Italy has hosted some of my most marvelous restaurant experiences—and also some of my worst.
I’ve found myself eating granchio (fresh crab) while perched on a romantic lookout over the Mediterranean Sea…
But I’ve also been served farcical Italian cuisine manqué in the tourist trap that is Venice.
I wish you, dear diners, more of the former and less of the latter for any gastronomic adventures in Italy. But whether you need to extol the chef’s perfect risotto to your alluring Italian date, threaten action over suspicious Neapolitan mathematics on the bill or just find the restroom, it’s all going to go better if you have some key restaurant phrases in Italian.
They’re not necessarily the kinds of phrases that travelers typically prep with before a trip, nor are they the vocabulary lessons you might’ve been drilling in your language studies, but they’re absolutely vital for Italy’s most important activity: eating.
We’ll examine the Italian restaurant experience roughly in order, walking through the phrases for choosing your establishment, ordering, commenting on your food, paying your bill and all the juicy tidbits in-between.
More Spleens, Please? Delightful Phrases for Italian Restaurants
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Finding the Right Place to Eat: Types of Italian Restaurants
Ristorante — A restaurant
Trattoria — This is supposedly a bit less formal than a ristorante, and more rustic; it could be translated as “tavern.”
Tavola calda — These places are the cheapest way to eat real meals, and in my experience they tend to be quite good. Tavola calda literally translates to “hot table” and such establishments offer a range of prepared dishes that you choose from at the counter. They’re especially popular at lunchtime, but may also serve at dinner and even other times of the day. Generally side dishes cost about three euros maximum, and main course dishes (meat, fish, etc.) are a bit more expensive.
Paninoteca — A sandwich shop, serving panini (sandwiches; note that the singular is un panino).
Bar or caffè — These are small establishments that mainly serve coffee and drinks, as well as aperitivi (snacks/appetizers), dolci (sweets/desserts) and piccole pizze or pizzette (tiny pizzas). Note that prices are slightly cheaper if you choose to have your drink at the counter (al bar), and there may also be variance between inside (dentro) and outside (sulla terrazza) tables.
Phrases for Entering Italian Restaurants
You’ll need a few phrases when you enter an Italian eating establishment not just for politeness, but also perhaps to get the attention of busy waiters.
Buongiorno — Good day
Buonasera — Good evening
Ciao — This greeting is less formal, and is okay for entering mom-and-pop or fast-food types of places.
Siamo in due/tre/quattro. — There are two/three/four of us.
Vorremmo mangiare…. We would like to eat…
Dentro — Inside
Sulla terrazza — On the terrace
In veranda — In the veranda, a semi-enclosed space with view of outside
In giardino — In the courtyard
Zona fumatori/zona non-fumatori — Smoking zone/nonsmoking zone
If you don’t smoke, you can say: Non fumiamo. (We don’t smoke), Non ci sono fumatori nel gruppo. (There are no smokers in this group.) or Non siamo fumatori. (We’re not smokers.)
If you smoke, you can say: È permesso fumare qua? (Is smoking allowed here?)
Note that by law, smoking is not allowed inside Italian restaurants, but you’ll likely be allowed to smoke if you’re seated outside. You should of course refrain from doing so if you’re seated near non-smokers.
How to Order in Italian Restaurants
My recommendation for dining anywhere is to always order the most unknown, foreign thing you can find on the menu. Otherwise, who knows what you might be missing? And in Italy this is a particularly useful strategy; there are many delightful dishes that you cannot eat anywhere else. Eating like this is also a great way to grow your Italian vocabulary.
Il cameriere/la cameriera — The waiter/the waitress
Siete pronti per ordinare? — Are you ready to order?
While traveling in Italy, I highly, highly recommend having a phone with an active internet connection (you can get a prepaid Italian chip for about 20 euros) for many reasons, but one of the foremost is the ability to look up unusual food words on a menu with a translation app or Google images. This may take a while, so you’ll likely need to say:
Ancora un momento, per favore — One moment, please
Then, when you’re stumped:
Cosa raccomanda? — What do you recommend?
Menus are generally divided among the following types of dishes:
L’antipasto — Starter
Il primo — First course
Il secondo — Main course
Il contorno — Side-dish
To order, use these verbs followed by the thing you desire:
Prendo… — I’ll take…
Vorrei … — I would like…
Important Food and Drink Words for Italian Restaurants
I can’t possibly cover everything, but here are some of the basics that I think you should know before you step into an Italian restaurant.
La pizza — Pizza. One piece of advice that Italians give (and I think it’s absolutely true) is that if you’re in a competent pizza place you should simply order the margherita—that is, the most basic combination of tomato, olive oil, mozzarella and basil. It can be tempting to go for all those other delicious-sounding toppings, but absolutely nothing beats the perfectly executed margherita.
