Eating and drinking in Italy
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The importance Italians attach to food and drink makes any holiday in the country a treat. The southern Italian diet especially, with its emphasis on olive oil, fresh and plentiful fruit, vegetables and fish, is one of the healthiest in Europe, and there are few national cuisines that can boast so much variety in both ingredients and cooking methods. Italy’s wines, too, are among the finest and most diverse in Europe.
Italian food remains determinedly regional. Northern Italian cuisine includes the butter-, cream- and truffle-rich cooking of the French-influenced northwest, the Tyrolean ham, sausage and dumplings of the northeast, and the light basil, fish and pinenut dishes of Liguria. Food in central Italy is characterized by the hearty wood-roasted steaks of rural Tuscany and the black truffles, hams and salamis of Umbria, while in traditional trattorias of Rome, offal reigns supreme. Continuing south, the classic vegetables of the Mediterranean take over, and the predominant meat is lamb (spit-roast and scented with wild herbs) while traditional dishes based around pulses and wild greens belie the recent poverty of the region. Finally, across the Messina Straits to Sicily, history is enshrined in rich, fragrant dishes such as aubergine caponata, fish couscous, and almond-milk- and jasmine-scented granitas, the abiding legacy of Arab rule.
Traditionally, a trattoria is a cheaper and more basic purveyor of home-style cooking (cucina casalinga), while a ristorante is more upmarket, though the two are often interchangeable. Osterie are common too, basically an old-fashioned restaurant or pub-like place specializing in home cooking, though some upmarket places with pretensions to established antiquity borrow the name. A pizzeria is always best with a forno a legna (wood-burning oven) rather than an electric one. In mid-range establishments, pasta dishes go for €6–12, while the main fish or meat courses will normally cost between €8 and €16.
Traditionally, lunch (pranzo) and dinner (cena) start with antipasto (literally “before the meal”), a course consisting of various cold cuts of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes, generally costing €5–12. Some places offer self-service antipasto buffets. The next course, the primo, involves soup, risotto or pasta, and is followed by the secondo – the meat or fish course, usually served alone, except for perhaps a wedge of lemon or tomato. Fish will often be served whole or by weight – 250g is usually plenty for one person – or ask to have a look at the fish before it’s cooked. Note that by law, any ingredients that have been frozen need to be marked (usually with an asterix and “surgelato”) on the menu. Vegetables or salads – contorni – are ordered and served separately, and there often won’t be much choice: potatoes will usually come as fries (patate fritte), but you can also find boiled (lesse) or roast (arrostite) potatoes, while salads are either green (verde) or mixed (mista) and vegetables (verdure) usually come very well boiled. Afterwards, you nearly always get a choice of fresh local fruit (frutta) and a selection of desserts (dolci) – sometimes just ice cream or macedonia (fresh fruit salad), but often home-made items, like apple or pear cake (torta di mela/pera), tiramisù, or zuppa inglese (trifle). Cheeses (formaggi) are always worth a shot if you have any room left; ask to try a selection of local varieties.
You will need quite an appetite to tackle all these courses and if your stomach — or wallet — isn’t up to it, it’s perfectly acceptable to have less. If you’re not sure of the size of the portions, start with a pasta or rice dish and ask to order the secondo when you’ve finished the first course. And, although it’s not a very Italian thing to do, don’t feel shy about just having an antipasto and a primo; they’re probably the best way of trying local specialities anyway.
At the end of the meal ask for the bill (il conto); bear in mind that almost everywhere you’ll pay a cover charge (coperto) of €1.50–3 a head. In many trattorias the bill amounts to little more than an illegible scrap of paper; if you want to check it, ask for a receipt (ricevuta). In more expensive places, service (servizio) will often be added on top of the cover charge, generally about ten percent; if it isn’t, leave what you feel is appropriate for the service you received – up to ten percent.
Most Italians start their day in a bar, their breakfast (prima colazione) consisting of a coffee and a brioche or cornetto – a croissant often filled with jam, custard or chocolate, which you usually help yourself to from the counter and eat standing at the bar. It will cost between €1.30 and €1.60; note that it will cost more if you sit down (see “Where to drink”). Breakfast in a hotel is all too often a limp affair of watery coffee, bread and processed meats, often not worth the price.
