So you are going to Italy this year. You’ve done your research, obtained your passport, made your itinerary and booked your flights. Your trip is just weeks away and you begin to ponder the difficulties of actually experiencing another culture that speaks another language. Are you worried about being clueless? I can’t promise to save you from that (we’ve all been there), but we’ve put together a little information that may help. This will be an ongoing series covering some of the unique customs of Italian dining.

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Bars are an institution in Italy, but different than what most of us are accustomed to. They serve alcoholic beverages but also coffee, tea, hot chocolate. soft drinks and bottled water. Some serve pastries, cookies, snacks, small sandwiches (Panini) and some even serve main dishes. Some bars also serve gelato. If you are lucky you will find outside tables for sitting, reading and people watching. REMEMBER there will be a lower price for standing at the bar and a higher price for sitting and being served at a table. Never buy your food at the bar and carry it to the table without permission.

Many pizzerias serve pizza by the slice to take away, or to eat standing or at tables. If you see pizza already made it will be sold by the slice. If you don’t know how to ask for what you want just point. It works every time! A restaurant or trattoria that serves pizza may or may not serve pizza at lunch time. It’s always important to check before you sit down. This is normally stated on the menu or on a sign in the window. They don’t fire up the oven in the heat of the day. The pizza is made to order and individually sized, about twelve inches.  Italians usually eat pizza with a knife and fork.
Alimentari are small specialty stores, similar to a deli, where a variety of foods, bottles of wine and other beverages can be purchased. This is a wonderful way to sample local fare or make a picnic.
Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes from very fancy to small family owned trattorias and osterias. At one time there were definite distinctions, but we have found trattorias and osterias more upscale than many restaurants. Nearly all establishments have posted menus out front where you can check both the food and prices. They usually offer three courses plus dessert. It is not necessary to order all courses. Order what you like, but don’t go into a restaurant at lunch or dinnertime and order only an antipasto or gelato. A bar would be more appropriate. The antipasto is the appetizer and will be served first. The primo (first) is served next and usually consists of soup, pasta, risotto, or something similar. The secondo is the main entre’ and can be chicken, meat, or fish. In most cases the secondo does not come with any additional food items, but a vegetable, potato, or salad can be ordered from the contorni (side dishes) section of the menu.

In our next post we will elaborate on some of the finer points, and yes, we are aware that we’ve not used proper Italian grammar (such as the term trattorias), but it’s easier for most readers if we Americanize this posting. Hope some of you find it helpful.

Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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