Art, history, vineyards, hikes, tours, delightful wanders – all that exploring works up an appetite! One of the best parts of traveling through Italy is the variety of fabulous dining options: from antipasta to zabaglione, cafe americano to wine, the abundance of delicious, accessible food and wine can seem limitless. But how to choose? Osteria, Ristorante, Cafe, Bar – where should you get that pasta carbonara? How do you navigate the many dining options and where to eat in Italy?
Services to expect when you eat in Italy
There are a number of restaurant types in Italy, with clear definitions in some ways and fuzzy variety in others. They break down pretty easily into Sit Down service, Standing Service, and Take Out service, though, as always, there’s some blurring between the lines. Breakfast usually consists of “caffe and cornetto” – a coffee, typically espresso, and a croissant or similar pastry, eaten while standing at the bar.
Lunch and dinner are much more leisurely affairs, sometimes stretching out for hours. Caffe can be enjoyed throughout the day, but there are distinctions: a cappuccino is a breakfast drink, while espresso is perfectly acceptable any time of the day. Tipping isn’t customary, though people may leave a small amount of change or round up; sit down restaurants note a “pane”, “servizio” or “coperto” – a bread, service or cover charge, which encompasses the tip and service.
Now let’s dive into where to eat in Italy, whether you are traveling with kids or not.
The Italian “bar” is completely unlike the American understanding of the word. In Italy, the Bar is akin to a cafe, featuring a robust coffee and beverage service, with some food varying by time of day, including pastries and cakes, panini, and gelato. Most bars are neighborhood mainstays and offer service from morning through dinner hours, and may even include a “tabac” – a small station selling cigarettes, lotto tickets, postage stamps, etc.
In a bar, you typically order your items from the cashier and then present the receipt to the barista. Frequently you may need to repeat the order, as the receipt will show prices but not necessarily items themselves. It’s important to note that there is one price for taking your drink at the bar, and another about twice that if you sit down – when you order, you want to make clear that you’re planning to drink your coffee “al banco” or “a tavola” (at the table).
The top grade of Italian dining, the ristorante typically offers a “fine dining, white tablecloth” experience: fine china, crystal stemware, an array of silverware, a purse stool for your bag. A ristorante usually offers a coursed prix fixe menu as well as a la carte options, and, in large cities or other tourist-driven destinations, may include contemporary or fusion interpretations on italian classics.
Plan on having plenty of courses – a true Italian meal involves an antipasto, pasta dish, main course, vegetable and dessert, and could easily take 3 hours – and a few bottles of wine – finished with an espresso and a limoncello before you wrap up.
The trattoria is ubiquitous across Italy: frequently a family-run establishment, a trattoria is less formal than a ristorante and features traditional Italian food in a comfortable, welcoming but unpretentious environment. You might find checked tablecloths, stemless glassware and heaping portions, or you could find slightly more formal tableware.
A trattoria usually has lunch and dinner service, and frequently features mama or papa – or sometimes both! – actually making pasta and sugo in the kitchen. Family pride is palpable – be sure to ask about the chef’s recommendations, as you’re likely to get a dish reminiscent of grandma’s spaghetti and perhaps a wine from the family vineyard! Trattorias invite lingering, and a full meal might take 1-2 hours.
The osteria is less formal than a trattoria, and could be considered the neighborhood joint. Regional specialties will shine at the osteria, and, just like a trattoria, the culinary head of the family is likely in the kitchen making the meals. It’s a faster meal than a trattoria, but you should still anticipate an hour or so – anything faster is rude and an affront to the chef!
Literally “hot table,” a Tavola Calda is a quick dining option, the closest thing Italy has to “fast food” (other than McDonald’s and the like). A variety of prepared foods are selected from a cafeteria style set up and can include salads, pastas and panini.
Items are sold by weight or by piece, depending on the item, and will frequently be reheated for you. You pay the cashier before getting your tray, and then eat either standing at an adjacent counter, or seated at one of a few tables. Tavola Calda are common in business sectors of large cities, and a great option when you want a satisfying but affordable and quick meal.
Ubiquitous across the boot: a pizzeria is a sit down restaurant and features pizza, of course, as well as an array of appetizers, salads, and pasta options. Italian pizza varies a little by region, but in general a pizza is usually about 12” in diameter with a very thin crust (by American standards); a pizza is expected to feed one adult, though many people might share if there are an array of appetizers and salads ordered as well.
A “rotisserie,” the rosticeria is similar to a Tavola Calda, and offers hot food, including meats and pastas, as well as salads and desserts. While a rosticeria is usually destined as a “to go” meal, they frequently have comfortable seating for a dining experience that’s far less formal than a trattoria but more ambient than a Tavola Calda.
Pizza A Taglio
Literally “pizza by the slice,” the pizza a taglio is often seen with a sign reading “forno” – oven – over the establishment. Pizza is typically sold by weight for take out and will be heated up for you if you prefer. Pizza a taglio rarely have tables for seating, though they may have a countertop to stand at, and will usually sell sodas as well as beer by the bottle.
Taking its name from the ancient greek root eno, “wine” – the enoteca is a wine bar, and generally has a huge variety of wines and a very limited food menu. Historically featuring local wines, enotecas in cosmopolitan cities are now showcasing wines from across Italy, and are also increasingly high design, sophisticated spaces. Whatever the decor, enotecas offer a marvelous opportunity to sample a variety of options, from single glasses to regional flights, paired with a plate of salumi and cheese or a pasta or two. Many enotecas have lunch and evening service, but are not always late night options.
Much like the English word it resembles, a traditional Taverna is a casual destination with a full bar and limited food service. Convivial and friendly, a taverna is a great meeting place to drop in for a glass of wine and a quick bite from noon to late night.
Here’s your bar! A pub is where you’ll find the Guinness, Stella, Moretti and Heineken, as well as mixed drinks. Don’t plan on much food at a pub – you’re most likely to see some snack-size bags of potato chips and peanuts as your options for sustenance.
You’ll see lots of places selling food:: Panetteria and Fornaio (bakery), Salumeria (deli), Gelateria (gelato). Many will have sit down spaces to enjoy your treasures. Enjoy as you discover them as you learn where to eat in Italy!