Italy Trip Report: General Tips
I’m about to post reports for the different Italian cities I just finished visiting. But I’d like to share a few general tips first.
What you have read about Italians eating dinner late is true, especially in the cities. Most restaurants don’t open until 7:30, and what few patrons they do have until around 8:30 are mostly tourists. In the countryside, things are on an earlier schedule, with a lot of places only opening from 7:30-9:30, so plan to eat earlier there.
Reservations are highly recommended for most dinner places. I saw people without reservations get turned away more than once. We never needed a reservation for lunch.
It’s true that a lot of places close down in August. The beginning of August wasn’t so bad, but in the second week of our trip, a lot of the restaurants we had wanted to try were shuttered. It’s hard for an American to comprehend, but Italians really will just totally shut down their business for 3 weeks or more. It can also be hard to find a good open restaurant on Sundays. I’d recommend researching closing days and planning your Sunday meals ahead.
Forget what you’ve read about the 4 course Italian meal and pasta sizes being smaller. This is true at the fancier restaurants, just as it would be in the US. But at most of the places we ate, the pasta was definitely big enough for a meal, and I have a very big appetite. This is a good reason not to be the first person at a restaurant when they open. You can scope out other peoples’ tables and see what the potion sizes look like. There was only one time when we under-ordered by only getting one primo and one secondo. But there were many times when we ordered two primi and one secondo, and we should have ordered less.
We were there in mid-July, and did spend a few evenings with false starts trying to find certain restaurants from a guidebook, only to finally have the position perfectly triangulated, and find absolutely no indication of a restaurant there. We found we had the best luck identifying neighborhoods with high chow density, wandering around in them, and asking for a table in a likely-looking place. Once we gave up the guidebooks entirely our trip was much less frustrating.
Certainly plan to eat later. If you're peckish, find a cafe and sit outside and have an apertif and some chips and watch the world go by. Impatience is lost on Italians, best to leave your tendency to rush back home.
We also wanted to try lots of native dishes, but not overeat all the time, so we ate in the Italian style of primi, secondi (usually pasta --?) and a meat course; but we'd share each course. This turned out to be the perfect amount of food, and it satisfied our wish for variety. Of course we always had an apertif and a digestif and wine during.
The greatest culinary advice I can give a visitor, though, is that the simplest tomato sauce is never the wrong choice. Oh, you may switch it up and have arrabiata a time or two, but trust me, when you come back, you'll always remember the pure simplicity and freshness of the marinara. Ground tomato and olive oil and a touch of salt and garlic, nothing else needed.
We were in Tuscany/Umbria August 5th to 23rd. Some shops closed then opened later. This was the case in Assisi where one pasticheria/gelateria was closing when we dropped in at around 7 but when we walked past it after 10 PM they were open again.
The same thing happened at the cybercafe which was more of a sandwich cafe.
"It can also be hard to find a good open restaurant on Sundays."
In many regions of Italy, the major Sunday meal is midday, and many good restaurants, particularly those with reputations as family restaurants, are open during that time only. Be sure to reserve in advance, tho, and save Sunday evening for pizza or something light.
Of course, I can't speak for end of July and August, which is a whole different ballgame.