When I first came to Italy and started to explore its immense culinary tradition, everything seemed confusing and requiring a university degree to be understood. But then, once the main rules are defined and clear, everything else becomes a piece of cake you can take your time to enjoy.
As an ex-concierge of a five-star luxury hotel in the centre of Rome and a professional Chef-to-be, I worked out the following guidelines that will help you feel at home at any restaurant during your first or your next visit to Italy:
1. First of all, remember, Italians have quite a rigid timetable for having meals. Those of the country’s northern regions correspond roughly to the Anglo-Saxon and European ones, especially in terms of ‘early’ dinner (between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m.). Everything depends also on the city. For example, Milan, compared to the rest of Italy, is more international, less conservative and, thus, more flexible in terms of everything, dining hours included. But the majority of Italian restaurants, such as those of the capital, for example, observe the following opening times: from 12:30 till 2:30 p.m. (when the last order is accepted) for lunch, and from 7.30 p.m. till 11:30 p.m (when the last order is accepted) for dinner. It also means that in between these crucial points – lunch and dinner – the biggest part of restaurants remains closed. Those that stay open are very offer defined as ‘touristic’. The explanation of this phenomenon is very easy: as far as the biggest part of the locals observe conventional eating times, those who usually don’t, for one reason or another, are foreigners. So, watch out!
2. If a restaurant is good, as a rule, you’d need a reservation. Obviously, there is no rule without exception. Nevertheless, try to avoid the places that have an agent whose work is to convince you to enter his restaurant of reference. Such a person stays outside the restaurant’s front door and screams out advertisement mottos, waving colourful menus and trying to ‘abduct’ eventual passers-by, ‘imprison’ them behind a tiny table and abandon new guests there for an indefinite period of time. Beware!
3. An Italian restaurant menu structure is based on a clear subdivision of courses that starts from the list of appetizers. It is not obligatory to choose one of them, but the usual solution for a typical meal would be a combination of an appetizer + a first dish or an appetizer + a second dish. If you decide to take a first dish and then a second one, I suggest you to skip any appetizers, otherwise, you risk to explode.
4. Often choosing an appetizer you also choose a menu. As a rule, it is going to be either a sea food menu (menu di pesce), or a meat menu (menu di carne, also known as menu di terra). It is common practice not to mix sea food and meat during the same meal, unless some specific dishes are concerned. Thus, a menu builds a consequence of courses with the same key element.
5. At the beginning of the meal you could decide to accept a glass of prosecco (it is often, but not always, offered by the Chef) to sip while waiting for the appetizers to come and choose the main wine for the rest of the meal later. Conventionally, you could choose a still or sparkling white or rosé wine to accompany a sea food menu, and a red wine for the meat one. If you know little of wines, ask your waiter for a suggestion. Note, though, that wines in restaurants are quite expensive, an average price starts from around €15,00 per bottle. It is at least 3-4 times more expensive than the cost of the same bottle in a supermarket. If you are not ready to overpay, you could always opt for the wine of the house (vino di casa), if a restaurant has it on the menu. It is usually a wine of quite a good quality, not something indigestible, but more economical and not bad to accompany a casual meal. Some restaurants, those very casual ones usually called osteria, hostaria or taverna, offer house wines without any label. A nice smart-casual place would have a house wine with its own label. Such wines taste better and cost slightly more. Elegant, high quality locations would have a perfect wine list with quite a number of famous vineyard labels. In this case a wine is an experience of its own and is always worth paying for.
6. At the beginning of your meal your waiter will ask you what water you prefer: still or sparkling. It is not obligatory to have a bottle of water to accompany your meal, but in Italy it is very usual to have one on the table. As a rule, you can also choose the desirable quantity of water: half a litre or a litre. I’d suggest you not to underestimate drinking water while dining. Some famous Italian waters are no less precious than wines and, moreover, help digestion. Mind the price, though. I never ask for tap water, though, as my Italian husband does not have much faith in it.
7. Coperto. A coperto notion is a real pain for me. It is quite usual for the biggest part of casual restaurants and is a kind of a service fee that includes your table setting; olive oil, vinegar and Parmesan setting on it, bread and your waiter’s ‘attention’. The cost of a cover has to be mentioned on the menu (usually at the bottom of the page in tiny characters), it is intended by person and is not negotiable. If there is a coperto fee on my final bill, I almost never leave a tip. And, to be honest, I try to avoid restaurants with such a menu item.
8.Saying first dishes, Italians usually intend pasta, risotto or gnocchi. There are two basic rules applicable to first dishes: they never ever require a side dish (so don’t order any fresh green salad to accompany your pasta, otherwise, you will be accused of the lack of common sense and the worst crime against all Saints of Italian culture) and the only thing you can possibly add to it is not olive oil, neither vinegar, but a bit of Parmesan. Be careful though: Parmesan is good with meat and vegetable dishes. But whenever fish or sea food is concerned, forget Parmesan once and for good. Moreover, some pasta dishes require Pecorino and no Parmesan whatsoever. In this case the grated Pecorino cheese is added to the dish before it is served to a client or is served in a separate bowl together with the course.
9. Second dishes are much easier: meat or fish proteins accompanied by vegetable dressings and side dishes. They usually cost twice as much as the first ones and are difficult to consume after generous portions of pasta. So, do not overestimate your hunger and your stomach capacity when it comes to second dishes.
10. If you still have some place for a desert, choose an ice-cream or a sorbet after a sea food menu and a piece of cake or a good old tiramisù after that meat one. To be honest, if I decide to finish a meal with an ice-cream, I usually pay my bill and go to a gelateria somewhere in the whereabouts of the restaurant. Making gelato is an art here in Italy, so choose the best gallery to enjoy it.
11. Finish your lunch with a cup of coffee and your dinner – with a shot of a digestive liquor. It can be either a sweet liquor, such as Limoncello, for example, or a bitter shot, an amaro: every restaurant has a good choice of the latter ones and they are all masterful Italian creations worth tasting.
12. Tipping is not obligatory in Italy. As I told you before, you can skip it entirely if your bill includes the cover fee. Moreover, there is no fixed tips percentage, so it is up to you to evaluate the service you experienced. And nobody will hurt you if you decide it is equal to zero. But a tip is somehow expected from foreign guests and is very appreciated.
13. Italy has many regions. Every region has its territorial subdivisions and culinary subcultures. Imagine the variety of dishes and tastes! It is really unique and amazing. What I usually suggest is once you have decided where in Italy to go, try to get more information on the typical products and dishes of the region, its specialties and wines. So you know what to eat and drink in this or that particular place. Specialties are such for they are typical of a place, thus, as a rule, prepared in an excellent and exquisite way.
I’ll try to provide you with some examples: in Venice you have to drink the best Spritz cocktail in Italy, Milan will treat you with some excellent saffron risotto, look for a Fiorentina steak in Florence, and in Bologna – for the supreme lasagna or any type of fresh home-made pasta; Rome is famous for its spaghetti alla Carbonara, Naples for the best pizza in the world, while in Sicily you can try the best sea food ever. I could continue for days in this way, trust me. Even now, after almost five years of eating and cooking Italian this argument remains a world to discover for me. What I am driving at is that if a dish was invented in a place, it is more probable that people of this place know how to cook it best of all. So do not mess up with culinary geography!
Travelling teaches us this and much more. So, keep on moving around and exploring. And come to Italy every time you wish and can, because this country never ends and never runs out of places to discover and lessons to learn.
If you have any specific questions, please, feel free to comment this post. I will take care to answer each and every of you!