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Not too long ago, ristoranti tended to be more elegant and expensive than trattorie and osterie, which serve traditional, home-style fare in an atmosphere to match. But the distinction has blurred considerably, and an osteria in the center of town might be far fancier (and pricier) than a ristorante across the street. Although most restaurants in Tuscany and Umbria serve traditional local cuisine, you can find Asian and Middle Eastern alternatives in Florence, Perugia, and other cities. 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 is listed on the menu, seldom, if ever, 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. 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, but keep in mind that such behavior is sneered at by Italians.
The handiest and least expensive places for a quick snack between sights are bars, cafés, and pizza al taglio (by the slice) spots. Bars in Italy are primarily places to get a coffee and a bite to eat, rather than drinking establishments. Most have a selection of panini (sandwiches, often warmed up on the griddle) and sometimes you'll find the very Roman tramezzini (sandwiches served on triangles of white bread). In larger cities, bars also serve prepared salads, fruit salads, and cold and hot pasta dishes. Most bars offer beer and a variety of alcohol, as well as wines by the glass. A café (caffè in Italian) is like a bar but usually with more tables. If you place your order at the counter, ask if you can sit down: some places charge extra for table service. In self-service bars and caffè, cleaning up your table before you leave is considered good manners. Note that in some places you have to pay before you place an order and then show your scontrino (receipt) when you move to the counter. Pizza al taglio shops are easy to negotiate. They sell pizza by weight: just point out which kind you want and how much. Very few pizza al taglio shops have seats.
Meals and Mealtimes
The Italian breakfast (la colazione) is typically a cappuccino and a sweet roll (usually a brioche) served at the local bar. For a larger breakfast, consider dining rooms of large hotels. For lunch Italians may eat a couple of small panini while standing at a local bar or self-serve caffè. A more substantial lunch (il pranzo) consists of one or two courses at a trattoria. Dinner (la cena) out is likely to be two or three courses at a restaurant or trattoria, or pizza and beer at a pizzeria.
Menus separate dishes into antipasti (starters), primi piatti (first courses), secondi piatti (second courses), contorni (side dishes), and dolci (desserts). At ristoranti, trattorie, and osterie, you're generally expected to order at least a two-course meal: a primo and a secondo; an antipasto followed by either primo or secondo; or, perhaps, a secondo and a dolce. Italian cuisine is still largely regional, so ask about the local specialties.
In an enoteca (wine bar) or pizzeria it's not inappropriate to order one dish. An enoteca menu is often limited to a selection of cheeses, cured meats, salads, and desserts; if there's a kitchen, you may also find soups, pasta, meat, and fish. Most pizzerias don't offer just pizza, but also a variety of antipasti, salads, and simple pasta dishes, as well as dolce. Pizza at a caffè is to be avoided—it's usually frozen and reheated in a microwave oven.
Breakfast is usually served 7-10:30, lunch 12:30-2, and dinner 7:30-9:30 or 10. Enoteche are open in the morning and late afternoon for a snack at the counter. Most pizzerias open at 7:30 pm and close around midnight or 1 am, or later in summer and on weekends. Most bars and caffès are open 7 am-8 or 9 pm; a few stay open until midnight or so.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Major credit cards are widely accepted in Italian eating establishments, though cash is usually the preferred, and sometimes the only means of payment—especially in small towns and rural areas. (More restaurants take Visa and MasterCard than American Express.) When you've finished your meal and are ready to go, ask for the check (il conto); unless it's well past closing time, no waiter will put a bill on your table until you've requested it.
Prices for goods and services in Italy include tax. The price of fish dishes is often given by weight (before cooking), so the price you see on the menu is for 100 grams of fish, not for the whole dish. (An average fish portion is about 350 grams.) Tuscan bistecca fiorentina is also often priced by weight (€4 for 100 grams or €40 for one kilogram [2.2 lbs]).
Most restaurants charge a separate "cover" charge per person, usually listed on the menu as pane e coperto (or just coperto); this charge is not for the service. It should be a modest charge (€1-€2.50 per person), except at the most expensive restaurants. A charge for service (servizio) may be included either as part of the menu prices or the total bill; if it is, tipping is unnecessary. It is customary to leave a small tip (€1-€5) in appreciation of good service when the service charge is not included in the bill. Tips are always given in cash. Whenever in doubt, ask about the servizio and pane e coperto policies upon ordering to avoid unpleasant discussions about payment later. At some places in Florence, if you pay by credit card the restaurant will automatically slap a 15% tip onto your bill.
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 the receipt. The measure is intended to prevent tax evasion; it's not necessary to show receipts when leaving Italy.
Reservations and Dress
Reservations are always a good idea in restaurants and trattorie, especially on weekends and holidays. We mention them only when they're essential or not accepted. Book as far ahead as you can, and reconfirm as soon as you arrive in town. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Unless they're eating outdoors at a seaside resort and are perfectly tanned, Italian men never wear shorts or running shoes in a restaurant—no matter how humble—or in an enoteca. If you see people in shorts, you can be 100% sure that they are foreigners. Shorts are acceptable in pizzerias and caffès. The same "rules" apply to women's casual shorts, running shoes, plastic sandals, and clogs.
We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket and tie.
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 vintages. Though almost every region produces good-quality wine, Tuscany is one of the most renowned areas. Wine in Italy is considerably less expensive than almost anywhere else, so it's often affordable to order a bottle of wine at a restaurant rather than to stick with the house wine (which, nevertheless, is probably quite good). 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 may purchase beer, wine, and spirits in any bar, grocery store, or enoteca, any day of the week. Italian and German beers are readily available, but they can be more expensive than wine.
There's no minimum drinking age in Italy. Italian children begin drinking wine mixed with water at mealtimes when they are teens (or thereabouts). Italians are seldom 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. Brewpubs and discos serve until about 2 am.
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