Picking Your Way Through Italian Dining

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Today marks one month in Rome! I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert on all things Italian, but by now I have learned some important Italian customs and cultural differences when shopping, dining, ordering, buying, or just being out in public in general.

To begin, let us start with the most important: FOOD.

Restaurants in Italy are broken down into three different categories:

  1. The sit-down restaurant:
  • One of the biggest and probably most confusing parts of restaurants in Italy is the lack of a host/hostess. When you walk in, there usually isn’t someone waiting to greet you and show you to your table (unless you’re in a touristy area and/or go to an American chain restaurant like Hard Rock Cafe). Instead, someone from behind the bar or a waiter will say hello to you, BUT it is more or less your responsibility to speak up and announce yourself. Typically you would say in Italian, “siamo due” which means “we are two” (or however many people are in your party) when staff acknowledges you.
  • If a restaurant has outdoor seating, however, you can sit down at a table first, and a waiter will come over to give you a menu.
  • Menus include bere, antipasti, primo piatto, secondo piatto, dolce and/or cafe. Bere=a drink, antipasti=an appetizer (and typically includes slices of deli meats and cheeses), primo piatto=a pasta dish, secondo piatto=a meat or fish dish, dolce=dessert and cafe=coffee. It is customary to sit in a restaurant for hours and enjoy every course, but it is also okay to just order a primo piatto instead of a secondo piatto and vice versa.
  • Because it is not customary to tip in Italy, most restaurants include a seating charge. Waiters for the most part are also less attentive because it is your responsibility to call them if you need anything, including the check! Don’t expect a waiter to notice that you’re ready to go…they’ll clear your plates but assume you want to relax and chat some more.
  1. The bar or cafe:
  • This is where you would go for your cappuccino and pastry in the morning. Bars work just like the name suggests, only not for liquor like the bars you think of in the U.S…bars are for coffee! A bartender takes your order and you can either drink/eat standing up at the bar, or take it to a small table nearby or outside. Depending on the bar, you pay for your items either before you order or afterwards, which can be tricky to figure out. Always keep your receipt if you pay before! This is what you give to the bartender. Very important: There aren’t lines in these types of restaurants. This isn’t the place to be unsure of what you want and hesitate to order, especially if it’s crowded. If you choose to drink/eat somewhere other than right at the bar, it’s polite to bring your cup and dish back up when you’re done. This is important since you aren’t paying a seating charge!
  1. The pizzeria, paninoteca, and gelateria:
  • Pizzerias and paninotecas (which means sandwich shop) are all over the city. If you’re out and about during the day and you just want a ready-to-order lunch, these are your best options. They work similarly to bars, but it is more common to get your pizza or panino and then pay for it. Pizza is not ordered by the slice! It is made rectangularly, so you will be asked to size the amount you want, which you indicate with your hands while the worker cuts it. You would say “basta” which means “enough” when it is the size you want. The piece is then weighed, sliced into two squares, and folded over like a sandwich! It’s wrapped in plastic so you can carry it and eat it on-the-go! Pizza also doesn’t have tomato sauce, unless you order margherita pizza. Typical ingredients are meat heavy, like prosciutto, salami, and sausage. Pepperoni does not exist! In Italian, pepperoni translates to green pepper! Paninos are much more basic than the saucy sandwiches Americans are used to. Typically they include a slice of meat and a slice of cheese on a baguette, and that’s it! Don’t expect to find any buffalo chicken wraps oozing with hot sauce and blue cheese.
  • Gelato is the equivalent to American ice cream, only with much less butterfat and more sugar! You can always tell if a gelateria is authentic if the banana flavor is a brown or creme color, as opposed to a yellow…so always check first!

If you’re ever craving something other than Italian food, you don’t have to look too far either. There are all types of cuisines in Rome! Apparently though, Mexican cuisine is not well received in Italy, and the restaurants are often expensive.

Grocery shopping can be in an open air market, a supermarket, or small mini-market. Supermarkets don’t have too many differences from those in the U.S. other than the selection of food and picking out your fruit and vegetables. Instead of bagging your own produce and having the cashier weigh it and scan it, you must weigh it yourself and print out the label. Bags are also not free, so bring your own! (Although I’m used to this since in my county at home, all bags are taxed.)

When you’re in a country dominated by food, you gotta know how to navigate it the right way!

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