While ristorante is self-explanatory, you’ll also see other types of Italian eateries. A trattoria and an osteria (which can be more casual) are both generally family-owned places serving home-cooked meals, often at moderate prices. A locanda is an inn, a cantina is a wine cellar, and a birreria is a brewpub. Pizzerie, rosticcerie (delis), tavola calda (“hot table”) bars, enoteche (wine bars), and other alternatives are explained later.
I look for restaurants that are convenient to your hotel and sightseeing. When restaurant-hunting, choose a spot filled with locals, not the place with the big neon signs boasting, “We speak English and accept credit cards.” Restaurants parked on famous squares generally serve bad food at high prices to tourists. Venturing even a block or two off the main drag leads to higher-quality food for less than half the price of the tourist-oriented places. Locals eat better at lower-rent locales. Family-run places operate without hired help and can offer cheaper meals.
Most restaurant kitchens close between their lunch and dinner service. Good restaurants don’t reopen for dinner before 19:00. Small restaurants with a full slate of reservations for 20:30 or 21:00 often will accommodate walk-in diners willing to eat a quick, early meal, but you aren’t expected to linger.
When you want the bill, mime-scribble on your raised palm or request it: “Il conto, per favore.” You may have to ask for it more than once. If you’re in a hurry, request the check when you receive the last item you order.
Italy offers many budget options for hungry travelers, but beware of cheap eateries that sport big color photos of pizza and piles of different pastas. They often have no kitchens and simply microwave disgusting prepackaged food.
Self-service cafeterias offer the basics without add-on charges. Travelers on a hard-core budget equip their room with a pantry stocked at the market (fruits and veggies are remarkably cheap), or pick up a sandwich or döner kebab, then dine in at picnic prices. Bars and cafés are also good places to grab a meal on the go.
Pizza is cheap and readily available. Stop by a pizza shop for stand-up or takeout (pizza al taglio means “by the slice”).
Supermarkets usually have a pizza counter too. Some shops sell individual slices of round, Naples-style pizza, while others feature pizza rustica—thick pizza baked in a large rectangular pan and sold by weight. If you simply ask for a piece, you may wind up with a gigantic slab and be charged top euro. Instead, clearly indicate how much you want: 100 grams, or un etto, is a hot and cheap snack; 200 grams, or due etti, makes a light meal. Or show the size with your hands—tanto così (TAHN-toh koh-ZEE; this much). They’ll often helpfully cut it up into smaller pieces. If you want your pizza warm, say “si” when they ask if you want it heated up (scaldare; skahl-DAH-ray). For a rundown of common types of pizza. Pizzerias also sell cecina, a savory crêpe-like garbanzo-bean flatbread—a cheap snack that pairs well with a glass of red wine.
Italian “bars” are not taverns, but inexpensive cafés. These neighborhood hangouts serve coffee, mini pizzas, sandwiches, and drinks from the cooler. Many dish up plates of fried cheese and vegetables from under the glass counter, ready to reheat. This budget choice is the Italian equivalent of English pub grub.
Many bars are small—if you can’t find a table, you’ll need to stand or find a ledge to sit on outside. Most charge extra for table service. To get food to go, say, “da portar via” (for the road). All bars have a WC (toilette, bagno) in the back, and customers—and the discreet public—can use it.
Food: For quick meals, bars usually have trays of cheap, premade sandwiches (panini, on a baguette; piadini, on flatbread; or tramezzini, on crustless white bread)—some are delightful grilled. (Others have too much mayo.) To save time for sightseeing and room for dinner, stop by a bar for a light lunch, such as a ham-and-cheese sandwich (called toast); have it grilled twice if you want it really hot.
