The one thing we Indians have in common with the Italians – we live to eat. The only rule worth remembering if you don’t have time to read the rest of this article, is don’t judge a restaurant in Italy by its decor. It’s as simple as that. In this foodie heaven of a country, brilliant fare can be served in the ugliest of surroundings.
In a restaurant, the usual first offer of the waiter is Cosa vuole da bere? meaning ‘Do you want a drink?’ No matter how it sounds, it doesn’t mean do you want a beer.
Always keep your receipt when you pay for anything, including a meal in a restaurant, until you have left the premises. The much feared Guardia di Finanzia (financial police) are very strict and you can be charged if you don’t have a receipt when you leave. So make sure you are given one (Ricevuta, per favore or ‘receipt, please’) and hang on to it. The business can also be fined, so it’s in their interests for them to give you one.
The most common place to eat and drink is the bar (sometimes called a caffe bar). Bars are tremendously popular hangouts, mostly serving coffee, soft drinks, juices and alcohol. They’re open from early (some from about 6am) until quite late (about 10pm). The food is essentially simple – including brioche, pre-made panini (bread rolls) with light fillings, and tramezzini (crust-less sandwiches). A good bar usually has very professional, often gorgeous staff.
Birreria is a bar that specialises in selling beer, usually seen in central and northern regions. In the far north, don’t be surprised to see someone – okay, it’ll be a man – leaning on the bar and drinking a beer for breakfast.
This is the classic eating house that in many ways epitomises Italy. Osterie were originally family-run places for locals to drop by and have a drink, a snack and perhaps a little gamble at the end of the day. Typically this would have been a drinking hole for men. Over the years the osterie started serving food, as their customers craved more than just good company and local wine to satisfy their souls. These days, many osterie will still serve you just a drink, if that’s all you want. But their focus is very much on simple food that is relevant to their region, usually with a verbal menu. Many osterie are open at nights only, but most open for pranzo (lunch) from 12.30 until 3pm, and again for cena (dinner) from 7pm until late.
Roughly translated as bread roll (panino) place (-teca), the paninoteca is really a specialist sandwich shop. Even the simplest of fillings (for example, prosciutto, preserved ham, with no other spreads) can be a joy to eat. Most paninoteche are open during normal daytime hours.
It’s self-explanatory – a pizzeria sells pizza, Italy’s most well-known export. Many pizzerie also act as trattorie (reasonably priced eating houses) during the day, and light the wood-fired oven for evening trade only. Pizza a taglio means pizza by the slice, the style popularised in Rome. No-one, no matter what they have visited Italy for, should miss eating real Italian pizza at least once.
A ristorante (restaurant) implies an eating establishment that is more sophisticated than a trattoria or an osteria, with correspondingly higher prices. Printed menus take the place of verbal ones and flowers could be (but probably won’t be) fresh instead of plastic.
A simple eating place originating from the former street-stalls of Napoli that sold just bowls of spaghetti with a choice of sauces. Spaghetterie are slowly falling from favour. The name implies no-frills but generally delicious pasta and secondi (‘second’ or main course) with correspondingly low prices and normal restaurant hours.
Literally a ‘hot table’, a tavola calda serves mostly pre-made food that you queue for, usually with a tray, cafeteria style. The tavola calda is usually a showcase for the local foods, some of which are reheated to order (rarely in microwaves), along with pizza a taglio, carni arrosti (roasted meats) and insalata (salads). Most are open all day from about 11am.
A trattoria is often family run, and very similar to osterie in many respects, including the reasonable prices. The service less aloof and usually more amiable, and things like finesse take a back seat to the honest and heart-warming. Really great food cannot always be guaranteed, but you’ll be impressed by how often it is.
For great food recommendations and gourmet ideas, take a look at Lonely Planet India’s Italy travel guide