Italian cuisine needs no introduction, and neither does the appreciation the locals demonstrate for the simple but spectacular ingredients that make their pastas, pizzas, cheeses, wines and gelati. The season-driven, flavor-forward approach to local ingredients that defines the food cooked and enjoyed here has transcended Europe and gone on to influence menus and food philosophies the world over, leaving chefs and diners alike salivating for more.
So, rather than asking whether trying the cuisine is worthwhile, the more pertinent question is where to begin in a country with innumerable regional specialties, a meticulous attention to culinary detail and unfathomable national pride for traditions surrounding its food. With that, let’s dig in
The Dining Experience in Italy
Whether you’re standing in the street eating a panino or pizza al taglio or making your way through a six-course meal in a decorated restaurant, there’s a right way—and a wrong way—to approach dining in Italy. Each experience has different rules of etiquette.
If you merely want a sandwich, an ice cream or your morning coffee and pastry, go to a caffé (coffee bar). Place your order, stand at the counter, enjoy and then pay the bill. This isn’t the type of establishment where you sit down and linger.
At a tavola calda, you grab prepared food. Again, this is for fast eating, and it’s not necessarily the spot to linger.
Once you enter establishments where you sit down to enjoy your meal, the lines start to blur a bit, but expectations still exist. Traditionally, an osteria is a very casual establishment, but there are some more formal ones now. A trattoria also traditionally offers casual meals, but it might be more like a ristorante in format.
A paninoteca is a sandwich shop, and a birreria is the Italian version of a pub.
Look for a ristorante if you want to settle in for a proper five-course Italian meal. First will come antipasti (starters) and then primo (typically soup, pasta or risotto). For secondo, expect meat, fish or poultry, which is typically served alongside contorni (side dishes). The meal is finished up with dolce (dessert) and an after-dinner drink. There isn’t any rule stating you have to order from every section of the menu, but be aware that secondi are often served alone (without any vegetables or other sides). If you want an accompaniment, you’ll have to order something from the contorni section too. Order both a primo and a secondo, or simply choose one; either way is perfectly acceptable. If you're planning to have an antipasto, contorno or dolce, however, ordering just a primo or a secondo could help you avoid overeating. Remember, though, if you’re really trying to eat like an Italian, you’d better order an espresso after your meal! In this setting, you’re in for a long, delicious and filling experience.
Ordering coffee in Italy is something else entirely. If you’re looking for a large cup of joe you can linger over, order an Americano. An espresso, by contrast, is a short, strong cup of pulled coffee. If you prefer something with milk, a cappuccino is a shot of espresso added to a small cup of steamed milk, and it’s ordered exclusively before 11:00 a.m. After that, order a latte.
Backroads Pro Tip
The server will almost never bring the bill unless you ask for it. Even if you’re the very last people in the restaurant, it still won’t come. When you’re ready to pay, simply ask for “il conto.” The bill will likely include a small bread and cover charge, but the prices listed on the menu include tax and usually service. You can leave a small tip (a few coins) if you desire. Not all restaurants accept credit cards, so be prepared with cash.
Typical Italian Dishes
No matter where you are in Italy, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Italian delicacies:
This Italian-style ice cream is made with milk and sugar, and it’s typically lower in fat than other ice cream styles. It lacks nothing in flavor, though!
Risotto is a rich dish made with short-grain rice boiled in broth to a creamy consistency. Served with different seasonal vegetables or meats, it often contains cheese.
This is served al taglio (by the slice) or as an entire pie. Pizza in Italy is smaller than in the United States, and a single person is typically meant to eat it all. The thickness, crust and toppings vary from region to region.
This rich dessert (literally “pick me up”) is originally from the Veneto region but has spread all over Italy. It almost always consists of ladyfingers dipped in coffee and sandwiched between rich layers of mascarpone cream. Cocoa powder is used for flavoring.
Typically used as a pasta sauce, pesto is made from the freshest basil, pine nuts, olive oil and cheese. It’s most popular in
● Cacio e Pepe
A shining example of how exceptional the simplest Italian dish can be, Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper) is only comprised of handmade pasta, cheese and pepper. The concoction is mind-blowing—always.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Italy’s landscape is one of the most diverse in the world – from the hot and dry islands of the south (Sicily!) to the sparkline Mediterranean Coast to the jagged mountain peaks of the Alps. As such, you can expect to find a refreshingly different and unique cuisine by simply traveling a short distance in any direction. Here are some of our favorite specialties:
● Bagna Càuda, or “Warm Dip” (Piedmont)
Bagna Càuda means "warm dip" in Piedmontese, a dialect that was widely spoken in northwest Italy until recent decades. The dish is made with chopped garlic, and it’s cooked slowly with oil and butter to form an emulsion. The chef then pours in additional olive oil, chopped anchovies and walnuts, and this cooks down until it makes a nice salty, garlicky mix. Often served with Jerusalem artichoke, endive, sweet pepper and onion for dipping, the dish is traditionally brought to the table in a terra-cotta pot.