Prices and Paying: You’ll notice a two- or three-tiered pricing system. Drinking a cup of coffee while standing at the bar is cheaper than drinking it at an indoor table (you’ll pay still more at an outdoor table). Many places have a lista dei prezzi (price list) with two columns—al bar and al tavolo (table)—posted somewhere by the bar or cash register. If you’re on a budget, don’t sit down without first checking out the financial consequences. Ask, “Same price if I sit or stand?” by saying, “Costa uguale al tavolo o al banco?” (KOH-stah oo-GWAH-lay ahl TAH-voh-loh oh ahl BAHN-koh). Groceries and Delis
Another budget option is to visit a supermarket, alimentari (neighborhood grocery), or salumeria (delicatessen) to pick up some cold cuts, cheeses, and other supplies for a picnic. Some salumerie, and any paninoteca or focacceria (sandwich shop), can make a sandwich to order. Just point to what you want, and they’ll stuff it into a panino; if you want it heated, remember the word scaldare (skahl-DAH-ray). If ordering an assortment of cold cuts and cheeses, some unscrupulous shops may try to pad the bill by pushing their most expensive ingredients. Be clear on what you want: “antipasto misto da euro, per favore.” For more on salumi and cheeses/
Picnicking saves lots of euros and is a great way to sample regional specialties. A typical picnic for two might be fresh rolls, 100 grams—or about a quarter pound—of cheese (un etto, EH-toh, plural etti, EH-tee), and 100 grams of meat, sometimes ordered by the slice (fetta) or piece (pezzi). For two people, I might get un etto of prosciutto and due pezzi of bread. Add two tomatoes, three carrots, two apples, yogurt, and a liter box of juice. Total cost: about €10.
If the bar isn’t busy, you can probably just order and pay when you leave. Otherwise:
1) Decide what you want;
2) find out the price by checking the price list on the wall, the prices posted near the food, or by asking the barista;
3) pay the cashier;
4) give the receipt to the barista (whose clean fingers handle no dirty euros) and tell him or her what you want.
For more on drinking, see “Beverages,” later.
A good bet for a cheap, hot meal is a döner kebab (Middle Eastern-style rotisserie meat wrapped in pita bread). Look for little hole-in-the-wall kebab shops, where you can get a hearty takeaway dinner—either as a sandwich or a wrap—for about €3. Asian restaurants, although not as common as in northern Europe, usually serve only Chinese dishes and can also be a good value.
ITALIAN CUISINE STAPLES
Much of your Italian eating experience will likely involve the big five: pizza, pasta, salumi, cheese, and gelato. Here’s a rundown on what you might find on menus and in stores. I’ve included specifics on regional cuisine throughout this book. For more food help, try a menu translator, such as the Rick Steves Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary, which has a menu decoder and plenty of useful phrases for navigating the culinary scene.
Eating with the Seasons
Italian cooks love to serve you fresh produce and seafood at its tastiest. If you must have porcini mushrooms outside of fall, they’ll be dried. Each region in Italy has its specialties, which you’ll see displayed in open-air markets. To get a plate of the freshest veggies at a fine restaurant, request “Un piatto di verdure della stagione, per favore.” (“A plate of seasonal vegetables, please.”). Italians take fresh, seasonal ingredients so seriously that a restaurant cooking with frozen ingredients must note it on the menu—look for congelato.
Here are a few examples of what’s fresh when:
- April-May: Calamari (Venice), romanesco (similar to cauliflower) and fava beans (Rome), green beans, and artichokes
- April-May and Sept-Oct: Black truffles
- April-June: Asparagus, zucchini flowers, and zucchini
- May-June: Mussels, cantaloupe, loquats, and strawberries
- May-Aug: Eggplant, clams
- July-Sept: Figs
- Oct-Nov: Mushrooms, white truffles, persimmons, and chestnuts
- Nov-Feb: Radicchio (Venice), cardoon (wild artichoke), puntarelle (chicory shoots; Rome)
- Fresh year-round: Meats and cheese
Here are some of the pizzas you might see at restaurants or at a pizzeria. Note that if you ask for pepperoni on your pizza, you’ll get peperoni (green or red peppers, not sausage); request diavola, salsiccia piccante, or salame piccante instead (the closest thing in Italy to American pepperoni).
- Bianca: White pizza with no tomatoes (also called ciaccina).
- Capricciosa: Prosciutto, mushrooms, olives, and artichokes—literally the chef’s “caprice.”
- Funghi: Mushrooms.
- Margherita: Tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the Italian flag.
- Marinara: Tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, no cheese.
- Napoletana: Mozzarella, anchovies, and tomato sauce.
- Ortolana: “Greengrocer-style,” with vegetables (also called vegetariana).
- Quattro formaggi: Four different cheeses.
- Quattro stagioni: Different toppings on each of the four quarters.
While we think of pasta as a main dish, in Italy it’s considered a primo piatto—first course. There are more than 600 varieties of Italian pasta, and each is specifically used to highlight a certain sauce, meat, or regional ingredient. Italian pasta falls into two broad categories: pasta lunga (long pasta) and pasta corta (short pasta).
Pasta lunga can be round, such as capellini (thin “little hairs”), vermicelli (slightly thicker “little worms”), and bucatini (long and hollow), or it can be flat, such as linguine (narrow “little tongues”), fettuccine (wider “small ribbons”), tagliatelle (even wider), and pappardelle (very wide, best with meat sauces).
The most common pasta corta are tubes, such as penne, rigatoni, ziti, manicotti, and cannelloni; they come either lisce (smooth) or rigate (grooved—better to catch and cling to sauce). Many short pastas are named for their shapes, such as conchiglie (shells), farfalle (butterflies), cavatappi (corkscrews), ditali (thimbles), gomiti (“elbow” macaroni), lumache (snails), marziani (spirals resembling “Martian” antennae), and even strozzapreti (priest stranglers). Some are filled (ripieni), including tortelli (C-shaped, stuffed ravioli) and angolotti or mezzelune (shaped like “priest’s hats” or “half-moons”).
Most types of pasta come in slightly different variations: If it’s a bit thicker, –one is added to the end; if it’s a bit thinner, –ine, –ette, or –elle is added. For example, tortellini are smaller tortelli, while tortelloni are bigger. And there are regional pasta variations too. Look for pici (thick, hand-formed noodles) in Tuscany, especially Siena, umbricelli (thick, chewy, rolled pasta) in Umbria, and trenette (long, flat, and with one ruffled edge) in the Riviera. Most pastas in Italy are made fresh.
Here’s a list of common pasta toppings and sauces. On a menu, these terms are usually preceded by alla (in the style of) or in (in):
- Aglio e olio: Garlic and olive oil.
- Alfredo: Butter, cream, and parmesan.
- Amatriciana: Pork cheek, pecorino cheese, and tomato.
- Arrabbiata: “Angry,” spicy tomato sauce with chili peppers.
- Bolognese: Meat and tomato sauce.
- Boscaiola: Mushrooms and sausage.
- Burro e salvia: Butter and sage.
- Cacio e pepe: Parmigiano cheese and ground pepper.
- Carbonara: Bacon, egg, cheese, and pepper.
- Carrettiera: Spicy and garlicky, with olive oil and little tomatoes.
- Diavola: “Devil-style,” spicy hot.
- Frutti di mare: Seafood.
- Genovese: Basil ground with parmigiano cheese, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil; a.k.a. pesto.
- Gricia: Cured pork and pecorino romano cheese.
- Marinara: Usually tomato, often with garlic and onions, but can also be a seafood sauce (“sailor’s style”).
- Norma: Tomato, eggplant, and ricotta cheese.
- Pajata: Calf intestines (also called pagliata).
- Pescatora: Seafood (“fisherman style”).
- Pomodoro: Tomato only.
- Puttanesca: “Harlot-style” tomato sauce with anchovies, olives, and capers.
- Ragù: Meaty tomato sauce.
- Scoglio: Mussels, clams, and tomatoes.
- Sorrentina: “Sorrento-style,” with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella (usually over gnocchi).
- Sugo di lepre: Rich sauce made of wild hare.
- Tartufi: Truffles (also called tartufate).
- Umbria: Sauce of anchovies, garlic, tomatoes, and truffles.
- Vongole: Clams and spices.
Salumi (“salted” meats), also called affettati (“cut” meats), are an Italian staple. While most American cold cuts are cooked, in Italy they’re far more commonly cured by air-drying, salting, and smoking. (Don’t worry; these so-called “raw” meats are safe to eat, and you can really taste the difference.)
The two most familiar types of salumi are salame and prosciutto. Salame is an air-dried, sometimes-spicy sausage that comes in many varieties. When Italians say “prosciutto,” they usually mean prosciutto crudo—the raw ham that air-cures on the hock and is then thinly sliced. Produced mainly in the north of Italy, prosciutto can be either dolce (sweet) or salato (salty). Purists say the best is prosciutto di Parma.
Other salumi may be less familiar:
- Bresaola: Air-cured beef.
- Capocollo: Peppery pork shoulder (also called coppa).
- Culatello: Prosciutto made with only the finest cuts of meat.
- Finocchiona: Salame with fennel seeds.
- Lonzino: Cured pork loin.
- Mortadella: A finely ground pork loaf, similar to our bologna.
- Pancetta: Salt-cured, peppery pork-belly meat, similar to bacon; can be eaten raw or added to cooked dishes.
- Quanciale: Tender pork cheek.
- Salame di Sant’Olcese: What we’d call “Genoa salami.”
- Salame piccante: Spicy hot, similar to pepperoni.
- Speck: Smoked pork shoulder.
If you’ve got a weak stomach, avoid testa in cassetta (headcheese—organs in aspic), lampredotto (cow stomach), and sopressata (in other parts of Italy, this is a spicy salame—but in Tuscany, it’s often headcheese).
When it comes to cheese (formaggio), you’re probably already familiar with most of these Italian favorites:
- Asiago: Hard cow cheese that comes either mezzano (young, firm, and creamy) or stravecchio (aged, pungent, and granular).
- Burrata: A creamy mozzarella.
- Fontina: Semihard, nutty, Gruyère-style mountain cheese.
- Gorgonzola: Pungent, blue-veined cheese, either dolce (creamy) or stagionato (aged and hard).
- Mascarpone: Sweet, buttery, spreadable dessert cheese.
- Mozzarella di bufala: Made from the milk of water buffaloes.
- Parmigiano-reggiano: Hard, crumbly, sharp, aged cow cheese with more nuanced flavor than American parmesan; grana padano is a less expensive variation.
- Pecorino: Either fresco (fresh, soft, and mild) or stagionato (aged and sharp, sometimes called pecorino romano).
- Provolone: Rich, firm, aged cow cheese.
- Ricotta: Soft, airy cheese made by “recooking” leftover whey.
- Scamorza: Similar to mozzarella, but often smoked.
Coffee and Other Hot Drinks
The espresso-based style of coffee so popular in the US was born in Italy. If you ask for “un caffè,” you’ll get a shot of espresso in a little cup—the closest thing to American-style drip coffee is a caffè americano. Most Italian coffee drinks begin with espresso, to which they add varying amounts of hot water and/or steamed or foamed milk. Milky drinks, like cappuccino or caffè latte, are served to locals before noon and to tourists any time of day (to an Italian, cappuccino is a morning drink; they believe having milk after a big meal or anything with tomato sauce impairs digestion). If they add any milk after lunch, it’s just a splash, in a caffè macchiato. Italians like their coffee only warm—to get it very hot, request “Molto caldo, per favore” (MOHL-toh KAHL-doh pehr fah-VOH-ray). Any coffee drink is available decaffeinated—ask for it decaffeinato (deh-kah-feh-NAH-toh). Cioccolato is hot chocolate. Tè is hot tea.
Experiment with a few of the options:
- Cappuccino: Espresso with foamed milk on top (cappuccino freddo is iced cappuccino).
- Caffè latte: Espresso mixed with hot milk, no foam, in a tall glass (ordering just a “latte” gets you only milk).
- Caffè macchiato: Espresso “marked” with a splash of milk, in a small cup.
- Latte macchiato: Layers of hot milk and foam, “marked” by an espresso shot, in a tall glass. Note that if you order simply a “macchiato,” you’ll probably get a caffè macchiato.
- Caffè corto/lungo: Concentrated espresso diluted with a tiny bit of hot water, in a small cup.
- Caffè americano: Espresso diluted with even more hot water, in a larger cup.
- Caffè corretto: Espresso “corrected” with a shot of liqueur (normally grappa, amaro, or sambuca).
- Marocchino: “Moroccan” coffee with espresso, foamed milk, and cocoa powder; the similar mocaccino has chocolate instead of cocoa.
- Caffè freddo: Sweet and iced espresso.
- Caffè hag: Instant decaf.