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Eating in Italy

When we think Italy and food, it is easy to conjure up thoughts about ‘real authentic’ pizza, and spaghetti and meatballs. It is easy to build up a food fantasy based on typical Italian dishes prepared in local hometown establishment even before stepping onto Italian soil. What one should remember is that most of the gastronomical delicacies prepared in your favorite Italian restaurant, are adaptations based on the availability of ingredients and regional preferences, and though it satisfies your urge for Italian cuisine, the variation you will be treated to on your Italy excursion may not resemble or taste like what you have become accustomed to.

During the waves of Italian immigration to America, the Italian’s, who made their way across the Atlantic Ocean, generally, migrated from Southern Italy, bringing with them Sicilian and Neapolitan inspired cuisine. Then, upon making America their new home and trying to keep heritage and traditions alive, they brought their gourmet recipes, but, in some cases, had to adjust them with the ingredients they had available to them. Italy, with its twenty regions, is just as diverse in respect to food as it is in respect to the different dialects. Ingredients found in the south were not always available in the north; hence, the variety and differences in the food prepared in each region. So, keeping this in mind, do not be surprised, while traveling in Italy, if your favorite meal of lasagna is nowhere mentioned on a menu, and if it is, that it does not quite taste the same as what you are use too. However, do not be alarmed, because by the end of your visit to Italy, you will have replaced your old favorite Italian dish, with a new authentic dish, leaving you longing for the taste long afterwards.

While traveling in Italy, you will never have to wander far before you find a place that serves food. It is important to understand the differences in the type of establishments and eateries that make up each city. There are bars or snack bars, cafes, trattoria or osteria, tavola calda, rosticceria, pizzeria, panineria, autogrill, ristorante.

Bar, snack bars, and cafes, are small simple establishments, which offer up light and quick meals. Coffee and pastry scented air lingers around these eateries. In these places, coffee, tea, alcohol, and non-alcoholic beverages are served. Pastries and other sweet desserts are also offered. Later in the day, the menu might include sandwich type items, as well.

Trattoria and osteria are usually small intimate family owned and run restaurants. You will find locally inspired dishes and desserts. If you are traveling Italy on a budget, this type of dining facility is economical, so, you can indulge in the local food, while pinching a cent, and your stomach will not be disappointed.

Tavola calda (hot table) eateries are also extremely economical, but do not offer as much atmosphere, and the food is basic. It is a cafeteria-style place, where you can choose food from a hot table. Typically, you will find meals consisting of local entrees, as well as, foods from other countries.

If you are looking for a quick bite priced right, you might wish to stop into a rosticceria. A rosticceria serves savory meats, which are grilled and roasted. Generally, these establishments do not offer sit down to eat comfort, but are convenient for the quick on the go take out meal. It may not sound enticing, but to walk past a rosticceria and smell the roasting meats, it will definitely have your mouth watering.

If you have traveled to Italy just to try the pizza, your travels will be well worth it. A pizzeria is not like the franchised venues in other countries. The crust is thin, but you will have a variety of toppings you can choose from, toppings you might not have ever thought to use on pizza make their way to Italian pizza, like the potato and cheese pizza. Some pizzerias offer the comfort of a restaurant style establishment, while others allow for the east of grabbing a quick slice for the person on the go.

A panineria is another great place you can stop for a quick grab and go bite to eat. Here you will find a variety of different sandwiches with a variety of different fillings, including vegetarian sandwiches. You can get these sandwiches grilled up warm or cold, whichever way your stomach is sure to be contented.

The Autogrill is a franchised self-service cafeteria like snack bar. They are found along the autostrada (highway/turnpike). Outside, you will be able to re-fuel your car, and inside, you will find restrooms, snacks like potato chips, cookies, chocolate, and beverages. You will also find a bar serving coffee, and other libations, a section selling sandwiches, a section selling pizza, and a tavola calda serving pre-made hot meals. So, you will be able to sit, eat, and freshen up before you continue your navigations of Italy.

If you are looking for a more atmospheric eating experience, Italy does not fail in that category. Italian ristorante are classified by stars, which rate them on décor, and quality of cuisine. Generally, ristorante is a more up-scale and elegant way to taste the authentic gourmet treasures.

Besides knowing the different places you can indulge your taste buds, it is equally important to learn the eating habits Italians are accustomed too. You may have to adjust your norm to their norm.

Colazione (coh-lah-tsee-ohnay), which means breakfast in Italian, is a simple meal. Do not expect to find eggs over easy with a side of sausages, or pancakes with syrup. In Italy, it is customary to eat a light breakfast consisting of brioche (croissant) or roll with butter (burro ‘boo-rroh’), or jam or marmalade (marmellata ‘mahr-mehl-lah-tah). To accompany this light meal, you can choose coffee, cappuccino, hot chocolate, other such warmed beverages, and even juice. It is good to note that it is not customary to drink cappuccino after the morning hours, as this warmed frothy beverage is considered a breakfast item. However, as a tourist, it will be hard to find an establishment that will not prepare you a cappuccino after the morning hours, but as they say, “When in Rome.”

Lunch, or pranzo (prahn-tsoh) in Italian, is typically served from about noon till 3 o’clock. If you are planning to have a sit down meal, you can expect this meal to include: antipasto, first course or primo (pasta, rice, or soup), second course or secondo (meat or fish with vegetable), formaggi (cheese), dolci (sweet dessert) or frutta (fruit), and caffè (coffee).

Italian dinner, or cena (cheh-nah), follows similarly to that of lunch. The hours you can be treated to Italian gastronomical pleasures are between 7 o’clock till 10 o’clock, though this time may vary depending on the region of Italy you are visiting. Again, you will feast on several different courses, which are set up as they were for lunch, though the entrees may differ.

Restaurants in Italy offer special plates of the day, like most restaurants do. In more touristy areas, you will find, some, restaurants that have a set price menu (menu touristico or prezzo fisso) for tourists. When dining in an Italian restaurant, the service charge may or may not be added into the bill. If it is not added in, you should add 12 to 15 percent of the bill to cover the service charge. Other items that may be added to your bill will include charges for linen, bread and cover charge, and a surcharge.

When visiting Italy, no trip would be complete without trying freshly baked breads, pastries, and biscotti (cookies). If you need something cool, sweet, and creamy, give into that temptation and find the local gelateria, and delve into some freshly made gelato (ice cream).

The pasta. The pizza. The meats. The seafood brought in from the surrounding seas. The locally grown vegetables and fruit harvested on family farms. Freshly baked breads and pastries perfume the air with the scent of wholesome goodness. Sinfully tempting desserts will make you crave and indulge. The delicious cuisines of Italy—Oh, la dolce vita. 

Written by: Jan Castagnaro

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