Going out to dinner in Italy is not something that is informal, frantic, or expedited in any way, shape, or form. When you choose to have dinner at a restaurant in Italy, you are choosing to immerse yourself in an art form that is one of the country’s proudest and oldest characteristics.
This is not to say that fast food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc. do not exist in Italy because they do and there are several in Rome alone, but what I do mean is that you do not come to Italy to be rushed for ANYTHING. And perhaps at the core of this statement is the dining experience.
There are many, many things that set the Italian dining experience apart from the rest of the world. One of the most important is timing. You can tell which restaurants are touristy and which ones are not by how full they are at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. If they are jam-packed, they are touristy. If, however, you see a restaurant that is busy at, say, 9 or 10 o’clock p.m., then you know that the diners inside are most likely native Italians. This is because Italians, for whatever reason, eat much later than Americans do. This also goes along with the theme that nearly everything in Italy is delayed, such as bus and train arrival times, class starting times, and performance start times (even Pope Benedict’s last general audience started a few minutes late).
When looking for a dinner dining experience in Rome, for example, the city center will often bombard you with tourist traps and way over-priced menus that are priced accordingly because tourists often do not know what is an acceptable price for a pizza margherita or pasta arrabbiata. While these restaurants usually offer very beautiful and scenic views of the city landscape and some of Rome’s most famous attractions, if you are on a budget you should try to steer clear of these places, or only eat in the city center one or two times while you are in Rome. Most restaurants in the city center are also Americanized and cater specifically to tourists, meaning that you may not be getting the kind of authentic Italian food that you came to Italy searching for.
Now it’s time to play “Is it Italian?” Is chicken parm Italian? The answer is NO; it is an American dish passed off as Italian. Is spaghetti and meatballs Italian? Again, another resounding NO; separately they are both Italian, but they are never served together. Is eggplant parm Italian? Actually, yes, it is! And its a popular dish in some parts of Italy. Is pizza Italian? This is an obvious yes, although pizza originated from Napoli (Naples) so that is where you will find the best pizza that Italy and the world have to offer. This last one will make some people upset, but is Italian dressing Italian? Sadly, NO, it is not, and I have yet to see a bottle of Italian dressing anywhere in Italy.
A true Italian dining experience almost always starts with antipasti (appetizers) which generally include bruschetta (which by the way is in fact Italian) some deli meats, several different kinds of cheeses, and suppli (fried rice balls stuffed with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese). This is also the time when a bottle or two of Italian wine is cracked open, and there are a plethora of wines to choose from. After antipasti, its time to move onto the primo, or first, course, which is usually pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or soup. Then comes the secondo, or second, course, which is usually fish or meat (keep in mind that Tuesdays and Fridays are the best times to eat/buy fish in Italy because that is when they come in fresh!). You may choose to order a contorno, or “side dish”, which could be a salad or cooked vegetables. And as if these three courses weren’t enough, its now dessert time! The dolce (“sweet”) course is where you can find Tiramisu, cakes, cookies, and the mouth-watering cannolis. Even though having just one meal in Italy might seem like it will make your stomach explode, it’s important to note that each of these courses are typically small servings so that you are left with room for the succeeding courses.
If you would like some water for your meal, remember to ask for either still/natural water (“acqua naturale”) or sparkling water/water with gas (“acqua frizzante”) but keep mind that water at meals is not free in Italy like it is in America! Remember that in Italy, you do not have to tip your server and leaving extra money in your bill, even if you believe your server was extremely exceptional, is sometimes not understood by the wait staff. Also beware of cover charges! In Italy and many other places throughout Europe, you are charged a fee just to sit down at the table in the restaurant. You are essentially “renting” the table for the time that you are there. This is partially why the dining experience is not rushed because the wait staff are in no hurry to turn over tables because they feel that you “own” that table until you are done eating and exit the restaurant. And even though you do not have to tip in Italy, it is common to see the tip included as part of your bill depending on the size of your party. It is also VERY rare that your server will ask you if you are ready for the bill. He or she will not want to rush you in any way, and the meal may last two or more hours because of the different courses and also because your server actually wants you to enjoy your meal. But when you are ready, simply get your server’s attention and ask “il conto, per favore” (“the bill, please”).
Like everything else in Italy, the dining experience is not only meant to be relaxed and enjoyable, but also romantic. The atmospheres in some of the restaurant’s I’ve eaten at definitely set the mood for “amore.” But the key is to do your research and try to branch out from the city center so that you get the most authentic dining experience that you can. And as a side note, make sure you know what the customary dishes are for each region of Italy that you visit because each region has its own distinct specialty. And make sure you are trying everything and anything, this includes every flavor of gelato that you encounter! Buon Appetito miei amici!!