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Sep 22, 2000 10:30 AM

Ordering Strategies in Italy

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O.K., I'm almost ready to leave on my long awaited trip to Tuscany and I need some advice from my fellow chowhounds. It's this: how much to order at restaurants? Several of the books I've bought (on y'all's recommendations) state that ordering one or two courses is frowned upon at many restaurants. On the other hand, it's just me and my boyfriend going - and while we love to eat we do get full. My only other trip to Italy was with 4 people, so it was easy to order a couple of antipasti, share a few primi, few secondi, etc.

So, is it bad manners to split things? Should we try to order two secondi at least? I think if we get two of each of four courses, we'll die. Which will be sad. What have people done?

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  1. Don't be intimidated by the advice that you should always eat 3 or 4 courses to fit into the Italian format. We have never seen any difficulty with sharing (we trade plates a lot) or ordering just a couple of courses on our trips to Italy. The only time I have ever been made aware of an expectation that we would order full meals -or an expensive bottle of wine -was at a fancy place in Florence that had shoe-horned us in at the last moment, and that saw tons of American tourists. For the most part, Italian restauranteurs are good hosts, aim to please and go with the flow, so do what pleases you. A couple courses, sharing a salad, ordering house wine,etc. will generally work fine.

    ps - Im conscious that the above advice may seem culturally insensitive - Its true the italian eating pattern is different than ours, but they are living life a different way than do tourists, who are rushing around and often eating 2 restaurant meals per day. I strongly recommend trying to drop into a more relaxed and sane way of experiencing italian dining (the long, long lunch stretching well into the afternoon is heaven for me) when you can, but when you don't have that kind of time or appetite and just want a salad and a plate of pasta, for example, they will accomodate you pleasantly, please be assured. And be sure to order some contorni, and the soups, for the true tuscan experience.

    On our last trip to Italy, last year, we noticed a trend toward expanded service of coffee and dessert with meals. Its generally not worth it - almost all of the restaurants desserts we had, even those specifically recommended in guidebooks, were lackluster by American standards and in comparison to the lovely italian sweets you can obtain elsewhere. So if you are thinking of ordering satisfying a "third course requirement" with dessert, as you would in the US, I dont recommend it.

    Have a great trip!

    13 Replies
    1. re: jen kalb
      Simon majumdar

      It is interesting reading these views but you make Italy and indeed Europe seem as if it is like Mars and that the locals will offer you up to their Gods if you don't follow exact rituals and patterns.

      The truth is that ordering strategies in Italy as anywhere are based on the fact that

      a) You are paying good money to eat there so you should do whatever makes you comfortable without making anyone else uncomfortable

      b) Unless you draw glasses and a beard on pictures of the owners granny or sit nude at the table wearing flashing lights, most people will not really care what you order

      If you spend so much time worrying about offending the waiting staff, you will not enjoy your meal and that will offend the italians above all other things

      So just go eat whatever and whenever and above all enjoy the best food in the World

      1. re: Simon majumdar

        Simon, I think the original poster was reading guidebooks. Many of the popular ones overstress this point in trying to help the readers understand local customs. And some of us (not you obviously) get overly concerned about conforming with these norms as a result. Sorry if my basic point, to relax and order to taste, was lost in a mass of words.

        1. re: jen kalb

          Personally I do think it shows bad manners and cultural insensitivity to go into a restaurant in Italy and order just a salad, or just a couple of contorni, or a bowl of pasta by itself.

          Servings in Italy, unlike servings here, tend to be quite small, so that it is quite possible to eat several courses without being overstuffed--which is really the only way to truly experience the cuisine as it was meant to be experienced.

          You need not order contorni, or antipasti in addition to the pastas if you are getting secondi, but I would think two courses would be a bare minimum, unless you are at a pizzeria or (heaven forfend) the Autogrill.

          A lot of places won't complain--they are, unfortunately, quite used to boorishness from foreign customers--but you can be sure they will not be ecstatic about it.

          1. re: Pepper

            I was about to make the same point and you beat me to it: leaving out the issue of "manners," you are likely to go away hungry, especially in Tuscany, if you eat as Elaine suggests. In particular, pasta portions tend to be smaller than here (heck, they tend to be smaller than side-order portions in the U.S.).

