Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Italian Language Lessons: Going Out for Dinner
Italian eating establishments which correspond to what Americans think of as restaurants (i.e. with table service) range from the elegant to the very casual. While the categories overlap, restaurants are typically one of the following:
While the surroundings, extent of selections on the menu and price may vary substantially, the quality of the food mostly varies within a relatively narrow range from very good to unbelievably good.
The overall procedure for arriving, being seated, ordering drinks, ordering the main meal possibly followed by dessert, coffee and maybe "digestive" liqueurs corresponds closely to the pattern of American restaurants (although usually at a little slower pace, especially in the country). There is some difference in the process of paying: you will almost never be given the check for your meal until you ask for it. Simply indicating you are finished with your meal will not do it; you must actually request the check. Restaurants very commonly have only one set of diners per table for each meal they serve, so they don't have any inclination to rush you to pay. While we haven't tested this, it seems possible that if you don't ask for the check you could be there until closing time.
One other difference is that dishes on the menu generally arrive unaccompanied. The vegetable accompaniments must be ordered separately; they are found on the menu under the heading "contorni" (the "surroundings" for the central item).
Arriving and Being Seated
On arrival, you will either claim a table you have reserved earlier or ask for a free table. Reserving in advance is often a good idea, though not always possible; the basic language of making restaurant reservations is covered in its own section.
*In this context the feminine una, rather than uno, is used to imply one person - una persona.
**For bigger numbers than four, you probably need to reserve in advance. Numbers in Italian, useful in a variety of situations, are covered in Italian Counts.
*The term "al fresco" is often used in the U.S. to refer to outside dining. It is less commonly used with this meaning in Italy - it is a colloquial expression meaning "in prison"!
The waiter may offer to start you with drinks while you review the menu. The usual accompaniments are mineral water (either sparkling or still) and wine. We always order local wines (which are often VERY local, sometimes actually produced by the restaurant owners themselves). Most restaurants have a house wine, often a house red and a house white. In our experience, the house wines are not only very enjoyable but a choice which wins the waiter's approval. If you are a true wine connoisseur you won't need our advice; review the wine list and use your knowledge to choose. If you enjoy wine but, like us, do not have special expertise, the local selection offers an opportunity for a pleasant experience which is unique to the region you are traveling in.
*Beer is usually drunk with a meal only if it is pizza or a very casual meal such as a sandwich, not with home-style cooking.
With or without first ordering drinks to accompany the meal, you will get to the point of ordering the meal. The menu is invariably organized to suggest that you will have a full Italian banquet:
At one time, restaurants really did pressure patrons to select an item for each available course, at least for food items. Some still do, but most are now pretty flexible; they are happy to accommodate any selection, especially if it includes at least two courses. Since practically all second course selections are meat items, true vegetarians (like Pauline) skip this course except on the very rare occasions when a vegetarian entree is included. Steve sometimes eats fish (Pauline most emphatically does not), especially near the sea coast, so is able to order the second course more often.
You should be aware that dishes tend to come in the order you request them when ordering and follow the standard appetizer, first course, second course structure. On occasion, one of us has ordered a first but no second course while the other has ordered a second but no first course with the result that we alternated watching each other eat. To avoid this, we now make sure in this situation to mention that we would like Pauline's tagliatelle (a first course) and Steve's grilled swordfish (a second course) to come at the same time.
We will not try to cover the huge range of Italian cuisine within the confines of this web site. Whole books are devoted to this subject. Instead we will stick with a few common menu terms, restaurant customs and some hints for vegetarians. Most restaurants can accommodate vegetarians very well, especially if you go prepared. Even the non-vegetarian might like the option of ordering a vegetarian meal or, perhaps, just ensuring that a course within a meal is vegetarian if only to rest the digestive system. Also, if you think you might point randomly at menu items and take "pot luck", you may encounter a few surprise ingredients: are you fond of horse?
If you are a vegetarian and want to confirm with the waiter that you are ordering appropriately:
You will need to recognize the major sections of the menu. Here they are along with a few items to watch for within each category.
Here are some different antipasti that you might find on a menu.
Bruschetta (broo-SKET-tah) is grilled bread with olive oil, garlic and salt. It comes with a variety of toppings.
*This may have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian toppings on different pieces. You can usually request that it be prepared with only the vegetarian toppings.
**Even if the menu mentions only non-vegetarian toppings, they can usually prepare bruschetta with just olive oil and garlic. This still makes a tasty appetizer and allows you to feel proud of your ability to order "off the menu".
Crostini (kroh-STEE-nee) means little toasts. These are somewhat like bruschette (plural of bruschetta). These come with toppings as with bruschette. You may also come across crostoni, "big crostini".
Caprese (kah-PREH-seh) is basil and tomato slices on fresh mozzarella cheese.
Primi (First Course)
This section of the menu is where soup and pasta entries are usually included. A hungry vegetarian can often select two different dishes from this section to be served as a first and second course.
Some soups which, if you come across them, are both delightful regional specialties and likely to be vegetarian are:
*You can get an excellent Acqua Cotta at I Due Cippi da Michele in Saturnia (southern Tuscany) or at Malborghetto in Lecchi (near Gaiole in Chianti). See Restaurant Reviews.
Menus almost always include at least a few pasta dishes. Except for varieties with meat stuffings, the basic pasta in any of the huge variety of pasta dishes is likely to be vegetarian. If in doubt, indicate the pasta item on the menu and ask if the dish is vegetarian. Combinations of pasta and sauces are endless; a few examples of combinations which include vegetarian sauces (which makes them vegetarian dishes) are listed below.
Secondi (Second Course)
The offerings in this category are almost exclusively meat, fowl and fish dishes. Very occasionally, a vegetarian choice will appear. Here are some to watch for.
Contorni (Vegetable Accompaniments)
Here are some examples.
Here are some examples.
Caffe (Coffee and Digestive Liqueurs)
And a few concluding items.
Remember, you must ask for the check when you are ready to pay and leave.
A husband and wife enter a trattoria in early evening.
After a brief wait, a waiter arrives and leaves menus. Soon after, he returns to offer the couple a chance to order something to drink while contemplating the dinner orders.
A member of the restaurant staff comes and puts some bread on the table. After a short while, the waiter returns with bottle of water and a beaker of wine. He leaves and returns again to take the dinner order.
Waiter once again writes quickly to his pad, then looks up expectantly.
Waiter walks off to deliver order and some time goes by during which the couple enjoys the water, the wine, the bread and the general ambience. In due course, the antipasti courses - two orders of bruschetta - arrive. The couple enjoys each course in turn, eventually finishing all the items so far ordered. Restaurant staff clear the empty dishes and other debris. The waiter returns.
In a short while, the panna cotta arrives. The couple shares it and drinks the two espressos which arrive separately. A little time goes by and the check does not arrive.
Soon after the check arrives. The couple pays the amount indicated, adding a 10 percent tip since no service charge has been included and the meal was very enjoyable. They then stand up and walk to the exit.
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