When we create personalized Italy itineraries for our travelers at Italy Beyond the Obvious, food usually plays a key role. We recommend where people should eat, of course. But also: what to eat, when to eat, and what to eat when. Often, when we start discussing dinner reservations, we hear:
What do you mean, restaurants in Italy don’t open for dinner before 7.30 pm? We eat dinner at 6 pm at home – we’ll be starving by then!
I get it. In North America, people sit down to dinner much earlier than in Italy. But you won’t be hungry if you eat like an Italian during your trip. Also, it’s a great way to experience the culture, and, it will make your life easier!
9 am Eat breakfast at the Bar
If your hotel room rate does not include breakfast (the vast majority of hotels in Italy do) or if you’re renting an apartment, we recommend eating breakfast with the locals at the nearest Bar. It doesn’t matter which town or city you’re in. There is very likely a Bar (AKA a café) – within a few minutes’ walk.
When you walk in to an Italian coffee bar, it may at first seem like total chaos. But stand back and observe for a minute. You may need to go to the cash register first to pay, and then to the bar to order your coffee. Or vice-versa.
Regardless, you will likely not see an orderly line at either the cash register or at the bar – it will be more of a crowd. To get to the front, be aggressive but friendly. Don’t forget to say buongiorno to the barista.
Italian breakfast is coffee and a pastry. Order your coffee, pick a pastry, and if you want to go all out, order a spremuta, a freshly squeezed orange juice.
Eat your breakfast standing at the bar. (If the bar has tables, feel free to sit down, but know that there will be a per-person cover charge.) If you speak Italian, chat with the barista. More great advice here.
10.30 am Coffee Break
Head to the nearest bar. Order a coffee and have a snack if you’d like. (I usually have a cappuccino for breakfast and then at the morning coffee break, I order a caffè macchiato, which is an espresso with a shot of warm milk.)
Take your time. Be patient. Smile at the people who are helping you. Say buongiorno when you arrive and grazie when they give you the coffee, and arrivederci when you leave. Italian coffee might look like a shot, but it is not meant to be thrown back in a rush, or taken to go. If you look at the Italians on the street, nobody is carrying a coffee to go.
1 pm Lunch
Most lunch places in Italy do not open earlier than noon, and many open at 12.30. Lunch is between about 1 and 2.30 pm, and then the restaurants close.
Restaurants in Italy are not open all day. If you find a sit-down restaurant serving lunch at 3 pm, it’s likely for tourists.
For lunch, we recommend:
- If you have been on your feet all morning or if it’s hot outside, make a reservation at a restaurant. This will give you a chance to rest and cool off in air conditioning (double check it has air conditioning!). If there’s an expensive restaurant you’d like to try, the lunch menu will almost certainly cost less, which is an ideal approach for travelers on a budget.
- If you have a busy day or will have a big dinner, have a quick lunch. Adventurous types should try local street food! Or, find a cafe on a square. Get a sandwich from a paninoteca. Find a bakery and get some pizza al trancio (which will be sold by weight).
- If you would like something fast and fresh, or if you have kids who don’t like sitting at restaurants: pick up some bread from a bakery, some cheese and prosciutto from a salumeria, and some fruit from a street market. Find a bench or a square or a park where you can sit down and have your picnic.
- Lunch with locals. If you can get by in Italian, book a hot lunch made by an Italian mamma via this new startup (in Rome & Milan only), SoLunch. Or, book with BonAppetour.
4 pm Time for Gelato!
Italians refer to the 4 pm snack as the merenda. The word usually refers to the after-school snack that children all over the country eat at this time of day, and often includes bread and Nutella, or cake, or fruit.
But, 4 pm is also the unofficial time of day to eat gelato. Go to any Italian town on a warm day – especially a beach town – and you will almost certainly the local gelateria buzzing with customers at 4 pm.
This is a perfect time to sit down and have a rest. Note, however, that Italians do not eat gelato every day!
6.30 pm Aperitivo
I love my morning cappuccino, but the aperitivo hour is my favorite time of day. If you want to eat like an Italian, don’t skip this pre-dinner tradition. Lunch at 1.30 and a snack at 4 means you might get a little peckish around 6 pm, and will need a little something to tide you over until dinner, which isn’t for another couple of hours.
An aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink, most commonly a Prosecco or an Aperol Spritz. These drinks – along with other cocktails, wine, and non-alcoholic alternatives – are served in bars and cafés across Italy, accompanied with a little snack. This is a time of day Italians meet friends, sit down and relax, and enjoy each other’s company.
The food served with the aperitivo varies. Some places put out a small bowl of potato chips and a dish of olives, while others offer an extensive buffet. If you choose to spend your aperitivo hour somewhere that offers a buffet (which we definitely recommend!), note a few things:
- The buffet of food is included in the price of the drink you buy. However, the drink will be more expensive. If you would like a drink but don’t want the food, go somewhere with no buffet.
- Although the amount and types of food offered at the aperitivo buffet could easily serve as dinner, note that the plates are small. They are not dinner-sized plates. Italians take one (not overflowing) plate of food per drink, and nibble it slowly. If you buy another drink, you can go back for a second plate of food.
When my kids were little and either jet-lagged, or couldn’t stay awake long enough to make it to dinner – and when they didn’t eat much – we would sometimes use the aperitivo hour as the kids’ dinnertime. They’d get gelato afterwards and then be happy to go to bed.
8.30 pm Dinner
Whether you choose a pizzeria, a trattoria, an osteria, a ristorante, a taverna, or a Michelin-starred three-hour meal, make your dinner reservation around 8.30 pm – or later. At Italy Beyond the Obvious, our travelers usually think 7.30 pm is already pretty late to be eating dinner, and they often ask us to make a reservation when the restaurant opens. There’s no problem with that, except that you should expect an “early bird” atmosphere.
How to eat like an Italian at dinnertime:
- Order food that is local and seasonal.
- Enjoy your food and wine. There is no rush, and the restaurant is not trying to turn over your table (if there’s someone dining after you, they should tell you at the time of booking).
- Don’t feel pressured to order a first course (primo) as well as a second course (secondo). Many Italians order just one or the other, plus sides or a salad.
- Don’t be shy about asking the servers exactly what ingredients are in the dish. Italian dishes usually have only a few ingredients, and Italians love talking about food. If you have allergies or food preferences, your server should be able to offer guidance.
- If you’ve had a large meal, end with a digestivo, a liqueur that will help you digest your food. I love asking for the locally made digestivo, but Amaretto works fine too.
If you follow these guidelines to eat like an Italian during your trip, you’ll hang with the locals, eat lots of great food, and you won’t find places closed when you’re hungry.
Food is the final step in our Italy Travel Planning Services. We put together the overall itinerary, recommend and book accommodations, guides and tours, and logistics. Contact us – we’d love to help!
Italy Beyond the Obvious will help make your trip truly memorable. Take advantage of our Italy trip planning services for a customized itinerary, or get coaching assistance with our Italy travel consulting services. And if you like what you read, why not subscribe to the Italy Beyond the Obvious blog and get free updates?