Eating in Rome and in Italy in general is much different that what you are probably used to back home. If you live in the United States and eat out, you know to expect one thing – large portions and the end of the meal ‘doggy-bag’. In Italy, this is quite the opposite. Meals tend to be more manageable with smaller portion sizes and a great array of flavors and dishes, with a greater emphasis on pasta and vegetables than on meat.
If this is your first time to Rome, here are some pointers when eating out (mangiare fuori):
I’ve never seen people take their food home with them if they can’t finish the meal. Since the portions and amount of food tend to be smaller, you may find yourself still feeling hungry. It is considered a bit gauche so I wouldn’t ask. The only time you’ll probably see people take food home is when you order pizza.
Italian meals are broken out over several courses rather than just the one that you might be used to if you live in the US, UK or Australia, where all of our food tends to come on one sitting and/or on any number of plates (there are exceptions, of course). So here’s a good rule of thumb — if you’re famished after a long day of touring, then go for the gold and order an appetizer (antipasto), first course (primo piatto), second course (secondo piatto), a side-dish (contorno), and, if you still have room left, dessert!
If you’re not super hungry or that amount of food is too daunting, then stick to an appetizer and a first or second course and maybe a side-dish that can be shared amongst you. Always try to save room for dessert, though. Not everyone eats three course meals every day! Don’t feel pressured or obligated to engage in multiple courses. Many Italians simply have a pasta dish for dinner when dining out, but a meal of several courses is one to be enjoyed and should be tried at least once.
Italians tend to eat meat as part of their second course. The little bits of pancetta or small bits of meat in antipasto don’t count, but you’re not going to see steak mixed with pasta or spaghetti with meat balls. You’ll find meat in some pasta dishes but it’s usually used like one would use an herb or a spice — it simply dresses the dish up rather than being the “star” on the plate. Meat dishes tend to be smaller than you would find elsewhere, with pasta and vegetables making up most of the dishes you’ll likely encounter, especially in Rome. So if you’re a meat and potatoes man (or woman), you may have to alter your eating habits just a bit in Rome (although you could conceivably order a steak in most restaurants).
Salads come at the end of the meal and not at the beginning as they do in the US. They tend to be very simple – a bit of lettuce, maybe a few other vegetables thrown in for color with a light oil/vinegar dressing. When you arrive at a restaurant in Rome, you’ll probably be greeted with some bread to snack on before the antipasto arrives (if you’ve ordered one). The wine tends to come with the bread or first meal. Italians do not tend to drink wine on its own without some food to accompany it.
I wouldn’t rely on just a salad to meet your caloric needs. The good thing is that Roman cuisine is full of vegetable side-dishes that the vegetarian will enjoy, and most restaurants will offer vegetarian fare. Stick to the first course and side-dish sections of the menu if you’re not a meat eater.
When you order a meal in America, you tend to get your main course which is typically accompanied by a choice of side dishes. In Italy, nothing generally comes with your meal, so if you want some vegetables to go with your meal or you want something in addition to your pasta or steak, you have to order it. If you order a steak, you’re likely to just get a piece of steak all by its lonesome on the plate.
Here’s the rule with alcohol. If you’re in a typical Roman trattoria or small family style restaurant, chances are there is not a full bar at your disposal. Your liquor options are probably beer and wine. If you like your vodka tonic, scotch and soda, or Mai Tai before dinner, you’ll have to stop off at a proper bar to get one. Note that in Italian un bar is not the bar that we would typically think of — these bars serve generally coffee, sodas, water and maybe some brandy, grappa, etc. If you’re looking for a bar that serves drinks, ask where the nearest pub or locale (pronounced: loh-KAHL-ay) is. Italians tend to have their ‘drink’ before heading to the restaurant. At the restaurant, it’ is generally some wine with your meal – depending on the place, you might be able to get a beer. Follow your meal with an aperitif, like a grappa or a limoncello (more on that in a future post) or possibly even an espresso (with some grappa – in Italian, they call that a caffe corretto).
The most important rule of all — TAKE YOUR TIME! Don’t rush. There’s no fire under your seat so enjoy yourself and enjoy being off your feet. If you’re on vacation, you probably have no where to be so why inhale your food? The waitstaff at the restaurant will tend to take their time also. Many people tell me how irritated they were with the slow service when they were in Italy. It’s just how things work there. Dining out is an experience, and I think that because it tends to cost more that Italians try to make the most of the experience. Eating out with your friends and family is meant to be a social time. If you ever observe a group of Italians eating, you’ll probably find that they do just as much talking (if not more so!) than eating. Eating out is not just about satisfying your hunger but also about the experience of seeing your friends and family, catching up on news and gossip and enjoying a delicious and delightful meal.
If you’re looking for a fast meal, dine in your hotel or find a McDonalds. It’s slow food in Rome.