● Orecchiette with Turnip Tops (Puglia)
These orecchiette (little ears) of durum wheat pasta are often made without egg. This classic Pugliese primo (first course) sees them tossed with cime di rape, broccoli rabe or turnip tops, as well as a little oil and seasoning. Sometimes the dish includes preserved anchovies.
● Pilau (Sardinia)
Fregola, or small bits of pasta, are the main ingredient in pilau, which is a couscous-like dish that’s prepared by cooking the grains in a fresh stock. Around the island, you'll find versions of pilau made with sheep or goat meat, as well as with crustaceans and shellfish in a tomato sauce.
● Pasta with Sardines (Sicily)
This dish is usually made with bucatini (hollow pasta tubes) and served al dente. It includes fresh sardines, raisins, pine nuts and, most importantly, wild fennel and saffron.
● Strudel (Trentino-Alto Adige)
Italy's northernmost region has a split personality because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse after World War I. As with the language, cooking here still comes with Austrian touches, and strudel is a perfect example. A standard recipe includes apples, pine nuts, raisins and spices wrapped in a pastry sheet.
● “Naked” Ravioli with Spinach and Cheese (Tuscany)
Typical “peasant food,” this dish only requires ricotta (sheep's milk cheese), flour, egg and spinach, as well as a simple dressing of olive oil, sage and pecorino cheese.
● Tagliatelle with Truffles (Umbria)
In Umbria, it feels as if everything good to eat comes from the woods. The black truffle grows just below ground level in deciduous forests all over the region. The dish itself could hardly be simpler. Simply toss fresh handmade pasta strands with a little butter and some grated parmigiano to taste, and then add as much truffle as you're allowed.
Backroads Pro Tip
Not sure what to eat in a particular region? Just ask, “Di vostri produzione?” (“What do you make by hand?”).
Italian Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Fixed-price menu: Menu a presso fisso
● First course, typically a pasta, soup or salad: Primo
● Main course, typically meat, poultry or fish: Secondo
● Salad: Insalata
● Cheese: Formaggio
● Dessert: Dolce
● Fruit: Frutta
● Espresso: Caffè
● After-dinner drink, such as limoncello: Digestivo
● Fish, or “of the sea”: Mare
● Meat and poultry, or “of the land”: Terre
● Side dishes: Contorni
● Service or cover charge: Coperto
● Of our production, or “made in house”: Di nostri produzione
● Still water: Acqua naturale
● Sparkling water: Acqua frizzante
Words to Know When Dining Out
Many Italians speak impeccable English, and this is especially true in more urban and touristy areas, but it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Here are some to get you started at a local restaurant:
● Could I have the bill, please?: Il conto, per favore?
● I’m gluten free.: Sono senza glutine.
● I’m a vegetarian.: Sono vegetariano.
● Server: Cameriere
● Water: Acqua
● Restroom: Toilette
● Bon appetit!: Buon appetito!
Tipping isn’t compulsory in Italy because a restaurant bill will generally already include a small service charge. If you like, however, you can leave a few coins on the bill as you pay. It’ll always be appreciated.
Tipping, in any capacity, is more common in upscale restaurants; don’t feel obligated in casual eateries or bars.
Italians generally eat three meals a day and don’t snack between them. Most eating establishments close for a giorno di riposo (day of rest) each week. Many shut down for the month of August and for several weeks in winter.
· Prima colazione (breakfast) is typically from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. An Italian breakfast usually consists of an espresso or cappuccino with a cornetto (croissant) or brioche filled with crema (custard), marmellata (marmalade) or cioccolato (chocolate).
· Pranzo (lunch) is from 12:30 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m., depending on the region. Italians in villages or rural areas still eat lunch at home. An urban dweller might make do with a panino (sandwich) or tramezzino (triangular sandwich without crust). A traditional sit-down lunch consists of several courses, including l’antipasto (appetizer, such as cold meats or marinated vegetables), il primo (first course, such as pasta or risotto) and il secondo (second or main course, such as meat or fish).
· Don’t ask for grated cheese on any dish containing seafood, such as spaghetti ai frutti di mare. Fish and cheese are an unthinkable combination.
· Depite their reputation, Italians can actually be quite reserved and quiet when dining, especially in more refined restaurants. They tend to talk among themselves rather than getting into conversations with strangers, and appreciate maintaining a more quiet, dignified tone of voice at the restaurant table.
· Never ever order a cappuccino after a meal. To an Italian, ordering this breakfast drink after dinner would be like ordering a bowl of cereal after your meal.
· Say good-bye. As a common courtesy and a sign of appreciation, be sure to extend an “arriverderci” or “buonasera” to the servers and staff as you leave.