The traditional Italian meal consists of antipasto (appetizer), primo (generally a pasta or rice dish), secondo (usually some kind of meat or fish dish) with contorno (side dish), followed by a dessert, fruit, or cheese plate. Even when eating in a restaurant, however, don’t feel obliged to order every course. it is totally acceptable to choose two items or, increasingly, just one.
Other alternatives include pizzerie (pizza places), paninoteche (sandwich shops), or self-service (cafeteria-style service). For a quick and cheap lunch you can also buy focaccia or pizza al taglio, a very popular type of pizza baked in large rectangular trays and generally sold in rectangular slices by weight.
Another convenient place for eating is the rosticceria or tavola calda: they are basically “slow food” takeaway services where the food on sale is restaurant quality, though the price is much lower. You can find a variety of dishes, both cold and hot, ranging from roasted meats and pasta to vegetables and salads. Click here for more information.
Supermarkets often have a special section selling a range of freshly cooked food, which can include pastas, meat, vegetables and local specialties. (For more information about buying groceries in an Italian supermarkets check out this article).
Many Italians still do their daily (or near-daily) shopping at smaller shops – the butcher, the produce shop, or the “alimentari” (all-purpose grocery store.
In addition, small cafés usually have sandwiches for sale. When eating or drinking in a café, it is customary to order at the cash register and then take the receipt to a clerk behind the counter. If you wish to eat at a table, take a seat and then order, as the price for sitting at a table and standing at the bar or counter is different.
Restaurants near tourist locations and in city centers tend to be more expensive. Don’t eat in a restaurant with a tourist menu or with someone outside encouraging you to come in.
Traveling off the beaten path can save money. Look for restaurants that are full of locals; it usually means the food is good and the price is right.
You don’t have to speak Italian to eat well in Italy, you just have to be curious. Do a little research before you leave to find out what dishes a city or region is famous for, and you’ll eat your way to understanding the culture. And always go into a restaurant with a sense of adventure–waiters love telling customers what’s good.
Please understand that Olive Garden is not Italian food. If you like Olive Garden, that’s fine; just don’t compare it to the food you’ll get in Italy.
A few more tips related to Italian food and habits:
- Eat gelato every day; it’s that good. Look for the signs produzione propria and artigianale; they mean that the gelato is made on-site, and with natural ingredients. Note that when pistacchio or mint are bright green, the ingredients are not natural.
- Order “un caffè” (or “un espresso”) with your breakfast but after your lunch or dinner. Don’t order a cappuccino after 11 AM!
- Drink coffee at the bar (al banco) or pay extra to sit down.
- Try regional specialities. Do some research or ask a local.
- Tap water is safe to drink but not common in restaurants. Choose between a bottle of naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling water).
- Do not ask for oil to go with your bread. That’s not a real Italian thing. It’s not served with butter either.
- Do not expect much for breakfast; a coffee and a cornetto (croissant) at a bar is the norm.
When dining out, an additional fee (coperto) will be added onto the bill. This is a cover charge generally listed on the menu, and it replaces a tip. A small tip would be a nice gesture but is not required. In bars, Italians often leave change as a tip, maybe only 10 cents.
While tipping is not expected, neither is attentive service. If you have special requests for your waiter (water with ice, free water from the tap refilled throughout the meal, lots of extra free bread, or special food requests), you may consider leaving a few euros tip.
As with dining out, other services such as taxis and hairdressers build tips into the price.
The legal drinking age in Italy is 18, but it is illegal for anyone to be in a state of intoxication. Moreover, drunkenness is viewed poorly. While wine is enjoyed with meals, especially in the evening, it is meant to accent the taste of the food, and people mostly limit themselves to one or two glasses.
Store hours and shopping customs
Outside of big cities centers like Milan or tourist cities like Florence, most stores are only open from approximately 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Some stores may be closed on Monday morning or sometimes for the entire day, while grocery stores generally close on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Restaurants often close on either Monday or Tuesday. Except in tourist areas, stores are generally closed on Sundays. Store hours usually are posted.
It is inappropriate in most stores to touch or handle merchandise as people do in the U.S. Watch other Italians, and be sure to ask a salesperson before handling or trying on an item. A receipt must be given upon the purchase of a product or service, and it is the customer’s responsibility to keep it for the first 100 meters after leaving the premises: otherwise, you may be fined.
The euro is Italy’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of €200, €100, €50, €20, €10, and €5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of €2 and €1 and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 cents.
For the latest rates, check out www.xe.com.
Although their usage is quickly increasing, credit cards are not as widely accepted as in the U.S., so you should not count on using them for grocery shopping and paying for day-to-day expenses in general. MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted, followed by American Express. Credit card companies often charge a transaction fee for purchases made abroad.
Banks in Italy are open Monday through Friday, usually from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., although opening and closing hours vary slightly from bank to bank. There are automatic teller machines (ATMs) in many convenient locations that are accessible 24 hours a day. Cirrus and Plus are widely recognized in Europe.
Ask your American bank if they have a partner institution in Italy (many of them have one), so that you can withdraw cash from a ATMs without paying a fee.
Taxes and refunds
A value-added tax of around 20%, known as IVA (Imposta di Valore Aggiunto), is slapped onto just about everything in Italy. However the price that is posted already includes IVA. If you are not an E.U. resident and spend more than €155 on a single purchase, you can claim a refund when you leave. The refund only applies to purchases from retail outlets that display a ‘tax free for tourists’ sign, or something to that effect. You have to complete a form at the point of sale, and then have it stamped by Italian customs as you leave. At major airports, you can then receive an immediate cash refund; otherwise, the amount will be refunded to your credit card. For information, pick up a pamphlet from participating stores.
Be aware that electricity in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, comes out of the wall socket at 220 volts alternating at a 50 cycles per second. In the US, electricity comes out of the wall socket at 110 volts, alternating at 60 cycles per second. Not only the voltages and frequencies, but the sockets themselves are different. Most laptops, tablets, smartphones, and battery chargers are able to use any voltage between 100 and 240, as long as it’s AC voltage alternating at 50 or 60 hertz. In such cases the only thing that you will need is a cheap plug adapter, that is, an interface between the American flat-pronged plug and Italy’s two (or three) round-prong socket. One like the one on the right.
Please understand that an adapter allows you to plug your electrical device into the Italian wall socket, but it does not convert the electricity to the American 110 volts. If your appliance is designed to run only on 110-120 volts you will need a more heavy and expensive power converter or transformer to safely step the voltage down from 220 to 110. You can check the back of the device or the “power brick” for the electrical input specifications. If your device only runs on 110-120 volts, it is more practical not to bring it to Italy. If by mistake you plug a 110 volt device into a 220 volt circuit it will most likely burn out or its fuse will blow.
There are two official Italian sales periods (“saldi” in Italian) each year—winter and summer—when every shop has what can amount to clearance sales for 6-8 weeks. Summer sales traditionally begin in Milan on the first Saturday of July.