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FOOD & DRINK

How to spot the Italian restaurants to avoid

Italy's famed cuisine is one of many reasons people love the country so much, but not all restaurants do it justice. To make sure you avoid disappointment, here are a few of the sure signs of a tourist trap.

A couple eat at a restaurant in Venice.
Not all restaurants in Italy live up to expectations. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP)

Dining out in Italy is an integral part of living in or simply visiting Italy. The regional dishes, the high quality ingredients and the faithfulness to culinary heritage are just some of the reasons Italian food is so famous.

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities

Coming to Italy for business, pleasure or even to live, then, should mean you get a slice of that mouthwatering magic no matter which restaurant you step foot in, right? Not so fast.

Cities can be especially tricky places to choose a spot for lunch or dinner. Unfortunately, mass tourism means menus and recipes are often adapted to suit international tastes – and some of them charge eye-watering prices.

There are some obvious red flags for restaurants anywhere – people trying to coax you inside, dishes of congealed food on display in glass cases – but here are a few more Italy-specific tips for spotting the eateries best avoided.

Pictures of food on the menu

As in any other country, this is a dead giveaway that the restaurant is geared towards tourists and not locals. People living there wouldn’t need a visual description of the dishes, would they?

It’s not always true that all tourist traps serve sub-par dishes, but compared to where the locals go, you’re likely to get dumbed down versions of Italian classics – or versions completely adapted to international tastes.

In this case, it’s not even going to be Italian cuisine anymore, as far as Italians are concerned.

So if you see those giant laminated signs with various lascivious photos of alleged Italian specialties, maybe walk on by and see what’s around the corner.

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

Menu in multiple languages

This is another red flag. While it’s clearly helpful to know what there is to choose from as a tourist, a rule of thumb from experience is, the more languages the menu is translated in to, the worse the quality is.

And if you see a place with pictures of food and menu in multiple languages together? Keep walking.

Red and white chequered tablecloths

The classic, traditional chequered tablecloth is quintessentially Italian. At least in movies like Lady and the Tramp, anyway. Italian restaurants in other countries love to use this prop, complete with candles stuck in Chianti bottles and breadsticks on the tables to complete that ‘authentic’ Italian experience.

But in Italy, it can sometimes be an alarm bell that you are entering a tourist hotspot and mediocre food awaits.

Of course, it’s not always true. Lots of agriturismi The Local’s writers have been to have been adorned with such tablecloths and the food has been abundant and delectable.

But in cities, at least, see them as a sign that you should proceed with caution.

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

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Condiments on the table

Don’t get Italians going with the topic of sauces. Aside from burgers and fries, which obviously isn’t Italian food, condiments are not appreciated in Italian restaurants.

Leave the ketchup, mayo and – heaven forbid – mustard, in the cupboard. You won’t need them in Italian cooking. And equally, if you see condiments on the table in an Italian restaurant, you can be pretty sure you’re not eating in the best restaurant in town.

If your meal requires olive oil and vinegar, these will be brought over to you by the waiter- not left sitting on a table, gathering dust.

Spaghetti bolognese and other Italian ‘adaptations’

If spaghetti bolognese is listed on the laminated picture food menu with descriptions in English, German and French, run for the hills.

This is one of several dishes that are thought of as ‘Italian’ abroad but don’t exist within Italy.

And while you obviously don’t have to order it yourself, its inclusion on a menu doesn’t bode well for the overall standard of cooking. Like ‘fettucine alfredo’ or dubious versions of spaghetti carbonara made with cream, it’s safe to say no self-respecting Italian chef would serve this dish in Italy.

READ ALSO:

If you’re looking to try the authentic version of this dish, bolognese sauce in Italy is called ragù bolognese and is usually served with the flatter tagliatelle pasta, as it’s better at picking up the meaty sauce than spaghetti.

These distinctions might seem petty and pointless from the outside, but pasta shape – and which sauces they go with – is serious business in Italy.

Try a few authentic dishes for yourself in a good trattoria, and you won’t be able to go back to spag bol: chances are you’ll soon be just as picky about your pasta as the locals.

Have you picked up some tips while eating out in Italy? Let us know in the comments below.

Member comments

  1. Not eating near tourist sites and going into the suburbs, is where the good authentic food and reasonable prices are found.

  2. Well, that is all good and fine, but sometimes not realistic. I am a tourist and hungry, and I don’t have a week to find the one and only super authentic, true, historic, and original restaurant where no one speaks my language and I am looked at as out-of-this-world! If the food tastes good, the service is nice and the staff speaks English, I am glad if the menu is in English!

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FOOD & DRINK

Five tips for ordering pizza in Italy

You may think of yourself as a pizza aficionado, but ordering pizza in Italy can be a more complex process than you might expect. Here are our suggestions for getting it right first time.

Five tips for ordering pizza in Italy

Know your napoletana from your romana

One of the first questions you’ll be asked upon ordering at some Italian pizzerias is whether you’d prefer a pizza napoletana – Neapolitan pizza – or a pizza romana – Roman pizza.

The former is the more traditional version (the dish did, after all, originate in Naples, which in 2017 was awarded UNESCO heritage status for its pizza-making process), and has a thicker, more elastic dough. The latter is a thinner, crispier product.

