Italy is known throughout the world for its delicious cuisine. Yet, some tourists return home feeling confused by the country’s culinary traditions and disappointed by their dining experiences. Below are the 6 biggest mistakes you can make when eating in Italy (and how to avoid them). Follow this advice, and you’ll soon have tastier and more enjoyable meals.
1.) Ordering foreignized Italian dishes
You may have fond memories of eating grandma’s spaghetti bolognese or fettucini alfredo, but you’d be best to avoid ordering either dish in Italy. Both are examples of Italian cuisine that has been adjusted to the palates of foreigners, and, not surprisingly, neither is popular in Italy. If you do see one of these plates on a menu, beware—you’re probably in a tourist trap! Instead, order a traditional variant, like pappardelle al ragù.
2.) Not respecting meal times
Eating well in Italy means playing by Italian rules. All restaurants—at least those worth eating at—will stop serving lunch by 2 or 3 PM. Plan ahead, especially in small towns, to avoid having to scavenge for food. At dinnertime, most quality restaurants will not begin service until 7:30 or 8 PM at the earliest. If you see a restaurant open earlier than that, it’s almost certainly targeting unsuspecting tourists to whom they can feed sub-par food. Instead of caving to your hunger pains and eating at such an establishment, grab a drink and a small bite to eat at one of Italy’s many cocktail bars and coffee shops that serve pre-dinner apertivi while you wait for the good restaurants to open.
3.) Waiting for the waiter to give you the bill
In Italy, eating is an important social activity that is not to be rushed. It's common to sit at your table for over an hour after your meal chatting over an espresso or some grappa. As such, it is considered rude for waiters to offer you the check unless you've asked for it. Travelers who are unaware of this custom end up waiting at their table for a bill that will never come. Instead, when you're ready to leave, simply motion to your waiter and state “il coperto, per favore.”
4.) Eating near a major tourist attraction
Visitors to Italy’s major cities often select the first restaurant they find near an important monument, building, or site. Don’t do this. You will end up over-paying for sub-standard food. How else do you think they can afford to pay the rent in such prime locations? Instead, take a few minutes to walk to a less-touristic area or at the very least wander down a side street. This rule is not as important in smaller towns and villages, where better restaurants can often be found on main piazzas or boulevards. Nevertheless, whenever possible, eat where the locals go.
5.) Ordering the same dishes, regardless of your location
Each region in Italy has its own unique cuisine, developed over hundreds of years using the ingredients best-suited for that particular climate. These local dishes are more than mere tradition, they are a culinary representation of the union between society and the land. Unfortunately, many tourist order dishes that are famous or sound familiar to them, regardless of where they are. Not surprisingly, such meals often leave travelers underwhelmed. Be sure to select local dishes (and wines) when traveling, as the ingredients will be fresher and the flavors better.
6.) Eating on the go
Part of the charm of the Italian lifestyle is its emphasis on taking the time to fully appreciate the finer things, whether it be art, fashion, or food. Stuffing your face full of pizza while walking from museum to museum goes completely against this philosophy and robs you of an opportunity to enjoy the beauty around you. After all, you can't focus on the subtle interplay of flavors in your panino when trying to dodge traffic in Rome. Instead, sit, slow down, and fully concentrate on eating, allowing yourself to savor each bite. Then, once you've had your fill, you can partake in another famed Italian tradition—the post-meal stroll.
Fantastic culinary traditions and readily available quality ingredients make eating well in Italy fairly easy. Avoid the above-listed pitfalls on your next trip there and you’ll be well on your way towards living la dolce vita.
What have your experiences been like eating in Italy? Do you have any advice on how to eat well there?