Traveling in the Italian Language: Eating Etiquette

Jun 25, 2012


Eating Out in Italy

Mangiare fuori in Italia

Americans sometimes assume that restaurants in Italy are like old-fashioned Italian restaurants in the United States, with checkered tablecloths and dishes like fettucini Alfredo. They’re not — and never were. Here is a preview of the array of Italian eating establishments: 

*Bar / caffè, the perfect place for a morning cappuccino or for an espresso any time of the day. Italians also may stop at a bar before lunch or dinner for an aperitivo – a light alcoholic drink such as a prosecco, Campari or Bellini, accompanied by a snack. Prices vary depending on whether you eat in piedi (standing) or seduto (seated, the more expensive option).

*Tavola calda (literally hot table), a buffet of prepared hot dishes that you can eat on the premises or take away. 

*Pizzeria. At a pizzeria al taglio, you buy pizza or focaccia by the “cut” or slice. At a pizzeria you sit and eat a whole round pizza. 

*Paninoteca, a sandwich shop. 

*Birreria, the Italian version of a pub, where you can have sandwiches and salads. 

*Osteria or taverna, an informal restaurant serving simple, inexpensive dishes 

*Trattoria, a mid-priced restaurant, often family-run, with a cozy atmosphere and local specialties. 

*Ristorante, a more formal and expensive restaurant, serving high-quality Italian or international cuisine. 

Wherever you decide to eat, always greet the staff, including the waiter (cameriere), with a buongiorno or buonasera (good day at lunch; good evening at dinner). Italian waiters are professionals respected for their knowledge of food and wine. If you speak Italian, use the formal (“lei”) form of address, not the familiar “tu.” You may hear Italians calling out “Senta!” to attract attention, but it can sound rude. I prefer to say “Mi scusi” (Excuse me)—always with a polite smile. 

Rather than pouring tap water, your waiter will ask if you prefer still (naturale) or sparkling (gassata or frizzante) bottled water, which is not served with ice. Italians typically drink only water and wine – bianco (white), rosso (red) or rosato (rose’) — with meals. Sugary drinks such as Coca-Cola or limonata are considered an insult to the taste buds. Not even young children drink cold milk with meals. 

Don’t expect a small plate with bread and olive oil. Restaurants in Italy provide a bread basket with grissini (breadsticks) and bread and serve salads with extra-virgin olive olio and aceto (vinegar), not creamy salad dressings. 

Essential Do’s and Don’ts 

*If you want to eat on an outdoor terrace, ask for a table fuori (outside), not al fresco (which translates as the equivalent of “in the cooler,” slang for “in jail”). 

*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. 

 *Respect others’ privacy. Italians tend to talk among themselves rather than getting into conversations with strangers. Keep your voices low. 

*Never, ever order cappuccino after a meal. To an Italian, this breakfast drink is like a bowl of cereal after dinner. 

*Ask for the check ("Il conto, per favore”). A waiter would consider it rude to bring the bill before it’s requested. 

 *Leave a tip. Yes, coperto e IVA (cover and taxes) are included in the bill. Most Italians simply round up the bill, but an extra 10 to 15 percent is always welcome—and ensures excellent service if you return. 

*Say goodbye. As a common courtesy and sign of appreciation, be sure to extend an “arriverderci” or “buonasera” to the waiters and staff as you leave. 

 Buon appetito!

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

For a behind-the-scenes view of an Italian restaurant, click below for a clip from the wonderful movie Big Night:

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