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The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

Italian might be known as the language of love but - far more importantly - it's also the language of food.

The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus
Restaurants in Italy are open once more. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

And if you're looking for an authentic Italian foodie experience, your best bet is to steer clear of chequered tablecloths, ostentatious signage, and menus with English translations or pictures.

READ ALSO: 12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know

That might be a daunting prospect, particularly as Italians have plenty of unwritten rules when it comes to food, but with our guide you should be able to navigate restaurant menus with ease.

Ristorante, trattoria, osteria | Restaurant

In your dictionary, these terms might all share an English translation, but there's an important difference. A ristorante is the most formal and upmarket of the three with waiter service, while a trattoria is less formal, usually family-run and slightly cheaper, and an osteria – or hostaria or taverna – is the budget option.

Osterias were once local watering holes: they served only wine and you'd bring along your own food. This is still the case in a very few places, such as the historic Osteria del Sole in Bologna, but nowadays most will offer a pared-down menu made up of local specialties.

Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The distinction between eateries is becoming less important, with many osterie shifting upmarket on the one hand and ristoranti calling themselves 'trattorie' to seem cosier on the other.

Meanwhile, if a drink is all you're after, head to an enoteca (wine bar) or birreria (pub), which will often serve small appetizers too.  

READ ALSO: Italy's worst tourist scams and how to avoid them

Photo: bekassine/Flickr

Tavola calda | Buffet-style cafeteria

Literally translating as 'hot table', a 'tavola calda' is a cafeteria or takeout place – but not as you know it. 

It's a great way of getting a good lunch without spending too much: there's a selection of hot food, usually kept in dishes behind a counter, almost always prepared that day and reheated to order. There's usually a selection of several warm pasta or meat dishes, as well as salads and possibly pizza and pastries too. 

Bar, caffè | Cafe

Confusingly, these are more or less the same thing and sometimes you'll see them called a 'caffè bar'. Often, they will stay open late, serving alcohol and/or aperitivo in the evening, but unlike bars in the English-speaking world, by day they're the go-to place for your coffee and 'brioche' (pastry). 

Photo: Andrea Pattaro/AFP

The ordering system is usually different here compared to places which serve sit-down meals. After eating in a trattoria or ristorante, you'll have to call a waiter over to ask for the bill, as it's considered rude to interrupt your meal – even if you finished a while ago.

However, in an Italian cafe you'll usually pay first, and it's often a confusing two-step procedure where you'll order first and get a receipt, which you then take to the till to pay and receive your food.

Pizzeria (al taglio) | Pizzeria (by the slice)

At a pizzeria, you'll sit down and have a full pizza, while at shops serving pizza al taglio you can pick up a slice for just a couple of euros.

It's worth noting that while pizzerie al taglio might be commonplace, takeaway food is much less popular in Italy than elsewhere. In particular, some visitors may be surprised to find that not all cafes offer takeaway cups, so make sure to ask if you can get a caffè da asporto (coffee to go).

Photo: Dimitris Kamaras/Flickr

Menu a prezzo fisso | Fixed price menu

If the prospect of deciphering the entire menu seems far too complex, a set menu could be the saving grace.

Here you pay a certain price for one of a limited range of dishes, and a drink or coffee is often included (note: it will be an espresso, as Italians drink milky coffees for breakfast rather than after meals).

It's an option worth considering if you're a less adventurous eater, since the set menus typically include simple, popular dishes such as pasta with ragu or pesto. However, proceed with caution, particularly if the alternative wording 'menu turistico' (tourist menu) is used – sometimes these menus are a way of overcharging confused visitors for mediocre food.

Primo/secondo | Main course

The difference between Italian primo and secondo is not the same as English first and second course. 'Primo' dishes include pasta, risotto, broth, while the secondo is usually a type of meat dish, and may be further divided into 'mare' (sea, denoting seafood) and 'terra' (earth, denoting all other meats and vegetarian dishes). Another term indicating fish is 'alla pescatora' (fishermen's style).

READ MORE: How to decipher Italy's mind-boggling pasta menus

Photo: Randy OHC/Flickr

Be aware that secondi are often served alone, without any vegetables or other sides, so if you want an accompaniment order something from the 'contorni' (sides) section too. You can order both a primo and secondo, but it's also perfectly acceptable to choose one – and this is the norm if you're planning to have an antipasto (starter), contorno, or dolce (dessert) as well.

Al tavolo, al bar | At the table, at the bar/counter

Usually found on the menus at bars and caffes, these terms refer to two different prices, depending on whether you have your coffee and pastry while standing at the counter or sitting at a table, with a surcharge for the latter.

This is a common grumble among tourists who consider it deceptive, but it's the same logic as charging less for takeaway. Just make sure to watch out for those tourist traps which multiply the amount by a huge amount for the pleasure of a table seat – normally, the price difference shouldn't be more than around 50 cents per item.

Photo: Andrea Pattaro/AFP

Coperto | Service/cover charge

Another thing that often catches out first-time visitors is the cover charge, usually mentioned in small font at the bottom of a menu. This includes service as well as the bread (pane) or breadsticks (grissini) that usually arrive at the table.

Note that the price mentioned is usually per person, and is typically between €1 and €2 each – though restaurants in touristy areas might try to make extra money off visitors by hiking up the cover charge.

READ ALSO: The bizarre Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

Because of the ubiquity of the coperto, it's not obligatory to tip in Italy, but if you particularly enjoyed the experience you could add ten percent to the bill, or simply tell the waiter 'tenga il resto' (keep the change).

Surgelati | Frozen

In Italy, it's illegal to serve frozen food without informing customers with a disclaimer on the menu. This is typically done in one of two ways.

Some eateries will attach an asterisk to certain dishes, with an explanation at the bottom: 'Prodotti surgelati'. Alternatively, at the end of long menus, you might come across a phrase along the lines of 'alcuni prodotti potrebbero essere surgelati' (some products may be frozen), which usually means that whether dishes are frozen or fresh depends on the season. You can always ask your waiter to clarify.

Di nostra produzione | Made by us

On the other hand, if you see any dishes marked with this description, it's a sign they'll be fresh. They might also be described as 'fatto/a/i/e' in casa' (homemade).

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The traditional advice for choosing a great Italian restaurant is to go for one which only has a short menu – if there are too many meals on the list, it's unlikely they'll all be done well. However, these days it's common for chefs to bulk up their menus with frozen crowd-pleasers to cater for tourists, while still devoting special attention to their signature dishes, so this is the phrase to look out for.

Buon appetito!

This article was first published in 2017.


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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.