Forget climbing the Colosseum, taking in the wonders of the Vatican Museums, or tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain. Arguably, the best part of visiting Italy is indulging in its food. During my trip over the summer, I did my duty and savored every last bite I could get my hands on. All in the name of blog research, of course. (Check out Everything I Ate in Rome and Everything I Ate on the Amalfi Coast).
As an American, however, I had to prepare and learn the art of eating like an Italian. Through my dutiful research and prolific intake of carbs, I’ve gathered some tips and etiquette for how to best eat your way through the peninsula. My findings are informed by my experiences in Rome and on the Amalfi Coast, so custom may vary a little in other regions. Now, on to the rules of feasting!
Tripadvisor and Yelp are your friends
Italian cities, particularly Rome, are filled with restaurants; the number of choices is overwhelming. Do your research via Yelp and Tripadvisor before your trip, so you have a list of must-tries in areas you’ll be visiting. The hotel concierge can be hit or miss as they often have partnerships with local restaurants that may or may not actually be good. For a local recommendation, ask your tour guides or check out the Eating Italy blog. They run food tours in Rome, so the Roman food landscape is their expertise.
Avoid tourist traps
That being said, if you’re out and about and unprepared with restaurant options for that area, be careful when picking a place on the street. If there is a carnival barker type standing out front and beckoning you inside, that’s a bad sign. These places are tourist traps usually with overpriced menus and mediocre food. We fell sucker to one of these (Da Francesco – avoid!) near our hotel on the Via Veneto because we were jet lagged and just wanted lunch ASAP. The food was meh, prices were high and the waiter was peeved when we didn’t give a Yankee sized large tip. Not a terrible experience, but not pleasant either. At that point, you’re better off stopping by a deli or street vendor (trust me – the suppli – fried balls of goodness -are worth it).
When to eat?
Since I have the habits of a 75 year old and like to have dinner at 5PM, it was difficult to adapt to eating later like the Europeans. 8 or later seemed to be customary to start dinner, and meals were a much more languid, drawn out affair. I love the longer, savoring of meals, so by all means, devour at a leisurely pace. If you can’t wait to eat at 8 or 9, try an apertivo. They’re essentially an Italian happy hour right around the end of the work day and include a smattering of nibbles for the cost of a drink. Apertivo is an excellent option for student or budget travelers, since they can cost as little as 2.5 euros. Read more about the apertivo experience here.
How Italians do bread
Oh bread, may favorite carb to enjoy before eating more carbs. Bread may or may not be complimentary, so check the menu before digging in. Butter is unlikely, so instead dunk your bread in tasty olive oil, or better yet, use it to sop up any extra sauce from your entree or pasta. Yum!
Frizzante or naturale?
Thirsty yet from all that bread? When ordering water, be sure to note if you want frizzante (sparkling) or naturale (still). Roman tap water is very clean (straight from the aqueduct!), so no need to pay extra for bottled.
Eat local and seasonal
If you’re in Naples, order pizza. If you’re in Bologna, try the bolognese. If you’re on the coast, have fresh fish. I sound like captain obvious, but Italians do excellent fresh, seasonal food. Also order based on local specialties, so you’re getting the best of the best and not reliant on Americanized versions of Italian treats. Roman favorites include cacio e pepe, amatriciana, carbonara, and saltimbocca. You won’t be disappointed.
Coffee faux pas
Italians love to have coffee at the end of a meal, as it is a diuretic and aids in digestion. Cappuccino or any other milky drinks, however, are strictly for breakfast and should not be ordered after 10AM. Instead, order un caffe which is straight espresso. Down it like a shot to cap off a meal and be on your merry way.
You’ve finished eating, now what?
Simply ask your waiter for Il conto per favore and your check will be on its way. A service charge of around 1-3 euros is usually added to the bill and should be noted on the menu. I’d add a few euro for good service and even more for an outstanding meal – one to two euros per person. To me, most meals in Italy were outstanding, so definitely have some extra euros on hand, as you usually need to tip in cash. Try to physically hand the tip to your waiter too, especially if you’re dining outside in a busy area.
The one dish to never order in Italy
Fetuccine Alfredo. It’s an American invention, and if a restaurant in Italy has it on the menu, run far far away.
And finally, take in the glorious surroundings, savor every bite and never turn down a chance at gelato.