You should also take note of the following rule when ordering pizza, which Italians frequently have to explain to Americans: Ogni persona ordina una pizza. — Each person orders a single pizza. (That is, pizzas are small enough to be eaten by one person.)
La zuppa — Soup
La verdura — Veggies
An interesting vegetable that’s popular in the south of Italy (and that I hadn’t seen prior to dining there) is known as broccoli rabe or rapini in English, and in Italian is called friarielli, broccoletti or cine di rapa. It’s a dark green leafy vegetable with small, broccoli-like buds, and you find it on pizzas and in sandwiches and pasta, as well as served on its own, fried with garlic.
La carne — Meat
Il pollo — Chicken
Il maiale — Pork
Il manzo — Beef
La milza — Spleen. Be sure to eat this if you’re visiting Palermo, where in the local language it’s meusa and one eats a paninu ca meusa (spleen sandwich).
Il fegato — Liver
Il riso — Rice. This isn’t commonly on menus, but something that you might ask for if you have stomach issues or a limited diet. You can ask for riso in bianco (rice with nothing but olive oil).
Il risotto — Risotto
La pasta — Pasta
L’acqua — Water. You’ll be asked if you want:
Naturale — Still
Gassata — Carbonated
Frizzante — Sparkling
L’acqua del rubinetto (tap water) isn’t generally served; you’re expected to pay for water. There may also be effervescente naturale (lightly sparkling water, a natural product without additives).
Il succo di frutta — Fruit juice. Note that just asking for fruit juice may get you all sorts of flavored corn-syrup abominations. You may want to be more specific:
Vorrei un succo cento per cento frutta. — I would like a juice with 100 percent fruit. The types of small bottled juices that are available in Italy that are 100 percent actual fruit are usually only ananas/arancia/pompelmo (pineapple/orange/grapefruit).
There are two different ways to order orange juice depending on what you want:
Il succo di arancia — Bottled orange juice
Spremuta di arancia —Freshly squeezed orange juice
La birra — Beer. La Nastro Azzurro and Heineken are considered two of the better beer brands in Italy, at least among the brands that are commonly available everywhere.
Una marca scadente — A shoddy brand
Una marca chic — A chic brand
L’insalata — Salad. The revolting faux-cream sauces that Americans slosh over their salads aren’t available; you’ll instead be provided with the following:
Aceto balsamico — Balsamic vinegar
Olio d’oliva — Olive oil
Limone — Lemon
Sale — Salt
Explaining Special Dietary Needs in Italian
Dietary restrictions are nowhere near as fashionable in Italy as they are in the U.S. or the U.K. However, a few have been catching on some in Italy; vegetarian and vegan restaurants can be found in major cities and even some towns.
But in general you can’t expect much understanding or sympathy if you try to explain your avoidance of certain types of foods to Italians, especially older Italians in places that aren’t used to tourists. Vegetarians, for example, may still be proffered fish, or even chicken or ham.
The very best solution is to be as flexible as you can with your restrictions; after all, you’re stepping into the mightiest culinary tradition on the planet. Going to Italy with dietary restrictions is like wearing a blindfold at the Louvre. Like, really: when in Rome…
But for those who really can’t leave their diets, here’s how to express your limitations. And since waiters still might not get it, we’ll also discuss strategies for figuring out what you can eat on a menu.
Sono vegano/vegana. — I’m vegan.
Especially useful for vegans is the contorni (side dish) section of the menu and the verdure (vegetables). There may also be some pasta dishes without meat or cheese (pasta con pomodoro fresco — pasta with fresh tomatoes, or spaghetti aglio ed olio — spaghetti with garlic and oil). You can ask for una margherita senza la mozzarella (a margherita pizza without mozzarella) or an insalata senza formaggio (a salad without cheese).
Sono vegeteriano/vegetariana. — I’m vegetarian. Things get much easier as a vegetarian if you eat cheese, but it’s wise to still be aware of meat words such as those for types of prosciutto (cured ham) so that you avoid dishes containing them.
Sono intollerante al lattosio. — I’m lactose intolerant. Cheese and dairy tend to sneak into lots of wonderful things in Italy, but it’s considered by most a sin to mix cheese and seafood, so for example a pizza frutti di mare (seafood pizza) will in theory not have cheese—though ask to make sure.
Seguo una dieta senza glutine. — I’m gluten-free. Don’t expect gluten-free pastas, pizzas or breads to be available. Stick to risottos, meat, fish and vegetables. Sometimes vegetarian restaurants are more likely to offer gluten-free options.
