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Food in Italy

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What do people eat in Italy?

Food in Italy isn’t just a casual topic of conversation. In Italy, food, like fashion, is something to be effortlessly passionate about. Silken strands of pasta glistening with delectable sauces, fresh and smoked cheeses, and freshly caught shellfish are all to be found in the restaurants and trattorias that abound. However what you will quickly find out is that it’s very easy to get a bad meal in Italy. If you do have a bit of cash to spare for a meal out then follow these two cardinal rules to make the most of your money:

1. Get off the main street or out of the shadow of whatever attraction you have just visited. Not only will these places charge you more for the same meal, too many also know they can get away with serving rubbish to unsuspecting tourists. Why bother with a reputation for quality when most of your customers will only ever visit once?

2. Mind the copperto! “Copperto “ is a seating charge per head that some restaurants charge and, as most tourists come from countries where this type of thing is uncommon, they can get surprised with it at the end when there is an extra so many euros tagged on to the end of the bill. This charge will be listed on the menus posted outside the restaurant so keep an eye on it when making your choice.

Eat from supermarkets in Italy

The Italian restaurant proprietors are also really good at presenting excellent service only to charge for it later (see also “Aperitivo Baiting” below). If they bring anything extra to your table — a small digestif and a few cookies is an example of what might be served after a meal in Venice — ask if it is free before accepting it. It usually isn’t.

From what I have experienced in my travels, Venice is the worst place to try and eat well and cheaply, but even then there are a few gems such as supermarkets and “mom-and-pop” style shops if you keep your eye out.

Prepare your own food, use supermarkets, eat salads

The trick for eating cheap in Italy is the same as many other countries: buy and prepare your own! Find a supermarket, the bigger the better as far as pricing goes, and look for bargains. Italians are notoriously loyal to their own products so expect anything not made in Italy to be more expensive. And to be honest, there is really no reason to buy anything non-Italian while you are there. Like the French, Italians are fussy about the quality of their food and local favourite brands tend to reflect this. The dried pasta is cheap and beautiful. Even jarred sauces are much more flavourful than you would expect. For those without a way of cooking their food, scour the supermarkets for sales on local produce such as tomatoes and lettuces, deli meats and cheeses. Even the most cash poor traveller can usually put together an impressive salad for next to nothing if the ingredients are in season.

If you are lucky, you’ll stumble on a supermarket that does hot food. These are usually ones in the bigger towns and cities and are fantastic if you are looking to try a lot of new dishes at a good price. They will usually sell bits and pieces for busy people to pick up and use as appertivo at home. Meatballs and stuffed vegetables are particularly good, filling and cheap choices. There may also be prepared salads and side dishes. The nice thing is that you can usually ask for just one or two of what you want and as such can put together a nice little platter for yourself at a fraction of what it would cost in a restaurant.

Also note that many supermarkets now ask that you present your passport as ID if you want to use a credit or debit card that is foreign. Just mentioning it so you don’t get left in a lurch when you get to the register with all your bargains only to find they won’t let you buy them because you don’t have ID with you.

Apperitivo Baiting

One last thing to be aware of is the apperitivo. Yes, it’s still quite standard practice in Italy to stop after work for a drink and a snack before dinner which is served rather late by British or American standards. Mostly you will find apperitivos advertised and served in bars and cafes, smaller establishments with tables and chairs outside in the sunshine.

It’s easy to imagine: you order your glass of wine and are offered a plate of scrumptious looking goodies. Bruschetta topped with chopped tomato or olives, or maybe a meat ball or fried courgette flower. Yes, I will have one or two thank you, and you take them from the platter sitting innocuously on the counter top. Then as you go to leave, the bill comes and you find out these little goodies that looked like a free happy hour treat are 1.5 or 2 euros each. And you’ve eating 5 without even thinking about it, the money from which could have bought you a nice meal elsewhere.

Not all cafe or bar owners are intentionally deceptive about this, of course. But I’ve seen well meaning tourists caught in this trap too many times not to mention it. The problem is that, in some cases, the food is deliberately presented in a way that infers that it is free. So please, by all means, ask the price before you pile your plate up high. In Italy, like elsewhere, there is rarely such a thing as a free lunch.

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Filed under: Europe, Food, Italy

About the Author:

Cindy is an ex-pat American who lives in the UK with her charming English husband, overly clever toddler and pudgy cat. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, crocheting, creative writing and might even one day pick up a few miscellaneous hobbies that don’t start with the letter C. When not in the kitchen or at the computer you can probably find her dressed in velvet, wandering castles and dreaming of days gone by. Visit her blog at Medieval Moods, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. has written 12 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.