Italian cuisine is still largely regional. Ask what the specialties are—and, by all means, try spaghetti alla carbonara (with bacon and egg) in Rome, pizza in Naples, bistecca alla fiorentina (steak) in Florence, cinghiale (wild boar) in Tuscany, truffles in Piedmont, la frittura (fish fry) in Venice, and risotto alla milanese in Milan. Although most restaurants in Italy serve local dishes, you can find Asian and Middle Eastern alternatives in Rome, Venice, and other cities. The restaurants we list are the cream of the crop in each price category.
Meals and Mealtimes
What's the difference between a ristorante and a trattoria? Can you order food at an enoteca? Can you go to a restaurant just for a snack or order only salad at a pizzeria? The following definitions should help.
Not long ago, ristoranti tended to be more elegant and expensive than trattorie, which serve traditional, home-style fare in an atmosphere to match, or osterie, which serve local wines and simple, regional dishes. But the distinction has blurred considerably, and an osteria in the center of town might now be far fancier (and pricier) than a ristorante across the street. In any sit-down establishment, however, you're generally expected to order at least a two-course meal, such as: a primo (first course) and a secondo (main course) or a contorno (vegetable side dish); an antipasto (starter) followed by either a primo or secondo; or a secondo and a dolce (dessert).
There is no problem if you’d prefer to eat less, but consider an enoteca or pizzeria as an alternative, where it's more common to order a single dish. An enoteca menu is often limited to a selection of cheese, cured meats, salads, and desserts, but if there's a kitchen you can also find soups, pastas, and main courses. The typical pizzeria serves affettati misti (a selection of cured pork), simple salads, various kinds of bruschetta, crostini (similar to bruschetta, with a variety of toppings) and, in Rome and Naples, fritti (deep-fried finger food) such as olive ascolane (green olives with a meat stuffing) and supplì or arancini (rice balls stuffed with mozzarella or minced meat).
The most convenient and least expensive places for a quick snack between sights are probably bars, cafés, and pizza al taglio (by the slice) spots. Pizza al taglio shops are easy to negotiate, but few have seats. They sell pizza by weight: just point out which kind you want and how much. Kebab stores are also omnipresent in every Italian city.
Note that Italians do not usually walk and eat.
Bars in Italy resemble what we think of as cafés, and are primarily places to get a coffee and a bite to eat, rather than drinking establishments. Expect a selection of panini warmed up on the griddle (piastra) and tramezzini (sandwiches made of untoasted white bread triangles). In larger cities, bars also serve vegetable and fruit salads, cold pasta dishes, and gelato. Most offer beer and a variety of alcohol, as well as wines by the glass (sometimes good but more often mediocre). A café is like a bar but typically has more tables. Pizza at a café should be avoided—it's usually heated in a microwave.
If you place your order at the counter, ask whether you can sit down. Some places charge for table service (especially in tourist centers); others don't. In self-service bars and cafés, it's good manners to clean your table before you leave. Be aware that in certain spots (such as train stations and stops along the highway) you first pay a cashier; then show your scontrino (receipt) at the counter to place your order. Menus are posted outside most restaurants (in English in tourist areas). If not, you might step inside and ask to take a look at the menu, but don't ask for a table unless you intend to stay.
Italians take their food as it's listed on the menu, seldom making special requests such as "dressing on the side" or "hold the olive oil." If you have special dietary needs, however, make them known; they can usually be accommodated. Vegetarians should be firm, as bacon and ham can slip into some dishes. Although mineral water makes its way to almost every table, you can order a carafe of tap water (acqua di rubinetto or acqua semplice) instead—just keep in mind that such water can be highly chlorinated.
An Italian would never ask for olive oil to dip bread in, and don't be surprised if there's no butter to spread on it either. Wiping your bowl clean with a (small) piece of bread, known locally as la scarpetta, is usually considered a sign of appreciation, not bad manners. Spaghetti should be eaten with a fork only, although a little help from a spoon won't horrify locals the way cutting spaghetti into little pieces might. Order your caffè (Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning) after dessert, not with it. As for doggy bags, Italians would never ask for one, though eateries popular with tourists are becoming more accustomed to travelers who do.
Breakfast (la colazione) is usually served from 7 to 10:30, lunch (il pranzo) from 12:30 to 2, and dinner (la cena) from 7:30 to 10, later in the south; outside those hours, best head for a bar. Peak times are usually 1:30 for lunch and 9 for dinner. Enoteche and Venetian bacari (wine bars) are also open in the morning and late afternoon for cicheti (finger foods) at the counter. Bars and cafés are open from 7 am until 8 or 9 pm; a few stay open until midnight.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed here are open for lunch and dinner, closing one or two days a week.
Most restaurants have a cover charge per person, usually listed at the top of the check as coperto or pane e coperto. It should be modest (€1–€2.50 per person) except at the most expensive restaurants. Whenever in doubt, ask before you order to avoid unpleasant discussions later. It's customary to leave a small cash tip (between 5% and 10%) in appreciation of good service: you will usually see a servizio charge included at the bottom of the check, but the server will not likely receive it.
The price of fish dishes is often given by weight (before cooking), so the price quoted on the menu is for 100 grams of fish, not for the whole dish. (An average fish portion is about 350 grams.) In Tuscany, bistecca alla fiorentina is also often priced by weight (about €4 for 100 grams, or $18 per pound).
Major credit cards are widely accepted in Italy; however, cash is always preferred. More restaurants take Visa and MasterCard than American Express or Diners Club.
When you leave a dining establishment, take your meal bill or receipt with you. Although not a common experience, the Italian finance (tax) police can approach you within 100 yards of the establishment at which you've eaten and ask for a receipt; if you don't have one, they can fine you and will fine the business owner for not providing it. The practice is intended to prevent tax evasion; it's not necessary to show receipts when leaving Italy.
Reservations and Dress
It's always safest to make a reservation for dinner. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (two to three weeks), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy. If you change your mind, be sure to cancel, even at the last minute.
Unless they're dining outside or at a seafront resort, Italian men never wear shorts or running shoes in a restaurant. The same applies to women: no casual shorts, running shoes, or rubber sandals when going out to dinner. Shorts are acceptable in pizzerias and cafés.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
The grape has been cultivated in Italy since the time of the Etruscans, and Italians justifiably take pride in their local varieties, which are numerous. Although almost every region produces good-quality wine, Tuscany, Piedmont, the Veneto, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily are some of the more renowned areas, with Le Marche and Umbria being well reputed, too. Italian wine is less expensive in Italy than almost anywhere else, so it's often affordable to order a bottle of wine at a restaurant rather than sticking with the house wine (which is usually good but quite simple). Many bars have their own aperitivo della casa (house aperitif); Italians are imaginative with their mixed drinks, so you may want to try one.
You can purchase beer, wine, and spirits in any bar, grocery store, or enoteca, any day of the week, any time of the day. Italian and German beer is readily available, but it can be more expensive than wine. Some excellent microbreweries are beginning to dot the Italian beer horizon, so ask if there's a local brew available to sample.
There's no minimum drinking age in Italy. Italian children begin drinking wine mixed with water at mealtimes when they're teens (or thereabouts). Italians are rarely seen drunk in public, and public drinking, except in a bar or eating establishment, isn't considered acceptable behavior. Bars usually close by 9 pm; hotel and restaurant bars stay open until midnight. Pubs and discos serve until about 2 am.