Italian cuisine in Italy is different from what they call “Italian Cuisine” in America. It is truly one of the most diverse countries in the world, and there are different specialities in every region, and even in every town and village you go to. It might be misleading, for example, to say that the cuisine of northern Italy is based on hearty dishes rich in potatoes and rice, that the cuisine of central Italy is mainly pasta, roasts and meat, and that the cuisine of southern Italy is vegetables, pizza, pasta and seafood: there are so many cross-influences that trying to classify them would only confuse you. And anyway, contrary to popular belief, Italian cuisine is not just based on pasta and tomato sauce – that is only a small part of the nation’s food; rice, potatoes, lentils, soups and other similar dishes are very common in some parts of the country. Italian cuisine is based on a wide range of ingredients, and Italians often have very specific tastes that may seem foreign to Americans and other visitors.
For example, a sandwich stand may sell 4 different types of ham sandwiches, each containing ham, mayonnaise and cheese. The only thing that can be different between the sandwiches is the type of ham or cheese used in them. Rustichella and panzerotti are two examples of sandwiches that are very popular among Italians and tourists. Also, Italian sandwiches are very different from the traditional Italian-American “hero”, “submarine” or “hoagie” sandwiches (which, by the way, means nothing to an Italian). Instead of large sandwiches with a pile of meat, vegetables and cheese, sandwiches in Italy are often quite small, very flat (especially when quickly heated and pressed on a panini grill), and contain a few simple ingredients with rarely, if ever, lettuce or mayonnaise. The term panini can be a little confusing for travellers from northern Europe, as it refers to a flat, heated sandwich on a grill. In Italy, the term is synonymous with “rolls” (plural – singular is panino), which can be plain rolls or sometimes with a basic filling.
Americans will notice that Italian pasta is usually offered with a variety of sauces, not just tomato and alfredo. Also, Italian pasta is often served with much less sauce than in America. This is partly because pasta in a restaurant is usually considered the first course of a three- or four-course meal, rather than a meal in its own right.
Structure of a traditional meal: In general, Italian meals on weekdays look like this: Breakfast, lunch one dish, dinner one dish. Coffee is served almost every hour, especially around 10 am and at the end of the meal. At weekends and in restaurants (on other occasions), a meal generally consists of: Antipasto (starter: pickled vegetables, mixed cold cuts, seafood, etc.), Primo (pasta or rice dish), Secondo (meat or fish dish) often with a side dish called Contorno, and Dolce (dessert).
Like the language and the culture, food in Italy differs from region to region. Local ingredients are also very important. In warm Naples, citrus and other fresh fruits play a prominent role in dishes and alcoholic drinks, while in Venice fish is obviously an important traditional ingredient.
A note about breakfast in Italy: it is very light, often just a cappuccino or a coffee with a pastry (cappuccino e brioche) or a piece of bread and a fruit jam. If you’re not sure, don’t expect a big breakfast. In Italy, it is not customary to eat eggs and bacon or the like for breakfast – just the thought of it disgusts most Italians. In fact, salty foods are not usually eaten for breakfast. Besides, cappuccino is a breakfast drink; ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered a bit strange and a typical “tourist thing”. A small espresso is considered much better for digestion.
Cornetto (pl. cornetti) is another pleasant element of the Italian breakfast: a croissant or light pastry often filled with jam, cream or chocolate.
Lunch is considered the most important part of the day, so much so that Italians set aside an hour for eating (and in the past, another hour was reserved for a nap). All shops close and resume their activities after the two-hour break. To compensate, shops stay open later than in most other European cities, often until 8pm. In a small town, if you try to find a free place during the “pausa pranzo” (lunch break), you are very lucky. This is not the case in the centre of larger cities or in shopping centres.
Dinner (i.e. the evening meal) is usually taken late. If you are in a restaurant before 8pm in the summer, you will probably eat alone, and it is quite normal to see families with small children continuing to eat after 10pm.
In Italy, cooking is considered a kind of art. Grand chefs like Gualtiero Marchesi and Gianfranco Vissani are considered artists halfway between TV stars and magicians. Italians are very proud of their culinary tradition and generally love to eat and talk about it. However, they don’t think too highly of common prejudices, such as the idea that Italian cuisine consists only of pizza and spaghetti. They also have a distaste for the “bastard” versions of their dishes that are popular elsewhere, and many Italians find it hard to believe that the average foreigner can’t even manage a basic “proper” pasta dish.