            And in many of the trattorias I've encountered in Tuscany, it's hard to find a "salad."

            1. re: Dave Feldman

              >And in many of the trattorias I've encountered in >Tuscany, it's hard to find a "salad."

              Wow, what you learn here! I can't remember ever having trouble finding some kind of salad, whether insalata mista or insalata di pomodoro e basilico or both, or something additional. What contorni did they offer instead? And is Siena (the place I've spent the most time in in Tuscany) so different in culinary custom from the places you've been to those trattorie?

              1. re: Michael

                Well, thanks chowhounders for the interesting, if contradictory advice! At least no one suggested a feather down the throat, as some of the message titles led me to fear.

                I think my appetite is much smaller than it was in my 20s, b/c I remember eating four and five course meals with gusto all over Europe a few years ago, but can no longer do that. On my last trip to Tuscany, w/ 4 people, we usual had two or three of each course (w/ contorni, don't worry!"), and seldom dessert and were stuffed like pigs. I was traveling with my parents and was trying to be sensitive to their budget constraints as well as our appetites.

                But now that I know too much from reading books and don't have to worry about $$, I was curious if sharing was really such a breach of etiquette. Your responses have assured me that it is at least not uniformly so. I can really only enjoy incredible food day in and day out if I'm not overfull, and so I appreciate the skip dessert, etc. advice. I'll get back to you on the results.

                1. re: Elaine


                  I'm sure you won't have any problems. Especially when you get outside of the bigger cities, it is hard to have an unpleasant experience at a restaurant in Tuscany, een when the food is less than stellar.

                  One other suggestion, if you have the time. If you like a restaurant, go back again. In my experience, when we have expressed enthusiasm for the food and return soon, we are treated like old friends.

                  I also love the informality of the restaurants in the country side of Tuscany. No matter how you order, I don't think you'll encounter any problems. I envy you.

              2. re: Dave Feldman

                Ordering the "Italian Way" varies from one area to another in Italy. Being that Italians tend to be somewhat hedonistic, especially when it comes to food, they eat only what they truly like and in the order they prefer. Portions are much smaller so that each component of the meal can be enjoyed. Too, usually there is only one important meal a day--often lunch. But that is not a firm practice either. However, it would be rare that two big meals would be consumed in one day. That's what pizza is for! Enjoying a longish, relaxing lunch starting with some excellent antepaste, then a small portion of a soup (don't miss the riboletta in Toscana!), pasta or risotto, a small piece of simply prepared meat or fish, a vegetable and finishing the meal with a coffee. Of course a local wine--it could the house or "labeled" wine--to complement the food is certainly recommended. This is the way it is done and is quite satisfying too. And, not all that filling. It may be tough to do for chowhounds because the food tends to be so good that one needs to be very mindful not to not overeat. If one is to have dinner, then have a pizza for lunch and vice versa. Sweets are meant to be consumed at another venue--the pasticcierra or gelateria and not in the restaurant.

                For one that is somewhat unsure what and how to order, say so to the owner or manager of the restaurant and most times for sure you will be assisted in ordering a memorable meal. As many times as I have been in Italy, I am normally at a loss to fully understand the menus in different parts of the country, as I tend to steer clear of those restaurants that have menus in three languages. Because so many popular areas of Toscana are so tourist laden this is hard to do.

                I remember once when I took out my list of wines in a very good restaurant in Toscana and gave the order to the owner from one from the list. The owner hesitated and said that the wine that I ordered was too good to start with and if we didn't mind, he would bring the wines that would best complement each course of the local cuisine we would be having. From that time on I have never brought a wine list with me. I just leave to the people in the restaurant to choose for us. Of course I try to discuss the wines on display in the restaurant with the owner or manager.

                The biggest mistake one makes is thinking that you will be ripped off by the restaurant. Relax, smile, be interested in the food, look at what food is coming out of the kitchen and let the people in the restaurant that you are happy to be in their place. Don't be surprised when you show extra interest in a plate being served at a nearby table that you aren't brought a small sample to try.

