Learning Italian For Members

The essential vocabulary you'll need to dine out in Italy

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
The essential vocabulary you'll need to dine out in Italy
A woman has lunch at a restaurant in Piazza Navona, central Rome. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

Waiters in Italy's big cities and holiday hotspots often have a good command of English, but that's not always the case in the rest of the country.


Dining out is one of the best ways to explore Italy’s famous cuisine and one of the experiences tourists most look forward to when visiting the country.

Generally speaking, waiting staff at most restaurants in major cities and holiday hotspots around Italy will have at least some basic knowledge of English, meaning you’ll be able to order your meal in English without any particular issues. 

READ ALSO: Trattoria to osteria: Italy's different restaurant types explained

But that might not be the case in less visited areas of the peninsula, or in less popular establishments, where waiters may not be used to foreign clientele and may not be confident English speakers. 

Whether you’re dealing with staff with a not-so-great command of English, or are simply tempted to put your Italian skills to the test and order food and drinks in the local language, there are some key words and phrases that you’ll need to be familiar with to enjoy a smooth dining experience in Italy.

Choosing your restaurant

Picking the right spot for a lunch (pranzo) or dinner (cena) can be hard without some basic knowledge of all the different kinds of restaurants available in the country and their names. 

Though the precise distinction between ristoranti, trattorie, osterie and agriturismi isn’t always clear to Italians either, each establishment has some unique features. Knowing the difference will help you make the best choice for the occasion. 

Reserving a table

Once you’ve picked the restaurant, it’s strongly advisable that you book (prenotare) a table (un tavolo). 

Italian restaurants can get extremely busy, especially over the summer and on or around national public holidays, which means it’s always best to book a spot well in advance to avoid being told “Scusi, siamo al completo/siamo pieni” (Sorry, we’re fully booked) at a later date. 

Some restaurants may allow you to book online, either through their website or via external online platforms or apps, but this is definitely not the case for all venues.


Should calling the restaurant be the only option, you can simply say: “Vorrei riservare un tavolo per (numero) persone alle (ora) di (giorno),” which translates as “I’d like to reserve a table for (number) people at (time) on (day)”.

To confirm the reservation, you’ll in most cases be asked to provide your name (nome) or surname (cognome) and mobile phone number (numero di cellulare).

If the restaurant has an outdoor seating area, you may also be asked if you’d like to eat indoors (dentro or all’interno) or outdoors (fuori or all’esterno).

Ordering food and drinks

Once at the restaurant, the first thing you’ll have to do is let the restaurant manager or waiting staff know that you have a reservation. 

You can do so by saying: “Ho una prenotazione per (ora) con nome (nome)”, which means “I have a reservation for (time) with name (your name)”.

Once seated, you’ll be given a menu (menù in Italian – note the accent on the ‘u’) and usually be given some bread (pane) or breadsticks (grissini) to snack on while you decide what to eat or drink.


In most cases, these won’t be free of charge (you’ll see them billed as pane or coperto) but you can turn them down with a simple “No, grazie” (No, thank you).

READ ALSO: 'A rip-off': Should you really get mad about Italy’s table charge?

In most restaurants in big cities and popular tourist hotspots, menus will be available in both English and Italian.

If that’s not the case, you can ask the waiter (cameriere) to explain what the items you’re not familiar with are: “Che cosa c’e’ in questo piatto?” (What’s in this dish?) or “Che ingrediente e’ questo?” (What ingredient is this?).

Or you may ask for their English translation (traduzione in inglese).

The menu will likely be divided into the following sections: antipasti (appetisers), primi (first courses), secondi (second courses), contorni (sides), dolci (desserts), bevande alcoliche (alcoholic drinks) and bevande analcoliche (soft drinks).

If you’re looking for recommendations on what to order (ordinare), you can ask your waiter: “Cosa mi consigli da bere/da mangiare?” (What do you suggest I eat/drink?).

You can also ask how big portions are (“Quanto sono grandi le porzioni?”) if you’re afraid you may order more than you can possibly take on.

READ ALSO: Antipasto to amaro: What to expect from every step of an Italian dinner

If you need some more time to look at the menu, you can say: “Mi serve un altro po’ di tempo”.

To order, simply say “Io prendo…” (I’ll take) followed by your order. 


Particular requests

Whether you need an extra plate, new cutlery or another napkin, you can just ask: “Possiamo avere…?” followed by what you need and per favore (please). 

Here are some useful terms to know.

Posate (cutlery): forchetta (fork), coltello (knife), cucchiaio (spoon), cucchiaino (tea spoon).

Stoviglie (tableware): piatto fondo (soup plate), piatto piano (dinner plate), vassoio (tray), piattino (side plate), bicchiere (glass), caraffa (jug), bottiglia (bottle), tovagliolo (napkin), salviette (wipes).

Asking for the bill

Italian waiters don't normally like to hurry their customers and it's perfectly acceptable to linger and chat over the dregs of the wine after finishing your meal.

READ ALSO: What to do (and avoid) when paying your restaurant bill in Italy

When you're ready to pay the bill, try to catch the waiter's eye and ask: “Possiamo avere il conto?

You’ll have the option to pay at the counter (alla cassa) or at the table (al tavolo), in cash (contanti) or by card (carta).

Though tipping isn’t required or expected in Italy, you can still leave a tip (mancia) if you were particularly happy with the service (servizio) or the food you consumed.



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