Sleeping, eating and transport: Enjoying Italy to its fullest

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 61 of the April 2010 issue.
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by Philip Wagenaar

(First of two parts)

BARI, Italy, April 14, 1990 — Being exhausted after our long bicycle ride, my wife, Flory, and I decided to have dinner in our hotel’s ristorante (restaurant) rather than go out. Alas, service was slow, the bread was stale and our wine glasses were full of particles, a result of the waiter’s piercing the cork in a less-than-perfect fashion.

After I told the server that the wine was unacceptable, he became very huffy, pushed the cork back and cut it flush with the top of the bottle. Nobody would suspect that the wine had ever been opened.

Because of our distasteful experience, we left and found a trattoria, one with inexpensive and delightful food.

We have taken many independent trips to Italy since 1990, the last one in April-May ’09. During those tours, I frequently wished that I had answers to various questions, such as “Is Ascension Day an official holiday?” To help resolve these quandaries, I collected, over the years, sundry particulars about touring in Italy, which I present below.

Due to space constraints, some details have been omitted.

Italian repasts

As cuisine in Italy differs from Italian fare served in the US, I will discuss what Italians typically eat and drink.

Breakfast (prima colazione) — This frequently consists of coffee or cappuccino with a brioche or cornetto (a light pastry, resembling a croissant), either plain or filled with custard (crema), marmalade (marmelatta), chocolate cream (crema di cioccolato) or Nutella® (a hazelnut/cocoa spread). Note that cappuccino is a breakfast drink and ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered strange.

Lunch (pranzo) — While lunch used to be the big meal of the day, nowadays there is a tendency to eat a light lunch and a big dinner, especially in the industrialized cities. However, in smaller towns the pausa pranzo (pause for lunch or siesta) is still prevalent and you will find empty streets and closed shops between noon or 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Restaurants generally stay open.

Dinner (cena) — While dinner at home, if it comes after a heavy lunch, will be a light meal, dining in a restaurant may last two to three hours.

The menu usually starts with the coperto (cover charge) of €1-€3 (near $1.40-$4.25) per person, which pays for the bread, silverware, etc., and is always part of the final bill, even when not listed separately.

The coperto is followed by real food, the antipasto (appetizer), which usually includes local cold cuts and regional specialties.

Next comes the primo (plural, primi), the first course, which typically is pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup.

Italian pasta is available with numerous sauces and is called pomodoro when it comes with a tomato sauce and al ragù when it is served with a meat sauce.

If you are still hungry, look for the secondo (pl., secondi), consisting of meat, poultry, fish or sometimes a vegetarian item. Secondi, as a rule, are served without potatoes, vegetables or salad, which must be ordered as contorni (side dishes).

Since Italians often eat salad after the secondo, don’t be puzzled if the waiter asks whether you want your salad before, with or after dinner.

The menu finishes with dolci (desserts), such as gelato (ice cream), macedonia (fruit salad), zuppa inglese (custard-based dessert), cheese, etc. Fruit is often served in a bowl, from which you select whatever you want.

After dessert, you will be offered caffé (coffee) or a digestivo (after-dinner drink). On numerous occasions we received the latter complimentarily.

Of course, you can choose as few or as many of the above items as you want.

Although pizza formally is not considered a primo, it is served at the same time as other primi.

When you are ready for the bill, simply ask for “Il conto, per favore” (“The bill, please”), which will include tax and gratuity. Although service is included, most people tip one or two euros, which they hand to the waiter. Others tip 5%-10% for superior service.

Keep in mind that Italian waiters are paid a decent wage.

(FYI, Italians rarely tip taxi drivers.)

Panini & focaccia — In Italy, a panino (pl., panini) means either a simple bread roll or one with a basic filling, such as salami, ham, cheese or other food. To buy plain bread or rolls, go to a small bakery (panet­teria) or supermarket. A paninoteca or panineria is a sandwich bar.

Focaccia, widely enjoyed as a snack, is usually topped with olive oil and sometimes with herbs, onion, cheese, meat and vegetables.

