“Mangia!” is how Italians affectionally and emphatically tell you to eat in Italy. My love of eating in Italy at both the finest restaurants and the warmest family tables is a big part of what inspired me to move to Italy. The insights in this article are gleaned by an American woman with a voracious appetite for Italy, me! An appetite so big, I became an Italian citizen, moved to the Italian Alps, and have now been eating in Italy for over a decade.
I invite anyone planning a trip to treat my growing list of do’s and don’ts of eating in Italy like pizza dough. Toss them around a little. Disagree, or have more questions, leave them in the comments below!
Eating in Italy
After settling into a cozy trattoria in Siracusa, Sicily Paolo and I were shocked to hear angry voices. “We no order bread! No eat, no pay!” a tourist was arguing with the waiter in broken English. Voices grew louder and it soon became apparent the customer was livid because he had “no order coperto!” Cue laughter. Coperto is not something you order in Italy, it’s an automatic charge added to all bills in restaurants across Italy. That day in Sicily, I was reminded how jarring cultural differences can be when it comes to eating in a country for the first time. Thus, the inspiration for this article.
- Don’t Expect to Find Restaurants Open All Day
- Do Make Reservations
- Don’t Forget, Tax & Services are Included
- Do Expect to Pay Coperto
- Don’t Tip Like an American
- Do Ask for Recommendations
- Do Try Local Cuisine
- Don’t Feel Pressure to Order Every Course
- Don’t Be Afraid of Offal
- Do Learn to Order in Italian (Video)
- Don’t Expect Free Water
- Don’t Drink Water from the Bottle
- Don’t Default to the Most Expensive Wine
- Do Try Olive Oil Naked
- Don’t Expect to Find Salt On the Table
- Do Put Bread Directly on the Table
- Do Eat Pizza With an Open Mind
- Don’t Twirl Pasta With a Spoon
- Do Ask for the Check
- Don’t Leave Cask on the Table
- Do End With Coffee
- Do Try a Regional Digestivo
- Do Eat Late
- Don’t Miss Cheese & Charcuterie
- Do Visit a Wine Country BONUS: Do Eat Gelato Like the Tourist You Are!
Don’t Expect to Find Restaurants Open All Day in Italy
Italians still fare una pausa (take a break) during the day. While in major cities there are some options open all day, most shops (including grocery stores) and restaurants close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. Especially when in smaller towns and the Italian countryside. So plans for lunch and dinner ahead of time, or you just might find yourself hungry till dinner.
Do Make Reservations to Eat in Italy
In the city and the Italian countryside alike eating well in Italy means making a reservation. Many of the best Italian restaurants are family-run. Their hours of operation reflect a family business, not a corporate enterprise. Making a reservation avoids the disappointment of finding a closed door or no available tables. Plus, in Italy, it’s good manners to have a reservation. Italian restaurants often go above and beyond in the hospitality department to make their guests feel comfortable. Guests who become favorite customers make it a habit to give restaurants advanced notice of their arrival out of politeness. Over time that’s made having a reservation for lunch or dinner at popular eateries the cultural norm.
Don’t Forget, Tax & Services are Included
Menus in America require customers to do a little math. Dish price + tax + tip. In Italy, all taxes and services are included in the price of the dishes listed on the menu. See Cacio e Pepe on the menu for 11€? Expect to see a bill for 11€ + Coperto.
Do Expect to Pay Coperto After Eating in Italy
Locals and tourists alike pay coperto in Italy. So unlike what the tourist assumed in the story above, coperto is not a way to upcharge tourists or scam them out of money. Coperto is not a tourist scam, it’s a cover charge and it’s legal in Italy because restaurants list it on the menu or in the restaurant to notify patrons ahead of time.
Don’t Tip Like an American in Italy
Yes, Italians do tip in Italy, but not the way Americans do in America. Tipping in Italy is like paying a good compliment. Always appreciated, never anticipated. Most often Italians simply leave the change from the bill (usually a euro or two). Want to know more before visiting Italy? Check out our tipping in Italy guide.
Do Ask for Recommendations Before Ordering in Italy
Fun fact. Americans might be surprised to note how many waiters in Italy are adults. While many Americans see being a waiter as a job to pay the way through college, Italians respect the trade as many restaurants in Italy are still family-run. Plus, waiters in Italy are paid living wages unlike in America where tips are expected to make part of their wage.
Since an Italian waiter’s salary does not depend on the size of your bill, their recommendation is just that, a recommendation. Not an attempt to grow their tip by fattening up the bill. Asking for recommendations on what to order from your waiter is the quickest way to find out what dishes best represent the local cuisine.
Do Eat Local Cuisine in Italy
Every one of Italy’s 20 regions has its unique cuisine. What’s more, many towns do as well. Take for example Siena, Italy. Siena is a town in Tuscany. In Tuscany staples like Ribollita and Boar Ragu are a must. However Siena itself you’ll also find Ricciarelli di Siena (soft almond biscuits whose origins date back to the 14th century) and Panforte di Siena (a spiced Christmas cake with almonds, candied fruit, and honey.) It’s precisely this regionality that makes eating in Italy so enjoyable!