READ ALSO: Eight surprising pizza facts in honour of Italy’s most beloved export

Sometimes the waiter will refer to Neapolitan style pizza as a pizza alta (tall/thick pizza) and Roman style pizza as a pizza bassa (low/thin pizza).

You probably won’t be given the option to choose between the two in Naples, for obvious reasons – and you’d do well not to request a pizza romana when in the city.

… and your rossa from your bianca

If you grew up on non-Italian pizza, you’ve probably absorbed the idea that tomato sauce is fundamental to the core identity of a pizza.

In Italy, that’s not at all the case: even if pizza bianca (‘white’ pizza) isn’t quite as popular as pizza rossa (‘red’, tomato sauce-based pizza), it’s still very common, and is considered just as much the real deal.

An Italian pizza bianca.
An Italian pizza bianca. Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

Some pizzerias clearly divide their menus up into pizza rosse and pizze bianche sections, but others leave the diner to figure out whether their pizza is rossa or bianca  based solely on the individual descriptions.

In these cases it’s worth reading the fine print and, if necessary, double checking with the waiter to avoid disappointment. A mention of pomodorini, for example, indicates the inclusion of baby tomatoes on your pizza – not necessarily tomato paste or sauce.

Peperoni isn’t a sausage

How many visitors have honed in on the word peperoni on an Italian restaurant menu picturing some delicious, heartburn-inducing salami, only to find themselves tricked into ordering vegetables?

That’s right, peperoni in Italian (note the singular ‘p’) isn’t sausage meat – it’s bell peppers. 

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

It’s not one of the most common pizza toppings, but you’ll sometimes see it included in a special in some of the more gourmet / experimental pizzerias, and it’s a popular side dish in Italian restaurants.

If you’ve never tried peperoni, don’t write them off: unlike the more bitter green variety found in other countries, Italian peppers tend to be the sweeter red or yellow type, and are cooked in copious amounts of olive oil till they become extremely tender.

A 'peperoni' pizza.
A ‘peperoni’ pizza. Photo by Emily Powers on Unsplash

If you’re looking for pepperoni pizza of the kind you see in US and other anglo-saxon countries, you want pizza alla diavola (‘devil’s pizza’), which contains salamino piccante (spicy salami). 

More common meaty pizzas in Italy, though, are pizza capricciosa, with prosciutto ham, and pizza con/alla salsiccia, with sausage meat.

Step outside your comfort zone

You might have a favourite pizza you always order religiously, and that’s fine. But when you’re in Italy, considering experimenting with some new flavours.

For whatever reason, there are a number of toppings popular in the pizza’s country of origin that haven’t really gained traction outside Italy’s borders.

Perhaps that’s because many of these toppings are vegetable-based, and most other countries haven’t got much further with vegetables and pizza than throwing them on raw and unseasoned at the end as an afterthought.

Italy, on the other hand, knows the value of fresh local produce that’s been properly prepared (read: drowned in olive oil) and seasoned: which is why pizza alla parmigiana (aubergine parmesan pizza), pizza con funghi (mushroom pizza) and pizza vegetariana/ortolana (mixed vegetable pizza) are all national favourites.

READ ALSO: Domino’s Pizza pulls out of Italy after failing to win over Italians

You may be surprised to find that potatoes are not an uncommon pizza topping in Italy, or that adding uncooked cheeses like creamy stracciatella or crumbly ricotta on at the end is par for the course. Some pizzerias have elevated pizza to an art form, creating their own complex variants.

It's not uncommon to add creamy stracciatella cheese to an Italian pizza after it's been cooked.
It’s not uncommon to add creamy stracciatella cheese to an Italian pizza after it’s been cooked. Photo by Sanchit Singh on Unsplash 

Expand your horizons a little, you may find you leave Italy with a new favourite pizza.

Acquaint yourself with pizza al taglio

Everyone knows pizza isn’t really pizza unless it’s cooked in a traditional wood-fired pizza oven.

Unless, that is, it’s pizza al taglio. 

Pizza al taglio – pizza ‘by the slice’ – is made in a large metal baking pan and cooked in a baker’s oven.

Pizza ovens can’t be beat, but they take a long time to heat up, which is why most pizzerias only open in the evenings. What if you wanted a little snack to tide you over in the middle of the day? Enter the pizza al taglio.

This pizza looks and tastes a bit different from the kind you order in restaurant: because the pans are rectangular, the slices are cut into squares or rectangles rather than triangles, and the consistency is a bit like thinner, crunchier topped focaccia.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most delicious street foods in Italy

Pizza al taglio at an Italian bakery counter.
Pizza al taglio at an Italian bakery counter. Photo by Romain Chollet on Unsplash 

You’ll typically see pizza al taglio displayed in the counters of bakeries or cafe-bars; if you want to avoid ordering something that’s been sitting there for several days, check to see whether there’s a kitchen at the back that fresh baked goods could feasibly be coming out of.

Pizza al taglio is more of a snack than a meal – you’ll usually be asked if you want it da mangiare qui (to eat here) or per strada (for the road), in which case they’ll usually slice, fold and partially enclose it in wax paper for you to munch on as you go on your way.

Do you have any more tips for ordering pizza in Italy? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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