Tens of millions of tourists flock to Italy every year, and while many visitors are intrigued by the beautiful landscapes and picturesque villages, there is no doubt that many of them come to the land of the boot for the food. Indeed, Italian cuisine is an inseparable part of Italian culture, and the comfort and flavors of the food are what upgrade any trip to Italy. The world will forever be grateful to the Italians for inventing pizza, pasta, gelato, and a plethora of other delicacies that no trip to Italy is complete without. On any trip you can afford to expect an abundance of mouth-watering foods and flavors, but just before that there are a few things you should know.
The types of restaurants in Italy
The restaurants in Italy are divided into three main types, and it is important to know the difference between them in order to know what to expect when you go inside. Good food will probably be everywhere, but in terms of style you will come across three names with different meanings:
Trattoria – a workers’ restaurant that serves home-cooked food, in many cases it is even located in a family’s home. In trattorias you will most likely not find a menu and what is served to the table is simply what is cooked that day. The dishes in the trattorias are simple and will usually include pasta or risotto, chicken breast and basic salads. The price is of course lower than in tourist restaurants and to experience the Italian cuisine in its most authentic form there is no doubt that the trattorias are the perfect place.
Austria (Osteria) – also in Osteria, simple food is served that reminds of a workers’ restaurant, but it is already a business in every way, and accordingly the prices and the level of service you will receive there. There are simple Austrians that will also be called “trattoria”, while the larger and more commercial ones will be called “ristorante”.
Ristorante – Ristorante is a restaurant like we all know from anywhere in the world. A meal in a restaurant is considered entertainment for everything and not just to satisfy hunger. There are of course different levels of restaurants (more or less prestigious) and the level of prices and service varies accordingly.
Get to know the schedules – or when do you eat in Italy?
Everyone knows that Italians have a different rhythm – their day goes more slowly, it seems that they are not really in a hurry to go anywhere (and it’s not just how it seems, they really are) and the atmosphere is way more relaxed and peaceful. Due to the somewhat slow agenda of the Italian people, you will often find yourself standing in the doorway of a closed restaurant. To avoid this, it is important to know the culinary agenda in Italy:
- Breakfast – similar to Israel, Italians start the day with breakfast, but the composition of the meal is very different from Israel. Breakfast is small and consists of coffee (macchiato or cappuccino) accompanied by tramacino – a small triangular sandwich made of white bread with cheese or sausage, or alternatively a croissant. Italians don’t usually get up early in the morning, and usually the cafes will only be open after 8:00. Restaurants will not serve breakfast and will usually open around noon.
- Lunch – In Italy it is customary to eat lunch between 12:30 and 14:00, and many restaurants close in the afternoon and open again in the evening. In order not to remain hungry, it is highly recommended to adjust according to these times.
- Dinner – dinner has a place of honor in Italy and it is an event that can last several hours. Eating in the restaurant is the main entertainment and combines several dishes, including wine, dessert and coffee. Usually the restaurants open for dinner around 18:00 and operate until approximately 22:30. It is very useful to book places in advance in good restaurants, because they fill up quite quickly.
As mentioned, a typical Italian meal will include several dishes and last several hours. You should come hungry because when you sit in a typical Italian restaurant you will be served with a variety of different flavors:
- Antipasti – a preliminary dish for a meal (ante = before, pesto = meal). We know the antipasti as a variety of vegetables baked in the oven drizzled with olive oil. But the antipasti can also be a caprese salad consisting of tomatoes and mozzarella, prosciutto sausage accompanied by melon, or a cold seafood salad.
- First course – usually a carbohydrate dish such as pasta or risotto (cooked rice pulp in a thick sauce) will be served, but sometimes soup will also be served. In pasta you can choose from a variety of sauces and toppings, and it is recommended to try as many as possible as time and hunger allow. It is important to know that, unlike in the country, the pasta in Italy is served al dente (half done), and usually with a little sauce. It is worth asking if the pasta offered on the menu is homemade, because handmade pasta is better than imported and commercialized pasta.
- Main dish – a fish, meat or seafood dish accompanied by boiled or baked vegetables. For the carnivores among us, there are only certain regions that specialize in meat like Tuscany and Abruzzo, and steaks in other places, like Rome for example, are less successful (to say the least). After serving the main course, a small salad of fresh green leaves will usually be served to refresh the palate.
- Dessert – the meal is always finished with something sweet! The well-known Italian desserts are the delicious and wonderful tiramisu and panna cotta, but each province has its own delicacies and you should come with an open mind and try and taste them. For example in Sicily, it is recommended to taste baked dough roll cannelloni filled with sweet ricotta cheese (a real delicacy!). If you prefer your dessert outside, you can go out after the meal and enjoy gelato – the famous Italian ice cream based more on milk and a little cream.
