Top 10 Ways to Eat Like an Italian in Italy, Even If You Don't Speak the Language

By: Elizabeth Heath

I’ll come right out and say it: it’s possible to eat really badly in Italy. And if you’re a tourist or new émigré with minimal Italian language skills, it’s not only possible; it’s probable that you’ll have some less than memorable meals. You may get the sunny piazza with an incomparable view of the duomo, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get an authentic Italian lunch or dinner. So to help you steer clear of dining disasters, here’s a list of 10 ways to eat like an Italian in Italy, even if you don’t speak the language.
  1. Eat where the Italians eat. This one’s a no-brainer. If one restaurant is filled with noisy Italians tucking into plates of pasta, and you can hear crickets in the restaurant next door, there’s a reason for that. No matter how tempting the menu or how aggressively the waiter with all those empty tables tries to lure you in from the sidewalk, go to the restaurant where you see lots of patrons, preferably Italian ones.

    You can keep it light, and order a classic Caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella and basil).
    You can keep it light, and order a classic Caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella and basil).

  2. Avoid the tourist menu. While it’s tempting, especially on a vacation budget or when traveling with kids, to settle for the 14€ menu of pasta, dessert and house wine (or water for the kids), you’re likely to be served the blandest, cheapest food that kitchen can churn out. Too many restaurants that cater to tourists count on your lack of knowledge of quality Italian good. Trust me, that plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and a dry piece of cake for dessert are no bargain.

  3. Avoid English menus. Now this is a bit of a catch-22. If you go to a restaurant that has menus printed in English and languages other than Italian, chances are you’re not going to eat terribly well. But of course, if you can’t read Italian, how do you know you’re not ordering heart or brains off that Italian menu? The solution? Bring an Italian dictionary or phrasebook with you, and try to learn a few food terms in advance. In larger cities and tourist areas, most waiters will speak at least a little English, and will likely be happy to help you make a selection.

    Or you can keep it simple, and order a traditional pasta, like this ravioli with porcini mushrooms or pasta con pomodoro—with cheese, please!
    Or you can keep it simple, and order a traditional pasta, like this ravioli with porcini mushrooms or pasta con pomodoro—with cheese, please!

  4. Avoid menus with pictures of food. Sure, an illustrated menu ostensibly helps you make a safe choice. But the plate that arrives to your table is likely to look nothing like that photo you pointed to. And like the tourist menu and the multi-language menu, a menu illustrated with photos is a sign of a restaurant that cares more about luring in tourists than it does the quality of the food.

  5. Avoid long menus. If a restaurant offers 40 different plates at lunch or dinner, chances are they don’t do all of them very well. So instead of seeking out an extensive menu with a dizzying array of choices, look for a simpler, smaller menu, one that offers no more than 5-10 pastas and segundi (entrees). And even 10 is a lot.

  6. Trust your waiter. If you’re feeling brave, leave your choices in the hands of your waiter, who knows which are the best plates on the menu. You can state some parameters, like “vegetariano,” and tell him if you don’t eat certain foods, like lamb, for instance. If you leave your choice of wine up to the waiter, be sure to tell him your price range, or else prepare for sticker shock when you ask for your bill.

    Or you can stay on the cheap and opt for a pizza—like this one with cheese, tomato and eggplant.
    Or you can stay on the cheap and opt for a pizza—like this one with cheese, tomato and eggplant.

  7. Hold the cheese. This ain’t Olive Garden, and we don’t sprinkle parmesan on everything. It won’t be served with your pizza, or your pasta with seafood. In fact, if the waiter doesn’t bring a dish of parmesan to the table, it’s because the pasta you ordered is not traditionally served with it. You can of course ask for it, but you’re branding a bright red “T” (for “tourist”) on your forehead by doing so.

  8. Don’t ask to share plates. Other than with appetizers (antipasti), this just isn’t done in Italy—it’s rarer than asking for a doggie bag. If you’re concerned that a plate of pasta will be too much, ask for a mezzo porzione (half portion). Yes, I realize that if you and your dinner partner each get a half portion of the same pasta, that’s the same as sharing a plate. But by cultural norms, it’s vastly different.

