Restaurant and Eating Tips

Restaurant Advice
The Bar
Take-out Food
Food Shopping

RESTAURANT ADVICE

General comments. Don't much worry about where you eat. There is hardly a really bad restaurant in the country, and the simplest-looking place is often the best. (We must admit, however, that things like frozen fried potatoes do appear more and more these days.) One type of restaurant not to patronize is the open-air places in touristed piazzas. Here, although the food is not bad, it is not extremely good either, and often prices are too high and service rude. There are exceptions to this, but in any event you'll be happier in an outdoor restaurant in a quieter setting.

Another place not to eat is in fancy hotels or Michelin-starred celebrity restaurants. It's just not worth it. Our verdict? Well, for one thing, they think this is still the 1970's with tiny nouvelle cuisine portions that leave your stomach really empty at the end of the meal. Decor? Mediocre. Service? Not up to professional standards of a typical New York neighborhood French bistro. Food? Sometimes moderately interesting, but nothing compared to a medium-level restaurant in New York or San Francisco. Price? Scandalously, absurdly, expensive, so expensive as to make one really angry given the kind of service offered. The food and the experience are, we repeat, far better in the most unpretentious places.

Another don't: Don't eat in any restaurant which prominently displays a sign saying, "We speak English here," or some such thing, or any place which advertises American breakfast. No matter how tired you are, no matter how much you're dreaming of an American hamburger or bacon and eggs, don't do it. It will cost too much and be terrible.

A final don’t: Don’t ever eat in an ethnic restaurant in Italy, anywhere. Every so often, you can get sick of pasta and crave Asian. You succumb and try Chinese. Well, never again. Same for Indian, Korean, etc., etc. It’s all terrible. The only exception is African: There are some more than decent Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants in Rome and probably elsewhere in Italy where citizens of Italy’s ex-colonies have formed a community. We suspect that things will shortly change, too, for the better – and for reasons we don’t completely understand -- regarding Indian/Bangladeshi cuisine.

Ordering. In simple restaurants, most Italians do not use a menu to order. The waiter simply makes suggestions, or the patron asks for a particular dish and the cook does it. Menus exist, however, and you should ask for one if it isn't automatically brought to you.

A “full” meal in Italy consists of the following courses in this order: (a) antipasto, which is any cold or hot appetizer or starter; it has nothing to do with the “antipasto salad” served in many Italian-American restaurants; (b) a “primo” or first course, normally pasta, served in a portion generally smaller than that one would get in an American restaurant (because it’s not the main course); a primo can also be soup or risotto; (c) a “secondo” or main course, consisting of a portion of meat or fish or eggs, without accompanying vegetables or salads which are ordered a la carte as a “contorno” or “accompaniment”; many Italians do not order a contorno, and others order a contorno as their secondo and have no meat or fish at all; (d) formaggio, i.e., a cheese plate; (e) fruit or dessert; (f) coffee, which is never ordered “with” any part of the meal including dessert, it always follows everything else. Dessert, unlike in Britain and the US, is considered the least important part of the meal; except when there are guests at a formal dinner, dessert is almost never eaten at home in Italy, and indeed Italian desserts are generally nothing to write home about. In a simple trattoria, there is often no dessert on order at all; fruit is served as a fine substitute and is considered a more authentic end to the meal anyway.

For an Italian, the main business of the meal occurs at the antipasto and primo stage; those courses appear fast and are consumed rapidly. All of the rest of the meal appears at glacial speed and is considered mere accompaniment to conversation. Italian cheeses are first-rate; try some you’ve never heard of.

The important thing is that you need not feel compelled to order all of these courses, nor in the order indicated. Unlike Americans, Italians tend not to order the entire meal in advance. They might first order an antipasto, and after finishing it order a primo. After finishing that, they might, or might not, order a secondo. Don't feel pressured to consume a four-course meal just because you feel compelled by custom. We often order an antipasto and a primo and leave it at that. Or a primo and dessert. Or an antipasto and secondo. Sometimes, of course, you'll want the full Italian treatment -- antipasto, pasta, entree, contorni, fruit, cheese, dessert, coffee. Sometimes, the waiter will take the order for the primo and ask right away what you want for secondo. We invariably put him off, for the simple reason that often we don't know whether we'll be hungry enough to eat the second course. Keep in mind that in general portions are considerably smaller than what we are used to getting in an American restaurant.

