At home, you have the occasional sit down dinner with the family. When you move out or move off to college, a meal typically consists of eating out or grabbing fast food to go. These days, families and friends rarely take the time to really enjoy a meal and spend time with their loved ones.
In Italy, however, dinner is a tradition. It takes hours, consisting of several courses and a lot of wine (for the adults, of course). Dinner is served late and is usually followed by a fantastic night's sleep. Here is your guide to dining in Italy as the Italians do.
Always Choose a Hidden Place
In Italy, whichever city you find yourself in, always eat in the restaurants you can't see from the main streets. The many twist and turns down alleys and side streets may be a bit unnerving for a new traveler, but rest assured, it's hard to get completely lost in Italy. Every street, if you keep moving, turns into a main road at some point. Along this journey, you will come across small restaurants with outdoor seating and perhaps a few tables inside.
In this country, the weather is usually so nice that everyone eats outside. If it rains and you have no choice but to move inside, you may find yourself extremely cramped- that's just how it is.
Now, for these smaller places, the prices may be lower and the quality is usually more authentic. However, Italy is a very touristy country and many business owners will use that to their advantage, which could mean higher prices.
For some great examples of hidden spots, check out this article on "The Best Restaurants in Rome Tourists Don't Know About."
Be Prepared to Eat a Lot
Italians love their big meals, and I mean they really love them. My first experience with a coursed meal during my study abroad trip was in Rome.
Our professor decided that, in each city we visited, we would eat as a group and have a true Italian dinner. This meant antipasti, a main course, dessert, and (of course) lots of wine. Our professor led us around the corner from our hotel, Casa La Salle, and down a few side streets to a small restaurant whose name escapes me. It was packed to the brim with people, and we even had reservations! The staff was polite and swift as they wiped off all the tables on the outdoor patio for us to sit.
It was our first true meal and we had no idea where to begin. Our professor took charge, ordering us all antipasti, which consisted of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes- some with olive paste, others plain. They were fantastic but decently hard and crunchy (which is normal). The antipasti was accompanied by a tray of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, ham, and prosciutto, among other things.
We could have been satisfied with just the antipasti, but that wasn't the case. We ordered main courses, too. I ordered a pasta dish while others went big and ordered steak. My pasta was fresh, perfect, and just the right portioned amount.
The main meats are not typically served with sides like they are here in the States. The portions are also much smaller, which means they are the perfect size. In Italy, you can't get a 99 cent Polar Pop because that extra large size just doesn't exist. What is considered a large coffee there is listed as a medium or small here. You get the picture.
If you're still unsure on how to go about eating in Italy like an Italian, check out this detailed illustrated guide.
Enjoy Your Company & Your Wine
If you're not a wine drinker, then this will be an interesting experience for you. Again, the States do wine differently in most cases. Many of our wines taste like grape juice. Now, I'm not complaining, but I will tell you that sweet wine is a rarity in Italy. Italians like their wine dry with their dinner because dry reds and whites bring out the flavor of meats and pastas. Dry red wine is also great for helping break down the fats of larger meats.
If you're like me, you sit down to eat and an hour later you're asking for the check. In Italy, you could easily spend three hours sitting down at dinner. Easily. It is all about the experience. Yes, the food is amazing and the wine makes everyone a bit tipsy, but the idea of sitting down and really enjoying each other's company is what it's all about.
I remember sitting at a long table at Il Duca, a restaurant in the middle of Trastevere, a famous food district. The roof to the room was gone and we could see out into the open sky. There were three other long tables beside us, a loud and excited Italian family seated at each. They could tell immediately we were tourists because our Italian was horrible.
The waiters were kind and wanted to help us as best they could. The environment was laid back, the people behind us were smoking and laughing, and every now and then a person would yell in excitement and wave his arms around making angry Italian gestures. It was a riot.
At the end of a meal, the custom is to have a shot of espresso and call it a night. There's a reason why restaurants don't start serving dinner till around 7PM. It's a culture, a custom, a rite of passage if you want to experience the true Italian way of life. Dinners last long into the night and you always leave with a better understanding of the Italian culture.