Eating in Italy: Menu & Dining Tips

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When I was teaching introductory Italian to tourists, I used to tell them that they would not starve no matter how much or little they had learned of Italian before they went. We often recognize Italian food terms. We may not be aware of some of the peculiarities of Italian cuisines and dining culture.

These are some things that you need to know about Italian cuisines and Italian dining habits.

Find out more. Learn more about the various types of Italian restaurants.

Sometimes, a charge is required to occupy a table.

Many restaurants will have fine print that reads “servizio incluso” (or “coperto”) at the bottom of their menu. This is either a service fee or cover charge. This fee is applicable regardless of how many or how few meals you order and how long you stay at the table. This fee often covers things such as the bread sticks you see on the table at your table, and the fact that the tables are set up and ready for you when you arrive. It is perfectly normal and not something to be avoided.

The Italian dinner hour does not begin until 8:00 p.m. or later.

Italians love to eat late. Lunch is usually at 1:00pm, with dinner starting after 9:00pm. You might wonder why restaurants are empty if they open earlier than that. Some restaurants open earlier than others, but this means they are open until 7:00pm or even 7:30pm and not 5:00pm. Don’t be surprised to find yourself surrounded by non-Italians when you decide to eat earlier.

Sicilian cuisine is “foreign” cuisine.

This joke was made by an ex-partner of mine once. While it may be a joke it’s close to the truth. It is difficult to find an Italian restaurant in Milan that serves Sicilian food, as it is so local. Touristy cities will have a lot of restaurants that cater to tourists who believe “Italian cuisine” is one menu. This is something you should avoid. However, most restaurants will offer local dishes.

Water is a cost that you will have to pay unless you request tap water.

You will be asked whether you would like still (senza gaz) or sparkling water when you order water from a restaurant. This is because it assumes that you want bottled water. Ask for “acqua di rubinetto” if you prefer tap water.

Italians rarely order soft drinks along with their meals.

Italians are not too picky to drink soft drinks. However, most people think that Coke is too sweet to be paired with dinner. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to order it. Touristy areas are more likely to have waiters who are used to serving soft drinks. For regular Coca Cola, ask for “Coca Cola Light” or “Coca Cola Regular” for Diet Coke.

You will have to ask for ice if you want it.

Although you may be given a glass to pour the Coke from the bottle or can brought to your table by the bartender, it will not often contain ice. AH

Sandwiches with “insalata”, or a sandwich that includes whole lettuce, are not stuffed.

If you are looking at a menu to compare the ingredients in sandwiches, don’t be misled by “insalata”. The word literally means salad. In this instance, it just means lettuce.

You don’t need to order all the courses on the menu.

Italian menus can be broken down into five sections. Some of them suggest that you should eat each section before the others.

For example, “Primi” will have risotto, pasta, and “secondi”, the meat and fish sections. These words can be translated as “first” or “second”, but you don’t have to order from each section. You can order appetizers (“antipasti”), fish (“secondi”), and then be done. Or a pasta (“primi”) section and an asparagus plate (“contorni”) from the vegetables section. Italians can eat many courses, but only for special occasions. They don’t eat 5-course meals every night.

You should also note that all vegetables are included in the “contorni side-dish” section. This means that if you wish to have a vegetable with your main dish, you will need to order it extra – even salad.

After 11:00 AM, cappuccino is not allowed in Italy.

Italians have many food superstitions. One of them is the belief that milk can cause problems with digestion. While they will have a cappuccino as a breakfast drink, they won’t be able to eat a full meal with any milk-based beverage. You can order as much or as little as you like, but don’t pay attention to the clock and second glances from Italians.

It is not possible to find a “doggy bag”, in Italy.

Although this is slowly changing, many Italian chefs believe that bringing home leftovers to heat later is an insult to their food. You can never make it taste the same when you reheat it. This – they believe – is a negative reflection on them. You won’t find an Italian restaurant with to-go boxes unless you order take-out pizza. And a waiter who doesn’t make you mad if you ask for one. Although portions are smaller than in the USA, I am still disappointed when I cannot finish my plate and have to take it home. It’s okay to ask but don’t be surprised if the answer is more than a “no”.

You don’t have to ignore the waiter, but you should ask for the bill.

This is a huge deal as many foreigners think that waiters in Italy are rude when they’re done eating. We are used to restaurants turning the tables at least twice a night. This means that they want to move diners so they can seat more people. This means that waiters will stop by your table every ten minutes to check if you have any questions.

Italy is different. Once you’ve sat down at a table, it’s yours to use for the evening. It would be considered rude to interrupt your dinner, regardless of whether you are done eating. So they will leave you alone after you have finished your meal. You will need to ask for the bill in order to get it. You can either ask the waiter for the bill by saying “Il conto per favore” or mime a writing motion in your mouth – they are familiar with what that means.

If you are in a hurry, the cashier is usually located near the front door.

Tipping is not allowed.

This has been covered before. To understand why it’s not necessary 99 percent of the time, you can read my detailed article on tipping Italy.

Cash is preferred by many places over credit cards, even for small amounts.

Italians tend to pay in cash more often than Americans. If you don’t want to be charged a large bill at a fancy restaurant, it is best to pay cash. Although many restaurants have credit card machines, they may be annoyed to have to use one for such a small amount.

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