Don't be afraid to order what you don't recognize on menus. At all costs, avoid the "menu turistico". Try something other than a tomato-based sauce -- you can get that in the US. Risotti are delicious substitutes for pasta. You shouldn't neglect to order vegetables with your entrée -- everything is à la carte. The tasteless vegetables we take so much for granted here are fabulous in Italy: green beans, spinach, red peppers, broccoli, broccoli rabe, eggplant, zucchini, etc. If you don't know the names, the food will often be displayed, so point. We very often make our own antipasto by getting up from the table and arranging an assortment of vegetables or salads or cold meats on our plate -- rather like an American salad bar but infinitely better-tasting and fresher. The waiter will make up a fair price.

Unless you're wine experts -- which we are not -- order house wine, which is almost always a half-decent local wine. Nobody cares about following the red-with-meat, white-with-fish rules. You drink what you want. Bottled water is also delicious.

Hidden restaurant costs. The “pane e coperto” (bread and cover) charge is no longer legal. However, it has been replaced by a per-person charge for “pane” which we suspect could, theoretically, also be illegal, but our advice is not to protest. Everyone pays it, and to protest would be offensive. Besides, the bread in Italy is so good you’ll want plenty of it anyway.

It is now also illegal to charge service separately. Service is included in the bill. We have seen some family-run trattorias continue to put a 10-15% service charge on the bill, and we don’t say anything, especially as the bill is usually modest. If such a charge appears on the bill in a fancy restaurant, you should say something about it or even make a “denuncia” (a report) to the police about it.

What about tipping? Since service is included in the bill, and since waiters get a salary unlike in the US, tipping at a 15% or 20% rate is neither customary nor necessary. You could tip 10%. Italians tip 5% or leave nothing at all. It is not considered good form to leave nothing if the service has been very good.

Most times you can’t ever seem to get the waiter to bring you the bill in an Italian restaurant. Why? We can’t figure it out either. Italy must be the only country in the world where you practically have to beg in order to pay. If we order dessert or coffee, we will sometimes ask for dessert, coffee, and the bill at the same time. This request is not always honored. When it does happen, we leave more tip. If the bill is really taking far too long to arrive, you can do what we do: get up, put your coat on, and approach the cash register or maitre d’hotel and ask for the bill to be prepared. This can be considered bad form, but don't worry about it, we have done it on dozens of occasions. If you've got to go, you GOT to go!

THE BAR

The bar is a marvelous institution which you should use several times daily. A bar is not a drinking establishment, although it does serve alcoholic beverages. It is a coffee bar. Here, you can buy coffee, iced coffee, cappuccino, tea, soft drinks, aperitifs, sweets, often ice cream and, yes, cocktails.

If you sit down at an outdoor table and use waiter service at a bar, the price doubles or triples. It is not allowed to order at the bar, pay the lower price, and then go sit down. (There is an increasing number of exceptions to this rule, especially in non-touristy areas.) On the other hand, no waiter would ever dream of asking you to move from a table once you've finished your coffee. You can sit all day for 1 euro!

Bars are a godsend to tourists in other ways. The Italian main meal is taken at midday (around 1:00 or 1:30 or 2:00) and a smaller meal in the evening (after, often well after, 7:30). This is not a schedule meant to fortify tourists. Because breakfast is so small, a morning of hot, strenuous museum- and church-hopping leads to starvation which sets in long before 1:00. Here is where the bar comes in. Any bar sells small pizzas or sandwiches that you can buy to tide you over. In Rome, the tramezzino, a triangular sandwich filled with anything from mozzarella to artichokes, makes a great mid-morning snack.

Not only do bars sate hunger, they quench thirst. Two of the most delicious treats in an Italian bar are the "spremuta", or fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and the "frullato", a kind of fresh fruit milk shake.