A note on service: don’t expect the kind of dedicated and focused service you find in American restaurants. In Italy, this is considered a bit boring and people generally prefer to be left alone while they eat. You should expect the waiter to come to you after the first course, perhaps to order something as a second course.
It’s important to know that the most famous Italian dishes like pizza or spaghetti are pretty lame for some Italians, and eating out in different regions can be an interesting opportunity to try lesser-known local specialities. Even something as simple as pizza has important regional differences. Naples has a relatively thick, soft crust, while Rome’s is much thinner and crispier (both styles have a thin crust compared to American pizzas, for example).
When you go out to eat with Italians, read the menu and remember that almost every restaurant offers a typical dish and that in some towns there are centuries-old traditions that you are welcome to learn. People will be happy if you ask them about local specialities and they will be happy to advise you.
In northern Italy, around 5pm, most bars, especially in cosmopolitan Milan, prepare an aperitif with a series of platters of snacks, cheeses, olives, meats, bruschetta and much more. It is NOT considered a meal, and if you treat yourself to it as if it were dinner, you probably won’t be much appreciated. All these dishes are usually free for anyone who buys a drink, but they are meant as a snack before the meal.
Almost every city and region has its own specialities, which can be briefly listed here:
- Risotto – Carnaroli or Arborio or Vialone Nano (etc.) Rice that has been fried and cooked in a shallow pan with broth. The result is a very creamy and hearty dish. Meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and cheese are almost always added, depending on the recipe and the place. Many restaurants, families, cities and regions offer a signature risotto, or at least some kind of risotto, in addition to or instead of a signature pasta dish (risotto alla Milanese is a famous Italian classic). Risotto is a typical dish of Lombardy and Piedmont.
- Arancini – Fried rice balls with tomato sauce, eggs, peas and mozzarella. It is a Sicilian speciality, but now common throughout the region.
- Polenta – Yellow maize flour (yellow groats) cooked with broth. It is usually either served creamy or left to rest and then cut into shapes and fried or roasted. It is a very common dish in northern mountain restaurants, usually eaten with venison or wild boar meat. In the Veneto region, the best polenta is “polenta bianca”, a special and tasty white corn flour called “biancoperla”.
- Gelato – This is the Italian word for ice cream. Non-fruit flavours are usually made with milk only. Gelato, which is made with water and no milk ingredients, is also known as sorbetto. It is as fresh as a sorbet, but tastier. There are many flavours, including coffee, chocolate, fruit and tiramisù. When you buy in a gelateria, you can choose between a waffle cone or a cup; in northern Italy, you pay for each ‘scoop’ of flavour, and the panna (milk cream) counts as a flavour; in Rome, you can buy a small waffle cone (about €1.80), a medium (€2.50) or a large (€3.00) with no limit on flavours, and the panna is free.
- Tiramisù – Italian cake made of coffee, mascarpone and ladyfingers (sometimes rum) with cocoa powder on top. The name means “pick-me-up”.
Pizza is a quick and convenient meal. Most cities have pizzerias that sell by the gram. Look for a “Pizza al taglio” sign. When you order, just point to the display or tell the waitress what kind of pizza you want (e.g. pizza margherita, pizza con patate (fried or roasted), pizza al prosciutto (ham), etc.) and the quantity (“Vorrei (due fette – two slices) or (due etti – two tenths of a kilogram) or just say “di più – plus” or “di meno – minus, per favore”). You slice it, heat it in the oven, fold it in half and wrap it in paper. Other grocery shops also sell pizzas by the slice. Italians consider them a kind of second-class pizza, which you only choose if you can’t have a “proper” pizza in a specialised restaurant (pizzeria). You can save money by eating your meal on the go – many sandwich shops charge extra if you want to sit down to eat. Remember that pizzas in many parts of the country have a thinner bread base and contain less cheese than pizzas outside Italy. The most authentic and original pizza can be found in Naples. It often contains a range of ingredients, but the most common is the Margherita pizza (tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella di bufala) or the Margherita with prosciutto.
