Deciphering the restaurant lingo while traveling in Italy can be confusing therefore, I’ll try to help make some of the terms less confusing:
Meals in Italy are a little different than in other countries, especially the US. Breakfast is usually a quick espresso and a croissant, lunch is often the main meal of the day and most places are closed from lunch till dinner. Dinner is often pretty late and most restaurants don’t reopen till about 7:00 pm. For instance, we typically ate dinner at 8:00 or 9:00. For sure the aperitif comes in handy to stave off that gnawing feeling of hunger. Also I have found in most establishments around Italy the house wine is fine.
The different names let you know exactly what type of eatery in which you are dining, “in theory”.
Sometimes these spots are only open for dinner not lunch, so be sure to check. They are usually more refined, upscale fine dining experiences and often they feature a well-known chef. The major hotels all serve dinner in my experience and often the views are striking and the benefit is if it’s your hotel you don’t have to worry about that extra glass of wine! The flavors of the Mediterranean are always superb on the Amalfi Coast. Just because they are typically more upscale doesn’t always mean better quality food. Just sayin’
Typically Trattorias are family run with basic home-cooked food at a fair price. A well known Trattoria is Cumpà Cosimo in Ravello, known for their local cuisine run by Mamma Netta who oversees it all!
Trattoria are less formal than Ristorante and unpretentious. You might find food served family style here, more rustic and traditional and the service is friendly and casual. While out exploring, you might come across what seems to be a non-descript roadside trattoria that ends up surprising the heck out of you with its charm and awesome local food while enjoying the company of the always animated locals then the Trattoria is your spot.
We found this in Chianti while just driving around thinking we only wanted a pizza. What we found was oh so much more. The owner was so lovely. He grabbed a map and started circling places we should go and did I mention it was a fabulous meal!!!!
Obviously pizza is king but often simple pasta dishes can also be found at these spots. Sometimes even take out but mostly sit down. Pizza by the slice is served elsewhere.
These spots can be home-cooked foods or more elegant settings. Often, you will find large shared communal tables, but the food and wine are good. In the past they were more like bars serving food that the local workmen or women would come to grab some food. They were very informal spots for the lunch crowd. These days they are different from the old days and you will probably find simple pastas, grilled meats, etc.
A Deli basically specializing in cold cuts, panini etc. Again, a great spot to grab your picnic lunch for the beach or hiking adventures.
A surprising spot for food is the Autogrill:
These rest spots along the freeway serve surprisingly good food for all you road warriors. The distance between locations can be a haul where you can grab a hot or cold sandwich, a drink and of course some gas (petrol).
Wine shops or wine bars, for instance, will only serve wine, especially local wines if you’re lucky and a small snack, not a full-on aperitif!
Bistro or Bar:
Every neighborhood has its local hangout often becoming the cornerstone in their neighborhoods, serving an assortment of food and beverages. Often it’s the local coffee shop. We always check out where the locals are getting their morning coffee then you know it’s good. Espresso is king in Italy and please don’t order a Cappuccino after lunchtime. Coffee culture is serious in Italy. Local Bars typically have some pastry to have with that morning cup of Joe. It can be the corner cafe down the street from your hotel or rental. The perfect place to meet up with friends or get to know the locals.
These are pastry shops that typically serve a variety of pastries, brioches, croissants (cornetti), maybe chocolates. You might also find they have some fresh baked breads, meats, cheeses and olives perfect for packing up a picnic lunch for that local hike.
Most Piazzas and side streets have a variety of restaurant types to choose from whether it’s to grab a glass of wine, an aperitif, a slice of pizza or just a gelato.
In every case, please check out the local markets whether you are in Venice, Puglia, Bologna or Florence etc. The food selection is amazing and quite vast. Here are some pics from some of those markets. A great spot to pick up snacks or dinner if you are not staying in a hotel.
In every case, you will not get the bill until you ask for it (il conto, per favore) maybe more than once or twice. Italians take time to enjoy and savor the dining experience. There is no sit down, eat and leave. There are typically several courses, an antipasti, a primo, a secondo and a dolce (dessert). Sometimes a side dish might accompany the main dish (contorno) but not always.
Another common custom in Italy is for there to be a cover charge(coperto) to help offset overhead expenses. Most restaurants add it as a flat fee and it is clearly marked. in addition, some spots will charge you extra if you want to sit down to have your coffee for instance vs. standing at the bar like Italians do. Occasionally a service charge (servizio) is added for the waitstaff. Again, it will be clearly marked.
Italians do not tip like we do in the US. Often just some change is left on the table. Why do I always feel uncomfortable with this way of showing appreciation for great service.
It would be lovely if you share some of your favorite spots with us by leaving a note in the comments!
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“Fino alla prossima volta” – Till next time.