  9. Get off the beaten path. What a difference a city block can make. If you care more about view and ambience, stick to the well-trod tourist areas when picking your restaurant. (And really, a ringside view of the Pantheon can go a long way in making up for a mediocre meal.) If you care more about the quality of your meal, and the chance to stumble upon a haven of authenticity and charm, get off the main drag and seek out a trattoria or osteria on a narrow side-street or overlooked piazza. Bonus points, of course, if it’s filled with Italians.

    Or you can break the bank and have an unforgettable meal on that sought-after terrace or piazza. Here, the author and friend lunching at the Poggio Antico winery, Montepulciano.
    Or you can break the bank and have an unforgettable meal on that sought-after terrace or piazza. Here, the author and friend lunching at the Poggio Antico winery, Montepulciano.

  10. Ask the locals. If you ask the concierge at your hotel to refer you to a good restaurant, he’s going to send you someplace where either he or the hotel receives a kickback for everyone they send in. Instead, ask your cab driver, flower vendor or shop owner for a recommendation—and have them write down the name and address—for “dove a mangiare bene” (where to eat well). You probably won’t get led astray.

Elizabeth Heath is a U.S. born writer, blogger and editor now living in Umbria, Italy. In 2008, while visiting Orvieto, Liz met her future husband, Paolo. They now have a young daughter, Naomi, three dogs, several hundred olive trees and acres of grapevines. Liz writes about the peculiarities of life in the Italian countryside in her blog, My Village in Umbria. Photo credit: Barbara Gillespie, Flop Sock Designs.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingElizabeth Heath is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: In 2009, I moved from a US city to the Umbrian countryside to marry my Italian beau. MyVillageinUmbria chronicles our life, love, adventures and misadventures in my adopted Italian homeland.
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Contest Comments » There are 17 comments

Vicki Chelf wrote 11 years ago:

I have spend enough time in Italy to know that this article makes perfect sense. Love it!

Paloma Corredor wrote 11 years ago:

Now I´m so hungry! (for real Italian food)

Roni Fields-Moonen wrote 11 years ago:

Great advice! This holds true for any foreign country! Beautiful writing as usual my friend!

Gillian McGuire wrote 11 years ago:

Such great tips! Thank you for sharing.

Eliana Tardio wrote 11 years ago:

great guide!!! I would love to visit Italy. Those raviolis and eggplant pizza look awesome! I gues small places have always delicious stuff anywhere :)

Jean Renoux wrote 11 years ago:

I hope people coming on my tours to Italy do not read your article , they will ask me not to go to cheap tourist restsurants. Just joking. Your article is right on the money. Really everyone traveling to Italy should keep a copy in their pocket. And now with Android phones and the other one, IPear or something like that , it is so easy to translate a menu. Great advice, smart article. I make sure people on my trips read it.

Elizabeth Heath wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks everyone! Jean, cheap Italian restaurants are often some of the better ones. "Cheap tourist restaurants," not so much! ;)

Cammie wrote 11 years ago:

Excellent advice! Hope I get a chance to use it sometime soon!

Louise Hamel wrote 11 years ago:

A wonderful article. A perfect, step by step guide for the new and experienced traveller. Lots of the information is valid for everyday living anywhere! Thanks, Liz, for this great information.

Laura Carbonell wrote 11 years ago:

Yes! This is a great guide! Thank you! And we people keep making the same universal mistakes!

Kim Mizen-Wood wrote 11 years ago:

Great article! Why go to Italy if not for the food? I can make pasta with Ragu at home. Thanks Liz!

Eileen Carter-Campos wrote 11 years ago:

Great tips!!! I must remember these when we go out-- Thanks a million! xo

Dana Himmelrich wrote 11 years ago:

Having traveled in Italy, I completely concur with liz"s wise and witty words of wisdom. It would be a tragedy to go all the way to the country with some of the best food in the world and not take her advice. Bravo, Liz !

LivedinItaly wrote 11 years ago:

I did not travel ~ 4,000 miles and spend 8 hours in an aluminum tube to be in Italy and eat Chinese, German or Moroccan food. When it is time to eat I go where the are no or very few tourists. I love the places where the menu is read to you - 3-4 primi e secondi. As for wine - always il vino di casa. Manga bene!

Ray Vonder Haar wrote 11 years ago:

Outstanding advice in any country, plus great writing as usual. Thanks Liz!

Jan wrote 11 years ago:

Love the article. I agree 100%. When we are in a city, Chicago or NY I always try to stay away from the tourist places.

Elaine wrote 11 years ago:

A must read for travelers! Love reading Liz's blog posts!

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