The traditional round pizza can be found in many restaurants and specialised pizzerias (pizzerias). However, it is rare to find a restaurant that serves pizza at lunchtime. Don’t wait anywhere for the thick crust pizza like in America.
Takeaway pizzerias (pizzerie da asporto) are now ubiquitous in many cities. They are often run by North African immigrants and their quality can vary, although they are almost always cheaper than restaurants (on average €4-5 for a margherita, but sometimes as little as €3) and are also open at lunchtime (some are also open all day). Some also serve kebabs, the quality of which can also vary. Although takeaway pizzerias are considered “second-rate pizzas” by most Italians, they are quite popular among the large population of university students and are usually located in residential areas. They should not be confused with the “Pizza al Taglio” shops that are still very popular in Rome. This is a kind of traditional fast food in the capital that can be found on every street corner. The quality is usually very good and the pizzas are sold by weight; you choose the slice of pizza you want, then they put it on the scales and tell you the price.
Cheese and sausages
Italy has almost 800 types of cheese, including the famous Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, and more than 400 types of sausage.
If you want a real kick, try to find one of the large open markets, which are always open on Saturdays and usually on all other days except Sunday. There you will find all kinds of cheeses and cold meats.
Restaurants and bars
Italian bars in the centre of big cities charge more (usually double the final bill) if you drink or eat sitting at a table outside instead of standing at the bar or taking your order to go. The reason for this is that bars charge a very high fee for setting up tables and chairs outside. Since most people don’t use tables anyway, it was decided a long time ago to only charge those who do. The further you are from the streets in the centre, the less this rule is enforced. When you order a coffee or other drink in a bar, you first have to go to the cashier and pay what you want. Then you give the receipt to the barman who will serve you.
Restaurants always charged a small coperto (cover charge). Attempts were made a few years ago to ban this practice, with limited success. The rule now seems to be that if you have bread, a coperto can be charged, but if you explicitly say you don’t want bread, no coperto can be charged. This happened mainly because of backpackers who would sit down at a table, occupy it for an hour by simply ordering a drink or a salad and eating huge amounts of bread.
Some restaurants now charge a service fee, but this is far from common. In Italian restaurants, you never expect to get a big tip. The 15% that is customary in the United States can kill an Italian waiter in a heart attack. Just leave a euro or two and they will be more than happy.
The traditional meal may include (in order) an antipasto (cold seafood starter, vegetables au gratin or ham and salami), a primo (first course – pasta or rice), a secondo (second course – meat or fish), plus a contorno (mainly vegetables), cheese/fruit, dessert, coffee and spirits. Upscale restaurants usually refuse to make changes to the dishes offered (exceptions are readily granted for babies or people with special diets). Middle-class restaurants are usually more accommodating. A simple pasta dish with tomato sauce, for example, may not be on the menu, but a restaurant will almost always be willing to prepare one for children who refuse to eat the rest of the menu.
If you are part of a large group (say four or more), it is appreciated that you do not all order completely different pastas. While the sauces are pre-cooked, the pasta is freshly cooked and it is difficult for the restaurant if one person wants spaghetti, another fettuccine, a third rigatoni, a fourth penne and a fifth farfalle (butterfly-shaped pasta). If you try such an order, you will inevitably be told that you will have a long wait (because the cooking time is not the same for all types of pasta)!
When a pizza is ordered, it is served as a primo (even if it is not formally considered as such), along with other primi. If you order pasta or pizza and your friend has a steak, you will get your pasta dish and the steak will probably come after you have finished eating. If you want the first and second courses to be brought at the same time, you have to ask for it.
Restaurants that offer dietary foods, of which there are very few, usually write it clearly on the menus and even outside; the others usually do not have dietary resources.
To avoid cover charges and if you are on a tight budget, almost all Italian stations have a buffet or self-service restaurant (Termini station in Rome is a good example). Prices are always reasonable and the food is generally of good quality.
A gastronomia is a type of self-service restaurant (usually you tell the staff what you want instead of serving yourself) that also offers takeaway food. This can be a good opportunity to enjoy traditional Italian dishes at a relatively low price. Note that this is not a buffet restaurant. You pay according to what you order.