How restaurants work in Rome (and Italy at large)
Some of us at From Home to Rome are avid Reddit users, and a few days ago something caught our attention:
Misunderstandings and unpleasant tones notwithstanding, this post was an eye opener for us. The poster stating that “Italy doesn’t have restaurants like we do” is proof that there is a misconception about how things work over here.
Travel guides may overlook this, and experts may tell you that there is no culture shock when visiting Italy… But really, there is. Visitors often take for granted that experiences will be the same, from minor things like using public transport, or calling a taxi, or even matters that are much more complex, on account of the fact that most travelers are fellow Westerners, use the Latin alphabet and all that.
Sometimes, though, it’s useful to take a step back and admit that no, things are hardly ever the same in Italy and… over there (wherever your “over there” is!). So that’s why, inspired by the very screenshot above, we would like to dispel some myths and get to the nitty gritty of how restaurants work in Italy.
Things you may know already…
- The experience of eating in a restaurant in Rome (or Italy) works pretty much the same: You show up without a reservation (in which case, expect to have to wait a bit, or to be turned away entirely) or you book a table beforehand; you wait to get seated; you are shown (or read) a menu; you order items from it or from a board with the day’s specials; you eat; you pay the bill.
- 80% of the times, tap water won’t be available to drink. Restaurants typically have commercial deals with bottled water companies, which in many instances are proper sponsorships. Bottled water culture is definitely a thing, and even though there’s a shift being observed with more and more establishments going the route of tap water, this won’t reflect on your holiday experience any time soon. Similarly, ice is not available in most restaurants, nor it will be added to your drink: if you wish for some, you will have to ask for it.
- Waiters get a living wage (although a low one), and don’t rely on tips for their… survival. For this reason, their behavior may seem off compared to what you’re used to back home. They won’t ask repeatedly if you’re enjoying yourself (this may happen maybe once during the whole meal!), they won’t refill your glass (some places do, but it’s not common in the slightest), they won’t bring the check unless you ask. More generally speaking, you will have to attract their attention if you need anything at all. About tipping, may we attract your attention to this old post? It will explain why we tip anyway.
- Yes, restaurant chains do exist. They’re – with a few notable exceptions – just not the same as in your country of origin. In fact, you may have eaten in a chain restaurant and not know it!
- Eating pizza? Your pie won’t be pre-sliced nor will you be able to choose from different available sizes. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to the latter (if a restaurant offers it, it will say so on the menu). Pro-tip: reputable pizza places only offer their specialties for dinner, not lunch (pizza al taglio doesn’t count!).
… And things you may not!
- Restaurants are not open 24/7. Due to local regulations, the kitchen in any restaurant has to shut down at least a few hours each day.
- Portions may seem smaller, depending on where you’re from. Before you order everything from a menu thinking you will starve on account of sheer size, though, do what Romans do: order the one thing and maybe ask the waiter to bring back the menu later… In the event you’ve got a bit of space left!
- Speaking of which: As locals, we never pick our restaurant food from ALL sections of a menu. Sections are there for a reason (or two!): they show the skills of the chef; they offer variety for those of us who are fussy eaters; they tell a story (that’s right!) about the care and the culture that went into the establishing of a restaurant. You can very well eat an antipasto, a pasta dish and be done with it, while other people will ask for four separate courses each time!
- Love your basket of bread? Know it won’t be complimentary (see below for more details), nor will it be as fancy as the bread you know and love. The key is simplicity, so you’re going to see the one type of bread (usually), and no butter or balsamic vinegar (Olive oil may be offered in the event you have ordered a salad, by the way). More complex types of bread are for sale at local bakeries!
- The check at the end of your meal may include a coperto, the cover charge, which is calculated per person and includes the costs for laundry service and the bread, and servizio, the service charge, which goes to the personnel.
Pro-tip: You’ll know you’re in a high density tourist area when you see higher servizio and coperto charges. In more residential suburbs, servizio is almost unheard of. If a servizio is applied to your check, feel free not to tip your waiter/waitress!