Many people like to explain whatever dietary choices they make with this phrase:
È più salutare. — It’s healthier.
Talking About Wine in Italian (and Ordering a Good One!)
Vino bianco — White wine
Vino rosso — Red wine
Effervescente — Sparkling
Un calice di vino — A glass of wine
Una bottiglia di vino — A bottle of wine
Il cavatappi — The corkscrew
It’s wise to memorize a few words for the type of wine you most enjoy, so that you can describe your ideal wine to a waiter.
Floreale — Flowery
Fruttato — Fruity
Secco — Dry
Velluto — Velvety
Giovane — Young
Stagionato — Aged
Robusto — Robust, high in alcohol content
Vivace — Rich, vivid, lively, spicy
Paglierino — Straw-colored
Leggero — Light
Pesante — Heavy, too strong of an alcohol content
Svanito — Opened for too long, spoiled
There are many more options for describing your wine in Italian, of course!
When you’re ready to raise your glass, you say:
Brindiamo alla salute — Let’s make a toast.
Cin cin — Cheers (for congratulating someone or celebrating something)
Salute! — Cheers
If you’re dining with people who also speak a regional language (or “dialect”), I cannot emphasize enough how much more amusing your evening will be if you learn to toast like a local. Here are two local toasts to get you started:
In Naples: (Raising glasses) Aiz’ aiz’ aiz’, (lowering glasses) acal’ acal’ acal’, (bringing glasses together in the center) accost’ accost’ accost’, a salut’ vost’ — Up up up, down down down, near near near, to your health
In Sicily: Auguri e figghi masculi! — Congratuations, and male children! This is a typical wedding toast that emphasizes the obviously sexist predilection for male children, but has been adopted for use in any toasting situation in Sicily.
Enjoying Food in Italian
Here’s how you can describe fabulous dining experiences, as well as problems that may come up:
Squisito — Fabulous
Delizioso — Delicious
Gustosissimo — Tasty (more informal)
Fantastico — Fantastic
Buonissimo — Great
Troppo salato — Too salty
Manca sale — It lacks salt
Troppo piccante — Too spicy
Insipido — Bland
Bruciato — Burnt
Finding the Restrooms in Italian
Dov’è il bagno, per favore? — Where’s the bathroom, please?
Uomini — Men
Donne — Women
Italian Phrases for After Your Meal
Il conto, per favore — The bill, please
Vorrei pagare, per favore — I would like to pay, please
There will likely be charges on an Italian restaurant bill that are more than just the dishes and drinks that you ordered. Foremost is the pane e coperto (bread and cover charge) or more frequently now just listed as coperto, which is a per-person cover charge allowed under Italian law. The amount of the coperto will usually be in small print at the bottom of the menu and ranges from 1 to 2.50 euros per diner.
IVA, or sales tax, is included within the food and drink prices but may be also listed out separately on the bill, allowing you to see what portion of those prices (a lot!) is going to the government.
La mancia (the tip) shouldn’t be on the bill and is totally optional depending on what you feel like giving for the waiter’s service. In cheaper restaurants this might be just two euros per person, or rounding up the bill. You can say tenga il resto (keep the change). Waiters have actual (though not huge) salaries in Italy, unlike in the U.S.
It’s unfortunately common, especially in touristy areas, to see un errore nel conto (an error on the bill). In these cases you might say:
Il conto è sbagliato. — The bill is mistaken.
Scusi, sono astemio, queste due bottiglie di vino saranno di qualcun altro. — Excuse me, I don’t drink; these two bottles of wine must be from someone else.
Vorrei vedere il menù. — I would like to see the menu (to check the prices).
Scriverò una recensione su tripadvisor. — I’ll write a review on TripAdvisor. (I’ve found this threat incredibly effective.)
Chiamo la guardia di finanza. — I’ll call the financial police. Many Italian businesses would prefer to be robbed rather than to face the wrath of the financial police. These are thus the most dangerous words that you can say to a business, and should only to be used in extreme circumstances.
I’ve heard a range of Italian opinions on the doggy bag, and generally it’s not very accepted or practiced. It’s more likely to be acceptable to take home part of a pizza, or cheeses. If you really want to ask, be very polite, because you’re asking for something that’s not usually provided:
È possibile avere un contenitore per portare via le cose che ho lasciato? — Is it possible to have a container to take away the things that I have left over?
This post has, of course, not covered every single thing you’ll come across on an Italian menu, nor how to respond to every experience you might have in a restaurant. But it should give you an excellent range of vocabulary to start from, and help ensure that you have the most delicious Italian culinary adventure possible.
Mose Hayward is a lingual gourmand; he blogs about quickly devouring Neapolitan, Sicilian, Bosnian and other delightful languages.
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