Pizza is a worldwide phenomenon, but Italy remains the best place to eat it. Here pizza usually comes thin and flat, not deep-pan, and the choice of toppings is fairly limited, with none of the dubious pineapple and sweetcorn variations. For a quality pizza opt for somewhere with a wood-fired oven (forno a legna) rather than a squeaky-clean electric one, so that the pizzas arrive blasted and bubbling on the surface and with a distinctive charcoal taste. This adherence to tradition means that it’s unusual to find a good pizzeria open at lunchtime; it takes hours for a wood-fired oven to heat up to the necessary temperature.
Pizzerias range from a stand-up counter selling slices (pizza al taglio) to a fully fledged sit-down restaurant, and on the whole they don’t sell much else besides pizza, soft drinks and beer. A basic cheese and tomato margherita can cost from €3.50 to €6, depending on how fancy the pizzeria is. More elaborate pizzas will cost from around €6–10, and it’s quite acceptable to cut it into slices and eat it with your fingers. Consult our food glossary for the different varieties.
For a lunchtime snack sandwiches (panini) can be pretty substantial, a bread stick or roll packed with any number of fillings. A sandwich bar (paninoteca) in larger towns and cities, and in smaller places a grocer’s shop (alimentari), will normally make you up whatever you want. Bars, particularly in the north, may also offer tramezzini, ready-made sliced white bread with mixed fillings.
Other sources of quick snacks are markets, where fresh, flavoursome produce is sold, often including cheese, cold meats, warm spit-roast chicken, and arancini, deep-fried balls of rice with meat (rosso) or butter and cheese (bianco) filling. Bread shops (panetteria) often serve slices of pizza or focaccia (bread with oil and salt topped with rosemary, olives or tomato). Supermarkets, also, are an obvious stop for a picnic lunch: larger branches are on the outskirts of cities, while smaller supermarkets can be found in town centres.
The quality of fruit and vegetables in Italy is excellent, with local, seasonal produce available throughout the country. There are numerous pasta sauces without meat, some superb vegetable antipasti and, if you eat fish and seafood, you should have no problem at all. Salads, too, are fresh and good. Outside the cities and resorts, you might be wise to check if a dish has meat in it (C’è carne dentro?) or ask for it “senza carne e pesce” to make sure it doesn’t contain poultry or prosciutto.
Vegans will have a much harder time, though pizzas without cheese (marinara – nothing to do with fish – is a common option) are a good stand-by and vegetable soup (minestrone) is usually just that.
Although un mezzo (half-litre carafe of house wine) is a standard accompaniment to a meal, there’s not a great emphasis on dedicated drinking in Italy. Public drunkenness is rare, young people don’t devote their nights to getting wasted, and women especially are frowned on if they’re seen to be overindulging. Nonetheless there’s a wide choice of alcoholic drinks available, often at low prices. Soft drinks, crushed-ice drinks and, of course, mineral water are widely available.
Traditional bars are less social centres than functional places and are all very similar to each other – brightly lit places, with a counter, a Gaggia coffee machine and a picture of the local football team on the wall. This is the place to come for a coffee in the morning, a quick beer or a cup of tea – people don’t generally idle away evenings in bars. Indeed in some more rural areas it’s difficult to find a bar open much after 8pm.
It’s cheapest to drink standing at the counter, in which case you pay first at the cash desk (la cassa), present your receipt (scontrino) to the barperson and give your order. There’s always a list of prices (listino prezzi) behind the bar and it’s customary to leave a small coin on the counter as a tip. If there’s waiter service, just sit where you like, though bear in mind that to do this will cost up to twice as much as positioning yourself at the bar, especially if you sit outside (fuori) – the difference is shown on the price list as tavola (table) or terrazzo (any outside seating area). Late-night bars and pubs rarely operate on the scontrino system; you may be asked to pay up front, in the British manner, or be presented with a bill. If not, head for the counter when you leave – the barperson will have kept a surprisingly accurate tally.
An osteria can be a more congenial setting, often a traditional place where you can try local specialities with a glass of wine. Real enthusiasts of the grape should head for an enoteca, though many of these are more oriented towards selling wine by the case than by the glass. Cities offer a much greater variety of places to sit and drink in the evening, sometimes with live music or DJs. The more energetic or late-opening of these have taken to calling themselves pubs, a spill-over from the success of Irish pubs, at least one of which you’ll find, packed to the rafters, in almost every city.