Don’t Feel Pressure to Order Every Course
The traditional Italian meal structure has several courses including Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contorni, Dolci, and a few more. Don’t feel pressure to order from each course. It’s never mandatory and often a bit too much food.
Don’t Be Afraid of Offal
Offal (the entrails and internal organs of an animal) is a staple of Italian cuisine. While it might sound frightening, offal dishes are some of the most popular among Italians because they are delicious! In Emilia-Romagna try Trippa alla Parmigiana (a traditional tripe dish). In Northern Italy look for Finanziera (a Piedmontese stew of the less noble parts of animals including rooster wattles, crests, sweetbreads, brains, and even veins.) Offal might not be for the faint of heart, but brave meat-eaters are handsomely rewarded in Italy. This La Finanziera recipe video is in Italian but as I always say, food translates! Ready to brave it?
Video of La Finanziera
Do Learn to Order in Italian
Only 34% of Italians speak English making Italy one of the countries with the lowest percentage of English speakers in Europe. While you can get away with English in main tourist cities like Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan learning a few key phrases specific to eating in Italy will make for a more relaxing and enjoyable experience. Plus, attempting Italian earns more patience and respect. The following curated video reviews key Italian phrases for ordering in Italian.
Don’t Expect Free Water
The majority of restaurants in America automatically provide tap water free of charge. Yet, while tap water in Italy is safe to drink Italian restaurants don’t serve it unless you specifically request it by saying “acqua di rubinetto.” Fair warning, since culturally Italians prefer bottled water, you might be met with some pause. Italians do drink tap water, but mostly at home or from public fountains, rarely in restaurants.
Don’t Drink Water from the Bottle
In a polite public setting, it’s considered rude to drink directly from a bottle of water in Italy. Even on trains in Italy, bottles of water are offered with a paper cup. Out and about in the city on your own it’s fine, but in a polite setting use a glass when offered and don’t drink directly from the bottle.
Don’t Default to the Most Expensive Wine
In American restaurants bottles are marked up 3 to 4 times their value. Making the most expensive bottle the most valuable bottle. In Italy, restaurants do not focus on making money on wine. It is not uncommon to see regional bottles on the menu at cost. Since most Italian restaurants also focus on regional ingredients don’t focus on price. You know what they say “what grows together, goes together” For the best experience pair regional wines and foods by focusing on the region and varietal, not the price, and have fun exploring Italy through local wines.
Do Try Olive Oil… Naked
My husband was born and raised in Italy. Yet the first time he dipped bread in olive oil with salt, dried herbs, or balsamic vinegar was in America. Pouring olive oil onto a plate and dressing it up is an American thing, not an Italian thing. Why? Olive oil in Italy is so stinking delicious, it doesn’t need a darn thing! Especially olive oil from Puglia or Sicily. They can be complex, earthy, spicy, or sweet depending on the climate, region, and type of olive. Give Italian olive oils a chance! Don’t automatically look for the salt or the balsamic vinegar before you try them. Besides, those items might not even be on the table when the bread arrives.
Don’t Expect to Find Salt on the Table
Italians wholeheartedly believe their cuisine is the best in the world and it’s not false ego. Italian cuisine today is based on centuries of culinary tradition and experience. Italians believe a good dish is seasoned in the kitchen, not at the table. So don’t be surprised if there are no salt shakers in sight at restaurant tables or family tables in Italy.
Do Put Bread Directly on the Table
In Italy, a table isn’t a table without breadcrumbs! It might feel rude at first, but don’t wait for a bread plate to arrive before tearing into bread on the table. Bread, grissini (long, thin pieces of crispy, dry bread), and even taralli (round breadsticks) are laid directly on the table without a basket. Tablecloths are there in part to catch briciole (crumbs in Italian.)
Do Eat Pizza With an Open Mind
Americans are often taken aback by pizza in Italy. Pizzas in Italy are personal size not shared, thus not pre-cut when served. Plus, the soft, pillowy crust of a pizza Napoletana (Naples-style pizza that is said to be the best and original pizza in Italy) requires eating it with a knife and fork. Plus, pizza in Italy also goes by a proper name. For example, Pizza Margherita is made with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil. That’s it. Want the equivalent of a pepperoni pizza from America? Look for Pizza Diavola which has spicy salami. It’s a pizza with its own name, not a Pizza Margherita with spicy salami added.
In short, don’t look to find a better version of a favorite pizza from back home if it can be delivered, has pineapple, has custom toppings, or a stuffed crust. Pizza in Italy is totally different than pizza in America and yes, it is better in Italy when tried with an open mind. Made with fresh local ingredients and 00 flour which makes for a light, easy-to-digest crust, a good pizza in Italy can be a thing of absolute beauty.
