Italian food customs in Italy may not be what you expect. If you want to eat like the locals eat in Rome, check out these tips for understanding food culture in Italy:
If at home, Italians usually have something hot like an espresso or caffe latte (it’s not common to make cappuccino at home; most Italians only have the little moka machine to make espresso, then they heat their milk in a little pan. Cappuccino requires steamed foamed milk, which requires a gadget most Italians don’t have at home.) The usual home-breakfast is either sweet dried biscuits for dunking in the hot drink, or, dried toast (fette biscottate), with marmalade.
If Italians go out for breakfast, they will stop at a bar, stand at the counter and have their drink (this time, maybe a cappuccino or caffe macchiato, which both have foamed milk), and some kind of pastry, like a croissant (“cornetto”, which is definitely not as sweet and buttery as the French version), or stuffed pastry (cream, jam, etc.)
In Italian food customs, breakfast is something quick to start the day but never as an elaborate, sit-down event. This is often why it’s hard to find “American breakfasts” or “English breakfasts” in Rome. You will need to stay at a 4- or 5-star hotel that has a kitchen dedicated to this “unusual” kind of cooking, or a bar that is willing to make those foods.
I have another page about this, but in a nutshell, if Italians have lunch during working hours, it’s very often just a slice of pizza, eaten while standing up; or a sandwich (panino) at the bar. A very popular lunch with Romans is the tavola calda – an inexpensive and relatively quick way to have a nice hot lunch. At a tavola calda, you will find pre-made dishes, such as pastas, veggies, meat and fish, ready to be re-heated, at a café (bar). Italians may go out for a longer business lunch as well. This is another kind of lunch, involving hours of sitting, eating and talking.
If Italians eat dinner out, probably the most common place to go among friends is a pizzeria. “Let’s go have a pizza together” is a phrase my friends and I use the most when we want to see each other for dinner in Rome. It does not mean we will all have pizza, but it’s a way of saying, let’s just go have something easy and casual. Many pizzerias also serve other food, so it’s easy for everyone to have something they like.
One of the most typical Italian food customs is the family Sunday lunch outing. This might be at someone’s house, a restaurant out of town, so it feels like a getaway, or just a local trattoria in Rome. No matter where, that Sunday family lunch will be long, hours long, and very filling. If you want to see a slice of Italian family life, go out for Sunday lunch (from 1pm onward) in a local trattoria, or a small town outside of Rome, such as Frascati, and you will see this in action. It’s fun, loud, warm and loving, and a great way to pass a Sunday.
Aside from the pizzeria, here are the other types of eateries in Rome:
Some other terms you might find:
Italian food customs vary a little across regions. But more or less, a typical meal in Rome (and the rest of Italy) consists of the following (the links below will take you to my page on Rome cuisine, where you will find examples, photos and more descriptions about each course):
Do Italians eat and drink all that? Not usually. I certainly do not. But as part of Italian food customs, that's the general order of a full-blown meal. And if you go to one of those Italian Sunday lunches I mentioned above, then yes, be prepared to try them all.
Nobody expects you to eat/order all those courses. In fact, when I eat out with my Italian friends, we all almost always get about 2 items each (not including dessert and after-dinner drinks!)
I also like to share with a friend: maybe one antipasto, one primo and one secondo, all to split. I do not know of any restaurant where this is a problem. Italian food customs do not prohibit sharing at all. I find they are always happy to oblige, and bring extra plates. Some even go so far as to bring the dish out already divided into two. This is true even in nice restaurants, so go ahead, sharing food in Rome restaurants is just fine.
Portion sizes for food in restaurants in Rome are generally much smaller than what you find abroad. The idea is to actually be able to finish what you order. In Italian food customs, taking left-over food home is generally not done, but there are exceptions. If you do leave over a huge portion of meat or fish, and want to take it with you, they will always wrap it up for you. But certainly not pasta, which is meant to be eaten hot, and freshly made.
One reason Italians seem to stay so slim may be attributed to these “normal” portion sizes (there are no super-size meals in Italy!) Another reason is, they are NOT always eating pasta. Italian food customs include a lot more soup, vegetables and fish than pasta … the famous healthy Mediterranean diet. (Contrary to popular belief, they also tend not to drink much wine, which I sadly discovered is very fattening!) And when they do eat pasta, as I say, the portion sizes are so reasonable that it’s just not a big cause of weight gain for them.
A caveat – with more and more Italians staying single longer, more and more adult Italians are eating pre-made packaged foods like never before. Italian food customs are changing. People are eating more fast-food. And you know what this means…more stuff you don’t know what you are eating, more fat…and Italians are getting a little heavier.
Most visitors to Italy (and frankly many parts of Europe) are baffled by the fact that it seems impossible to just get a big pitcher of tap water at the table. Italian food customs include a strong emphasis on bottled water. Most Italians say they prefer the taste, but there is also a distrust of tap water and how safe it is (it's perfectly safe in Rome, but it does have a lot of minerals in it, particularly calcium.) Many Italians I know will tell you which brand of bottle water they love or can't stand.