                One more thing. Ask the people in your hotel for help and guidance about places to eat and kinds of food to order.
                Happily, I will be returning to Roma and Napoli early in November.

                1. re: Peter

                  For what it's worth, I found Peter's advice very helpful. Sometimes, it is indeed a good idea to let the waiter order for you. I did that at a Spaccanapoli eatery popular with local university students back in 1991, and had a very memorable meal.

                  I second the recommendation of ribollita. I also love zuppa di verdure and pasta e fagioli. One of the great strengths of Tuscan cooking is the wonderful fresh produce produced in that agricultural region.

                  I also acquired a taste for the Chianti wines. Even in a cheap little restaurant where I often had lunch to save money, the house wine (part of the [prix fixe] menu') was a very tasty Chianti. I think you can normally expect good house wines in Tuscany, but drinking wine with the meal is in no way obligatory. Acqua minerale is also a good accompaniment to an Italian meal, plus you have the pleasure of reading all the data about ion content on the bottle - sort of a different take on cereal-box reading. :-) Or, you could do as many Italians do and mix your wine with water! Though I suspect some chowhounds will consider the idea somehow sacrilegious.

              3. re: Pepper

                "Servings in Italy, unlike servings here, tend to be quite small"

                This has no relation whatsoever to my experience in Tuscany, Umbria, Campania and - for brief visits - Rome, during 3 summers. Where have you found this to be true? My experience is that servings in Italian restaurants are very generous, and a full-course meal is very large indeed.

                But I think that, rude or not, it is simply inadvisable not to order a contorno with the meal. Italian food is high in olive oil which, while delicious, can lead to certain types of digestive problems which need to be corrected with roughage intake. A salad, and fruit for dessert are very useful. And Italian vegetables and fruit are fresh, vine-ripened, and wonderful, some of the best produce in the world.

                1. re: Michael

                  I have never seen a pasta at a restaurant in Tuscany that was even half as big as an average serving in NYC. A steak that would feed one at the Palm serves as secondi for three in Umbria. Contorni of, say, beans, will often measure about a tablespoonful. And unlike American chefs, Italians do not feel compelled to snazz up a plate with extraneous flans, crispies, coulis, concasses or mashed-potato swamps.

                  1. re: Pepper

                    Yes, contorni are often small-to-medium, but the other plates, even if smaller than a main dish in certain New York places that (unlike _some_ of the upscale restaurants) serve generous portions, cumulatively, if you are eating a full-course Italian meal, add up to a very large meal, in my experience. I guess YMMV.

              4. re: jen kalb
                Simon Majumdar


                Sorry my post wasn't supposed to be an admonishment of anyone, particularly someone as obviously as passionate about the food as you. I sometimes just feel that the ritual and customs ( which are an important part obviously ) can scare people off from what should be a personal experience.

                one of the reasons why people in the UK eat out less than their european and US counterparts is that they are afraid that they will"show themselves up" which is nonsense and the formality for the sake of it is something I loathe

          2. Sometimes, if I was hungry enough, I would have a full Italian meal: a primo, a secondo, a contorno, and dessert (very rarely did I have any appetizers and have room for dessert; appetizers are inessential). But there really is no problem with ordering just a primo or just a secondo - with a contorno of course (gotta have your veggies), and finishing with some delicious fresh fruit for dessert. Italians are generally much thinner than Americans, and part of the reason why is that many of them do not eat full-course meals for lunch and dinner. And I have never been given any flak by a waiter for not ordering more, though of course they may urge you to eat more and have some nice vino, in much the same way your mother or another relative might (or your friend's mother, especially if she's Italian).

            Also, keep in mind that it makes a great deal of sense to eat breakfast of a cornetto or two and coffee or tea at a bar (or at your hotel if they include Continental breakfast in the price) and have lunch of a panino, also at a bar. Then, having had relatively light breakfasts and lunches, maybe you'll be hungry enough to have a full meal for dinner. If you walk around a lot and get a lot of exercise, that may help build up your appetite, too.

            Buon viaggio e buon divertimento!