Italian breakfasts are nothing fancy, but they’re everything amazing.
Italian caffes (also called bars or caffetterias) have prices that are regulated by the government. If you eat/drink standing up at the counter instead of sitting at a table, prices are crazy low. Somewhere between €0,80 and €1,10. And y’all, this is the best coffee of your entire life. Sooooo much YAS. If you want to sit down while you sip, that’s totally acceptable, as long as you’re willing to pay 3-4x the price for the same beverage.
Also of note: the Italians only do milk in their coffee in the morning. So after 12:00, you can order all the cappuccinos, caffé lattes, or latte macchiatos you want. No really, go ahead.
But watch as the barista perceptibly shudders before making it. Italians think milky coffees on a full stomach mess with your digestion, and no local would be caught dead with a cappuccino in hand at 3pm. (But thankfully, sugar is allowed 24 hours a day.)
Another part of the coffee culture in Italy is the payment system. You order your coffee and pastry from the barista, eat your simple but delicious breakfast (at the bar if you’re smart), ask for your receipt, then take it over to a separate cash register area.
The baristas, who train for over a year, are artists. Their beautiful artist hands that prepare delicious beverages for people do not want to be anywhere near your filthy cash. There is a separate human to deal with that nonsense. So don’t offend anyone by handing a grubby, wadded bill to the barista over the coffee counter. That’s a serious faux pas.
For breakfast, you can also choose from an assortment of fresh bread products in display cases along the counter. They are all good, and the price for any pastry is typically the same, somewhere around €1. My suggestion is to do eenie meenie miney mo and point at something random.
But if you want to know exactly what you’re getting, you can ask for a cornetto (a close relative of the croissant). Sometimes they’re filled with cream, chocolate, jam, or honey. Sometimes they’re plain. But honestly, all of the pastries are YAS, so it’s hard to go wrong here.
Breakfast in Italy won my heart, but lunch is pretty great too. Pizza is a quick, easy, and ubiquitous option in Italy. Duck into any local pizzeria, and the process is about the same. Take a number (like you would at the deli) if it’s super busy. If not, just make your way to the counter and get somebody’s attention. There will be lots of different types of pizzas in large quantities available for viewing behind a glass window.
Btw, those huge, triangle-shaped slices that you think of as pizza are distinctly American. (If you get one of those in Italy, you are almost definitely overpaying at a pizzeria catering to tourists who don’t know any better. Sucker!)
The way to do it in Italy is to order your pizza in 100 gram increments. This amount is called “un etto.” If you want twice that amount, it would be “due etti.”Alternatively, you can just gesture with your hands about how big of a rectangular slice you’d like. They will weigh it for you on a little scale, since the pizza is priced by weight.
This feels like a weird drug deal, but just go with it. This system is actually really YASSS because you can try several types of pizza in one sitting. (The piece in the top left corner of the picture is a potato pizza! I would probably never order an entire slice, but sampling a little 1/2 etto was perfect.) Italian pizza is always delicious and is also a great budget meal if you get it at a legit pizzeria. We typically spent €6-8 on pizza and drinks for two. And the amount of walking you do in Italy more than makes up for the calories.
There are plenty of other lunch options too. You can go to a fancier sit-down restaurant for some lasagna or pasta. This will be more like €8 per plate, or about €20 for a meal for two people including drinks. Sometimes, the prices go up if you sit inside the restaurant vs. sitting outside at the tables along the street. Ask before you’re seated to avoid getting ripped off (or at least, to know what you’re paying for).
Another lunch option is to grab a simple sandwich. If you’re thirsty, throw in a 0,5 liter of wine for a couple of bucks. The house wine is typically about the same price as a bottle of water. Half a liter will get you around 3-4 glasses of wine. Share with someone. Or don’t. I’m not judging.
I also encourage trying the local specialties. Like this fried fish from Il Pescato Cucinato in Riomaggiore, which was the single greatest meal of my life. Soooo much YASSS.
Or the lampredotto sandwich in Florence, which…. well, wasn’t awesome.
You win some, you lose some. But trying the local specialties that you can’t find anywhere else in the world is an essential part of travel and of understanding the culture. So buck up and try some weird food, people.
Dinner in Italy is an event that typically lasts several hours. If that doesn’t sound appealing, go grab a few ettos of pizza, a bottle of Coke, and then binge-watch some Netflix in your Airbnb, hostel, or hotel room. Sometimes, after a long day of sight-seeing, that’s the best option, and nobody will blame you.
