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How to Order Food in Italy

carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe Rome
Italy is all about food.  It is one of the greatest pleasures during a trip to Italy.  There are a few things that are a little bit different in a restaurant than what you might be used to.  Here are our tips for how to order food in Italy.

Where to Go

Bar: Go to the bar for your morning cappuccino and cornetto (pastry)  At lunch or snack time you can get readymade sandwiches. At the bar you pay for purchases before you eat and the prices are often different of you sit at a table or eat standing at the bar.  Remember: panino – one sandwich, panini – more than one sandwich

Tavolo Caldo Casual, inexpensive places that serve prepared food, often cafeteria style. These are great because you can see exactly what is on offer and just point to what you want.  Perfect for kids who have had enough of politely sitting for long restaurant meals.

Osteria/Trattoria/Ristorante In days gone by there used to be distinct variations between these three classifications.  Now they are sometimes used interchangeably.  You can find a quite formal trattoria and an informal ristorante.  All three are sit down, waiter service establishments.

Meal times are not very flexible in Italy.  Lunch is from 1:00-3:00 and Dinner from 8:00-10:00. Bars and Tavola Calde are great alternatives for off hour eating.

Bread and Water

As soon as you sit down in a restaurant in Italy you will probably be brought a basket of bread and/or breadsticks and asked if you would like water.  Pane e Coperto is an Italian tradition that dates back to the middle ages when patrons would bring their won food to inns and taverns and pay a fee for the use of the table and utensils.  Similar to how some restaurants today charge a corkage fee to bring your own bottle of wine. This charge must be indicated on the menu and is charged weather you eat the bread or not.  It is a surcharge and not a tip and if you sit down and order in a restaurant you agree to this charge.

Italians drink bottled water in restaurants.  You can ask for tap water (acqua del rubinetto) but you may not have much luck. The words in Italian  Frizzante/Gassata are for  sparkling water and Lisca/Naturale are for still water.


How to tip in Italy ties in with the idea of coperta that we discussed above.  The coperta goes towards the cost of operating a restaurant and does not go to your server.  Waiters in Italy are paid a monthly salary and do not rely on tips the same way that servers in America do.  Some restaurants will put servizio on the bill , particularly if you are a large group and you do not need to add a tip.  For all of these reasons, Italians, as a general rule, do not tip.  Forget about the 15/20% rule you are used to. If you had really great service or you ate in a formal, fine dining establishment a small amount is much appreciated.  At a more casual trattoria, a few euro coins is customary.

Eat Your Vegetables

In Italy, vegetables do not usually come as a side dish as part of your order.  You have to order them separately.  Look towards the end of the menu for the word contorni.

The Order of Your Order

You are not required to order the full antipasto, primi, secondo and dolce deal.  What is important is the order that you request your food.  If you just want a plate of pasta and desert that’s ok, but if others at the table ordered an antipasto, you may have to wait until that is served and eaten before your pasta is brought to the table.  You can order a antipasto and a primi and tell the waiter you will decide after you finish your pasta if you would like a secondo.

If you are a large group, you might be asked to limit your selections, particularly your pasta choices to just a few.  Kitchens and kitchen staff is much much smaller than in North American and often it may just not be able to handle 8 different pasta orders at the same time.

The Table is Yours

It is not the Italian custom to turn a dinner table over two or three times in a evening.  You have the table for the night.  Relax and enjoy your meal at an Italian pace.

Ask About Specials

Very often, In an Italian restaurant,  the very best things prepared in the kitchen are not on the menu.  Make sure you ask your server what the specials of the day are.

Do Your Research

Visit a market to learn what fruits and vegetables are in season, that is what you should find on your menu.  Learn what the regional specialties are, ask your hotel front desk clerk or your taxi driver what is their favorite local dish.

Ask for the Check

The check for your meal will not e brought to you when you finish your main course. or even after dessert; or coffee.  You have to ask for it.  Sometimes more than once.


A small phrasebook is your friend.  You want to make sure you ordered the tripe on purpose and were not expecting a steak.

Colazione – breakfast

Pranzo – lunch

Cena – dinner

Merenda – after school snack

Antipasto – appetizers

Primi – pasta

Secondo – main course

Contorno – sides/vegetables

Dolce – dessert


Da Bere? What would you like to drink?

Vorrei….  I would like…

Per me… I will have….


Pane – bread

Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva – extra virgin olive oil

Formaggio – cheese

Pomodoro – tomato

Carne – meat

Pesce – fish

Pollo – chicken

Maiale – pork

Cinghiale – wild boar

Di stagione – in season

Guanciale – cured pork jowl (similar to bacon)

Acciughe – anchovies

Peperonicni – red chilis, often dried and in flakes

Peperoni – bell peppers

Salame picante – pepperoni or spicy, cured sausage

Cipolle – onions

Aglio – garlic

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By Priscila Siano (266 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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