One of the first things I used to tell my Italian students was that, even if they couldn’t speak a word of the language before arriving in Italy, they would absolutely not starve. Italian food words are the ones that have traveled most outside their home country, and you’re likely to recognize lots of items on a menu. What you may not know immediately, however, are all the variations on words for places to eat in Italy.
If you’re hungry in Italy, you’ll know it’s an eatery of some kind by how it looks, either on the outside or from a peek inside. See? Again, you won’t starve. (Italy wants you to go home full, I tellya.) If you’re interested in a more specific breakdown of eatery terms, though, look no further.
This probably isn’t a complete list of your eatery options, but it’s just about everything I’ve ever seen or heard of. And, of course, the main thing is whether a place is serving something you want to eat. Before you sit down, you can sometimes get a peek at a menu – many are posted outside – to find out if something sounds appetizing.
We’ll start with the easy stuff. Ristorante (pronounced ree|stoh|RAHN|teh) is the direct translation of the word restaurant, and generally means an eating establishment that provides the top level of service. Not every ristorante is expensive, mind you, but they’re most likely to be sit-down places with multi-course menus available.
A trattoria (trah|toh|REE|ah) is often very similar to a ristorante, except a trattoria is a little less formal. Menus might be in Italian only, and there might be communal seating, but neither of those is certain. Dishes tend to be simpler than those at a ristorante, and a trattoria is more likely to be family-run – that’s probably mamma or papà in the kitchen or taking your order.
Another level down on the formality scale is an osteria (aw|steh|REE|ah). These have traditionally been places where the menus are brief, focusing on a few simple regional dishes and local wines. There may be communal seating. Prices tend to be inexpensive, and these are often places where the menu is in Italian only (if there’s a printed menu at all). These are also likely to be family-run.
This Italian word probably looks familiar to you, and with good reason. A taverna (tah|VEHR|nah) is a really informal, low-key tavern that’s probably more about its drinks than its food, though it will probably have a limited menu. The food and drink on offer isn’t going to be expensive, but it might just be a local haunt where people stop in briefly after work to catch up with friends over a drink and some bar snacks.
Now here’s a word you recognize, right? The trouble is, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. In Italy, a bar (pronounced just like in English, but with a good rolled R at the end) is a place to get coffee and a pastry in the morning. Sometimes, a bar will also have wine and cocktails starting in the afternoons, with potato chips or nuts on the counter, but often they’re closed by midday. Sometimes these are called caffè, too. The plural is the same as the singular, since it’s not an Italian word.
The Italian word for sandwich is panino, so you can probably guess what a paninoteca (pah|nee|noh|TEH|kah) sells. These super-informal sandwich shops may be take-away only or they may have a few tables, and they’re typically only open for midday meals.
The phrase “tavola calda” (TAH|vol|ah KAHL|dah) literally means “hot table,” but that’s not terribly helpful in terms of telling you what to expect in one of these in Italy. No, the tables themselves aren’t heated. In fact, there are hardly tables at all. Think of a tavola calda as the best version of your local deli, with its pre-made dishes that you can bring home to heat up for a quick dinner. You can also get portions heated on-site for a quick and inexpensive lunch. Food is usually sold by weight, based on however much you indicate you want to buy.
Similar to a tavola calda, a rosticceria (roh|stee|cheh|REE|eh) is the kind of place where Italians go to get pre-made food to bring home. True to the name, there are often roasted meats on offer, but there’s more to a rosticceria than just roasts. Here, too, you can get a quick lunch, since they’ll heat up a portion on-site for you, too.
Eating establishments that have -eria at the end of their name are wonderfully self-explanatory. A gelateria sells gelato. A pizzeria sells pizza. Those aren’t your only -eria options, however. A bruschetteria sells primarily bruschetta. A polenteria sells mainly polenta dishes. A birreria is basically a beer-focused bar. And a spaghetteria sells spaghetti and other pasta dishes. You get the idea. Now see how many -eria places you can find.