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How to spot the Italian restaurants to avoid

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

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.

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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.

Italian dish? Seems suspicious. Photo: Rob Wicks on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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.

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

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.

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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.

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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 may not be about to order it yourself, its inclusion on a menu is a bad omen. 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.

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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 together with 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.

With around 600 shapes known across the country, Italians really are passionate about their pasta-sauce pairings.

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


Member comments

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

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