Yes, you CAN get a bad meal in Italy.
Here are some tips to avoid a less-than-memorable meal when visiting Italy…
1. Eat Seasonally
In the US, we find strawberries in our stores in October and “vine-ripe” tomatoes in February, so if you’re not a gardener, you might not even know that fruits and vegetables have a limited season every year. Italian grocery stores get fruit and veg from around the world too, so they also have strawberries in the winter, but that is a fairly new thing. Traditional foods were based on the produce that was available, and that meant what was local, and what was in season.
The best restaurants (not the most expensive….just the best - that is, places that care about food quality) will serve seasonally-based menus.
So if you see a caprese salad (tomatoes, basil and mozzarella) on a menu in November, or prosciutto and melon in January, consider moving along and finding another place.
2. Eat Locally
One of the best ways to truly experience the place you have spent so much time and money to visit is to learn a little bit about its food before you get there. The food of any culture represents its history and its people. In the United States we tend to put all types of Italian cuisine under a single umbrella; but in Italy, food is very particular to each region.
You don’t have to do a lot of “homework” before you go, either. A quick Google search will reward you with a list of some of the prized foodstuffs of the area. Then you can spend some time in the towns you visit on a “scavenger hunt” for some or all of those food items. This kind of “hunting” is actually really fun; and if you know what to look for, you’ll find that locals are often eager to point you to their favorite eateries to reward your curiosity.
3. Avoid Tourist Menus
Especially in larger towns, you’ll see chalkboards outside of restaurants advertising a “tourist menu”, usually some type of food/drink combo with a fixed price. Sometimes they’ll try to lure you in by saying “local specialities”, but we’d advise a bit of skepticism. We prefer to give a pass to places that cater to tourists, and head instead to where the locals like to eat. If we haven’t sorted that out before we travel, we ask a barista, or our B&B host.
4. Don’t expect to find the “Italian” food you find at home
A lot of the food we find in the US has been adapted to American tastes, and you’ll rarely if ever find it in Italy. A few examples: spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alfredo, deep-dish pizza, chicken Caesar salad. If you expect to find foods like these when you visit Rome (or anywhere else), you’ll be disappointed.
Food and wine are also meant to go together — foods of the region pair nicely with wines of the region. They don’t pair well with Diet Coke. So if you are not a wine drinker, try sparkling or flat water instead, which won’t disturb the flavors of the food.
5. Understand Italian vs. American Meal Traditions
Americans are used to being able to eat any time that is convenient to them during the day. Most restaurants are open all afternoon.
Not so in Italy. Lunch is generally from 12:30-2, and dinner from 7:30-9 (those are seating hours, not meal finishing times). If you are trying to get seated for lunch at 3pm, you’re out of luck. Knowing *when* you can eat can be the difference between an “epic” lunch (as we like to call it), or having to eat a bag of chips at a bar.
Italian meals come in courses. First: antipasti (appetizer). Next: Primi (pasta, rice, or soup). Then: Secondi (meat, fish, or vegetarian main course). After: Contorni (side dishes such as vegetables, beans, potatoes — this course can also be served along with the secondo). Finally: Dolci (dessert, or sometimes a cheese plate).
After this you may have an amaro (digestive liqueur), or coffee. Bread may be served with the meal, but it’s usually there to use to mop up the sauce from your food. There will be no butter or olive oil/vinegar on the table for you to dip it in. Italians don’t fill up on bread before their meal begins.
You don’t have to order a dish from each course, though some do. But what you see on the menu is what you will get. If you order a steak, you will get a steak, not a steak with potatoes and salad and steamed veg like you might get in the US. Food is meant to be eaten at the table - doggie bags aren’t really a thing.
Once you have a table, it’s yours! There will be no pressure to eat fast and leave so they can fill the table with someone else. It may take a little time in between courses to bring your food — that’s because they’re making it to order. Just relax and enjoy!
6. Research before you go
We plan our trips extensively, but we didn’t used to do so. We’re including a few pics (see carousel below) of meal “fails” that happened before we started doing the advance work to find really good places to eat.
Now we eat well almost everywhere we travel - and not just high-end, fancy meals, either. In fact, most of the places we eat are quite affordable, and some of our favorite food stops are downright cheap!
Alternatively, you could just engage Little Roads’ Itinerary Building Service, and we’ll plan the whole trip for you, including some of our favorite meal stops between fantastic destinations. (In fact, sometimes the meal stop IS the destination!) And we’ll even make the reservations for you!