But if you’re feeling the restaurant scene, it’s really important not to already be #hangry, because the service is leisurely. The server will take their time, because your meal is a social event, and they don’t want to rush you. Also, your food is made to order (rather than the American style of precooked, frozen food that is unwrapped from plastic and shoved in a microwave before being thrown on your plate). Trust me, this is a definite YAS.
For special occasions, Italians have a 3-course meal. Michael and I found that ordering 3 courses and splitting them between 2 people is plenty of food. So we would get an appetizer, a first course (typically a pasta plate), and a second course (typically a meat plate) and then just share everything as it comes out. A nice dinner for two would typically cost us about €40, but that could easily skyrocket to €80-100, so keep a rough mental tally of what you order.
This is likely a given, but you should also know that the “Italian” food that you’re familiar with in the United States will not be the same as legit Italian food you eat in a restaurant in Italy. Case in point, the bruschetta below. Heaping chunks of tomato, herbs, spices, and olive oil, all on top of a crunchy piece of bread (it’s down there somewhere, I promise). The Italian version of things is always a happy surprise.
Usually the pasta dishes are the most YAS thing on the menu, and one of these is enough to fill you up if you don’t want to do the 3-course meal.
But be aware of social etiquette. The number one rule is to NEVER cut your pasta with a knife. If you do this, the Italians will look at you like you just slapped their sweet nonna in the face. Long pasta is meant to be long, short pasta is meant to be short. If you don’t like the idea of fork twirling, don’t order the spaghetti. End of story.
Finally, don’t eat your bread before the meal begins. The bread is meant to be a sauce gathering mechanism at the end of the dish. When you’ve finished your food (particularly the pasta plates), grab a piece of bread and mop up that incredible sauce, so you can savor every last ounce.
Sometimes there’s a charge just for sitting down at a table (pane e coperto) and sometimes there’s an included service charge (servizio). Check your receipt. As far as tipping, it’s definitely not required. If you want to, feel free to round up to the nearest whole euro so you don’t have to deal with coins. If you’re at a fancy restaurant, €1-2 euro per person for a nice meal is more than adequate.
There are a lot of dessert options. The Italians like tiramisu, biscotti, cannoli, various cakes and pastries, and of course, caffe (which always means espresso). These are particularly common options at a restaurant.
But the GELATO, my friends, is where it’s at. We ate gelato all over Italy, and it’s pretty much all I’m going to talk about in this section. Also, it doesn’t have to be dessert – gelato is the perfect snack any time of day. Can I get a YASSS queen?
If you’re outside the major tourist zone of a city, and there’s a decently long line, beeline toward that gelateria. The locals usually know what’s up. We literally stood in line with a bunch of nuns one day, and that was some of the best gelato we had in all of Italy. If you aren’t lucky enough to find a line of locals, start scanning for signs outside the gelateria. The magic phrases are “gelato artiginale” or “fatta in casa.”
Another way to spot a legit gelateria is to look at the colors of the gelato. The best places have muted colors, which shows that they don’t use artificial flavoring or colors. The fruit flavors in particular should look the same color as a mashed up version of the fruit. So, for example, banana would be gray-ish or light yellow, not bright and school bus colored.
An all-natural gelato should also be stored laying flat in metal bins (sometimes also with metal lids, for preservation). If you see plastic bins, keep on walking! Metal bins maintain the temperature of gelato, while plastic bins require an added stabilizer to keep the gelato from melting.
Each flavor should also have its own serving spatula to prevent flavor cross-contamination and so that they don’t have to be washed between each customer, which risks getting water droplets in the gelato. (Um, what’s the opposite of yas? Because watered-down gelato is nobody’s friend.)
Cup or cone (coppa o cono) – it isn’t a big deal either way. They usually cost the same, and it just depends on your personal preference. Check out signage to see how many scoops (aka flavors) you get for the size that you ordered.
Also, if you get a cone, don’t be surprised if you are given a little plastic spoon to eat your gelato. This is pretty common practice, especially on a hot day. If you use your tongue to lick your cone (like an ANIMAL), your body temperature warms up the gelato and makes it melt more quickly. A tiny spoon allows you to savor each bite, and keeps it from becoming a puddle of milk, and cream, and sugar on the sidewalk.
Alright, y’all. Thanks for joining me on my food journey. Hopefully the next time you’re in Italy, you will just be like YASSSSSSS for every meal. (I legitimately hope you say that out loud.)
Writing this post has made me hungry, so for now, I’m off the raid our grocery supplies like: