Finding food in Italy is never hard, but living here has taught me that finding the right food at the right time can be a challenge. If you’re on an empty stomach in a small town outside of normal meal times, for example, the search can seem impossible. If that’s the case, your findings are likely to be sparse and not Italian (ask me how I know and I’ll tell you about my adventures in kebabs and Chinese food). Finding just the right place to eat for lunch or dinner can be one of the most stressful things about traveling, at least for me. I always want to try local specialties, while avoiding tourist traps and keeping it affordable. If this struggle sounds familiar, follow these three rules for an easier search:
Rule #1 – Eat when the Italians eat.
This means arriving at a restaurant for lunch between the hours of 12:00p.m. and 2:00p.m. and dinner between 8:00p.m. and 10:00p.m. Otherwise you’ll find closed kitchens and empty restaurants where you’ll be eating alone with a server who wants nothing more than to go home. I’m the first to understand that traveling in Italy has a tendency to take you off a regular eating schedule. With so much to see in so little time (no matter how long your trip is, it always seems like little time), and public transportation schedules to abide by, you don’t always find yourself in the right place and time for meals. Revolving your day’s schedule around meal times wold be a great way to experience Italy, but sometimes it just isn’t practical. On a recent trip through Piemonte and Liguria I fell victim to this exact problem. Trying to squeeze too many sights into too little time, I arrived in a gorgeous tiny village where everything seemed perfect, except for one thing – my grumbling tummy! It was 4pm and literally my only options were an unappetizing tramezzino sandwich sitting alone in the display case of café since that morning, and a kebab shop. Not being a fan of tramezzini, you can guess what I ended up eating. I’m not saying kebabs aren’t good. A good kebab certainly has it’s time and place, but you didn’t come all the way to Italy for them. You came to Italy for the thin crust pizza and al dente pasta!
Rule #2 – Know what kind of food you’re looking for.
You don’t have to know exactly what dish you want to order, just what type of meal you’re in the mood for. For a quick, small lunch, bakeries and bars serve ready made panini and to-go style pizzerias serve pizza al taglio (by the slice). For a sit down meal of one or two courses, look for an osteria (casual and inexpensive), a trattoria (slightly more formal and expensive than an osteria), or a ristorante (more upscale and costly). While osterie, trattorie, and ristoranti vary in formality and cost, they always have table service and menus that include appetizers, first and second course options, as well as plenty of wine and desserts.
Rule #3 – Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path, or ask a local.
Wander down the side streets away from the main museums and monuments. Not to say that all restaurants in these areas are bad, but there are certainly plenty of tourist traps where the food is mediocre, or even frozen. Stay away from pictures on menus and waiters calling you in from the sidewalk! If you can, find a local Italian and ask them what they recommend. They’ll often point you in the direction of a hole in the wall full of Italians, a grandma in the kitchen, and cheap options on the menu where “si mangia bene!” I always ask a local when I’m in an unfamiliar area, and this tactic has lead me to some of the best meals I’ve had in Italy, like the to-die-for melanzane alla parmigiana I had in Naples at restaurant without a menu that looked like a private kitchen!
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