Where to eat

You can easily get bewildered by the myriad eating establishments, which offer food at every price level. However, since most restaurants will have menus posted outside, it is easy to take your pick.

Below, I mention the most common types of eateries.

Bar or caffé — This is where people go for their morning coffee and pastry or to grab a sandwich. They also serve soft drinks, juice and alcohol (without age restrictions). You also will find prepared foods, such as panini, tramezzini (crustless tea sandwiches), pizza by the slice (al taglio), salads, pasta and snacks.

From the above, you can see that an Italian bar, which generally is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and which is found in every neighborhood, is quite different from an American one.

Before getting your food or drink in a bar or caffé, you must first pay at the cash register and then hand the receipt to the barman with your order. Most people stand, as there is a service charge for sitting at a table.

Parenthetically, it is common to receive free snacks, such as chips, nuts, etc., at any establishment where you order an alcoholic drink in the evening.

Ristorante — This is an upscale restaurant.

Trattoria — This is more informal and less expensive than a ristorante. It frequently will have a set menu of three to four courses. Optionally, food may be taken out.

Regrettably, in the past 20 years, trattorias have lost some of their character and have adopted various embellishments found in restaurants.

Osteria — Even more casual and less expensive than a trattoria, an osteria is similar to a pub or bistro, with wine served in decanters. It is family run and, although it has limited menu choices, the food is ample and of good quality, assuring a steady clientele.

Take a good look at the osteria, as, in recent years, some have become more upscale.

Tavola calda — This means “hot table.” It offers regional dishes, such as pizza or panini. Most are for takeout (da portare via) only.

Paninoteca or panineria — A sandwich bar, it also may serve salads and hamburgers.

Rosticeria — This is like a cafeteria but also provides takeout. It offers, besides roasted chicken, other main courses.

Gelateria — Don’t forget to visit one of the ubiquitous gelaterias (ice cream shops), where many Italians congregate from 4 to 5 p.m. and often later. To get the best ice cream, choose a place that makes its own (produzzione propria) and which is full of people.

Now that you’re acquainted with the Italian restaurant scene, I will continue with phone advice and accommodation details next month.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Philip Wagenaar

(First of two parts)

BARI, Italy, April 14, 1990 — Being exhausted after our long bicycle ride, my wife, Flory, and I decided to have dinner in our hotel’s ristorante (restaurant) rather than go out. Alas, service was slow, the bread was stale and our wine glasses were full of particles, a result of the waiter’s piercing the cork in a less-than-perfect fashion.

After I told the server that the wine was unacceptable, he became very huffy, pushed the cork back and cut it flush with the top of the bottle. Nobody would suspect that the wine had ever been opened.

Because of our distasteful experience, we left and found a trattoria, one with inexpensive and delightful food.

We have taken many independent trips to Italy since 1990, the last one in April-May ’09. During those tours, I frequently wished that I had answers to various questions, such as “Is Ascension Day an official holiday?” To help resolve these quandaries, I collected, over the years, sundry particulars about touring in Italy, which I present below.

Due to space constraints, some details have been omitted.

Italian repasts

As cuisine in Italy differs from Italian fare served in the US, I will discuss what Italians typically eat and drink.

Breakfast (prima colazione) — This frequently consists of coffee or cappuccino with a brioche or cornetto (a light pastry, resembling a croissant), either plain or filled with custard (crema), marmalade (marmelatta), chocolate cream (crema di cioccolato) or Nutella® (a hazelnut/cocoa spread). Note that cappuccino is a breakfast drink and ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered strange.

Lunch (pranzo) — While lunch used to be the big meal of the day, nowadays there is a tendency to eat a light lunch and a big dinner, especially in the industrialized cities. However, in smaller towns the pausa pranzo (pause for lunch or siesta) is still prevalent and you will find empty streets and closed shops between noon or 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Restaurants generally stay open.

Dinner (cena) — While dinner at home, if it comes after a heavy lunch, will be a light meal, dining in a restaurant may last two to three hours.

The menu usually starts with the coperto (cover charge) of €1-€3 (near $1.40-$4.25) per person, which pays for the bread, silverware, etc., and is always part of the final bill, even when not listed separately.

