Italian food is a misnomer in many ways because food in Italy varies greatly from region to region and in many cases even from town to town. Italians take eating very seriously and eating a leisurely Italian meal can be a highlight of your visit.
While pasta is found all over Italy, the type of pasta and the sauces used vary from place to place. There are probably hundreds of different pasta variations. Spaghetti and penne are pretty universal, as is tomato sauce, but your best bet for having a really great meal in a restaurant is to ask about regional or local specialties and try new things.
If you’re used to eating Italian food at home, you may find that it’s not what you expected when you get to Italy since food was often adapted by Italian immigrants. So don’t expect to find dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, or chicken Parmesan in Italy (except maybe in a tourist restaurant). Buon Appetito
Dining Customs in Italy:
Some eating customs may be different from your home country, especially if you’re from the US. Here are a few things first-time visitors may not know.
- Drinks: Italians generally drink bottled water at meals and it’s rarely free. Water is served cold but not with ice. Wine is also drank with meals and there’s usually an inexpensive house wine that can be ordered by the liter, half liter, or quarter liter. The first thing your waiter or waitress will probably ask is if you want acqua naturale or gassata (still water or fizzy water) and maybe if you want vino (rosso or bianco, red or white). Don’t expect free refills on soft drinks or ice tea, they’re from a bottle or can. Coffee is never served with the meal but is normally offered afterwards and is espresso unless you ask for something else – see tips for ordering coffee in Italy.
- Bread: Butter is not served with bread (except on some hotel breakfast buffets) and you usually won’t get olive oil to dip your bread into unless you’re in a tourist restaurant. Bread is eaten plain with the meal (but not usually with pasta) or used to soak up the sauce left on the plate.
- Salads and Sides: Salad is a contorno, a side dish that can be ordered along with the second course, not before the meal. Meat, fish, and other second course dishes often don’t come with potatoes, vegetables or salad but they can be ordered separately. Usually olive oil and vinegar are brought to the table for you to dress your own salad and you won’t find varieties of salad dressings.
- Fish: Cheese is not used on fish or seafood pasta. Smaller fish are often served whole, including the head and tail. Sometimes the waiter will bring the fish to the table for you to see, then debone it for you, but you may have to ask if you don’t want to do it yourself. Shrimp and prawns are usually served in their shells.
- Seasonal Foods: Local Italian food is based on fresh, seasonal ingredients. You’ll only find things like artichokes or asparagus for a short period of the year. So when you go to Rome, don’t expect to try the famous Roman fried artichokes in fall or puntarelle salad in summer when they’re not in season.
- Special Diets: Eating vegetarian is pretty easy in Italy, but be sure to ask about ingredients if you are strictly vegetarian. Sometimes cheese is added to the pasta before serving it so if you don’t want cheese, say so. Gluten-free eating has become easier in many places, too. See tips for eating vegetarian, gluten-free, or lactose-free.
- The Bill and Tipping: To get your bill, il conto, you need to ask for it. Since most restaurants don’t plan on more than one seating at a meal, you can linger as long as you want and take care of the bill when you’re ready to leave. Usually service is included so there’s to need to tip, although you could leave the change. If the bill is 48 euro, pay with 50 and leave the two. There’s also often a cover charge included on the bill (it should be stated on the menu). Not all restaurants accept credit cards, especially in more rural settings, so be prepared to pay with cash.
- Meal Times: Meal times are stricter than in the US and except for a few tourist restaurants, they’re not open all afternoon. Meals are generally eaten later in the south, especially in summer. Lunch may start at noon but usually it’s 12:30 or 1:00 and dinner doesn’t start until at least 7:00 or 7:30.
Books about Eating in Italy:
- Italy for the Gourmet Traveler
- Eating Rome
- Italy: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Eat, and How to Fit In
A great way to learn more about food in Italy is to take a cooking class or a more in-depth course that lasts several days to a week. See examples of cooking classes in Tuscany or see more choices in our learning vacations article.