As the saying goes “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do”, which when it comes to dining requires some advanced preparation and know-how to achieve. Like all great food cultures, the Italians takes great pride in the history and quality of her dishes, but can become quite fussy should a traveler veer from appropriate etiquette. These 6 simple steps will help ensure that you eat like a Roman and make the most of every meal during your journey through the eternal city.
Tip 1: When to eat what - Timing is everything
The dining schedule in Italy is maintained with the same precision as one might expect from a synchronized musical review or a royal changing of the guards. Surprising? Perhaps. But if there’s one rule the Italians follow to the letter (quite possibly the only one) it’s to eat well, and eating well is as much about quality as it is about experience.
Breakfast is usually light, on the sweeter side, and taken at home. Those who do eat breakfast at a cafè choose from a selection of sugary baked goods such as cornetto, the Italian version of Croissants often filled with cream or Nutella, and bambolone, a doughnut-like pastry. Breakfast essentially ends when supplies run out, usually in the late morning.
Lunch is usually taken at 1pm and served by most restaurants until 2:30 pm. Patrons are welcome to stay as long as they like, but if you sit-down too late expect to be told that the kitchen is closed. Snacks simply don’t happen between meals with the exception for school-aged children who have a merenda when they get home from class.
Dinner happens late and reservations before 8pm are rare, in fact most restaurants don’t even open until then and those that do deserve a critical eye. Italians think it quite normal to dine at 9 and 10pm, especially on weekends, and meals especially with friends, often stretch for several hours.
For the night owl seeking sustenance after midnight or party animals hoping to ameliorate their future hangovers might be disappointed to learn that the 3am crowed with spinning heads and a case of the giggles congregate at bakeries, yes bakeries, to consume fresh baked cornetti and cappuccini. For the drunkard who insists on grease to quench their apatite, you’re in luck, in recent years a few Pizza, sandwich, and kebab shops have opened near the major piazzas.
Tip 2: You say happy hour, I say Aperitivo
Just as the afternoon begins to fade, the cafés and bars fill with locals and tourists alike seeking a drink, a nibble, and a little relaxation before dinner. In Italy this delightful activity is known as the aperitivo, and promises patrons a free, often ample snack, between the hours of 7-9pm with the purchases of a beverage. Classic aperitivo cocktails include:
Spritz: A refreshing combination of bitter liquors such as Aperol or Campari, mixed with soda, sparkling wine, and occasionally prosecco with an orange slice for garnish.
Negroni: Is a stronger alternative to its lighter aperitivo cousins, and contains Campari, gin, vermouth, and an orange peel for garnish.
Prosecco: Is a popular choice that can be ordered either by the glass or by the bottle. Spumante: A sparkling white wine that’s either dry or sweet, so inquire with your waiter regarding your preferences.
Wine and beer: Wine and beer of any kind are certainly acceptable options and the Lazio region surrounding Rome has a great many local wine producers.
Tip 3: Dining Darwinism - One thing leads to another
The thoughtful traveler seeking to experience what its like to dine like a Roman would do well to tuck away their phone, their selfie-stick, and any carbohydrate prejudice they may carry. Dining in courses is standard practice all over the boot and is directly related to their near diabolical dedication to enjoying the moment and celebrating good food, and such things can take a while. So get comfortable, order a bottle of wine, and give yourself over to good food and conversation.
Antipasto: Is what comes before the meal. Kick off your meal with something to titillate your appetite and get the conversation going over your first glass of wine. Popular antipasto dishes include prosciutto and mozzarella, fried rice balls stuffed with cheese, assorted cured meats and cheeses, and bruschetta, typically fresh tomato and basil served on toasted bread.
The Primo: The first dish, is typically pasta or risotto, and is served before the main course as sort of a warm-up. It’s common to order a primo on its own, though keep in mind that portion sizes are designed to allow diners to indulge in all four courses.
The Secondo: The main course is usually a meat, chicken or fish dish served À la carte or perhaps on a small bed of greens for garnish.
The Contorno: Side dishes, typically sautéed vegetables or roasted potatoes, are served with the secondo, though some prefer to take their greens at the end.
The Dolce: The dessert course is seldom overlooked, and fills the long stretch of friendly conversation before coffee–espresso, obviously–and after dinner drinks are served.
The Digestive: Digestives are strong liquors, either sweet or bitter, that finish off the meal with two goals in mind: The first is usually by now the wine has run out and one may crave a nightcap before calling it an evening. The second is that after you’ve consumed more food in one sitting than you might otherwise eat in a week, the digestive helps do just what it sounds like–digest.
