Italian restaurants, cafes, and everything else you need to know to keep yourself well fed

Once I sat down at a very traditional trattoria on the outskirts of Florence called Alla Vecchia Bettola. I was the only non-local in the joint. Inspired to go as native as possible, I asked the waiter/owner about the one dish I didn’t recognize that was penciled in at the bottom of the menu (this is a bad habit of mine). He explained that testicciola was a mutton-based stew served in a sheep’s skull.

Hot damn, I thought. Now THAT’S local flavor and no mistake.

So, without inquiring further into the ingredients, I ordered the thing and munched on crostini spread with a liver pate while I anticipated my thoroughly pagan-sounding main course.

Sure enough, the stew arrived in a steamed-clean half a sheep’s skull (how they kept the gravy from running out the eye socket, I’m not sure) I dug in and was slurping merrily away, chewing at bits of sinewy mutton, and trying not to take too much notice of the bits that were clearly not muscle meat—Italians are famous for enjoying the offal and other odd bits of animals, and my philosophy is when in, Florence...whatever.

Then, I spooned up a mouthful and slipped it between my lips without glancing down first.

I froze.

There was now something large, soft, and spherical in my mouth.

Now, I don’t know much about sheep anatomy beyond the fact that (a) they’re covered in wool, which must be very itchy for them, and (b) they cease being all that scenic once you get within about ten feet and the smell hits you. However, there are only a few perfectly spherical parts of any animal’s body as far as I can remember from tenth grade biology, and I wasn’t too keen on eating any of them.

My mind quickly tossed up the only lead it could give me in figuring out what was currently weighing down my tongue: the name of the dish. Testicciola. In my slightly panicked state, I was thinking in English, not Italian, so I assumed I had just ingested (well, half-ingested) the sheepish version of that euphemistically-termed “prairie oyster,” which those of us not from regions where strip malls far outnumber farm animals would call “testicles.” We certainly wouldn’t call them “dinner.”

My whole “when in Rome...” philosophy was unraveling quickly, being replaced by a desire to not “do as the Romans do” but rather something more along the lines of “run to the toilet and donate my dinner to the porcelain god.” However, that would not be good manners, and good manners suddenly became important as the owner chose that moment to materialize in front of me, beaming, and ask how I was enjoying my dinner. What else could I do?

I bit down. Hard.

The sphere in my mouth went “pop!,” deflated, and while I swallowed whatever thick liquid had oozed out I quickly chewed the slightly rubbery casing. “Very good!” I replied In Italian with a bit too much forced cheer after swallowing again. “Er, what’s in it, exactly?”

The owner proudly listed the ingredients, some of them acceptable, some of them nasty. None of them was “testicles,” but he then finished his litany with the words “...and one sheep’s eyeball.”

Somehow, I was relieved.

Sampling the local food is just as much a part of traveling as seeing all the monuments and museums, and finding the perfect little bistro can be just as memorable as a day spent in the Uffizi Galleries, maybe more so. You'll have the chance to savor interesting flavor combinations and to discover the joys of a three-hour dinner replete with multiple courses, excellent wine, and engaging conversation.

Many waiters, concerned that travelers' palates may reject some of the more interesting local dishes, may try to steer you clear from those dishes penciled in at the bottom of the menu. Perhaps this is a service you're only too happy to let them perform. But take it from me: sheep's eyeballs ain't all that bad after all.

Travel is an adventure; foreign dining doubly so. Buon appetito!

A cassoulet (Photo by stu_spivack)

How traditional meals play out in Italy

 (Photo by Roberto Trombetta)

Tips for finding great restaurants in Italy

 (Photo by Pete the painter)

Tips to save money on dining in Italy and eat better for it

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How I select restaurants for this site

 (Photo by Neville Nel)

In vino veritas—the wines of Italy

A cassoulet (Photo by stu_spivack)

How a meal in Italy differs from a meal in America (whatever you do, don't ask for a doggy bag)

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Italian food & menu decoder

Culinary tours links


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