24 Apr How Italian Restaurants Work
If it’s late afternoon and you’re walking down the streets of an Italian town looking for a restaurant, you may start to get concerned: you won’t see many places at all. But don’t worry, the restaurants are there – you just can’t see them because they have their gates down and their signs turned off. What you need to do is relax – got to a bar to have an aperitivo and then resume your stroll after 7.30 pm. This is when most restaurants reopen after their afternoon break. Suddenly you’ll have plenty of choice, and you’ll still beat the crowds: Italian restaurants usually don’t get busy until 8 or 9 pm.
If you like to check out the menu before asking for a table, that’s a good idea and totally acceptable. In touristic towns, restaurants tend to post their menus by their doors, but if they don’t feel free to walk in and ask a waiter. If you are a vegetarian or if you have other dietary restrictions, you may also need to check with a waiter – restaurants menus in Italy don’t generally contain that kind of information. Rest assured however that the staff will do their best to accommodate your needs. Many first courses, for instance, are naturally 100% vegetarian.
As you sit at the table, you’ll notice a perfectly clean tablecloth on it (or at the very least a paper one). The reason? Well, it looks neat and it’s a clean place where to lay cutlery and bread. You may wonder who pays for a clean tablecloth? It’s included in the “service and cover” charge (“coperto e servizio“) that is automatically applied, usually 10% of the bill. If you think that that’s unreasonable, consider that in Italian restaurants there is absolutely no tipping expected, so it evens out.
We mentioned bread. If you love bread like Italians do, you’ll be happy to know that in Italian restaurants bread is complimentary and usually served immediately after placing the order. Italians are so accustomed to having bread with every meals that they even call any generic food “companatico“, which means something that goes with bread.
So, bread? Yes! But don’t expect any butter with it. The only time where you’ll get (unsalted) butter is for breakfast, along with jam. Also don’t expect an oil and vinegar dipping dish! It’s very infrequent in Italy.
Another thing you should not expect is complimentary iced water. Italians generally prefer to dine with mineral water (sparkling or still), which is inexpensive, but not free. And restaurateurs don’t even think to serve tap water to their customers.
Finally, don’t expect the waiter to come ask you every ten minutes how your meal is, or to refill your glass. It’s just not commonly done in Italy. Instead, waiters will do their best to be discrete and only appear when you really need them. This is especially true when it’s time for the bill since it’s considered disrespectful to bring up payment (and hint at the fact that you should free up the table). When you’re ready to go, just wave at the waiter the universally recognized squiggly line of a signature – they’ll be with you in moments!