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Secrets for Eating like a Local in Italy

Pasta, Wine, Gelato, and more!

a plate of bruschetta in Rome

If you’re traveling to Italy, I bet one of the things you’re most looking forward to is the food. And with good reason! Italian cuisine is known worldwide, and they’re immensely proud of it. In fact, when I told my cab driver from the airport to my hotel that I was in Italy for the first time and asked him for recommendations, the first five or six things he recommended were the foods I should eat during my stay!


But like anywhere else, the tourist centers of Italy are packed with restaurants designed to cater to the tourists, and therefore much less authentic. If you want to eat like a local in Italy, here are some tips that served me well.



Eat Breakfast on the Go


In most parts of Italy, breakfast is a quick bite of a meal, usually just un cafe (an espresso) and a pastry or other bread item. Anywhere that serves a sit-down breakfast is designed for tourists.


If you’re the person that needs a full large meal to start off their day, feel free to do so! You do you babe! But if you want to try breakfast Italian style, pop into a local cafe for a coffee and a pastry. If you ask for “un cafe”, you’ll get a single shot of espresso. For something closer to an American cup of coffee, ask for -you guessed it- a “cafe americano” which is an espresso with water. Pair this with a selection from their pastry case, and you’ll still likely get change back from a 5 euro bill.



If the Waiters are Pushy, Don’t Eat There!


A restaurant that has to wave you in to come sit down probably doesn’t have the kind of menu that people seek out without being prompted. You’ll see this a lot in the city centers, especially near the tourist sites, and they can get pretty pushy about it! I had a waiter on Campo di Fiori call after me three times to make sure I didn’t want to sit down for a coffee! Go one street over from the tourist sites, find a place that looks inviting but isn’t hassling you, and you’ll find all sorts of local gems.


a plate of amatriciana and a glass of wine in Rome

Look for Places Marked “Osteria” and “Trattoria” Rather Than “Ristorante”


All three of these words loosely mean “restaurant” in Italian, but places marked “ristorante” are more likely to be aimed at tourists, especially in the city centers. And even if you do happen to find an authentic “ristorante”, they’re usually more upscale, and therefore more expensive, than their osteria and trattoria counterparts. If you’re looking to indulge in a fancy meal, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out a well-recommended ristorante. But I found that the food at many an osteria and trattoria was every bit as good (rather phenomenal, actually) and significantly cheaper.



Drink Lots of “Vino de la Casa


Sampling Italian wines is also something you absolutely must do in Italy. And yes, you can drop some serious euros on delicious Italian wines if that’s your jam. But I spent my time in Italy drinking vino de la casa at nearly every meal, and they were some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.

a plate of gnocchi and a glass of white wine in Florence


Vino de la casa translates to “house wine” and nearly every restaurant in Italy will have one or two, often a vino bianco (white wine) and a vino rosso (red wine). A house wine is usually a local specialty, and since you’re in Italy, that means you’re getting a stunning local Italian wine. Best of all, a glass of vino de la casa will often be the cheapest drink on the menu, with a glass setting you back somewhere between 4-6 euro. Most memorable on my vacation was the family-run restaurant in Florence where a “quarto” (a quarter liter, or about two big glasses!) of vino rosso de la casa was a grand total of 3 euro. It was cheaper than the water!



Be Prepared to Pay for Water and Bread


And on that note, water isn’t free at most Italian restaurants. You’ll have your choice between still and sparkling water (acqua naturale or frizzante), and a bottle will usually only cost a few euro. Similarly with the bread they bring you at the start of the meal, you’ll see that show up on your bill as a “copperto” or seating charge. It’s, again, usually just a few euro.


It’s helpful to think of the copperto like we think of tipping in the states. Tipping in Italy isn’t generally required. If you pay with a credit card, they likely won’t even give you the option to add a tip! So think of that few extra dollars that they tack on for the bread like the the tip you then don’t have to add to the bill afterward. 


Both these customs are common in Italy, so don’t worry. They’re not tourist scams! They’re just part of dining out in Italy.


a cone with two scoops of gelato in Rome

Find Authentic Gelato


It’s hard to find bad gelato in Italy, but there is a difference between flashy tourist gelato shops and authentic gelaterias that use classic recipes and preparation techniques.


When identifying an authentic gelato shop, less is more!


First up is color. Authentic gelato will not have bright bold colors. Strawberry gelato should be a soft pink. Lemon gelato should be nearly white. Bright colors are a sign that they use artificial colorings. The easiest check is to look at their pistachio. Nearly every gelateria will serve pistachio gelato, and if it’s bright green, move on. Natural pistachios don’t produce the color we associate with pistachio pudding!


Secondly, if the gelato is piled up in huge heaps, move on. It may look beautiful, but authentic gelato needs to be stored under closed lids to keep its freshness and creamy consistency. Bins of gelato with low, flat, easily-covered tops, or even gelaterias that keep them covered whenever they’re not being actively dished up, are going to be more authentic.



Dine Late


Dinner in Italy rarely starts before 7pm, and that’s on the early side! Most local Italians won’t sit down to dinner until 8 or even 9pm. Go with the local flow and enjoy these leisurely late night dinners. Plus, if you see a place serving up their full dinner menu at 5pm, you can bet that that’s probably a tourist menu. Wait a few hours and enjoy the local specialties instead.



Aperitivo


If waiting until 8pm to sit down to dinner sounds like torture, good thing Italy has a tradition specifically to make this easier! Enter aperitivo, the best thing Italy invented. Aperitivo is a before-dinner drink and snacks that Italians sit down to around 5 or 6pm. Some restaurants will specifically list their aperitivo offerings on their menu, but even if they don’t, sitting down around this hour and quickly ordering a drink is usually enough to signal to your waiter that you’re here for aperitivo. (Especially if that drink is the traditional aperitivo drink: the aperol spritz!) 


And the best thing about aperitivo is that it usually comes with food! At many of the restaurants I sat down at for aperitivo, a few minutes after my drink arrived, I was also given a little plate of delicious nibbles, ranging from a bowl of chips, to a little plate of sliced meats, to a platter of bruschetta. The fancier places might make you order separately, but you should always wait a minute to see what they might bring you for free! Regardless of what they bring you, savor a drink and enjoy your nibbles while daydreaming about all the pasta and tiramisu you’re going to go eat in an hour or two.




Eating in Italy like a Pro is Simple!


Eating in Italy will be one of the best culinary experiences of your life. Use these secrets to find the best of the best!


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Love and Shenanigans,


Andi


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