Tip 4: The perils of Chicken Parmesan are profound (and likely microwaved)
Authenticity is a tricky concept under any circumstances, and when it comes to the deeply regional, diverse, and much-exported dishes of Italy, authentic Italian food has a long history of adapting to local availability and palates. Chicken Parmesan is one such dish, a well-loved American favorite birthed by the Italian immigrant population in the North East, is nowhere to be found in the boot. It is not inauthentic; it’s simply not traditionally mainland Italian, and if there’s any advice one would do well to stick to, it’s to eat local. Long before it was a catch phrase, eating local was the Italian norm, a practice that applies the very dishes that each region produces. For example, when in Venice seafood risotto is a favorite specialty, and in Sicily missing out on the cannoli would be a grave mistake. In Rome, eat the regional favorites:
Amatriciana: A red pasta sauce made with fatty pig cheek, pecorino cheese, and onion that’s typically served over rigatoni or bucatini, a thick, hollow spaghetti.
Carbonara: A creamy pasta sauce made with fatty pig cheek, pecorino cheese, fresh eggs, and black pepper typically served over rigatoni or bucatini.
Cacio and Pepe: Is essentially Italy’s answer to maccheroni and cheese. This simple but deceivingly difficult to prepare pasta sauce uses both Cacio de Roma and pecorino cheese, fresh black pepper, and pasta water, typically served over tonnarelli or vermicelli pasta. Though popular all over Rome, it’s roots steam from Rome’s Jewish community.
Tripe: Tripe, or beef stomach, gets a bad wrap. If you ever had it cooked poorly it’s not something you’re likely to forget. However, for the more adventurous eater or for those hoping to taste flavors from the old world trippa alla Romana has been served on Roman tables for centuries and when done well is divine. Stewed in a red sauce with fatty pig cheek, carrots, garlic, and pecorino cheese, it’s usually served on its own as a secondo.
Saltimbocca: Saltimbocca translates to jumps in the mouth because it’s so good! Saltimbocca alla Romana is typically made from thin sliced veal topped with prosciutto and sage and often rolled into neat bundles. The bundles are then cooked in wine and butter until browned.
Jewish style artichokes: Rome is home to the oldest Jewish community in Europe, and thereby benefitted from their unique specialties, and none are so welled loved in Rome as the Carciofi alla giudia. Carciofi alla giudia is essentially fresh artichokes salted and deep-fried, and consistent with the Italian obsession for eating in season, can only be found on menus from February through May.
Oxtail stew: Known as coda alla vaccinara, this rich stew is made with ox tail, celery carrots, fatty pig cheek, and bay leaves, slow-cooked in red sauce until the meat becomes tender and falls off the bone. Like other heavy dishes, Coda alla vaccinara is usually eaten during the cold winter months.
Tip 5: Digestivo – the final frontier
Like a good opera, the digestivo has all the drama, aesthetic, and nuance as the rest of the meal, and this final act packs a punch with a higher than usual alcohol content. The challenge then becomes, what to order?
Limoncello: A sweet, tangy, bright yellow liquor made from real lemons and grain alcohol.
Grappa: A potent, distilled grape-based alcohol usually made from the leftovers of the winemaking process using the woody bits of the stems for flavor.
Vin Santo: Or holy wine, is an Italian desert wine made from dried grapes. Though Vin Santo varies greatly in how sweet or dry it is depending on the producer and grape varietal, it is an excellent choice for a newcomer into the wonderful world of digestivos.
Sambuca: This sweet, black-liquorish flavored liquor can either bring jubilant celebration or uninhibited horror depending on one’s sentiments anise. Usually served neat, and traditionally con la mosca, meaning with the fly, which are thankfully merely floating coffee beans. Those who love it often add Sambuca to their coffee.
Fernet: This hyper-fragrant spirit is made from numerous herbs and spices on a base of distilled grapes. Though Fernet is a local staple, those unfamiliar with its particular and powerful flavor may conclude that it’s an acquired taste.
Amaro: Amaro is Italian for bitter, and though there are a variety of brands, they are made from various combinations of herbs, flowers, citrus peel, and sugar syrup, and cask aged. This is a great option for those who abhor sweet drinks, try an amaro.
Tip 6: The tipping point
Waiters in Italy get paid by the hour, which means that sometimes their sense of urgency isn’t the same as in other countries (for form what travelers might experience in the United States). Since service is seen as a matter of course rather than a revenue stream, you may also be subject to your waiters ‘emotional state’ and you’ll surely know if they’ve just broken up with their girlfriend or had a fight with their boss. In general, tipping in Europe is modest, and in Italy 5% is plenty and tipping 15-20% will be seen as ‘throwing your money around’ and not particularly worldly. However, there are two important exceptions to tipping while dining out:
Service charges: Some restaurants add a service charge onto the bill or list that the service or tip is included in the prices. In this case, avoid leaving an additional tip all together unless you wish to reward your waiter for truly exceptional service.
Fine dining: Fine dining by default demands a higher level of service, and most top restaurants will not only employ skilled waiters, but a knowledgeable sommelier to guide diners through their wine pairings. At such establishments you may tip slightly more, up to 10%.
Also, when possible, avoid leaving the tip on the table at a busy cafè, since it may go missing before your waiter has a chance to collect it.
Rome Spotter tip: Since pasta, pizza, and other wheat-based foods are so essential to the Italian diet, they are well aware and well prepared to serve dinners that are gluten-free or have celiac disease – you need only ask.