The coperto is followed by real food, the antipasto (appetizer), which usually includes local cold cuts and regional specialties.

Next comes the primo (plural, primi), the first course, which typically is pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup.

Italian pasta is available with numerous sauces and is called pomodoro when it comes with a tomato sauce and al ragù when it is served with a meat sauce.

If you are still hungry, look for the secondo (pl., secondi), consisting of meat, poultry, fish or sometimes a vegetarian item. Secondi, as a rule, are served without potatoes, vegetables or salad, which must be ordered as contorni (side dishes).

Since Italians often eat salad after the secondo, don’t be puzzled if the waiter asks whether you want your salad before, with or after dinner.

The menu finishes with dolci (desserts), such as gelato (ice cream), macedonia (fruit salad), zuppa inglese (custard-based dessert), cheese, etc. Fruit is often served in a bowl, from which you select whatever you want.

After dessert, you will be offered caffé (coffee) or a digestivo (after-dinner drink). On numerous occasions we received the latter complimentarily.

Of course, you can choose as few or as many of the above items as you want.

Although pizza formally is not considered a primo, it is served at the same time as other primi.

When you are ready for the bill, simply ask for “Il conto, per favore” (“The bill, please”), which will include tax and gratuity. Although service is included, most people tip one or two euros, which they hand to the waiter. Others tip 5%-10% for superior service.

Keep in mind that Italian waiters are paid a decent wage.

(FYI, Italians rarely tip taxi drivers.)

Panini & focaccia — In Italy, a panino (pl., panini) means either a simple bread roll or one with a basic filling, such as salami, ham, cheese or other food. To buy plain bread or rolls, go to a small bakery (panet­teria) or supermarket. A paninoteca or panineria is a sandwich bar.

Focaccia, widely enjoyed as a snack, is usually topped with olive oil and sometimes with herbs, onion, cheese, meat and vegetables.

Where to eat

You can easily get bewildered by the myriad eating establishments, which offer food at every price level. However, since most restaurants will have menus posted outside, it is easy to take your pick.

Below, I mention the most common types of eateries.

Bar or caffé — This is where people go for their morning coffee and pastry or to grab a sandwich. They also serve soft drinks, juice and alcohol (without age restrictions). You also will find prepared foods, such as panini, tramezzini (crustless tea sandwiches), pizza by the slice (al taglio), salads, pasta and snacks.

From the above, you can see that an Italian bar, which generally is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and which is found in every neighborhood, is quite different from an American one.

Before getting your food or drink in a bar or caffé, you must first pay at the cash register and then hand the receipt to the barman with your order. Most people stand, as there is a service charge for sitting at a table.

Parenthetically, it is common to receive free snacks, such as chips, nuts, etc., at any establishment where you order an alcoholic drink in the evening.

Ristorante — This is an upscale restaurant.

Trattoria — This is more informal and less expensive than a ristorante. It frequently will have a set menu of three to four courses. Optionally, food may be taken out.

Regrettably, in the past 20 years, trattorias have lost some of their character and have adopted various embellishments found in restaurants.

Osteria — Even more casual and less expensive than a trattoria, an osteria is similar to a pub or bistro, with wine served in decanters. It is family run and, although it has limited menu choices, the food is ample and of good quality, assuring a steady clientele.

Take a good look at the osteria, as, in recent years, some have become more upscale.

Tavola calda — This means “hot table.” It offers regional dishes, such as pizza or panini. Most are for takeout (da portare via) only.

Paninoteca or panineria — A sandwich bar, it also may serve salads and hamburgers.

Rosticeria — This is like a cafeteria but also provides takeout. It offers, besides roasted chicken, other main courses.

Gelateria — Don’t forget to visit one of the ubiquitous gelaterias (ice cream shops), where many Italians congregate from 4 to 5 p.m. and often later. To get the best ice cream, choose a place that makes its own (produzzione propria) and which is full of people.

Now that you’re acquainted with the Italian restaurant scene, I will continue with phone advice and accommodation details next month.