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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!

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  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: http://italianfood.about.com/library/...

      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: http://goeurope.about.com/od/culinary...

        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 ....

            2. I have rented a car and traveled the back roads of Northern Italy for several years now. I have explored Toscana-Umbria-Marche and every region north. I don’t speak any Italian, although my wife has listened to the tapes and knows a few words. In my experience, regular Italian-English dictionaries are useless as the food words are completely different. I have found the glossary in the back of Slow Food’s “Osterie & Locande D’Italia” to be useful. However, the names of the dishes vary by region so you have to look for the root term within the name. We have never had a problem with the language and have found that most Italians understand English and many speak it. We find Italians so warm and outgoing that there is never any hesitancy to attempt to communicate or to assist. Once, after spending an hour looking for a restaurant outside of Asti in the Piedmonte (I never give up), we asked an older gentleman for directions. He paused while, as he explained, he recalled his high school English to give us perfect, detailed directions to a location about 10 miles away. In Barolo, the elegantly dressed owner of a restaurant didn’t speak English but she understood. She made animal sounds to assist us and a “no, no - not for you” sign for something I’m sure we didn’t want, which resulted in a wonderful lunch. I’ve been unable to locate bad food in Italy, which is a disability I don’t have here in the U.S.

              1. No worries....I think 95% of the Italians are so nice and understanding when it comes to understanding the menu. Only really once in Rome at a restaurant called Gusto (Osteria) we were presented with the "tourist" menu-literally a piece of yellow paper with your food options. Their regular menu is posted right out side the restaurant so it was pretty darn obvious. I was pretty ticked when they gave me the menu but once i thought about it longer I suppose most of American tourists want something quick and understandable......
                We also noticed that a lot of restaurants post their menu on the outside and more often than not the menu was in BOTH Italian and English no matter where you went. You will have a wonderful time!!

                1. We are just back from 17 days visiting Venice, Florence, Sorrento, Capri and Rome. Because ours was a relatively spontaneous trip, I only had a few weeks to prepare. I listend to "In Flight Italian" on my Ipod while walking and bought an Italian dictionary. Just this small amount of prep made a HUGE difference.

                  Most restaurants have somone who speaks English, and they appreciated my litttle bit of Italian. We went to the local markets in Venice and Florence (a MUST) and got a "piccolo" of grapes,3 euros of salami and cheese, and a bottle of win for wonderful "hotel picnics." The only place we had a language barrier was a tiny wine bar in Siena, and we worked it out with smiles and a bit of Spanish!

                  I highly recommend Donna Sophia in Sorrento, La Campanina in Capri, Ristorante alla Rampa (amazing 10 euro antipasti bar), and Ristorante Giovanni (Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe!!) and just the wonderful little places you will find when you get gloriously lost!

                  1. As others have said, if you are eating in the tourist areas of these major cities, you will possibly find someone who understands some English. If off the beaten track, it is less likely.

                    Like most of my compatriots, I am no linguist but always try to have enough of the local language to order food (at least to recognise what something on a menu might be so I can point even if I can't pronounce).. I've built this up over the years using guidebooks, reading menus, plain old guesswork and so on - and as far as that goes, I reckon I'm now sufficiently fluent in French, Spanish, American and Italian.

                    If unsure, just order. You'll probably eat something delicious. And the worst that happens is that you don't like it and go hungry for a while. No-one's going to die. Have fun.


                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Harters

                      Brings back the memory of getting sweetbreads thinking I was getting cauliflower in a Left Bank student buffet style restuarant in Paris. Benign enough of a mistake that all was not lost, but I certainly don't ever want to get tripe again in any translation.

                      This could be an interesting thread -- what was your worst or best dish you go that failed your language barrier. Of course, there is always the small, tiny bottle of wine already on the table the waiter offers when you request some "red wine" and it ends up costing twice as much as your dinner. Wonder if they still do that. That was one easy language lesson for us.

                      1. re: Harters

                        I only drive “off the beaten track” in Italy now and am constantly amazed at the amount of English spoken. When confronted with a choice of diesel grades in Valli, a tiny road junction in the mountains of the Veneto, the lady at the next pump said in English “Get the cheapest, they‘re all the same.“ I then got the explanation in Italian and hand language about all the smog rule changes from the attendant. Amazingly, I pretty much understood. Headed east from Biella in the Piemonte one terrible, rainy night, my wife and I stopped at a hotel at an intersection not in any town. The dining room served one of the best Italian meals I’ve had and the young waiter spoke not a word of English to us but understood everything we requested. In the morning, he was cleaning and when he saw us, spread a table with linens in order to serve us so we wouldn’t have to eat off the self-serve buffet. That morning, a brochure at the hotel headed us to the Enoteca Regionale di Gattinara. A charming older lady greeted us, then gave us the history of the area, which was wiped out by a downburst wind storm in 1915. This was all in Italian, but with brochures to help, we understood. We left with a prize bottle of 2001 Travaglini Gattinara Reserva. Then there were the directions in English from a stranger to an almost hidden Al Tre Re in Cividale del Friuli. Some Germans were wandering around trying to find it also, but we don’t speak German either. The waiter got to practice his English, which he had not much occasion to use. His recommendations for food and wine were outstanding, serving us a fine 2003 Ermacora Pignolo along with regional dishes. Then there was the little restaurant in the Furlo Gorge in Le Marche below Mussolini’s profile carved in the mountain with the nose blown off by the Partisans. No English was spoken but all our questions were answered with pointing, brochures and postcards and we got to see the room where he dined, just as he left it. Our English-only, back-road stories are endless. Speaking Italian is helpful but not a requirement for a good time in Italy.

                        1. re: BN1

                          If I may ask, what are some of the things we should NOT do at a restaurant in Rome that might be completely fine elsewhere? Just don't want to accidentally offend the restaurant. Thanks.

                          1. re: hong_kong_foodie

                            Romans are not easily offended. They've seen it all. And I doubt you would make any tremendous faux pas. The main thing I find foreigners not grasping, and I do NOT mean the people who post on this board, is the structure and order of a meal. Also you should not go near your spaghetti with a knife or spoon. The difference between the spoon and knife is that the spoon is simply not done, but the knife is a capital crime. Likewise, don't ask for parmigiano with fish or garlic sauces. If you have any doubt why the cheese was not offered, don't just ask for the cheese, ask if it goes with your dish. Don't ask for cappuccino after a meal (the supposed 11 AM cutoff for cappuccino is fiction, however). As for the structure of the meal, you don't need to order more courses than you want, but if you and your dining companion don't order the same courses, be very clear with the waiter about which dishes should come out together. Italians tend to eat one thing at a time, so if you just want a pasta and salad, that is two courses. Antipasto buffets are usually approached with moderation, not with the idea of making that a meal.