When you order water, the server will ask if you want flat or fizzy. It is assumed you want bottled water. Most Romans love their “lightly effervescent” water, which they believe aids digestion.
If you want tap water, just ask for it. In Italian, it’s called “acqua dal rubinetto.” Note that it will never come with ice unless you ask for it, and even then, it will be a cube or two at most. They are not very into ice in Italy.
I am not a wine connoisseur, but I do drink my share (ahem.) In Italy, house wines tend to be pretty drinkable. You’ll also find that a good bottle of wine, even in a Rome restaurant, can be very affordable.
In Italian food customs, after dinner, you will be asked if you want coffee. This usually means espresso. For an Italian, the idea of having a huge cup of hot steaming milk (i.e a cappuccino) after a big meal is just not an option. Don’t worry, though, if you want one. They do not frown at foreigners who do it, and will usually even offer it to you. (If you want a more liquidy American-style coffee, ask for that: “caffe Americano”. They will make an espresso and add extra hot water. You may also ask for decaf.)
After the whole meal (including coffee) is over, you may be asked if you’d like a digestive (or digestif.) Sometimes the restaurant will offer this, on the house (but not always.)
Some typical digestives of Italian food customs are limoncello (sweet lemony liquor), amaro (bitter, something like Jägermeister) or grappa (made from distilled grape skins.) I prefer to drink limoncello only if I’m on the Amalfi coast (where it originates and where it is divine). Otherwise I find it a bit too sweet. However, I have recently learned to appreciate a good grappa.
I’ll have to say that Italy just does not have the customer service bug. You will find great customer service, in shops, restaurants, hotels, bars and taxis, when you happen to run into that individual Italian who really enjoys what he/she is doing, or loves working with people. But overall, don’t expect very attentive or overly friendly service. This is not rudeness. It’s simply that in many Italians’ minds, it’s not about you. They are just doing their job. I have learned to relax and just try to enjoy a restaurant based on other qualities, very often despite terrible or non-existent service.
How much will you spend to eat dinner out in Rome? I would say an average price for dinner out in Rome will run about 30 Euros per person, if you include two courses and a moderate amount of moderately priced wine. If you want to eat really good seafood in Rome, expect to pay closer to 40-60 Euros per person with wine.
Of course there are exceptions. But remember, you get what you pay for. When you see pasta advertised for 5 Euros a portion, how good do you think that pasta is? It is likely mass-produced and packaged, frozen and reheated. A pretty good spaghetti all’amatriciana at a Roman trattoria will cost 7-9 Euros, and a superb plate of the same in a slightly more upscale restaurant or trattoria will cost from 11 Euros and up. That’s not so bad right?
I wrote above that servers in Italy get paid a full salary and don't depend on tips to make a living. Service is "built in" to the price of your meal. So why are you getting charged a service charge?
Good question. Well, this is where things get a little murky. In Italy, there is a tax called IVA. For services, it’s 10%. Mostly when you pay for goods and services in Italy, the price you pay already includes this tax. However, some (very few) restaurants choose to add the 10% service charge at the end, when you get your bill.
This is confusing enough for those of us who live here and expect that the price listed on the menu is the final price. But, by law, if they are going to do that, then this policy has to be printed on the menu. The worst thing is that some restaurants have a bad habit of tacking on a hand-written “10% service charge” only when they think they can get away with it, i.e. with unsuspecting tourists. I’ve also heard of 15% and 20% service charges being arbitrarily added on.
Always check if the menu has this policy printed on it or not. And if you see a “service charge” hand-written on your bill, ask them why.
A cover charge? For a restaurant? Well, yes. This is one of those Italian food customs that may not seem to make sense but in Italy, a long time ago, there were “Osterias” where people would come with their own food, but pay for wine and sit at a table and join with other people. The Osteria would then charge for things like the silverware and basic fee to just come in. This habit is still around and you will normally find it on your bill, usually in the amount of 1-3 Euros per person.
This is not supposed to be allowed any more but it still shows up on some restaurant bills. Usually it’s 1-2 Euros per person. You may try to ask them to remove it, especially if you did not ask for or eat any bread.
Should you tip? You don’t have to. Restaurant servers make a full salary, with paid vacations, sick time, and full benefits. They do not make their living off of tips. As noted above, the “service” is built into the bill. In fact, the service charge is really not a tip, it’s a tax, but in any case, you have paid for the service. However, nobody will be offended if you want to tip him or her. It’s fine to tip 1-2 Euros per person. If you feel you had wonderful service and really want to tip a lot, then 3-4 Euros per person is plenty. You are never expected to tip 10, 15 or 20%.
You almost never need to dress up to eat at a Rome restaurant or trattoria, unless it is a Michelin-star restaurant. You may choose to dress up if you like. Romans are (almost) always dressed to look great so you won't be overdressed. I would not suggest being scantily clad at all when in Rome, not even in the summer.
But it's fine to wear jeans, shorts, sandals and tennis shoes to a restaurant in Rome. Use your judgement.
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