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Italian Food Culture: at the restaurant like a local.


What's better than sitting down at a nice, local restaurant in Italy and choose from a long list of authentic, local, mouth-watering dishes of the tradition? Now close your eyes. Only metaphorically, just keep them open and follow me for a second here. You have a whole night ahead of you, maybe with your lovely half or with your best friends. This has the potential of being one of those nights: the nights you will never forget, that type of night you tell friends about even years after because "oh my god how good was the food." This can be the night where you finally feel at peace, where you feel "I know where I am in the world, I feel my body and soul are in complete sync and bells are ringing far away." Because this is how Italian, wholesome, authentic food make you feel when it's made right. It's my job today to make sure you can achieve that. I grew up in Italy and here I am, 28 years later, feeling the same emotions in front of food that god knows how can it taste so life changing. 

I get goose bumps when I think how many travelers end up going in wrong restaurants, tourits traps, or ordering the wrong food. How many missed opportunities for outstanding nights. I have no idea of where or when you will be visiting Italy next, or which city or which restaurant you will go to, but I know how to read a menu and how to get the most out of it. I am here to help.

Today I want to teach you about the experience of eating out at local restuarants in Italy and how to do it right. Together we will learn the tricks and tips that turn a simple experience into a life-changing one. Let's begin.

A quick, fundamental premise.

The following is not a definite rule, but in general, if a restaurant has menus in 3/4 languages, pictures, and you find lasagne as a dish you can order, you probably walked into the wrong restaurant. A tourists’ trap as many now rightly call them. You can’t get lasagne at the restaurant. Lasagne is a dish you eat after your grandma made a whole baking pan of, you missed it and she heat it up the next day for you, only then it tastes as good as it’s supposed to. These and many other little tips about lasagne are probably best left for another dedicated blog post. For now let’s focus on what you need to know in order to read and interpret a menu in Italy. (You can also check out this article on how to order at restaurants in Italy.)

Aperitivi

Aperitivo can mean two things: either a late afternoon cocktail (usually made with Italian red bitters, such as Campari) accompanied by finger foods and tasty gourmet snacks, or, when at the restaurant, it could mean a round of those same cocktails as starters with little bites to taste the creations of the chef. When you seat at the restuarant, depending on the type, they might ask you if you want one. Yes you do, ask for a Campari Spritz and let that slowly sink in your body while you figure out how the hell are you supposed to order if you shouldn't eat at restaurants that offer menus in English. Don't think about it and enjoy the bitterness of your Campari Spritz, it's preparing you for what's coming next. Here are your take aways for aperitivo:

  • Leave if the menu is in English.
  • Leave if they offer lasagna.
  • Get your daily dose of Italian bitterness and order a Campari Spritz.
  • Ask for salty small snacks to munch on while restoring your sense of orientation after your first sip of Campari Spritz.

Vini della casa

Wines of the house. Usually, but not always, restaurant in their list of wines (usually at the beginning or at the end of the menu) offer what's called vino della casa, house wine. House wine does not equal cheap wine, to the contrary it's often pretty-decent-to-good wine. If you are on a budget they are the best option for you. When I go to my favorite restaurant here in Bergamo they always have a “bottle of the day” that changes every day. It has always proven to be choice I never regret: great wine, reasonably priced. I would avoid ordering the wine of the house only if you see or are told that it’s bulk wine. I would stay away from that. Now that you know about vini della casa go ahead and ask your waiter what's today's house wine, listen to what he has to say and then don't order it. You are going to order another round of Spritz to go with antipasti because that's the way we do it. We will get to your wine in a moment. Leave it for the main corse, you will order it in a minute. Takeaways for house wine:

  • House wine is usually great wine for a cheaper price.
  • Avoid bulk wine.

Antipasti

These are entrees. They are usually light dishes meant to start the meal without making you feel full. They are not meant to include things like pasta or carbohydrates. They tend to be very savory and tasty. In gourmet restaurants they get very creative with the ingredients and you should consider trying one or two when ordering. In Italy we don't really have a culture of sharing dishes when it comes to main courses. However when it’s time for antipasti we do and usually order two or three to share in the group. They also change based on where you visit. In Bergamo for example they often consist of local cheese and cured meat cuts. In general avoid ordering salad. We don’t do that and it's especially immoral if ordered before you main course. So your takeaways for antipasti are:

  • Be brave and get two or three to share.
  • Don't over kill, leave room for many more courses to come.
  • Spritz goes great with antipasti. Finish your first with aperitivi and get your second for antipasti. Change it from Campari Spritz to Aperol Spritz if the last one made you too bitter inside and leave the wine for your main course.
  • Avoid salads, caprese, and all those cliches. Ask for recommendations and order something you can't even read.

Primi

They are the main course, also usually the heaviest one. They usually consist of pasta, risotto, ravioli or similars. This is what you probably came to eat in Italy but I recommend you don’t over stuff yourself here as you want to continue the meal and try more dishes. You are not even halfway through and you feel full? You are better than that. So as we pretend you are not bloaded already take out the menu again and go local when ordering main courses. I can't tell you what to order because I don't know where you are, but the best rule to follow is to ask what's typical of the area, especially if it is the specialty of that restaurant or it's something you can't find else where. Italy has hundreds and more types of pasta, risotto, gnocchi and ravioli, don't disappoint yourself and your waiter: try new stuff. Go beyong tomato pasta and carbonara, I just told you you are better than that. Now as you order your next best food of your life you can also finally order your wine of the house (by the bottle, of course. Wine by the glass is totally illegal here). Take aways for your primi:

  • Don't disappoint yourself and the people around you. Order new things and go beyond the pasta you always see on Instagram.
  • Be a decent person and order wine by the bottle, never by the glass.

