Eat Like an Italian in Rome
Dining Out in Rome: What You Need to Know
It is no secret that Italians live to eat, don’t eat to live. Daily life revolves around food and the simple pleasure of eating good food in good company is a fundamental part of the culture. In a country with wonderful local produce and a rich culinary heritage, dining out is a delicious way to experience Italy like a local so here is the Local Aromas guide to when, where, and how to eat in Rome like an Italian.
Mealtimes in Italy may differ a little to what you are used to. Rome takes a while to wake up in the morning and breakfast is usually simple pastry and coffee eaten standing up at a café sometime between 7am-10am. Lunch will be between 12.30pm-2.30pm and restaurants open back up for dinner service around 7.30pm, though most Romans won’t show up until at least 9pm.
Big cities such as Rome have begun to adopt the concept of all-day dining with some places staying open throughout the day, but many traditional trattorias will close between lunch and dinner so prepare to adapt to these times. If you get hungry in between meals join the locals in grabbing a merenda or spuntino (a light snack) with pizza and gelato being the perfect options.
Walking the streets of Rome you will see a huge number of different names for cafés and restaurants. While names such as trattoria, osteria, and ristorante used to indicate the service, menu, and prices within, nowadays the lines have blurred and you may find a better-value meal in a ristorante than a trattoria, or a wider choice of wine in an osteria than in an enoteca.
These are the principal categories of dining options you will find in Rome and what they mean:
A rustic, often family-run, restaurant, the typical Italian trattoria would have checked tablecloths and a grandmother in the kitchen. Food is hearty, ingredients are local, portions generous, service is informal, and prices reasonable. However, there is now a wave of more sophisticated, more costly, versions of the trattoria, often revisiting traditional dishes with a modern twist.
Osterias were once unrefined places with wooden benches and rough local wine where workers could take a break and bring their own food. There are now very few examples of the old-style osterias, especially in towns, where the idea has evolved into a more dining-centric affair akin to the trattoria. And just like the trattoria, there are many examples of gourmet dining establishments named osteria which have higher prices and fancier service.
Starched white tablecloths, quality silverware, and elegant service are the hallmarks of a classic Italian ristorante. A step above the trattoria, ristorantes offer a more polished dining experience with a more sophisticated and expensive menu.
Although many restaurants in Rome will have pizza on the menu, for the most authentic experience head to a real pizzeria with a wood-fired oven (forno a legna) and beware of an asterisk next to the pizza on a restaurant menu as this denotes that the pizza is frozen.
Technically an enoteca is a wine shop selling bottles to take away. However, the word is now also used for wine bars and wine-orientated restaurants which will more often than not offer a large selection of bottles along with the menu.
Literally translated as ‘hot table’, a tavola calda is a kind of canteen where large trays of food are presented on the counter and sold by the portion. Quick and cheap, the tavola calda is a good place to grab a fast, unfussy lunch and is popular with workers looking to fuel-up at lunchtime.
Despite the name, the Italian bar does not only sell alcohol and is closer to the idea of a café. Open from early morning to late at night, the bar is the place for coffee, sandwiches, snacks, drinks and often also gelato. Most bars display two prices, one for standing up (banco) and one for sitting down (tavolo) as a higher price will be charged for table service.
What to Order?
Once you have chosen your location you will have to navigate the menu. In Italy, dishes are divided by category (appetizer, first course, second course, etc.) and, while you may feel you should order something from each section, in actual fact that is no longer the case. On special occasions, Italians might go the whole hog and eat a complete four-course meal spread over several hours but, otherwise, it is perfectly normal to order one or two courses in whichever order you choose. The antipasto is the appetizer which is followed by a primo of pasta, risotto or gnocchi. The secondo is meat or fish which will be served with a contorno (side dish) that needs to be ordered separately. The meal finishes with a dolce (dessert) or fruit, and then coffee and a digestivo (digestif, usually grappa, limoncello, or amaro).
Note that most restaurants charge for bread and water (tap water is not common and will likely be refused) so wave it away if you do not want to pay. There is also sometimes a cover charge (about €1-2 per person) or a service charge which will automatically be added to your check. Check the small print of the menu carefully and look out for extra costs.
How Much to Tip?
Tipping is a common source of confusion for visitors from countries with a culture of leaving gratuities. In Italy, tipping is not obligatory so don’t automatically leave a percentage of your restaurant check. However, if you had a great dining experience it is a nice gesture to leave a few euros to your server so you can either round up the amount or leave whatever coins or small notes you have. Bear in mind that there is not an option to add a tip onto credit card payments and, although some restaurants may add a service charge to your bill, this money will usually not be received by the staff.
If you do not think that you had a good meal or do not have any change don’t worry about tipping.