Rome: Eating out in Italy is mouth-wateringly amazing. Over the last two weeks during a vacation trip to the Amalfi Coast, I enjoyed some of the best meals ever– trying many for the first time. Just preparing this post and slideshow makes me want to go back right now for lunch!
While there, I learned that while Italians are pretty easy going in general, when it comes to dining, they are serious about rules. Break them, and you’ll likely get a curt correction, or at least a sigh at your American-ness.
So what travel skills do you need to know for your next trip to Italy? Here are a few of my observations and advice: Prices at restaurants on or near the Amalfi Coast (an hour south of Naples by car) are relatively reasonable– most of our evening meals, which included 2-3 courses and wine, ran in the $100-$150 range for two. Not bad when you consider what we pay for a nice meal out in San Francisco these days.
Every meal comes out piping hot– so hot, in fact you might burn your tongue if you dive right in. I’m not sure how waiters and chefs work the timing, but every meal I had during my two-week visit was delivered to the table steaming.
Italians like to linger over their meals- as long as 2-3 hours for dinner or a weekend lunch– the idea going out for a meal, and getting in and out of the restaurant in an hour or so as we do in the US is not common. It took some getting used to for this fast-paced American.
Pasta is served al dente, which means it’s a little chewier that what you might find in the US or elsewhere. I first noticed this with the big paccheri pasta tubes that I enjoyed at La Tonnarella, a beachside restaurant near Amalfi that was favored by Jacqueline Onassis and her kids in the 1960s. I quickly adapted and now cook pasta at home a little less.
Pasta is always served by itself, then a main meat, fish or chicken dish. Don’t ask for chicken to be served on or with your pasta dish– we actually learned this rule at Poesia here in San Francisco when we asked for a chicken pesto dish– our waiter sniffed at the suggestion, and said (sort of) jokingly, “this is not Olive Garden!” Another thing you’ll never get in Italy is Alfredo sauce, which is also an Olive Garden staple. Same goes for a Caesar salad.
While waiters deliver bread to your table at the beginning of the meal, it’s not to be consumed until the the food is served– and it is used to sop up the delicious juices left on your plate. The Italians even have a name for this: The scarpetta. (Check the slideshow above to see what I mean) Overall, I found Italian bread pretty dry and tasteless on its own– but it was delicious dunked in the saucy goodness left on my plate! It was also very good with a big juicy sandwich prepared in a salumeria on the harbor at Capri’s Marina Grande.
Don’t ask for extra parmesan cheese, and never ask for it to be sprinkled in a fish dish. As a matter of fact, it’s best to let the waiter decide whether or not your dish requires extra cheese at all. For example, if you are eating pasta with a fish sauce (like the shrimp fra diavolo see above), the waiter will not even offer it to you, even if your table mate got a sprinkle on his or her pasta bolognese.
Table service is good when it comes to taking your order and delivering your meal. But once that’s done, the service part is mostly over. You have to track down your waiter for everything else, including the bill, which usually takes at least two requests.
Coffee: Only drink cappuccino at breakfast, not with other meals. The rest of the time, drink espresso or macchiato at the end of your meal– after you’ve finished or had your dessert, not with it. Italian espressos are tiny (about a tablespoon) but powerful– but you can always ask for a doppio or double. And if you ask for a latte in Italy, you’ll get a glass of milk.
Tipping is uncommon at most restaurants in Italy, since service is included. Most restaurant servers earn an annual salary, and are not compensated in tips as in the US. But when a waiter goes above and beyond, a few extra euros are usually in order, but not expected. And don’t be surprised (or pressured) when a waiter hints about a tip when you are dining in a touristy area where tipping has become more common. On the subject of tipping, I did leave hotel housekeepers a few euros per day.
Interesting: In the tourist-dependent Amalfi Coast, salaried workers (waiters, drivers, hotel staff, etc) work hard during peak spring and summer season– they typically work six days a week for about 10 hours per day. But, when the weather cools off and tourists go home from November through March, workers take a well deserved break, but still earn their salaries. “We sleep late and drink red wine,” said one of our talkative drivers.