You might think it’s impossible to have bad food in Italy but, sadly, it’s pretty common when visiting Italy’s most touristy cities. In fact, bad or disappointing food is one of the biggest complaints we regularly hear. I must admit, we’ve had our share of bad food too…before we moved to Italy seven years ago and learned the tricks to eating well. As I traversed Rome the last few days refusing to succumb to a crappy restaurant just because I was starving and didn’t have a reservation, I thought about how we now choose a restaurant. Like me, you might not want to spend all your time researching and making reservations at restaurants before your trip. Even in a city as touristy as Rome, it’s still possible to stumble in to a top-notch restaurant by following our tips for finding authentic restaurants in Italy.
1. DO get off-the-beaten-path.
Family owned trattorias and osterias once held prime real estate next to Italy’s most famous monuments like Venice’s Rialto and Rome’s Colosseum, but ever-increasing rent prices have forced family-run small businesses to move to less expensive locations. Tourist traps moved in and turn over table after table like clockwork as tourists are lured in with familiar dishes and the ultimate view, only to leave disappointed with their overpriced and mediocre meal.
Going even just a few streets away from the main tourist areas like Piazza San Marco in Venice or Piazza Navona in Rome will do the trick. Even better is if you’re willing to walk 10-15 minutes to a neighborhood, like Trastevere in Rome or Cannaregio in Venice.
2. DO choose a restaurant that isn’t open continuous hours.
Italians eat at specific meal times and restaurants should only be open from 12pm – 2:30pm for lunch and from 7:30pm – 11pm for dinner. If the restaurant is serving food, or even open, outside these meal times then it caters to tourists.
Italians typically never eat dinner before 8:30pm, but most kitchens will open from 7:30pm.
3. RUN far, far away from a host trying to lure you in.
No, really. Just keep right on walking. The biggest indication that the food isn’t good is when the restaurant has to pay staff to lure you in with their charming banter. They’ll name off some Italian dishes that you’re likely familiar with from Italian restaurants back home, the menu is in English and the host seems oh-so-nice even promising you a welcome drink on the house.
A truly good restaurant is typically booked with reservations, and they might not even be able to fit you in. They certainly don’t need to stand outside luring any diners in.
4. Also RUN away if the menu has pictures.
Enough said. You’re not at McDonald’s.
5. DO choose a menu that is only in Italian.
This may sound intimidating if you don’t speak Italian, but a menu translated into half a dozen languages is another indication that the restaurant caters to tourists. And we’d bet that you recognize at least a few dishes on the menu, even in Italian.
You can also pick up a food phrase book. We recommend The Marling Menu Master for Italy, with sections broken up by antipasti, pasta, fish, meats, vegetables and desserts. It’s written and meant to be used to translate from Italian into American English, making it extremely easy to use. It’s also comprehensive.
6. DO choose a restaurant where the menu features seasonal ingredients.
First, there’s no such thing as “Italian” food. It varies from region to region and even city to city within a region. Roman cuisine is hugely different from Venetian cuisine, but one thing that remains consistent throughout Italy is that only fresh, seasonal ingredients are used.
Asparagus is a vegetable that is seasonal in April and early May; you should not find a pasta with asparagus on the menu in December. Some seasonal ingredients incorporated into menus to look for:
- Artichoke (carciofi): January – June
- Asparagus (asparagi): April – May
- Chestnut (castagna): September – October
- Eggplant (melanzana): July – October
- Fig (fico): June – September
- Pumpkin (zucca): September – November
- Spinach (spinaci): October – March
7. DO choose a restaurant that is bustling with Italians.
English actually isn’t a language widely spoken throughout Italy. You shouldn’t walk in a restaurant and mainly hear English being spoken. If the sing-song of Italian is the dominant language being spoken by the staff and diners alike, it’s a pretty good bet that the food will be authentic and delicious.
8. DO choose a “menu fisso” for lunch.
A menu fisso is a fixed menu typically offered for around €12-15 per person at lunch time. This is not the same as a “menu turistica” offering an appetizer, pasta and wine. The tourist menu is much more stripped down with far fewer options.
A menu fisso is often eaten by locals, particularly those that work in the neighborhood, and the menu changes from day-to-day based on the fresh ingredients available. Typically there is a first and second course, a side dish, water, wine and coffee all included. Our favorite lunch restaurants don’t even have a written menu; the waitress simply lists off the choices available for the day.
Not to worry though; typically someone on the staff will speak English in touristic cities and be able to help you with the menu. If not, just look around at what the other diners are ordering.
9. DON’T choose a restaurant that offers pizza at lunch.
Italians do not eat pizza at lunch. If the restaurant offers pizza at lunchtime, it’s another indication that it caters to tourists.
Pizza must be prepared properly, in a wood-burning oven that takes a long time to heat to 485ºC (905ºF), which is the temperate pizza is cooked at. And because it takes so much time and energy to heat the oven, they simply don’t fire it up for the most shorter lunch service I mentioned earlier. Also, most Italians don’t actually have a wood-burning pizza oven at home and ovens cannot reach the temperature needed to cook a proper Italian pizza, so pizza is a social food Italians go out to eat for in the evenings.
10. DO use Foursquare to find restaurants around you.
We actually love the Foursquare app and do use it regularly to find restaurants around us. You can see reviews that others have posted and some of the best dishes we’ve tried at unknown restaurants were from user generated suggestions we saw in the app.