Italy culinary stereotypes

Italian culinary stereotypes & gastronomic misconceptions

The American versions of Italian cuisine—whether brought over by immigrants years ago or recently imported by California chefs—usually take a number of liberties with their inspiration.

For instance, several foods you won't find in Italy are: spaghetti and meatballs, hoagies (grinders, subs, torpedoes, or whatever they call them where you live), Italian ices, and deep-dish pizzas (Italian ones are usually very thin and very crispy; if you want deep dish, go to Chicago, where they have raised it to an art form).

The common stereotypes of Italian cuisine are often off the mark as well. The Italians don't eat only pasta—in the north you're more likely to find risotto and polenta.

Sure, you'll find a McDonald's in the heart of every city, and you'll probably find yourself ordering il Big Mac on occasion (Mickey D's almost always has great clean bathrooms), but I'd recommend sticking to local restaurants.

Search out restaurants with the most authentic food and atmosphere. Be daring—order what you don't recognize on the menu, lubricate your meal with copious amounts of local wine or beer, and have a grand old time.

So what's so different about an Italian restaurant?

Italian restaurants differ from American restaurants in several ways. Most differences are tiny and even petty; I only point them out because even little changes can put one off, and I would hate unprepared folks to start getting cross when the waiter doesn't bring them free glasses of water when they sit down. If you know to expect the little differences, you can start to revel in them.

  • The interior design is not a good indication of food quality. Some of the very best restaurants can look much the worse for wear.
  • Water does not come to your table automatically. When you order water, you get to choose between fizzy or non-fizzy bottled mineral water. (You can also order water from the tap, but the bottled stuff tastes better.)
  • Italians hardly ever use ice in their drinks, nor do they usually butter their bread (it tastes good enough on its own).
  • Service is much more professional, but still very friendly. Waiters don't rush up to introduce themselves by first name and then interrupt every time your mouth is full; rather they appear when you need them and are very helpful.
  • Portions are often smaller, but it's because you're expected to order more courses.
  • Every dish ordered is served on a separate plate, so don't expect a little pile of vegetables to come automatically next to your steak. You have to order any contorno (side dish) separately, if you want one. (Note: A few Italian restaurants have started experimenting with pairing a contorno and a main and serving them together, and they may make a big deal out of this—it may seem normal to you, but it's a revolution in Italy,)
  • The salad (insalata) comes at the end of the meal, before dessert (which makes a lot more sense, digestively).
  • You can't take it with you. Italians don't do the doggy bag thing, and many will be highly confused if you point to your half-eaten plate and ask for the balance of your meal to go—especially if you use the term "doggy bag." I've seen many comical exchanges between American diners and Italian waiters who either are (a) dumbfounded as to why you don't wish to finish your dinner in the restaurant, (b) insulted when they mistake your intentions to be a belief that their fine cooking is only good enough for your dog, or (c) horrified and disgusted as they hasten to assure you that "Eet is veal, veal! Eet come from cow, not from dog!"
  • The tip (call it the "servizio") is often included in the bill, so always ask. Many restaurants include the servizio (service charge) of 10–15%. This fact—and the precise amount—is usually printed somewhere on the menu (look for some fine print–style, italicized text near the bottom or on the back). It will either say servizio incluso or servizio compreso, sometimes with a percentage. If it says servizio non incluso or servizio non compreso, tip is not included and you should leave the usual 10%–15%. (In some cases coperto and servizio are both inlcuded. Sweet!)

    You can also always just ask the waiter: "É incluso il servizio" ("Is service included?"). If the answer is yes, that covers your tip—though it's customary to leave behind an extra Euro per person if service was extra-good. If the answer is no, tip 15% or so as you usually would.


About the restaurant star ratings (☆☆☆ to ★★★)

You will notice that all restaurants (and sights and hotels) on this site have a star designation from ☆☆☆ to ★★★.

This merely indicates that I feel these eateries offer a little something that makes them special (or extra-special, or extra-extra special, etc.).

These star ratings are entirely based on personal opinion, and have nothing to do with any official local restaurant ratings or grades.

In general, a pricier restaurant has to impress me that it is worth the added expense.

This is why I give ★★★ to some inexpensive eateries or sandwich shops that happen provide amazing value for the money—and similarly have ranked a few fancy but notable restaurants just ★★☆.

About the restaurant price brackets (€–€€€)

Here at we simply provide a general price range indicating the general amount you should expect to pay for a full meal in the eatery.

Each eatery is rated into a price category, which indicates—very roughly—what you could expect to pay, per person, for a standard full meal: Three courses—primo (first course), secondo (main course), and contorno (side) or dolce (dessert)—plus something to drink.

There are three price ranges, giving you a sense of which restaurants are budget, which are moderate, and which are splurges:

under €15
€€ under €40
€€€ over €40
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for dining

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
...a casual restaurant una trattoria
oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
oon ohst-air-EE-yah
I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
...this questo KWAY-sto
...that quello KWEL-loh
chicken pollo POL-loh
steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
...rare al sangue ahl SAN-gway
...medium rosato ro-ZA-to
...well done ben cotto ben KO-to
veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
fish pesce PEH-shay
meat carne KAR-neh
I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
dessert dolce DOAL-chay
and e ay
...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh birra BEER-a
Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).

Culinary Tours