Eating Out in Italy
Everyone goes to Italy for the food.
You can tell me that I’m wrong; that the architecture is your calling card, that the pasta is irrelevant, that the rolling hills are magnetic enough without a steaming bowl of homemade minestrone to accompany them.
But really, thinking back, aren’t all your joyous Tuscan memories in some way connected to food? That tiny little restaurant down an unknown side street, where women in hairnets scooped dripping spoonfuls of fresh pesto gnocchi onto nondescript plates? Or the crisp crunch of a blackened pizza crust at the end of a swelteringly hot day?
And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting, don’t you dream of reclining in a vast piazza, sipping an ice-cold Aperol Spritz and dropping long strands of prosciutto into your upturned mouth?
No? Just me?
While eating in Tuscany is arguably one of the most pleasurable activities on the planet, there are a few rules that must be obeyed if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb and identify yourself as a tourist in two seconds flat.
So if you’re hoping to blend in while you indulge, and stop la cameriera from thinking you’re insane, look no further.
Before we continue, let’s set out the basics. Tuscany is home to a range of restaurants, and it’s important to know what kind of food you can find where.
As a catch-all phrase, ristorante is to Italians what restaurant is to us Brits. You’ll see it paired with other words such as pizzeria and trattoria, which essentially means that while the establishment specialises in one thing (pizza, for example) they also have a full restaurant-style menu.
If you’re looking for simple, traditional Italian cooking paired with an unpretentious and rustic ambience, a trattoria is for you. It’s less formal than a ristorante, and the menu generally consists of traditional Tuscan dishes, with a low price-tag to match.
Like a trattoria, an osteria has a no-frills, casual dining vibe. Typically speaking, an osteria is a step down in formality, providing the bare bones of ambience and decor with a simple menu cooked up in a traditional kitchen.
Wine lovers, rejoice. At an enoteca, you can sample local wines and graze on light, locally-produced tapas-style plates. While their main purpose is to sell regional wines, many collaborate with local suppliers to provide hams, cheeses, oils and vinegars for your gastronomic pleasure.
The clue is in the name, no? Across Italy, pizzas vary from region to region. In Naples, the crust is tall and chewy, while in Tuscany the bases are renowned for being thin and crisp. Don’t go hunting for a deep-dish option, though — that’s not a pizza, it’s sacrilege. Pizzerie are generally closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, too, so watch out for disappointment if your craving rears its head at the wrong time.
Technically, an agriturismo is an accommodation option: a ‘farm-stay’. Usually large and remotely located (not for inner-city lovers) with stunning views, they rent out their rooms to travellers looking for a slice of the dolce vita. As with most hotels, of course, a restaurant is a standard feature. With farmers as owners, your menu will consist of home-grown produce, lovingly prepared and simply served.
Unlike the UK and the US, Italians don’t tend to stick to just one course — even when at home. While we might have meat, potatoes and veg all on one plate, they do things slightly differently. Equally, when eating out (and particularly at lunchtime) the concept of a starter, main and dessert is less common than we might be used to.
Antipasti is probably as close as you’re going to get to a ‘starter’ in Italy. Eaten before the main meal, the selection is more limited than we might see on menus over here, and generally consists of meats, cheeses, bread, olives and vegetables in oil or vinegar. Generally always cold and eaten with an aperitivo, it’s a course you won’t find on your everyday dinner table.
This is where things get slightly confusing. Primi piatti (first plates) are understandably often confused with starters by tourists who assume the British or American menu format. In Italy, however, the ‘first course’ is usually a pasta, rice or soup dish, to be eaten before the secondo piatto. Which is why you might find your bowl of spaghetti a little… small.
You get the format now, right? Second plates are typically made up of meat, and are eaten after your primo of pasta or risotto. Yes, you heard me — you can have a bowl of linguine and then a steak — that really is the norm. Of course, you can always skip either the primi or secondi for a lighter option, and order a contorno or two on the side.*
Simpler now, and more familiar; contorni are side-dishes. You can get roasted vegetables and potatoes, salads and — of course — french fries, which I am unashamedly partial to.
Dessert! Plain and simple, no special cultural differences here. Get your hands on a creamy tiramisu or some ice-cold gelato. Delish.
*Note: if you’re after a pizza, this is classed as a meal in itself and won’t typically be accompanied by a primo or contorni (french fries are, of course, the exeption). Some places also only serve pizza at night, too (especially outside high season), so it’s worth checking before you go.
Generally speaking, the Italians are very similar to the Brits in their mealtime etiquette. They go out for dinner on the weekends, use a knife and fork and chat while they eat. But there are a few subtle differences that are worth knowing before you head to the ristorante.
Italians don’t drink tap water. Not now, not ever. At home, they have big bottles of water from the supermarket or (more recently, and far more environmentally friendly) filtered jugs that they keep in the fridge. So if you’re like me, and used to calculating the cost of your meal based on food alone, make sure to budget for a bottle of acqua, too.
It’s easily done, but don’t go out for dinner expecting your carbonara to contain cream, or for spaghetti and meatballs to be on the menu. Lots of dishes that we associate with Italy were actually born in America, so you won’t find them in the Mediterranean. As an additional pointer, if you want a pepperoni pizza, don’t actually order a pepperoni pizza. Peperoni means peppers, so if it’s the meat you’re after, ask for salame.
In Tuscany, where I spend a lot of my time, lunch is eaten at 1 p.m., and dinner at 8 p.m. No deviations, no excuses. The Italians are regimented with their mealtimes, and society is structured to accommodate this (many shops close between 1 and 3 to allow long, lazy lunches and a possible nap). For that reason, restaurants (especially on a Saturday) are often busy at peak times, and it’s rare for an Italian to eat earlier or later to ‘avoid the rush’. You can use this to your advantage, if you hate crowds, and head out earlier, but be aware that places aren’t open all day like they are at home.
After eating, it is imperative that you drink a coffee. Generally, an espresso shot, drunk in five slow sips and then clattered down onto its saucer while chatting resumes. Milk is only for the morning, but if you really fancy a cappuccino you won’t be judged, and tisane (herbal teas) are pretty readily available now too.
I love a drink as much as the next person, but in Italy wine is for sipping, by a single glass, at every mealtime. It isn’t commonplace to share a bottle between two over dinner, and getting drunk is frowned upon. Even young people barely drink, preferring to go for a single pint and make it last into the small hours. That being said, a couple of glasses won’t earn you too many dirty looks, and a mezzo-litro of house white is usually pretty cheap.
So go forth! Go and fill your bellies with all the goodness that Italy has to offer, and know that you’re not making any social faux pas in the process.
Have a Spritz for me, order that salame pizza, and let me know how you get on.