Secondi

Following primi you will be asked to order a second, big course. It's a dish with meat or fish and thus the more proteic part of the meal, no more carbohydrates for you. Unless you picked an a-vanguard-type of restaurant, avoid mixing. What I mean is that if you had pasta al ragù (bolognese pasta) as main course, for example, avoid ordering fish later. It is not common to mix within a meal in Italy and the most well mannered waiter will raise his eyebrow while suggesting you stick to one animal per meal, the lesser polished waiter may even recommend you pick up your stuff and go to quel paese (look it up!). Jokes apart, in general I would avoid ordering stake. Food in Italy is great, but speaking from experience as far as stake goes you will enjoy a better stake in other countries. If unsure, as always ask your waiter. You don't like him and he has a weird vibe? The second best recommendation I can give you is, as for antipasti, to choose something on the menu that you have no idea what will be like.

This is the most critical moment of your meal. You are halfway through and have done great so far. But don't let the temptation to give up and show the world you are not a local but someone so weak as not to finish a proper meal win on you, you must not give in to your friends begging you to stop here and continue. If you are feeling weak, now it's the time for a big sip of that wine and let it work its magic. Take a break, go smoke if you do or take a walk. Once you feel tipsy enough and brave enough for more food seat down again and ask for your secondo. Here are your take aways for secondi:

  • Avoid stake.
  • Rely on your waiter or go with something you can't even read. 
  • Never mix fish and meat.
  • Don't give up and pull through the harder part of the meal. Don't let your friends tempt you to stop with their begging. 

Contorni

Side dishes. Your waiter will almost always ask what you wish to have as contorno to your secondo. In simpler restaurants they may offer simple solutions such as baked potatoes or salads but if you end up in more sophisticated ones give a try to more complex side dishes as they some times really get creative. Also keep in mind that some times side dishes are not listed on the menu but read out to you. If you have no idea of what your waiter is reading to you simply listen to him and at the end say "yes I want that one!" and he will know. Here it's not a matter of if but of what. Of course you want your side dish, get one. Key takeaways:

  • Get a sidedish.
  • If you don't see them on the menu they will read them to you.

Dolci

Desserts. As if you weren’t struggling to make enough space for both your full stomach and your lungs, you will be asked if you want a dessert and your answer will be that of course you do! Don't pretend you are ok, go ahead and undo your belt and let your belly out if you have to. You have been doing great and you are approaching the end. Before you order dessert make sure you didn't run out of wine. If you did, consider ordering some dessert wine like Moscato di Scanzo (a specialty wine from my home town Bergamo, ideal for desserts). Now you have two options: you either ask for the local delicacies and let them surprise you, or If you are dying to have authentic tiramisù, and that is what you have been thinking non-stop since you were flying here, go ahead, but make sure it's fresh and home made before ordering. Fresh, authentic tiramisù is a paranormal experience, frozen, pre-made tiramisù however has the potential of ruining a meal. Look your waiter in the eyes and make sure he understands your night depends on that tiramisù. If his gaze averts order something else. Takeaways for dolce:

  • Consider ordering dessert wine.
  • Try local delicacies.
  • If you are dying to try authentic Tiramisù, make sure it's made by them daily.

Caffè

Caffè in Italy does not equal coffee. It equals espresso. Often abroad if you want coffee you ask for coffee, if you want espresso you ask for espresso. In Italy espresso rules and coffee means and will always be intended as espresso. It’s also ingrained in out culture to have one at the end of meals. You will want one especially after meals as long as this one. Espresso! Not black coffee, not cappuccino, not latte. Espresso. Order one and try having it without sugar, the right way! Takeaways:

  • You must get your espresso.
  • Espresso only.
  • Try have it without sugar.

Amari

You thought you were done, weren’t you? Espresso however isn’t the meal ender. What ends a meal is an amaro or a series of them. Amaro is a local digestif usually made from herbs with high percentage of alcohol. Here, like for most of the courses you just ventured through, what you get to choose from (Lista degli amari), changes based on your location. In norther parts of Italy, especially in Bergamo, grappa is king and will always be listed. But unless you have a strong heart, consider either sharing it or going for something more mellow; alcohol percentages in grappa can go as high as 40, 50 and up. The most popular amari are Limoncello and Amaretto di Disaronno, but in reality there are dozens and more options to choose from. Liquors and digestives made from pistachio, melon, all sorts of herbs and many more. Have fun trying a new one every time you eat out! Takeaways:

  • When in group, order several and try more than one.
  • Ask for the special amaro of the house, sometimes they make their own.
  • Ask the restaurant to offer you amari. When eating such long dinners it's a popolar practice to offer them for free to customers. 

Now open your eyes. How do you feel? Full of energy? You feel good? I personally, and it may sound weird, feel in sync. When I have these kind of dinners (quite often, for that matter) I feel that everything is right, that I am where I should be. It's a great feeling. Now, with what really are simple tips, you can experience the magic of a good dinner out with friends at a restaurant in Italy. If you feel like it, we often write on this topic, or in general, on how to live and experience Italy like a local. To best follow up on this after this reasing I recommend Why connecting with the locals matter and Why you should visit Italy's smaller cities

As always, Garipalli is a young business, pre-launched this year 2020, and we truly appreciate all feedbacks coming from our readers. Let us know if you enjoy our blog or wish we offered more experiences


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