The norms and culture of Italian dining and restaurants

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

Italy has many different types of dining establishments, which go down in price—but rarely in quality or authenticity—as they get less fancy and formal.

The top rung is called a ristorante, but plenty of more casual eateries abound, usually smaller and serving classic cooking like mama used to make—the kind of place to head on a nightly basis for filling, excellent, well-priced food and a homey, friendly atmosphere. Roughly in order of fanciness, from more refined to more rustic, they are the trattoria, the osteria (or hostaria), and the pizzeria (many of which will also offer a few simple pastas).

These designations aren't hard and fast. A fancy restaurant might call itself "osteria" to evoke a kind of quaintness, and a simple eatery might puff itself up by billing itself as a "ristorante."

Most cities also sport cafe-like places that serve hearty dishes; a tavola calda, (a "hot table" cafe selling prepared dishes by weight), rosticceria (basically a tavola calda with spit-roasted chickens in the window), pizza à taglio or pizza rustica (pizza by the slice), paninoteca (sandwich shop), and bar (serving booze, yes, but also the place for a coffee and croissant in the mornings, and sandwiches and other simple nosh throughout the day). For much more on the subject of different types of Italian eateries, see the "Restaurant Primer." » more

Except in some of the top (and snootiest) restaurants in the big cities, you'll encounter stricter dress codes at cathedrals than at restaurants. Remember that Italians tend to have a keen fashion sense and dress casually well any time they go out; you'll be fine in jeans, but I wouldn't dine in shorts and a T-shirt. If you're splurging on a top restaurant, call ahead to ask if jacket and tie are required for men.

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.
  • In many countries, 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.
  • The salad 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!"
  • Servizio compresoThe 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—as in the picture on the right—coperto and servizio are 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.
  • Every restaurant is closed one day a week. By law, restaurants must take a giorno di riposo (sometimes the sign says "chiuso per turno"). This will be posted prominently on the door or on the wall above the cash register. The law exists to make sure the staff gets one day a week off. For most restaurants, the overwhelmingly popular choice of day to take off is Monday; second most popular is Sunday; many close after Sunday lunch and only reopen on Tuesday.

Dining tips

  • "Pane e coperto" is not a scam: Nearly all Italian restaurants have an unavoidable pane e coperto ("bread and cover" charge) of anything from €1 to €15—though most often €2 to €5—per person that is automatically added on to your bill. This is perfectly normal, and perfectly legal (though a few, trendy restaurants make a big deal about not charging it).
  • The house wine is usually perfectly fine, if not excellent (plus, you can order quarter- and half-carafes rather than a full bottle), or let the waiter help pick out a wine to go with your meal.
  • Food is cheaper standing up. Order and eat standing at the bar and you will pay the lowest price; sit at a table and you will be charged a higher price for "table service." In some places, sitting at an outdoor costs even more.
  • At a cafe, you pay before you consume: At any Italian cafe, bar, or gelateria, you don't just saunter up to the bar and order your cappuccino, Campari, or two scoops of cioccolato. Go first to the cashier (sometimes at her or his own little counter in a corner) to order what you want and pay for it. Only then can you take the receipt back up to the counter, where you put the receipt down (traditionally along with a small coin as a tip) and repeat your order to the barrista. Silly? Yes, but that's how it's done.
  • Go with the flow. Order the local specialty—fish in Venice, steak in Florence, tortellini in Bologna.
  • Be nosy, ask lots of questions. Look around the room and politely point and ask what other people are eating if it looks good.
  • For culinary variety, ask if there's a bis dei primi or tris dei primi (sampler plate of two or three first courses) so you can try several at once.
  • Be adventurous. Have fun, sample the local chow. Don't go through Italy leaving a trail of just spaghetti pomodoro (tomato sauce) and pollo alle brace (grilled chicken) in your wake. Ask what the specialty of the house is. Try the tripe and sample the squid. Let the waiter suggest to you his favorite dish—or trust him to put together the whole meal and surprise you with each course.
  • Reservations are rarely necessary, but always wise. Save for a few higher end restaurants (and some in the countryside), you never need to make a reservation. However, I find Murphy's Law applies: if it's a restaurant you're dying to try and you don't call ahead, there will be no tables available when you show up at the door. If you do call ahead, you'll be one of only a handful of people in the place, making you feel slightly foolish for having phoned ahead. Of maybe that's just my luck. Either way, booking a table is the wiser choice.
  • Don't over-tip by accident! Again, always glance at the bottom of the menu (including front and back covers) to see if there is a line about "servizio incluso." This means the service charge is included and you do not need to leave a tip (though for exceptional service in a fine restaurant, it is customary to leave an extra euro or so per person). If nothing of the sort is printed on the menu—or you are simply unsure——just ask: "É incluso il servizio?" (eh een-CLOO-soh eel sair-VEET-zeeo?) to find out where service is included. If it is not, leave an extra 10%.
  • Tourist menus: The concept of a bargain prix-fixe menu is not popular in Italy. Some restaurants do offer "tourist menus," which usually entails a choice from among two or three basic first courses (read: different pasta shapes, all in plain tomato sauce), a second course of roast chicken or a veal cutlet, and some water or wine and bread. With very few exceptions, tourist menus tend to live up to their name, appearing only at the sort of tourist-pandering restaurant that the locals wisely steer clear of. On the other hand, a pricier menu degustazione ("tasting menu") will offer the best dishes of which the chef is not proud—and is priced accordingly. » more

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