Dos and Don’ts of Eating in Italy

Admit it – you came to Italy to eat. We certainly did. Eating in Italy is a serious business and by following these tips you’ll be able to get the most out of the experience, eat the best food possible, and avoid shocking any Italians along the way. Enjoy!

Do

  • Eat gelato every day. It’s that good.
  • Look for the signs produzione propria and artigianale in gelaterias which means that the gelato is made on-site, and in the old-fashioned way with natural ingredients.

Gelato

  • Order un caffe (espresso) after dessert, not during the meal.
  • Drink coffee at the bar (al banco) or pay extra to sit down.
  • Eat pizza with your hands. In a pizzeria you’ll cut the pizza into slices yourself then feel free to use your hands.
  • Buy slices of pizza or focaccia with different toppings by weight for a cheap snack.
Rosemary and potato pizza charged by weight

Rosemary and potato pizza charged by weight

  • Stick with a primo (first course, usually pasta, risotto or soup) if you are vegetarian – a secondo (second course) is almost always meat and a primo is tasty and filling enough.
  • Try regional specialities. Do some research before you go or ask a local.
Cacio e pepe

Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta) a Roman speciality

  • Order wine with a meal – beer and soft drinks are only really acceptable with pizza.
  • Order a glass of wine even if only bottles are listed – there is always the option of un bicchiere (glass) or un quarto (quarter litre) jug of the house wine.
  • Choose your mineral water naturale (normal) or frizzante (fizzy) – a litre bottle is served with every meal and unfortunately tap water just isn’t common.
  • Visit a vineyard for a wine tour and tasting.

Wine tasting

  • Buy olive oil from a farm (vineyards often make olive oil too). You’ll never go back to the supermarket stuff.
  • Fill up on the aperitivo buffets served free in bars when you buy a drink in the early evenings if you are on a budget.
  • Picnic. Even the simplest things taste great in Italy so buy some bread, cheese, olives and fruit from an alimentari or supermarket and find a park to enjoy them in.

Cherries

  • Carry around a small Italian dictionary or phrasebook to help you decode the menu so you don’t have to eat in restaurants with English menus.
  • Take a food tour to learn more about Italian food culture and get some local restaurant tips. We loved our tours in Tuscany and Rome.

Italian menu

Don’t

  • Eat in a gelateria that has bright green mint or pistachio gelato – the ingredients won’t be natural.
  • Order cappuccino after 10am.
  • Eat in a restaurant with a tourist menu or with someone outside encouraging you to come in.

Restaurant

  • Feel obliged to order every course – an antipasto (starter), primo (first course), secondo (second course) with contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert) is a lot of food. Pick and choose as you please.
  • Ask for oil and vinegar to go with your bread. That’s not a real Italian thing. It’s not served with butter either.
  • Eat bread with your pasta. Instead use it to fare la scarpetta (literally “make a little shoe”) and mop up the leftover sauce on your plate.
Bread basket

Our best ever bread basket

  • Expect fancy salad dressings. A salad is dressed at the table with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. When the ingredients are this good you don’t need any more.
  • Feel like you have to tip. It’s optional.
  • Be surprised by extra charges on your bill. Restaurants usually charge from €1-2.50 per person for pane e coperto (bread and cover charge).
  • Order a soft drink in a restaurant unless you are prepared for pay around €3 – the same price as un quarto (quarter litre) of wine.
  • Expect restaurants to be open for cena (dinner) until 7.30 or 8pm.
Breakfast cornet

Breakfast cornetti

  • Expect much for breakfast. A coffee and a cornetto (croissant) at a bar is the norm.
  • Rush. Meals can last hours in Italy – savour them.

For our restaurant and meal tips see our Top 10 Tuscan Eats and our posts on Florence and Trastevere, Rome.

Trail Wallet

24 thoughts on Dos and Don’ts of Eating in Italy

  1. Oh my gosh I think I MUST go back to Italy. I went when I was 18, and while I ate gelato every day (once at 9 a.m. outside the Colosseum), I didn’t have nearly the same appreciation of quality that I do now. Swooning for some of that gorgeous pizza! Buon Appetito!

  2. I spend a fair amount of time in Italy. I loved the pics and everything that you wrote was exactly how I see and find genuine Italian eating. Enjoy yourselves. I am looking forward to being back in the foothills of the Dolomites in two weeks time. Your posts are brilliant. :->

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  4. Last time I went to Italy I woke to find my bff staring intently at the ceiling, scowling. She had gelato induced insomnia and couldn’t sleep, because she couldn’t decide what flavour to eat in the morning!

    Now I have to go find the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Totally your fault :)

    • Haha! I always struggle to choose a flavour while Simon just goes with chocolate every time. He has been known to have two different chocolate flavours together.

      Let us know the best Italian in SF so we can visit when we’re there!

  5. Love those food photos – I’ve been drooling all over my keyboard! Haha, the old person standing outside a restaurant begging you to come in trick. I think most travellers fall for it once and then never again! Great tips.

  6. Definitely agree with the point about not going to tourist restaurants with english menus. We were in Verona recently and the first night (in the main tourist square) paid 13 euro each for what tasted like microwaved pasta.. so for the next 2 nights we explored all the back streets of the town and found some amazing foods and people.. and much cheaper

  7. I’m about to have lunch and reading this post with all the fab photos is pure torture!

    “Eat gelato every day. It’s that good.” – I totally agree! This is one thing I did without fail every day when I was last in Tuscany.

    Don’t be scared to explore – leave the beaten track, head for side streets & alleys… you’ll be surprised by what you find. Make some effort to order in Italian and you may be treated to an ‘on the house’ Italian liqueur after your meal.

  8. I would have definitely broken a few eating rules without reading this! So breakfast is not a large meal? What about for workers (and myself) who need a huge meal of energy in the morning, can big meals be found in the a.m.?

    • No, breakfast is just a cornetto (Italian croissant) and coffee. I’ve never heard of anyone eating much more than that. I think you’d have to cook for yourself to have much more. Although we are staying at a great B & B at the moment where we get lots of homemade cakes, bread, cheese and prosciutto.

    • Usually people working in the offices take a break and have a second/third espresso around 11am. If they’re hungry they eat another croissant or a sandwich. The more you go south the more choice of pastries you’ll find in the morning. Lunch is still an important meal, many people stop for 1 to 2 hours to eat (the more you go south the longer break you find).

  9. Definitely agree with the tip about eating gelato every day! When I visited Italy in 2005, I did so in July and it was SO hot that gelato was about all I wanted to eat. This wasn’t really a hardship…

    Found the rest of your tips really useful – especially about not having to worry about ordering every course. Since starting our backpacking journey, my stomach has shrunk considerably and I doubt I could make it through multiple Italian courses!

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  12. Guess I’m going to be filling up on lots of water on my trip to Italy lol.
    Neither my husband or I enjoy wine. Wine to me is one of the worst tasting things next to beer.

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