For a country so famous for its food, it seems a bit of a paradox that eating out in Italy doesn’t always mean enjoying stellar meals. Finding places that aren’t tourist traps isn’t always easy, especially when you’re tired or it’s really hot. That’s why sometimes booking an all-inclusive tour is the best solution, in all other cases you can follow our tips below.
Choose the right type of restaurant
What are you looking for? A sit-down meal or a quick take-away snack? Knowing this will help you in choosing the right place and avoid making requests that won’t be accommodated.
Traditionally, the most refined and expensive option. At these sit-down establishments it is expected to order at least two courses each (e.g. a primo and dessert), however, if open at lunchtime, they will usually have a ‘menù fisso’ (a set menu), which we recommend choosing as often it guarantees a better quality/price ratio.
Not long ago osteria was a synonym for a simple, family-owned and affordable restaurant, nowadays high-end restaurateurs have started adopting these name for pricier eateries (e.g. Osteria Francescana in Modena, a Michelin-starred restaurant). If you want to book in advance, especially from abroad, make sure you know which end of the range the restaurant is. TripAdvisor comes in handy in these cases.
A sit-down restaurant with a paired down menu and lots of daily specials. Here, the owners serve traditional, home-style fare in an atmosphere to match. Less expensive than restaurants and usually more generous portions.
Come here to taste excellent wine rather than for the food alone. An enoteca menu is often limited to a selection of cheese, cured meats (affettati misti), salads, and desserts. Crostini and bruschetta, as well as finger food, can also be served. The prices vary, based on the wine selection, however, these are usually high-end establishments.
A sit-down restaurant specialized in pizzas, usually open for dinner only. Pizza to take away may be available but do not confuse this with ‘pizza al taglio’. The average price for a margherita is €7.
- Pizza al taglio or Pizza al trancio
These establishments usually have very few tables as most patrons eat their pizza on the go. Generally, pizza is sold in rectangular or square slices by weight, with prices marked per kilogram or per 100 grams.
- Bar e caffetteria
If you’re looking to have a quick snack, like a sandwich, then opt for a bar. Of course, near tourist attractions there are several places only selling sandwiches and paninis, often to take away but generally, a bar is the place to go. Remember that at a traditional bar, sitting down at a table may incur an additional cost.
- Panetteria or Panificio
The equivalent of a bakery, they usually have lots of savory and sweet goods to take away, such as paninis, sandwiches, focaccia, pastries and pizza al taglio. This may be a cheaper option but be prepared to order in Italian as many of these local-only bakeries owners often don’t speak English.
Bars will have ice creams as well (cornetto, popsicles and similar) but true Italian gelato can be found only at gelaterias. Look for the phrase Gelateria Artigianale for handmade gelato. Prices vary from €1 per scoop to €5. You can choose a tub or a cone and usually whipped cream is extra.
Go off the beaten path
That is, away from tourist attractions. If you’re looking for authentic restaurants, frequented by locals only, then you have to go to more residential areas. Sometimes, however, it’s just a matter of walking a bit further, turning the corner from a busy road. Close to offices and universities there usually is an array of cheaper options for lunch.
Study the menu
Most restaurants will have their menus outside. Things to look out for are:
- Are there enough seasonal ingredients? Fresh vegetables and fruit make for the best dishes and also indicate local provenance
- Are ingredients local? If you’re near the seaside, a river or lake, fish is preferable as it’ll be fresh instead of frozen. Similarly, you’ll want the menu to be skewed towards meat-based dishes if you’re far from the sea.
- Yes to English translations but no pictures! Most restaurants are staffed with English-speaking waiters nowadays and restaurant owners are keeping up with the times, translating their menus in English, so this should not be a deterrent. Pictures, however, are specific to tourist traps so if that’s not your thing, avoid!
Look on Instagram and FourSquare as well as TripAdvisor for recommendations. What are the most instagrammed places for your location? Also, ask your Facebook friends for recommendations. That’s when booking with a local travel agent comes in handy, as they can recommend the best spots based on your preferences. For example, all our guests receive a list of must-try restaurants upon arrival.
Paying and tipping
Most restaurants have a cover charge per person, usually listed at the top of the check as coperto or pane e coperto. It should be a modest charge (€1–€2.50 per person) and it is usually inclusive of servizio (waiter’s tips). If unsure, check with the waiter what’s the custom at the restaurant. Although tips aren’t expected, as in the States, for example, they’re appreciated, especially at restaurants. Only tip in cash and around 10% of the total. If paying by credit or debit card, please remember that the machine won’t ask you to include a tip.
Don’t throw away the receipt upon leaving the restaurant as you could be fined by the police if they’re carrying an inspection.
Not all restaurants allow customers to pay with a credit or debit card, so always carry enough cash in euros with you, especially when choosing smaller establishments or bars, pizza al taglio, bakeries and gelaterias. To avoid problems ask beforehand or look for the ‘pago bancomat’ sticker, which signals that the shop accepts cards.