Always excellent, coffee can be taken small and black (espresso, or just caffè), which costs around €1 a cup, or white and frothy (cappuccino, for about €1.30), but there are scores of variations. If you want your espresso watered down, ask for a caffè lungo or, for something more like a filter coffee, an Americano; with a drop of milk is caffè macchiato; very milky is caffè latte or (in the South) latte macchiato (ordering just a “latte”, New York café style, will get you a glass of milk). Coffee with a shot of alcohol – and you can ask for just about anything – is caffè corretto. Many places also serve decaffeinated coffee; in summer you might want to have your coffee cold (caffè freddo).
If you’re not up for a coffee, there’s always tea. In summer you can drink this cold, too (tè freddo) – excellent for taking the heat off. Hot tea (tè caldo) comes with lemon (con limone) unless you ask for milk (con latte). A small selection of herbal teas (infusioni) are generally available: camomile (camomilla) and peppermint (menta) are the most common.
There are various soft drinks (analcolichi) to choose from. Slightly fizzy, bitter drinks like San Bittèr or Crodino are common, especially at aperitivo time. A spremuta is a fresh fruit juice, squeezed at the bar, usually orange, but sometimes lemon or grapefruit. There are also crushed-ice granitas, big in Sicily and offered in several flavours, available with or without whipped cream (panna) on top. Otherwise you’ll find the usual range of fizzy drinks and concentrated juices: the home-grown Italian version of Coke, Chinotto, is less sweet and good with a slice of lemon. Tap water (acqua del rubinetto) is quite palatable in some places, undrinkable in others, though few Italians would dream of imbibing it. Mineral water (acqua minerale) is ubiquitous.
Beer (birra) usually comes in one-third or two-third litre bottles, or on tap (alla spina), measure for measure more expensive than the bottled variety. A small beer is a piccola (20cl or 25cl), a larger one (usually 40cl) a media. The cheapest and most common brands are the Italian Moretti, Peroni and Dreher, all of which are very drinkable; if this is what you want, either state the brand name or ask for birra nazionale or birra chiara – otherwise you could end up with a more expensive imported beer. You may also come across darker beers (birra nera or birra rossa), which have a sweeter, maltier taste and in appearance resemble stout or bitter.
All the usual spirits are on sale and known mostly by their generic names. There are also Italian brands of the main varieties: the best Italian brandies are Stock and Vecchia Romagna. A generous shot costs about €1.50, imported stuff much more.
You’ll also find fortified wines like Martini, Cinzano and Campari; ask for a Campari-soda and you’ll get a ready-mixed version from a little bottle; a slice of lemon is a spicchio di limone, ice is ghiaccio. You might also try Cynar – an artichoke-based sherry often drunk as an aperitif with water.
There’s also a daunting selection of liqueurs. Amaro is a bitter after-dinner drink or digestivo; Amaretto much sweeter with a strong taste of almond; Sambuca a sticky-sweet aniseed concoction, traditionally served with a coffee bean in it and set on fire (though, increasingly, this is something put on to impress tourists). A shot of clear grappa is a common accompaniment to a coffee and can range from a warming palate-cleanser to throat-burning firewater, while another sweet alternative, originally from Sorrento, is limoncello or limoncino, a lemon-based liqueur best drunk in a frozen vase-shaped glass. Strega is another drink you’ll see behind every bar, yellow, herb-and-saffron-based stuff in tall, elongated bottles: about as sweet as it looks but not unpleasant.
From sparkling Prosecco to deep-red Chianti, Italy is renowned for its wines. However, it’s rare to find the snobbery often associated with “serious” wine drinking. Light reds such as those made from the dolcetto grape are hauled out of the fridge in hot weather, while some full-bodied whites are drunk at near room temperature. In restaurants you’ll invariably be offered red (rosso) or white (bianco) – though rosé (rosato) is slowly becoming more available. The local stuff (vino sfuso) can be great or awful – there’s no way of telling without trying – but it is inexpensive at an average of around €5 a litre, and you can always order just a glass or a quarter-litre (un quarto) to see what it’s like. Bottled wine is pricier but still very good value; expect to pay €9–20 a bottle in a mid-priced restaurant, and less than half that from a shop or supermarket. In bars you can buy a decent glass of wine for about €3.