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TOURISM

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.

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.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you need to decipher Italian restaurant menus

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.

OPINION: Kiwi pizza and mozzarella sushi – why Italian food ‘innovation’ needs to stop

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

  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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TOURISM

OPINION: Why Italy should let the rich pay for ‘private moments’ at tourist hotspots

Instead of criticizing actor Jason Momoa over his VIP visit to the Sistine Chapel, Italy should encourage wealthy visitors to pay large sums for such experiences, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why Italy should let the rich pay for ‘private moments’ at tourist hotspots

Signing a generous cheque in order to enjoy a private, exclusive moment – without crowds – at the Colosseum, the Pantheon, or sitting on the Spanish Steps should not be seen as scandalous nor outrageous.

Imagine taking in the view of the Trevi Fountain at sunset, by yourself in a deserted Rome, after having splashed out ten or hundreds of thousands of euros, just to see the sun go down and relax for an hour.

READ ALSO: ‘I love Italy’: Jason Momoa apologises over Sistine Chapel photos

The big fuss over American actor Jason Momoa taking pictures of the Sistine Chapel recently during his Roman stay while shooting his next movie has raised eyebrows worldwide and caused much ado about nothing. It even made global headlines.

The main complaint was that the actor had been granted the privilege of taking photos. in spite of the ‘no-photo’ ban, which many said apparently applied only to ‘ordinary people’.

Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is about Momoa’s not-so intimate moment in the Sistine Chapel.

We Italians tend to look down on tourists who are constantly grabbing their camera to take pictures. We consider our artistic heritage untouchable, or in a way, non-reproducible through photography. 

But Momoa was not committing a crime. 

He later apologized, and explained that he had paid for an exclusive “private moment” by giving the Vatican Museums a large donation.

I think this is something positive: a ‘mechanism’ that could be exploited to raise cash for city coffers and urban projects – instead of raising local taxes that weigh on Italian families.

Rome, and all other Italian cities, should rent out such locations for events – even for just one night, or one hour – in exchange for a high fee.

The rich and famous would be more than happy to pay for such an opportunity to enjoy Italy’s grandeur. As would ordinary people who may decide they can afford it for a special occasion.

These are solo, one-in-a-lifetime experiences in top sites, and must be adequately paid for. 

Rome’s Colosseum in February 2021. Lower visitor numbers amid the Covid-19 pandemic meant Italian residents were able to see the country’s major attractions without the crowds. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Italy is packed with historical, artistic and archeological gems that the entire world envies, people flock here just for a selfie in front of the Looming Tower of Pisa.

So why not make a leap forward and raise the bar for ‘private moments’; something Momoa, despite the unknown sum of money he paid, did not even actually get.

I’m not suggesting Italian cities lease monuments for weeks or months, for they belong to all humanity and everyone has a right to enjoy them. But allowing exclusive, short private experiences at Pompeii, or Verona’s arena, or just time to stare at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, should be seen as a source of extra revenue, not a taboo.

Italy should economically exploit its infinite artistic treasures as a powerful money maker, unleashing the full potential of it. 

If offered the chance, I think Elon Musk would not mind paying hundreds of thousands of euros, or even millions, for a private corporate cocktail party at the Colosseum.

OPINION: Italy must update its image if it wants a new kind of tourism

Of course, you’d need rules: a strict contract with specific clauses in case of damage or guest misbehavior; a detailed price list; and surveillance to safeguard the site during the private event. And extremely high fines if any clause is breached.

It’s a matter of looking at a city from a business and marketing perspective, not just a touristic one.

Today you can already take a private tour of the Vatican Museums for a higher ticket price, but it’s mostly for groups of 10 people, and there’s always a guide with you. You’re never really ‘still’ in your favorite room, so forget having a completely ‘private moment’.  

Taking photos inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is usually forbidden, except for members of the media with special permission and, apparently, celebrities. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

One model city to take as reference is Florence, which in the past few years has done a good job of promoting the city brand.

The mayor’s office has set up a special committee that rents out Renaissance piazzas for private wedding celebrations and birthday parties, as well as several key historical spots like the Giardino delle Rose, and Palazzo Vecchio, the historical headquarters of the town hall.

There is an online menu with all the locations available for weddings and other private events, depending on the number of guests and type of celebration. 

Those interested should contact the town hall’s special ‘wedding task force’ if they want to book frescoed rooms in ancient palazzos or other buildings owned by local authorities. Last time I enquired, some elegant rooms are available to hire for as little as €5,000.

Would you pay big money to have major attractions, such as Rome’s Colosseum, all to yourself? Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Venice, too, has attempted to raise cash by renting the façades of public buildings overlooking the Canal Grande to global fashion brands for advertisements, but the move raised eyebrows among locals. 

Even in Florence, residents weren’t so pleased to see huge, lavish billionaire Indian weddings celebrated in front of their palazzi, blocking access to their homes.

Italians need to reset their mentality. If anyone is willing to pay big money to enjoy the solo thrill of a site or location, we should be more than happy to allow it. 

As a result, we might end up paying lower city taxes for waste removal, water and other services. Every day, for free, we share the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona with masses of noisy, coin-throwing, gelato-slurping tourists; why not occasionally accept a generous donation from a VIP or philanthropist eager to pay for a moment alone in the company of Bramante and Brunelleschi? 

We would only be helping our cities to maintain their artistic heritage, which fills us with pride.

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