Eating out is, undeniably, one of the reasons many of us go to Italy. And the experience can be even more rewarding when you conform, if only while there, to their cultural habits rather than ours. Five things I recommend NOT doing in an Italian restaurant:
Show up early for dinner. Yes, you can probably get served at 6:30 pm, especially in a city accustomed to American tourists. But it’s just no fun to chew your way through food served by a disgruntled waiter in a semi-deserted dining room. Far better to arrive when Italians do—typically, between 8 and 8:30 (in a big city like Milan, things may not get rolling until closer to 10). Worried about getting a table? That’s what reservations are for.
Order a Scotch on the rocks or American-style cocktail. You might be able to place such an order, but it’s likely to a) cost a fortune, and b) fail to meet your expectations. Rather than insisting on the pre-dinner libation you favor at home, consider ordering wine, beer or a bittersweet Italian aperitivo such as Punt e Mes. Whatever you order, it’s almost always more fun to celebrate the cocktail hour in a bar before proceeding to the chosen restaurant for dinner.
Get impatient if service isn’t brisk. American restaurants are all about turning tables. But, in Italy, the assumption is that the table is yours for the evening and that you will want to linger over the meal. It can be a lovely feeling to know, even in a place where every table is filled, that the server is not trying to hustle your party out to make room for a new group. If you are headed to a concert or planning to catch a train, just say so in advance and the pace will be accelerated.
Count on ordering pizza at lunch. I’ve seen families with disappointed children troop out of a restaurant (even a ristorante-pizzeria) after the waiter explained that the pizza oven would be fired up only at dinner. I hoped they were able to find a take-out place or other casual eatery that serves pizza by the slice. When you do succeed in ordering a 12-inch, plate-filling pizza in a restaurant, know that sharing is not appreciated. Each diner is expected to order his or her own. Also, it’s not the kitchen’s mistake that the pizza is not cut in slices—you’re supposed to do this yourself, eating the pizza with knife and fork.
Automatically request the table with a view. The most desirable place to sit varies from one restaurant to another. In a Sicilian village, I once found myself sitting on a restaurant’s seaside terrace with boisterous young people and families with small children. The sun descended, the sea went dark and I longed to be inside with the happy diners, surrounded by laughter, warm lights and the aromas of food. Similarly, in Venice it’s likely to be in a back room that you hear the soft lilt of Venetian accents, not in the front, canal-facing room frequented by tourists.
One thing you can do more readily than in the past is to eat a lighter meal if you choose. It used to be awkward, as a foreigner, to resist the traditional multi-course meal–but increasingly Italians themselves are eating more lightly, often on the run, especially at lunch–an observation that sparked my decision to write a cookbook on one-course Italian meals. Also, borrowing an American custom, some restaurants are pricing lunch menus lower than the same items at dinner.