Finally, and to our mind most heavenly of all, is the "granita", a kind of ice. The classic is the granita di caffé con panna, coffee ice layered with whipped cream. Often, there are also lemon or strawberry granite as well. In Southern Italy, order a granita di orzata or di mandorla, whose base is an almond-like nut. The granita is almost a religious experience in the heat of summer.

Remember that in a bar you decide what you want, pay at the cashier, and then go over to the bar itself with your receipt and order. In small towns, this rule is not always followed, and you can pay after you eat. But in the city, you always pay first.

TAKE-OUT FOOD

The rosticceria or tavola calda is an institution you should definitely investigate, especially since you are renting a place with a kitchen. Essentially, it's a deli serving hot and cold dishes to take out, wonderful for people as lazy as we are about cooking on vacation. When we ourselves rent a house, we'll peek into several rosticcerie to see what's offered. When you find a good one, you can make up several meals, take them home, and put them in the refrigerator for instant meals on several days running. Some small restaurants and family-run trattorie will do take-out, too, so it’s worth asking if a place in the neighborhood will do so.

FOOD SHOPPING

First of all: most food stores are closed on Sundays, though less universally than in the past, and often on Thursday afternoon as well in summer.

The first time you do it, shopping for food (or anything else) in Italy can be quite a daunting experience. So you want to snack on prosciutto and salami: how (and where) the hell to you buy it? Where do you buy milk? Etc., etc. Indeed, even though we've been to Italy no few than four dozen times, there always comes the moment when we cannot remember what kind of store sells a comb; toilet paper; a pen; a light bulb.

In Italy over the past two decades, supermarkets have proliferated, in the large cities of the north, the wonderful small open-air markets so characteristic of Italy have largely disappeared. We consider this development unfortunate. Nevertheless, you'll be just around the corner from "the" open-air market of the eternal city: Campo de' Fiori. We strongly advise you to try to shop the old-fashioned way, even though we know it costs somewhat more to do so. After all, does one go to Italy to shop in the Safeway?

An "alimentari" is a small grocery store selling canned goods, pasta, fruit juices, etc., as well, sometimes, as bread (always bought at a special counter), cheeses, "deli" meats, and sometimes even real meat. Often, even in the smallest town, there is a separate store for bread ("panetteria") and another for cheese and cold meats. Other meats are sold at a butcher shop ("macelleria"). Sweets are often sold in bars, or in a specialized institution, the "pasticceria".

Be sure to visit Marco Roscioli's best alimentari and panetteria in town, just a few steps down via dei Chiavari. His place is there since the beginning of the 1800's and that's something you'll never forget. The Macelleria Fiorentina in Campo de' Fiori is just first class and they also prepare excellent meat dishes ready to be cooked in a few minutes. Last but not least, don't get mislead by its small entrance: Bernasconi down the street in via dei Giubbonari is one of Rome's finest pasticceria, it's cappuccino is as good as it can get. Just forget the calories and get in ;-)

Milk is an important detail. Italy has two kinds of milk. One is so-called long-lasting milk ("latte a lunga conservazione") which is an awful-tasting, chemical-laced liquid. "Latte fresco", fresh whole milk American-style, is excellent and universally available, both in alimentari and often in bars, in whole, low-fat, and skim versions.

Toothpaste, shampoo, Pampers, Tampax, aspirin, and other such items are sold at the pharmacy, and now, except for aspirin, also in the supermarket. Salt and postage stamps are sold in tobacco shops, but salt is also now available at the supermercato.

The nearest supermarket is in via Monti della Farina, just the parallel street at the back of via de' Chiavari. Italian supermarkets are neither as large nor as well-stocked as their American counterparts, but this will do.

The etto. When you buy meat, cheese, and bread, you do it by weight. Deli meats are ordered by the "etto", or tenth of a kilogram. Five etti (or half-kilo) are about a pound, so figure from there. Bread is ordered by kilo or half-kilo.

Now, don't get the idea that food shopping in Italy is intimidating. It's something which, like everything else in Italy, you should take your time with and have fun doing it.