Not all Italian meals are red wine and spaghetti with meatballs -- but if that's the closest you've come to an authentic Italian dinner, this cheat sheet will help you navigate Italy's varied dining options.
Where to eat
In the mood for a quick bite or a lengthy, sit-down dinner? Know which type of establishment you're looking for.
Found on almost every street corner in Italy, bars offer coffee and a wide variety of other beverages. In most bars, you'll place your order and pay first at the register before taking your ticket to the counter to receive what you paid for.
Know before you go: Many places will charge a service fee if you sit down (as opposed to standing at the bar).
A bustling coffee shop that may offer breakfast or a panini but typically does not serve much food.
Offering simple fare and wine, an osteria is smaller than a restaurant but focuses on local specialties and/or ingredients. Keep in mind: simple does not always mean inexpensive, especially if you're in a touristy area.
Traditionally family-run, these reasonably priced restaurants serve typical Italian food. Less casual than a ristorante but more formal than an osteria, trattorias often serve food family-style. We recommend staying away from the tourist menu--ask your server for their recommendation!
Ristorantes offer a wide variety of food but can vary greatly in price and formality.
Grab-and-go spots in rest areas off the expressways, autogrills offer a wide variety of snacks perfect for a picnic on the road or a quick bite to eat.
On the menu
In Italy, dishes are usually served in a specific order, from appetizers to desserts. Here's what your typical menu might look like:
L'antipasto (which literally means "before the meal") includes hot and cold appetizers like crostini, bruschetta and mozzarella.
Il primo is a "first course" that's usually pasta or soup.
Il secondo, or "second course," serves as the main course of the meal--it's often meat, poultry, game or fish.
Il contorno is a side dish where you can order vegetables such as melanzane (eggplant), spinaci (spinach) or insalata mista (mixed salad).
Il dolce is where you can order your favorite Italian sweets such as tiramisu, torta della nonna (custard shortbread pie) or zabaglione (custard of egg yolks with wine and brandy).
How to order
These helpful hints will make you sound more like a local.
Make a proper toast
Italians often say "Buon appetito!" or "Enjoy your meal" when the first course is served, and "Salute!" or "To your health" when toasting with a drink.
Sip cappuccinos at breakfast
In Italy, those deliciously frothy coffee drinks--cappuccinos and caffe lattes--are ordered only at breakfast. Espresso is what's in your drink, but expresso is the name for a fast train!
Order pasta "al dente"
Al dente means "to the tooth" or slightly chewy, and it's the optimal texture for eating pasta or rice. "Al forno" refers to pasta that has been finished off in the oven, like a lasagna or casserole.
Ask for the bill
By Italian law, the gratuity is included in the bill, and extra tipping isn't necessary--but if you enjoyed great service, feel free to add it. To ask for the bill, say: "Il conto, per favore." Like many European countries, waiters and waitresses won't disturb you during your meal, so you'll always have to ask for the bill when you're ready to leave.
What are your tips for dining in Italy? Tell us in the comments!
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