Italians use the term mangiare bene which literally means “to eat well”. But along with referring to a meal of flavor and value, it also suggests a savored time surrounded by friends and loved ones while consuming fresh, whole, seasonal and regional products. In other words, the definition encompasses not just the food and its prices, but takes into account the subtle intricacies of the entire dining experience. Food is life in Italy.
Just as there are many ways one can order a coffee, there are almost as many categories on the “food eatery hierarchy” in Italy. Knowing these differences can come in handy when munching your way through the bel paese.
#1. Ristorànte [risto’rante]: “Public place where meals are served”
In America the word “restaurant” covers all types of food establishments; from the Michelin rated to fast food chains. In Italy, the term ristorante generally refers to a dining room offering up market cuisine, printed menus and maitre de/sommelier service. If you are on a budget, scrutinize the menu outside first; when dining at a ristorante you can expect the highest quality along with loftier prices.
#2. Trattorìa [tratto’ria]: “A usually inexpensive, informal place to eat”
A Trattoria is by far and away the kind of place I most often frequent for pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner). These spots are almost exclusively family run businesses where you’ll find the atmosphere warm and casual – you can almost imagine their nonna (grandmother) cooking in the kitchen. A trattoria should give off a local neighborhood vibe. If you find it’s filled with natives, don’t hesitate to wait in line for the next table. If, however, you see that most of the clientele are speaking in English, German or Japanese, you could be running the risk of entering a “tourist trap” situation, i.e., overpriced, mediocre food and wine and irritable service from cranky waiters. Rule of thumb: When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.
#3. Osterìa [oste’ria]: “Public place where wine and meals are served frugally”
There is a bit of a discrepancy these days about the definition of osteria. In fact, it has become a practice to refer to a ristorante as an osteria. Perhaps the “nouveau restaurateur” is attempting to make his eatery appear more approachable. Attenzione – they may still be charging “jet-setter prices”. A true osteria should have a simple menu, often written on a board and, theoretically, could be paid with the euro coins jingling in your pockets.
#4. Bar [‘bar]: “Public place where you consume coffee, soft drinks, liquors, etc.”
The bar – although serving alcohol – is often confused with its American counterpart. Don’t make this mistake – a bar is a café and the “etcetera” in the above definition is the greatest thing about them. Along with your pedestrian coffee and cornetto (brioche) in the mornings and your afternoon café’ (espresso) – in the early evenings a bar is where you will find the best “bang for your buck” in the western world. It’s “aperitivo” time! Served before the dinner hour, order a glass of wine, flute of prosecco or a Campari and with your cocktail comes a plethora of finger foods. Again, if you are watching your centesimi (pennies), this evening of gli spuntini (snacks) can definitely double as dinner!
#5. Pizzerìa [pittse’ria] “Workshop where they prepare and sell pizzas”
Pizza, (as my teenage son once vehemently insisted), was NOT invented in the U.S. This international “pie” was conceived and perfected in Naples, located in the south of the country. Forget about what you know from its weak American cousin, a pizza in Italy has a wafer thin, wood-fired crust and is light on the sauce and fresh toppings. Delicate and simple – one pizza is ordered for each person so I will not be sharing mine with you, thank you very much. The classic version, Pizza Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil), is said to be modeled after the Italian flag. My “I only eat white food” son was delighted to learn that in Italy there exists such a thing as pizza bianca –crust, olive oil and mozzarella – no tomato sauce! Paradiso!
#6. Pìzza à Tàglio [‘pittsa] à [‘taʎʎo]
Pizza à taglio is to a Pizzeria what Old Navy is to The Gap: similar stuff, but for less money. Basically – pizza by the slice. The pizza is made in sheets and cut to your specifications right on the spot. You choose the type and how much – it’s priced by weight. Wrapped for you in paper, and for just a couple of euros, you can scarf up your pizza on the go. It’s Italian fast food!
#7. Tàvola Càldo [‘tavola ‘kaldo] “Cafeteria or Hash House”
The direct translation of tavola calda is “hot table” and that is precisely what it is – piping hot, ready-made regional food that can be eaten in, but more often than not, is for take-out (porta via). This is where you can get real comfort food, Italian style.
They say you can’t get a bad meal in Italy. I don’t think that is completely true, however this hypothesis is difficult to gauge because it’s like comparing American apples to Mediterranean oranges; the bar is set high when it comes to cooking and eating in this country. For instance, what might be considered “bad” to an Italian could be considered more than adequate by U.S. standards. Some of the freshest and tastiest Panini (sandwiches) I’ve eaten were purchased from a train station, so my advice to you…it doesn’t matter where you eat in Italy, just as long as you EAT! Mangia bene!