overcharging gullible tourists.

 So, now that you are settled a tavola, and are considering your choices, what is the differences between an ANTIPASTO, PRIMO and a SECONDO? And what are CONTORNI? Antipasto dishes are small starters such as mixed plates of sliced salamis and cured meats or pickles or fresh mozzarella etc. primo dishes are typically made up of pasta, risotto, and soups. The secondo is usually presented as a more substantial main course of some kind of meat (terra – earth or mare – seafood or pesce - fish) – and vegetarian options these days. You should always look to see what accompanies your secondo as most traditional places serve this part of the meal alone. You may well need to order contorni (vegetables) or insalata (salad) separately. And then, of course, is the DOLCE (dessert). These days it is perfectly acceptable to order whatever dishes you fancy. Many, many, many years ago, being on a very limited budget and in a small hilltop town trattoria, I remember wanting to order just a simple pasta and being frowned upon quite severely, but not now. 
 Italian "Rules of Etiquette"

Now you have the idea of WHERE to choose to eat, you might like to have some insights into what Italians consider to be the “rules” of etiquette. They have some (to us) quite odd rules about how to eat and what to drink, as well as WHEN to drink it.

A big NO is adding GRATED PARMIGIANO (Parmesan cheese) to anything BUT certain types of pasta. It will ONLY be freely offered at the table when it is deemed appropriate by wait staff. For instance, never, never add Parmesan to a main dish. It should be limited to pasta and risotto but, NEVER to a seafood pasta or risotto. Parmesan has quite a strong flavour and it is considered too overpowering for many dishes. You may well detect a slight roll of the eye or a quiet sigh if you ask for it under any of these circumstances, but at least you will know why.

And, of course, nothing, like nothing, will mark you down as a tourist more than if you even think about taking a caffé with milk anytime after midday. Like the French café au lait, cappuccino or caffé latte are thought of as breakfast drinks being too filling to be taken immediately before or after lunch. You may order (or be offered) an espresso (short black coffee/shot) after a meal but if you must have milk, order a caffé macchiato that is an espresso topped with a small amount of frothed milk. But generally, hot drinks are never served alongside a meal. If you order a hot drink you may find that it comes first before the meal is served or afterwards, never WITH unless you insist! As a by-the-way, Italians do NOT compromise a perfectly good cappuccino by sprinkling grated chocolate on top!! AND, it is always served lukewarm – this is deliberate and does not indicate a bad or careless operator. I once witnessed a client berating the poor barrister for his lukewarm cappuccino. This older, very gentle man, an experienced barrister, was trying very hard to understand where he had gone wrong but could not get that what he was being asked for was a HOT cappuccino, such a thing just did not exist in his world!

As I have already mentioned above, WALKING & EATING are being banned in many historical centres but, in any case, it is frowned upon. My mother always reminded me it was very uncouth, and it is thought so in Italy too. Meals are sacred rites where, no matter what you are eating, it is regarded as a social occasion when all other distractions are stopped. This does, thankfully, prevail today.

INSALATA (salad) is always taken SEPERATELY after the main meal – not piled up on the plate with everything else! Salads are considered a palate cleanser and to help digest a main meal. They rarely come dressed and dressings are always (or should be) as: a good olive oil tossed through first to coat the leaves, followed by a vinegar (balsamic or red), with salt and pepper to taste. You can ask for limone (lemon) if you prefer rather than vinegar. Of course, there are specific salads made as starters but these are quite different.

ACQUA POTABILE (drinking water): most Italians prefer to drink bottled water, having little trust for tap water and, knowing it is usually laced with an overabundance of minerals including calcium. There are exceptions of course, especially in Rome where all the fountains run with fresh spring waters as they have for centuries. However, when at a restaurant, if a waiter asks you what kind of water, he will mean frizzante or con gas (meaning with bubbles) or naturale (flat), but always bottled. Sometimes you will be offered leggermente which is fizzy but less so, always a good alternative. If you prefer tap water you may ask for it: “acqua dal rubinetto.” Do note that it will never come with ice unless you ask for it.

VINI DI CASA (house wine) or the wine list? Most house wine is very drinkable in Italy. In the smaller trattorie you will often find it has been produced by the family from their own vineyards. We always try the house wine first when trying out a new place. It also means you can order a carafe as un litro (a litre), un mezzo litro (half a litre) or un quarto litro (quarter litre). You’ll also find that a good bottle of wine selected from the wine list can be very affordable though, as everywhere, some do hike the prices up so do watch it. 

The DIGESTIVO (digestive liquor) After the meal is finished (also after a caffé if you take it - which in Italy always means an espresso shot), you may be asked if you would like a digestivo (sometimes on the house, but not always).

Some typical Italian digestivi are limoncello (sweet lemony liquor), amaro (bitter) or, a personal favourite, grappa (made from distilled grape skins). It is unquestionably a great way to finish a great meal.


So, now you are ready. Off you go and explore the wonderful tastes of Italy. They are simply incomparable.

Buon appetito!