- Drinking – Italians love alcohol, especially wine. Italy has fine wines from local vineyards. Almost every place has the “house wine” and it is highly recommended to try it. It is usually tasty and inexpensive and you probably won’t find it anywhere else. Those who are not a fan of alcohol will order water or carbonated water (soda), this is because it is not customary to order fizzy sweet drinks in restaurants in Italy.
- Coffee – last but not least is the coffee that in Italy always makes room for it, and gives it the respect it deserves. At the end of every hearty meal, Italians drink a strong espresso without sugar to seal the meal with the strong aroma of the coffee beans and wake up a little after the abundance you have enjoyed for several hours.
Where, how and what to eat in Italy?
Go to the sources
Each province in Italy is characterized by unique and traditional foods, and different raw materials. A trip to Italy is a perfect culinary journey, and it is highly recommended to taste the abundance of delicacies in the city or region where they were first invented. You will find the best pizza in Naples, the Parmesan cheese originates from the city of Parma, and the Bolognese sauce comes from the city of Bologna. You can find gelato (Italian ice cream), caprese salad and coffee in almost every corner of Italy at a very high level. Another hot recommendation is to taste limoncello in the city of Sorrento in southern Italy. Limoncello is a delicious and sweet lemon liqueur made from the peel of Sorrento lemons. In the beautiful city, you can walk the beautiful streets, slightly drunk from the delicious liqueur, and even wander through the fragrant lemon groves.
Tip: in restaurants in Italy it is customary to use the raw materials according to the seasons, which means that in different seasons you will get to taste different dishes, and in any case you will always taste the freshest raw materials. For example, summer sauces are olive oil and tomato based sauces, and in winter it is customary to eat thick sauces rich in cream and truffle mushrooms.
Follow the locals
Part of the Italian experience is absorbing the local culture, and there’s no better way than through the stomach. It’s worth persevering and looking for local restaurants or making friends with local people and getting recommendations from them. The local restaurants are unpretentious, magical in their simplicity, and full of…locals. There you can always enjoy a great meal. An example of such a place is the cafe “All’antico Vinaio” in Florence that serves wonderful sandwiches. Local residents line up in the street for what is considered and rated as “the best street food in Italy”. You can take sandwiches and a bottle of wine from them (they even provide glasses) and enjoy a meal while sitting on the sidewalk outside, just like the locals.
You will probably walk quite a bit during a trip to Italy and you will arrive, on purpose or by accident, at local markets where you can find smoothies, juices and cut fruits that you can snack on during the day – at an affordable price for every pocket. This is an excellent solution for both reducing the amount of carbohydrates, which in Italy are huge and are found everywhere, and also for reducing expenses. For the well-heeled – it is highly recommended to visit the seafood market in Venice, and cook from what you bought a meal rich in all the good that the sea can offer.
Stay away from tourist traps
The restaurants around the major tourist attractions are almost always very expensive, empty and disappointing. Sometimes you’ll have to walk three or four blocks away from that particular museum or monument to find an authentic dining experience in Italy. Usually, a short walk will allow you to discover great bakeries, ice cream parlors, and pizzerias that are hidden a short distance from the bustling tourist center.
Pay attention to your wallet – the food should not be too expensive. Remember that most food is very basic and consists of very few ingredients. If you’re paying tens of euros for pasta pomodoro (a simple tomato sauce), you’ve probably fallen into a tourist trap. Pay the prices you think the locals pay, and of course in the coastal areas of Italy or in the big cities, the food is more expensive than in the villages and towns.
Another important tip: there should be no pictures of food with translations on the menu. If you have seen these, they are known “tourist traps”. In addition, no one should try to get you into the restaurant. Always ask to see a menu before choosing a restaurant, and under no circumstances should you ever enter a restaurant where someone is trying to pull you off the street.
Don’t make assumptions
You will most likely want to eat in impressive and famous restaurants, and have exciting culinary experiences. But you shouldn’t look at these jugs for what’s in them, and you should always try small working restaurants, and taste simple foods. Italians invest a lot in the kitchen and put a lot of love into every food they cook. You may very well be surprised and find yourself eating one of your best meals in the cafeteria at a gas station.
Try all types of coffee, and anywhere
Finding great coffee may be one of your biggest challenges in Italy, because absolutely everyone serves it and every Italian restaurant claims to serve the best kind. No matter what type of coffee you prefer, remember to try it unsweetened to fully experience the taste of their coffee beans. Italians like black espresso without sugar, next to a glass of water or soda.
In conclusion, it has familiar and well-loved foods such as pizza, pasta, tiramisu and gelato, as well as new discoveries such as cheeses, sausages and pastries that are unique to its various regions. Our recommendation is to taste everything next to you and as much as possible. It is also important not to be shy and ask for as many recommendations as possible from the Italians – who are very proud of their cuisine and will be happy to share their information and tips with you.