May 2008 Archives

(This is Part 1 of a 2-part series.  Here's Part 2.)

Types of Restaurants

In the U.S., everything from the drive-thru at McDonald’s to the dining room at the Four Seasons is considered a “restaurant.” Italians prefer to make linguistic distinctions between various types of food service establishments, a habit that tends to puzzle visiting Americans. 

A bar is primarily a place for coffee—espresso and espresso-based drinks, at any time of day—and incidentally also serves pastries, sandwiches, and the odd other beverage, including a few alcoholic ones.  But the Italian bar is also much more than just a place for coffee:  it is also a friendly hangout, a regular part of one’s day, a neighborhood institution.  Many people have two favorite bars, one close to home and one near work, where the staff know them and know just how they like their coffee.  Italians usually down their coffee in two or three quick gulps standing at the counter.  Sit-down service is available in most bars, but by law prices for the same food and drink items are significantly higher when served to customers seated at a table vs. standing at the bar.  Incidentally, you may see “American bar” signs; this indicates a place that primarily serves alcohol as  opposed to being the standard (Italian) coffee bar.

A pizzeria is a sit-down establishment that usually offers much more than just made-to-order pizza, though that may be their forte; while pizza al taglio (by the slice) serves only pizza, and the customer chooses from what’s already been made, pays by weight, and usually stands at a counter to eat.  An osteria is typically a casual, neighborhood joint, with a simple menu, regular local customers, cheap house wine and great prices in general.  Trattorias are usually family-owned and run, often focus on local specialities and tend not to be very expensive.  An enoteca can be a wine shop and/or a wine bar, where in addition to many nice options by the glass and by the bottle, you can sample great local salamis, cheeses and other wine-enhancing snacks.  Finally, the ristorante is typically more upscale—and expensive—than any of the above, with an extensive list of wines by the bottle and much more refined service.

That being said, however, it is important to acknowledge that it has become fashionable for high-end restaurants to have names that include “osteria” or “trattoria”.  Perhaps just to confuse us foreigners even more.  J

Types of Meals and Meal Times

Breakfast (prima colazione) is the Italian version of “fast food”, typically just an espresso (caffé) or cappuccino and a simple pastry.  City people heading to work in the morning often take theirs standing at the counter in their favorite bar.  Around mid-morning, many Italians like to take a short break (spuntino) for another coffee and maybe a little snack at—you guessed it—the local bar.  By the way, cappuccino is considered a morning beverage, and no Italian would dream of ordering it after 11:00 a.m.!  It’s OK to order a macchiato later in the day, though:  a shot of espresso with a “spot” of steamed milk.

Lunch (pranzo) is traditionally the big meal of the day throughout Italy, and it used to be customary for people to head home for at least a couple of hours for a family-style mid-day meal.  However, as people in the cities spend more time working and commuting, a typical weekday lunch has for many become either something that they bring from home and eat at the office, a sandwich (panino) at a nearby bar, a slice of pizza al taglio, a visit to a cafeteria-style lunch spot (tavola calda) or, for the lucky ones with money to spend, a nice one- to two-hour sit-down affair with colleagues at a restaurant (or osteria, trattoria, pizzeria) near the office.  In the case of the latter, it is not uncommon to have a little wine with lunch. 

Invariably, the lunch hour begins at 1:00 p.m.  Hence all the bars and restaurants get slammed between 1:15 and 2:30.  If you can, and you’d prefer to avoid the chaos, try showing up at your lunch place a little before 1:00 (bars are open all day, and many sit-down places open at 12:30).

Aperitivo is a tradition from further north, most notably Milan.  It’s not something many Romans do, so there’s no aperitivo rush hour in Rome.  (Perhaps everyone’s too busy with the evening commute.)  It’s essentially what it sounds like, an aperitif:  a cocktail or glass of wine along with a few tasty nibbles to keep you alive until dinner.  You could think of it as akin to the tapas tradition in Spain.  I’m a big fan of aperitivo.  If I thought my wallet and my waistline could tolerate it, I’d do aperitivo every evening.

Dinner (cena) takes place much later than most Americans are used to (perhaps that’s why I like aperitivo so much).  Most restaurants start serving dinner at 7:30, some as late as 8:00 or even 8:30.  The 7:30 opening time is really for foreigners, because Italians generally don’t start showing up till after 9:00.  In Italy, there is no such thing as “dinner and a movie” or “dinner and a show”.  Dining out IS the evening activity.  Which brings us to...


