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. Buon appetito!
- 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.
- 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.
- Take a food tour to learn more about Italian food culture and get some local restaurant tips. We learned so much and ate so well on the Eating Italy Taste of Testaccio food tour in Rome (read our Eating Italy review). They also run delicious sounding food tours in Florence. Our Taste Bologna food tour was one of our favourite things to do in Bologna.
- Try regional specialities. Do some research before you go or ask a local. Read about our favourites in Puglia, Liguria, Sicily, Tuscany, and Piemonte.
- 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.
- 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 isn’t common.
- Visit a vineyard for a wine tour and tasting. We did a fantastic one in Umbria.
- Buy olive oil from a farm (vineyards often make olive oil too). You’ll never go back to the supermarket stuff. To learn more about this liquid gold take an olive oil tour to a village outside Rome.
- 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 you could even skip dinner.
- 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.
- Use an Italian phrasebook or app to help you decode the menu so you don’t have to eat in restaurants with English menus.
- Learn to cook your favourite dishes so you can recreate them at home. We enjoyed cooking classes in Puglia and Tuscany.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 anything 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.
- Expect much for breakfast. A coffee and a cornetto (croissant) at a bar is the norm. The best breakfasts we’ve had have been at family-run B&Bs like La Corte dei Pastori in stunning Matera where we were treated to a spread of bread, cakes, pastries, and fruit.
- Rush. Meals can last hours in Italy – savour them.
For our Italy restaurant and local dish recommendations see these posts:
- A Day of Eating in Varenna, Lake Como
- Rapallo: The Best Base for Exploring The Italian Riviera
- Where to Eat in the Barolo Wine Region, Piemonte
- How to Make the Most of a Trip to Florence
- Trastevere: The Perfect Neighbourhood in Rome?
This post was originally published in September 2012 and was updated in 2018 after many more delicious trips to Italy.
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