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Sink Your Teeth Into Italy

It’s not hard to dine with the confidence of Caesar using these practical tips from a well-seasoned traveler.
By Tammie Painter

Italy ranks high on many travelers’ lists for its history, scenery, and–of course–its food. But once in the country, you may find yourself confused and even intimidated by where to eat, how to order, and what to do. With a little guidance, dining in Italy can be a delightful part of your journey.

pizza

Above: A wood-fired oven-baked pizza tempts the tastebuds. Tammie Painter photos

In title: Rome’s Colosseum satisfies lovers of history.

Below: The town of Vernazza in the northwest province of La Spezia is an authentic fishing village. It is recovering from last year’s floods, but many restaurants and hotels now are open. Tammie Painter photo

town

Words to chew on

In Italy, there’s a wide array of options for dining out that range in price and service levels, but it helps to know the local lingo before you arrive.

What we would call a café is a bar in Italy. Here, you can dine inexpensively on sandwiches (panini or tramezzini), salads (insalate), or desserts (dolce) and enjoy drinks such as espresso (caffe), fresh-squeezed orange juice (spremuta d’arancia), or alcohol. Bars are the heart of the Italian scene and you’ll visit them often. Grab a croissant (cornetto) in the morning, down an espresso in the afternoon, and linger over a glass of wine (vino) in the evening. Bars in train stations should not be passed by; the prices are reasonable and the service is excellent. Note that some bars are called cafés.

An enoteca, or wine bar, is a cozy place to enjoy a glass of wine and a light meal. Not all enotecas offer meals, but those that don’t will have a small selection of appetizers for you to nibble on.

Pizzerias serve pizzas and little else. Some larger pizzerias will have salads, pastas, fried snacks, or sweets. The best pizzerias are open only for dinner service because of the time it takes to heat the wood-fired ovens. However, Italian pizzas cooked in conventional ovens still taste wonderful. Some pizzerias serve pizza by the slice (al taglio) and make an easy stop for a quick meal.

The restaurant (ristorante) and the trattoria are the most expensive choices for dining. Unless your travel budget is large, save dining here for a special event during your trip. Trattorias are slightly less expensive than restaurants and have a homey atmosphere with excellent food. Both dining establishments serve full meals with appetizers (antipasti), desserts, and a selection of wines.

HOW TO ORDER AND PAY

Ordering at a bar or trying to get your restaurant check can be confusing, even frustrating. But with a little know-how and practice, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

In busier bars, such as those in museums, step up to the cashier, place and pay for your order, and you’ll receive a receipt (ricevuta). Then, take this receipt to the bar and hand it to the barista (perhaps with a small tip) who fills your order and returns the torn receipt to you as proof the order has been completed.

Although guidebooks will tell you this order-pay-dine method is the norm, you’ll find it’s not. Instead, at most bars, you’ll place your order, enjoy your drink and snack, and then go to the barista to pay; they are remarkably adept at remembering most orders. This order-dine-pay method is used in bars in train stations, small towns, and big cities alike.

At the wine bar, restaurant, or trattoria–just as it is at home–you place your order from a menu and a waiter brings your food. What can be maddening is that once your food arrives, you are left to enjoy the meal and company without interruption. This provides a relaxing ambience, but when you’re ready for the bill (il conto), you must get your waiter’s attention.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to catch his or her eye and draw a small rectangle in the air. If the waiter is nearby, say “Il conto, per favore.” As at home, places will vary whether you need to pay your server or go to the cashier to pay. To determine which, watch what fellow diners do.

At enotecas that serve snacks but not meals, place your order at the counter, pay, and the server will bring your order to you.

In general, the pizzerias in Italy are similar to those at home. Place your order, pay the cashier, find a table, and wait for your pizza. Most pizzerias have limited seating; if there are no tables available, the cook will box up your pizza to take away. At pizzerias that sell pizza by the slice, you’ll typically order by weight. The basic weight unit for pizza is 100 grams (un etto). A 200-gram (due etti) slice of pizza is a filling snack. Note that 100 grams equal 3.5 ounces.

EATING ON THE GO

Bars, enotecas, and pizzerias are excellent options for a quick, inexpensive meal or snack. Delis also provide quality food in a hurry. Although it may not be obvious when you first walk in, most delis (alimentari or salumeria) serve freshly made sandwiches. Look for a counter with an array of meats, cheeses, marinated vegetables, and a basket of bread nearby. If part of a small store, the deli also will carry drinks and groceries. After you place your order, do a little shopping to create a picnic and then head to the cash register (la cassa) to pay for everything. Some delis also have warm pasta for take away. As with pizza-by-the-slice, when ordering salads or meats from the deli case, the basic unit of weight is un etto.

To enjoy the fresh and vibrant taste of fruit (frutta) and vegetables (verdura) grown in Italy’s Mediterranean climate, stop by a produce stand (fruttivendolo). At most produce stalls, the owners do not want you to touch the food, evident by the signs that read “No toccare.” Wait for the vendor to serve you (pointing at what you want is perfectly okay). Produce is sold by the kilogram. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.

And of course, don’t leave Italy without sampling a creamy cone of gelato–or two. Or 10.

Tammie Painter is a new contributor from Milwaukie, Ore.

Nov/Dec 2012 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Many travelers to Europe are opting for river cruising, a growing trend in international travel. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, a preferred travel supplier for AAA, in 2013 will offer two new Italian itineraries. The 13-day Splendors of Italy combines a seven-night cruise with two nights in Florence and three nights in Rome. See Venice and the Po River on an eight-day cruise that calls at Padua, Ravenna, Verona, and Bologna, northern Italy’s culinary capital. Passengers can take in a pasta-making workshop there. And the onboard Epicurean Adventurer Program is designed to take guests deeper into the wonderful world of food and wine with culinary demonstrations and more.

To visit Italy, first stop by your nearest AAA Travel office and learn about our many cruises and tours available to you. AAA can assist you with passport photos, international driving permits, and more.


 

Dish out a helping of dining hints
By Tammie Painter

A few additional tips can help anyone eat his or her way way through Italy. Here are some helpful hints.

  • You are not expected to tip at restaurants or trattorias. A service fee is already included; look for “servizio incluso” on your bill. It is considered enough of a tip to simply round your bill up to the nearest euro. However, if service was exceptional, leave your server an extra couple of euros.
  • Sitting at a bar can cost you twice as much as standing. Always check for two menus before sitting down in larger bars. If they’re not busy, smaller bars won't charge you to sit, but it’s polite to ask first.
  • Water, although free and delicious from public fountains, is expensive when dining, as are most soft drinks. House wine (vino della casa) is often the least-expensive beverage option.
  • Save any receipt you are given until you leave. Having one proves you paid and, for tax reasons, it’s against the law for establishments not to issue every customer a receipt.
  • At restaurants and trattorias, do not feel obligated to order more than you want, even if it is only a single item. There is no requirement to order a full meal with primo (typically pasta or soup), secondo (meat, chicken or fish) and contorno (side dish).
  • If unsure what to order, ask your server; they are very knowledgeable about the menu and can steer you in the right direction.
  • Whenever possible, opt for regional specialties.
  • In tourist areas, some restaurants have workers outside beckoning you in. As a rule, these places have poor food, ambience, and service.
deli
An Italian deli can be a treasure trove of tasty food. Wikimedia Commons photo

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