Many Americans get the impression that restaurant service in Italy isn't good, but this is a misperception based on cultural difference.  In Italy, time is NOT money.  And time spent at the table is by no means ever considered wasted. 

In a bar, tavola calda, or pizza al taglio, especially during the lunch rush hour, the assumption is that customers have chosen the place because they have limited time, and the service is accordingly snappy. 

However, if you opt to go to a sit-down pizzeria, osteria, trattoria, or ristorante, the assumption is that you have come for the pleasure of the food and the company of family and friends—things which deserve to be savored and treasured—not to fill your belly as quickly as possible and move on to more important things.  Good food and good company ARE the important things, and Italians are happy to dedicate time to them.  Hence it would be considered rude if the kitchen sent out courses too quickly, or if the waiter hovered around asking “Can I get you anything else?  Will that be all?  Shall I bring the check?”  Italian customers would think they were being pushed out and be very offended.  Likewise, if the customer appears to be in a rush to get out, the staff will wonder why they bothered to come at all, or worry that they did not enjoy their meal.  In the latter case they will sometimes offer the customer a coffee or digestif on the house, to make up for whatever the problem may have been.  They simply cannot comprehend that you are merely in a hurry.

Accordingly, servers typically do not bring the bill until the customer requests it (Il conto, per favore), and they do not hover around constantly refilling beverages, like their counterparts in the U.S.  If you need something, just gesture to a server or say "Per favore," and they should respond quickly. 

It's also important to understand that there simply is no concept of “turning tables” to get as many customers—and their euros—through as quickly as possible.  (Remember:  Time is NOT money.)  If you have a table for dinner, it is yours for the evening.  (Remember?  Dinner IS the evening.)  This explains why you may show up at a completely empty restaurant at 7:30 p.m. and be told there is no table available.  Everything has been reserved in advance, and they couldn’t ask you to eat in a rush and then get out in a hurry for the party who has reserved your table later.  Some very rare exceptions do exist:  restaurants that do not take reservations at all, and those that are so small that they must have two set seating times each evening (7:00 and 9:30 only) or they will not make enough money to stay in business.

So relax and enjoy your meal, and dump your assumption that a slow meal is somehow a bad thing.  And if this topic interests you, read about Slow Food, an international movement that started in Italy. 

Menus and Order of Service

Many menus are printed in both Italian and English, and servers are generally happy to try to explain dishes to foreign customers.  Almost every restaurant offers a la carte options, though many places also offer fixed-price “tourist menus” (menu turistico—often cheap and rarely wonderful) or, in the more elegant establishments, “tasting menus” (menu degustazione—often wonderful and rarely cheap).  (Another entire post could be dedicated to the various categories of food on an Italian menu; I'll save that for another time.)  Salads and side dishes are often served after the main course.  (And by the way, the only salad dressing is olive oil and balsamic vinegar that you add yourself.)  Coffee is served last, after dessert, not with it. 

Hours and Reservations

Romans tend to eat later than Americans, lunch after l:00 p.m. and dinner at around 9:00 p.m.  Typical service hours are 12:30 to 3:00 p.m. for lunch and 7:30 p.m. to midnight for dinner (though some places start serving dinner as late as 8:00 or even 8:30).  Almost every restaurant is closed one full day per week, and sometimes also another half day (for example, Sunday evening and all day Monday).

Reservations are always advisable, most importantly on Friday and Saturday evenings and at popular establishments.  If you arrive quite early without a reservation, and the restaurant is not fully booked in advance, you may have no trouble getting a table.

Prices and Tipping

In general, prices tend to be similar to those found in other major world cities.  Expect your bill to include a cover charge (pane e coperto) and service charge (servizio); any taxes are included in the prices shown on the menu.  House wine (vino della casa) is always inexpensive and often good.  Bottled wine prices vary significantly but are generally better than American restaurant wine prices.  (There is so much more to say about Italian wine that I'll save it for another post.)  Bottled water is inexpensive.   

It is customary to round the bill up to the next even figure as a tip, usually up to no more than 5% of the total bill.  Staff do not expect—nor should they “fish for”—the typical American restaurant tip of 15% of the bill.  In fact, many Italians consider it rude to leave such an “extravagant” tip!  Servers get real salaries, and they are not just amateurs biding their time in the hope of moving on to some other career.  They are professionals, and this is their career.

Tips for Eaters

This is how you order and pay at a bar (and also in some gelaterias).  Tell the person at the register what you want (just enough information so that they will know what to charge), and pay for it.  Take the receipt the cashier gives you over to the food counter, place it on the counter in front of a server, and tell them what you want (now you can add details).  He or she will often tear or retain the receipt so that it can’t be used again.  If you’re at a bar getting coffee it’s customary to include a 5 or 10 cent tip as you place your receipt on the counter.