Don’t Twirl Pasta with a Spoon
Growing up in America, I learned to eat long pasta like Spaghetti by twirling it on my spoon. Italians don’t. In fact, this is one area where they can be downright judgy. I’ve seen the smirks myself. Instead of twirling pasta with a spoon, capture a piece or two between the tines of a fork and use the side or bottom of the pasta plate to twirl. It might seem like a small thing, but for some reason for Italians, it’s not. It’s a giant flashing “foreigner” sign.
Do Ask for the Check
Lingering over a meal to chat with family and friends is part of la dolce vita. Plates generally are not cleared quickly. Waiters typically ask if they may take your plate only if multiple courses are ordered or all plates on the table are clear. There is no rush to turn the table.
Frequently when you ask for “il conto” the check, you’ll hear “paga alla cassa” pay the cashier. Many less formal restaurants across Italy ask their customers to pay at the cashier. Fair warning during lunch hour in bigger cities like Milan, Rome, and even Torino, the cashier line can get long! Just something to keep in mind when in a hurry.
When you’re ready to head out, the international hand signal of a checkmark in the air after making eye contact with the waiter (with a smile) will work. Those brave enough to learn a little Italian can simply say “Posso avere il conto per favore” (may I have the check please) or simply “il conto per favore” (check please).
Don’t Leave Cash on the Table
In America, it’s not uncommon to pay by leaving cash behind for the bill and tip on the table. While cash is king in Italy (hint always carry Euros) Italians never leave cash on the table out of respect and safety. Always hand cash to the waiter directly including tips with a simple “grazie” (thank you).
Do End With Coffee
If you want to experience a proper Italian meal like the locals, end it with coffee. Specifically, a “normale” (normal in Italian) is a short espresso without cream or sugar. Up to 50% of coffee drinkers in Italy finish dinner with their beloved black brew. Why? It’s cultural. Italians love their coffee and when offered, it’s accepted. Besides, Italians eat late! How else would one make their way home with a full belly.
Do Try a Regional Digestivo
Italians love their digestivo after dinner too! Digestivo are small shots of alcoholic drinks believed to aid digestion after a big meal. Some sweet, some bitter. In Sardinia, try Filu ‘e ferru (brandy made from the skins of the grapes). In Torino try Génépy (a traditional Aosta Valley liqueur made out of a rare mountain herb called Artemisia). Don’t worry about knowing them all. Restaurants in Italy are proud to offer a selection of their local traditional digestive. There’s a reason too. Much of what can be found locally is still cultivated and made by hand as seen in this video about Génépy.
Do Eat Late
While Americans typically sit down for dinner between 6pm and 7pm, Italians sit down for dinner between 8pm and 9pm. Most restaurants in Italy don’t open for dinner until 7pm. In fact, it’s not uncommon for restaurants to serve dinner until 10:30pm. So be prepared to eat late in Italy, but don’t worry an Aperitivo will get you through!
Don’t Miss Local Cheese & Charcuterie
I’ll never forget discovering Caciocavallo Podolico in Puglia. It took just one bite to understand why it is Italy’s most expensive cheese! For lovers of cheese and charcuterie, the best artisanal products Italy has to offer can be found in local formaggeria (cheese shops) and salumeria (cured meat shop or Italian deli). Italian restaurants also excel at the art of the tagliere (a cutting board full of local meats and cheeses.) Each region of Italy has its own style of cheese and charcuterie, many of which are among the best in the world!
Do Visit a Wine Country
Speaking of the best in the world… wine lovers will think they have died and gone to heaven in Italy. While there are famous wine regions in Italy like Langhe Piemonte home of Barolo and Tuscany home of Super Tuscan wines, every region in Italy grows wine. There is no better way to learn about wine than experiencing it at the source. Plus, a visit to Italian wine country is charming beyond all expectations. It’s a feast not just for the palette but for the eyes.
Do Eat Gelato Like the Tourist You Are
Most of the Do’s and Don’ts on this list are aimed at helping travelers fit in. When it comes to Gelato, have no fear of looking like a tourist. In Italy, no matter the town or city locals and tourists alike indulge in gelato. Make it memorable! Order gelato on a cone and walk around the most beautiful piazza in the area. My first Gelato in Italy was in piazza san Marco in Venice. Not only were those calories absolutely worth but they marked the start of a ten-year journey of becoming an Italian and moving to Italy! With that I say Mangia!
Even if the menus in Italy are in Italian and the waiter doesn’t speak your language, it’s almost impossible to go wrong eating in Italy. Italian food at its core is about local, fresh ingredients prepared simply. So the truth is, it’s easy to eat well in Italy. Knowing a few of the do’s, don’ts and insights shared are if nothing else, a way to show respect for the Italians you will encounter and interact with while eating in Italy. Already eaten in Italy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Following ALOR Italy and have a bit la dolce vita with me as I continue to share my love for eating in Italy!