Once upon a time, when I taught introductory Italian to travelers, I liked to say that no matter how much (or little) of the language they actually picked up before their trip they wouldn’t starve. Italian food words are words we often know. What we may not know, however, are some of the idiosyncrasies of Italian menus or dining culture.
Here, then, are a few things you’ll need to know about Italian menus, Italian dining habits, and Italian restaurants.
Want to know more? Read about the different kinds of restaurants in Italy.
In many restaurants, you’ll notice fine print at the bottom of a menu that says “servizio incluso” or “coperto,” which is a cover charge or service charge. You’ll pay this fee no matter how much or little you order, and no matter how long you spend at the table. It often includes things like the bread sticks that are on the table when you sit down, and – in general – the fact that the table is set and ready when you arrive. It’s perfectly normal, and nothing to avoid.
Italians eat late. Lunch usually starts at 1:00pm or later, and dinner can sometimes begin after 9:00pm. Earlier than that, you may wonder why all the restaurants are so empty. There are some places that open earlier, but that means 7:00pm or 7:30pm, not 5:00pm. And don’t be surprised if you’re surrounded by non-Italians if you choose to eat early.
An ex of mine made this joke once, and yes, it is a joke, but it’s not far from the truth. Italian food is so regional that to find a (for instance) Sicilian restaurant in Milan is sort of akin to finding a Greek or French restaurant. In touristy cities, there will be loads of restaurants catering to visitors who think “Italian food” is a single menu (and you should studiously avoid those places), but otherwise most places will specialize in dishes that are local.
When you ask for water at a restaurant, you’ll be asked if you want still (senza gas) or sparkling (con gas) water – because the assumption is that you want bottled water. If you’d prefer to get tap water, which is free, then ask for “acqua dal rubinetto.”
Italians are by no means too snobbish to drink soft drinks, but most think Coke is too sweet to drink with dinner. That doesn’t mean you can’t order it, of course. Especially in touristy areas, waiters are accustomed to it – so even if they wouldn’t dare do it themselves, they’ll bring you a soft drink. Ask for “Coca Cola” for the regular stuff, or “Coca Cola Light” for Diet Coke.
You may get a glass in which to pour the can or bottle of Coke that is brought to your table, but it won’t often have ice in it already. If you want ice, be sure to ask for it – “una Coca Cola con ghiaccio.” (That’s pronounced gee|AH|chee|oh, with a hard G at the beginning, as in “goat.”)
When you’re looking at a menu and comparing what ingredients are inside the sandwiches offered, don’t be confused when you see “insalata.” The word means salad, yes, but in this case it simply means lettuce.
Italian menus can be divided into as many as five sections, from appetizers to dessert, and some of them seem to carry the hint that you’re supposed to eat one before the other.
“Primi,” for instance, is where you’ll find risotto and pasta dishes, while “secondi” is the meat and fish section. The words mean “first” and “second,” but don’t assume you’ve got to order something from every section. You can order from the section of appetizers (“antipasti”) and a fish from the “secondi” section and be done, or a pasta from the “primi” section and a plate of asparagus from the vegetables section (“contorni”). Italians eat zillions of courses for very special occasions, but they don’t make a habit of eating 5-course meals every time they go out to dinner.
Oh, and note that all vegetables are lumped into the “contorni” side-dish section, which means if you want a veggie with your main course you’ll need to order it special – including salad.
There are more food-related superstitions held by Italians than I can count, but one of the most famous is that they won’t drink cappuccino after 11:00am because they believe milk messes with your digestion. They’ll have a cappuccino in the morning as, more or less, a drinkable breakfast, but they would never dream of chasing a full dinner with a milk-based drink of any kind. If a cappuccino is what you want, however, ignore the clock (and possible second glances from Italians around you) and order what you want.
Though this is slowly (very, very slowly) starting to change, most Italian chefs think the idea of you bringing home leftovers to reheat later is insulting to their food. It will never taste as good when you reheat it, and that – they think – reflects badly on them. Unless you’re ordering a take-away pizza, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Italian restaurant that even has to-go boxes at all, or a waiter who won’t give you grief for asking for one. Now, portion sizes are often smaller in Italy than you might be used to at home, but I still am pained every time I can’t quite finish a plate and am forced to leave it on the table rather than bring it home. You can ask, but don’t be surprised if you get more than a simple “no.”
This is a big deal, as many foreign visitors think Italian waiters are being really rude after they’re clearly done with a meal. Many of us are used to restaurants that turn tables over two and even three times a night, which means they’re keen to get diners out the door so they can seat another party. That leads to waiters coming by every 10 minutes to ask if you need anything.
In Italy, on the other hand, once you sit down at a table, it’s yours for the night. Italians would consider it extremely rude to keep interrupting your evening, whether you’re done eating or not, so they’ll leave you alone once you’ve gotten everything you ordered. To get the bill, then, you’ll need to ask for it. Get the waiter’s attention and either say, “Il conto, per favore,” or mime a writing motion in the air – they know what that means.
And if you’re in a hurry, you can usually pay at the cashier (often near the front door) or find another waiter who will find your waiter and get the bill for you.
I’ve covered this before, so if you don’t believe me you can read my in-depth article about tipping in Italy to understand why it’s really not necessary 99% of the time.
Italians pay with cash much more often than Americans do, so unless you’re at a very fancy restaurant where the bill may be quite large, be prepared to pay for your meal in cash. Yes, many places do have credit card machines, but they’ll sometimes act really annoyed that they have to deal with a credit card for such a small amount.