Every city around the world has differences in the food culture. Cuisine, atmosphere, rituals, traditions and other little nuances can offer insight into the way people live in that particular place. In Italy, if you ask someone on the street where is the best place to eat in the area, they are likely to say you eat better at home or at nonna’s. Home cooking is king but many restaurants adapt their menus to offer the simplicity, nostalgia and rustic style of that homey comfort food. Here are some things to look out for when you want to eat like a local in Italy.
Breakfast is usually a cappuccino and a small sweet from the local bar like a cornetto, biscotto or fetta di torta. Stand at the bar to drink your coffee. Italians throw back their morning coffee in a split second like a caffeine shot. There’s no time to sip leisurely as others shout their order over your shoulder and shuffle to find their space at the bar. It’s more of a necessity than a pastime. Don’t order a Capuccino after midday. Need an afternoon fix? Opt for an espresso or macchiato and you’ll fit right in.
Traditionally, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Although this is less common in major cities, many small towns close their shops in the middle of the day to go home for a hot meal. This may be followed by an afternoon nap before returning to work. On weekends and especially domenica, lunch is a ritual enjoyed with loved ones. Whether eaten at home, or out at a restaurant it typically consists of multiple courses.
The best way to eat out like a local in Italy is to enjoy a classic long lunch by ordering antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci. Antipasti are the starters of cured meats, cheeses, preserves and appetisers that can be unique to the local area. Primo meaning ‘first’ (primi plural), is a hot course being pasta, rice or soup. The secondo consists of a meat or fish dish accompanied by the contorni or sides, which are usually hot vegetables and salad. Of course dolci to finish are desserts or fresh fruit accompanied by an espresso or even a digestivo like limoncello or amaro.
A menu fisso is a set menu or ‘workers lunch’ offered by casual trattorias. It offers all of these courses with a limited selection of dishes each day for around 10-30 euro per person. These are often written on blackboards outside restaurants. Dishes are basic but the menu can include bottled water (you’d be hard pressed to find an Italian who drinks tap water even at home), house wine, and an espresso to finish. These menus can also be offered as a menu carne or menu pesce, referring to whether the dishes are meat or seafood focused. Italians generally will stick to one or the other when ordering multiple courses.
Lunch is traditionally the bigger meal of the day so dinner is eaten later at around 9PM. Tourists looking for somewhere to eat dinner at 6PM are likely to be dining alone, or with other tourists. If you want to eat out like a local in Italy and find out which restaurants are busy and popular with locals, you will have to wait until later. To pass the time, aperitivo is the perfect solution.
Aperitivo is a central part of the Italian culture and perfectly illustrates a slow Sunday afternoon. Similar to happy hour, it’s lively in main cities and can be enjoyed anywhere between 5 and 8 PM. Sophisticated bars serve Negronis and Aperol Spritz with entire buffets dedicated to pre-dinner ‘snacks’. In smaller towns it might involve a beer in the local piazza with a bowl of chips or olives. As a general rule, when you purchase a drink for aperitivo the snacks will be included in the price.
Pizza e Birra
Going to a pizzeria? Pizzas are usually served one per person and come unsliced. Thinking you can’t finish a whole one? Good Italian pizzerias let their dough rise over a 24-48 hour period resulting in a base that’s easier to digest. You’ll find that most pizzas won’t have as many heavy toppings as you may find in America for example. Less is more and ingredients should be high quality. Pizza is always enjoyed with a cold beer. Try local beers such as Nastro Azzuro, Menabrea, or Ichnusa. Read more about pizza in Italy here.
All of these things and so much more represent restaurant culture in Italy. To find out more, learn the difference between restaurants, trattorias, osterias, enotecas, tavernas, and locandas here.