And this is how you order and pay for pizza al taglio, or at any place where you pay for food by weight.  Go to the food counter first.  Point out to the server what you would like and indicate how much.  They will weight your food and give you a slip of paper called a scontrino, which shows how much you must pay.  Take the scontrino to the cashier and pay.  The cashier gives you a different slip of paper, the receipt (ricevuto).  Take this back to the server you ordered from and exchange it for your food, now nicely heated/packaged/prepared however you requested.

How to ask for take-away/carry-out/to-go:  “Porto via.”  This is to be used only at bars and for pizza al taglio, never at sit-down establishments.  (There are a few exceptions, VERY few.)

Do not EVER ask for a “doggie bag” or the equivalent.  To suggest that you would give the chef’s food to a dog is extremely insulting; to suggest that it is food to be tossed in the fridge and microwaved later only slightly less so.

Speaking of dogs, Italians LOVE dogs.  They take them EVERYWHERE, yes even into casual restaurants.  Shocking, I know, but I’ve found that I can accept it as long as the animal is so small, quiet, odorless, and well-behaved that it’s hard to even notice it’s there.

And speaking of small, quiet, odorless and well-behaved, most Italian children are very good in restaurants.  They learn when very young that mealtime is to be enjoyed and respected, whether at home or in public.  By comparison, American kids often appear to be brutes.  Not your kids, of course.

When you order pizza in a sit-down restaurant, each person gets their own pizza—even the little kids.  Pizza arrives at the table uncut:  you are expected to eat it with a knife and fork.  Apparently pizza and beer are inseparable, as Italians invariably drink beer when they eat pizza in a restaurant.  Who knew?

You say fettuci-nee, I say fettucci-nay.  Italians say -nay, and for some reason they get really annoyed when foreigners say -nee.  Reprogram yourself to say fettucci-nay before you arrive in Italy, and you will impress everyone!

Italians don’t use a spoon to help twirl spaghetti around their fork.  Some restaurants offer spoons to obvious foreigners.  Once while we were sitting at an outside table at a restaurant, a kooky old Italian lady who was walking by grabbed my mother-in-law’s fork, started twirling it against the plate, and said “Facciamo cosi!” (We do it this way!)  True story.

Not every pasta dish should be topped with cheese.  If the waiter brings grated cheese to the table along with your pasta dish, this usually means that it's recommended for the dish.  For example, any past al ragu (with tomato-meat sauce) should be delivered with grated parmiggiano on the side.  If you're a cheese fiend, it can't hurt to ask for the parmiggiano for non-seafood pastas.  But if you order any pasta with seafood, such as spaghetti con vongole or linguine ai frutti di mare, cheese will not be delivered automatically, and requesting it will bring protestations.  For us Americans, with our "the customer is always right" culture, having a waiter argue with you can come as a shock.  But Italians know Italian food, and they are sincerely trying to help you have the best meal possible.  Trust your server's recommendations.  If given a choice, you can always respond, "Come lo chef consiglia" (As the chef recommends), and be certain that you'll be getting the most authentic/traditional option.  (You also get brownie points with the staff when you use this phrase; they appreciate the opportunity to be the expert!)

Tea drinkers, prepare to be frustrated.  Some places don’t serve tea at all, and many of the ones that do serve rather awful brands.  When you go to a bar with friends who will be drinking coffee, the barrista almost invariably makes the coffee first, then moves on to your tea.  That means that by the time the tea is steeped, sugared, stirred and cooled just enough to be ready to drink without hurting yourself, your friends have been peering into the bottoms of their empty demitasse cups for 5 minutes already and are beginning to talk about the ancient middle eastern art of reading coffee grounds.  It’s a little better when you’re all sitting down at a table together, because usually the waiter will try to bring all the after-meal drinks at the same time.  True story:  Once I ordered tea following Sunday lunch in a trattoria, and an old guy came out the kitchen demanding “Qui é chiesto il te?” (Who ordered the tea?)  I waved and said “Io” (I), and the guy came over and gave me a disgusted look, shaking his head at me as if to say, “What is wrong with you?!”  (I know what you’re thinking:  "When in Rome…"  And believe me, I love Italian coffee and would drink it if I could, but any type of coffee does terrible things to my insides.)

Italians think it's odd to go to a gelateria and order only one flavor of ice cream.  The typical gelato order includes two or three flavors piled into one cup or cone.