Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Italy >
Jul 20, 2009 10:45 PM

Italy restaurants-language barrier

I'm looking forward to eating great food in Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice -- but I don't speak a word of Italian! Does anybody have any suggestions to help me with ordering? Are there any pocket dictionaries that handle food words better than others? Are some types of restaurants better than others for just putting yourself in the waiter's hands? Thanks for any help!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I don’t think there is a simple solution. There are some basic things to learn that will help one navigate a menu. A typical Italian menu consists of categories: antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci. Familiar yourself with some of the basic cooking methods and ingredients of Italian cooking. For example, learn the basic words for the various meat, poultry, seafood, fruit and vegetable. Try to know some popular/well known dishes each of the cities that you’ll be visiting since they will appear frequently. Know and write down in advance some of the dishes that you might be interested in eating. Lonely Planet Guide Pocket Guide to Italian Food is good and Berlitz will also do in a pinch. Since you’ll be visiting the three most popular cities (plus Bologna) for English speaking tourists, there is a good chance that the waitstaff will speak some English.

    1. As mentioned, every region in Italy has its local dishes, and you are certain to eat better if you order them rather than generic "Italian" dishes. There's a useful introduction to regional Italian cooking here:

      There are two Italian food "dictionaries" that are often recommended: Marling Menu-Master for Italy and Eating and Drinking in Italy. Both are available from Amazon.

      1. You will be fine. I do speak some Italian and a friend speaks more and nearly every time we order in Italian, we get all done and the waiter responds in English. Another friend who has no word of Italian but a great smile spent 5 weeks in Italy and never had a problem. Having said that, you will have more fun if you follow the previous posters' recs and do some studying ahead of time and get one of the food dictionairies to take along. I have used the Marling Menu Master series for countries where I don't speak the language. This might help:

        1. There are many excellent suggestions here. I don't speak any Italian either but I do know a lot of cooking/food words in Italian and this was a big help. I also learned a few basic phrases for ordering (terms for wine, basic numbers, please, thank you, etc) and had no real problems. If you're polite and make an effort, everyone is very accommodating and many waiters in tourist areas speak some English. Good luck!

          1. I lived in Italy and took Italian in college yet a menu still stumps me quite often because they use so many regional terms, or names of dishes that have no obvious ingredient link. The SlowFoods Osterie et Locande d'Italia has the best food glossary for regional areas I have ever found, yet it would be bulky to carry with you.

            A couple of very brief phrases to learn:

            1. Prego, parla inglese? = Please, do you speak English
            2. Una lista inglese, per favore? = an english menu please
            3. Cosa consiglia? (con-seel-ya) = what do you recommend?
            4. Il prezzo, per favore? = What is the price?

            Agree, at least learn the basic structure of a typical Italian menu and the basic ingredient and cooking style terms. And then fall back on the most reliable alternative of all - look around and point to what other people are having and you may find you will get things that are not even on the menu.

            One of the worst things is to take the "tourist menu" all italian restaurants are required to offer for a fixed price. It is easy because you know nothing extra will be added and you do get a few choices, but it is usually very poor quality. But in a pinch, at least you won't starve and pay an arm and leg for the privilege of not knowing what you are ordering.

            2 Replies
            1. re: glbtrtr

              Probably where you are going, you will likely find, as another poster mentioned, servers who speak English. We were in the hinterlands of Puglia last year, and often no English was spoken; I wouldn't have gone if I didn't already know a bit of Italian. On a trip a few years back I used Fodor's Italian for Travellers (CD and book) and that helped a lot- they have an extensive food/restaurant section.

              1. re: markabauman

                Puglia is wonderful - great dining out there and so far from the maddning crowds ....