Eating in Italy: a complete guide

Gabriela Peratello

Italy is a culinary paradise. With fresh seasonal produce, regional pride in traditional dishes, and something to suit every palate, it’s a perfect place to visit if you’re interested in eating your way around a country. The only question really, is how long you can stay.

Use this guide as a starting point to learn more about eating in Italy, and to help you build a delicious itinerary.

📑 Table of Contents

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Dos and don’ts of eating in Italy

  • Do check the latest rules for entering restaurants — you may need to show proof of Covid vaccination
  • Do read up in advance to learn about the regional dishes wherever you’re headed — or join food tours so you don’t miss out
  • Do check price lists in cafes and bars — you may pay more if you sit compared to standing
  • Do remember lunch tends to be the largest meal of the day, with a lighter breakfast and dinner
  • Do order wine in restaurants — or stick to water; beers are usually only for with pizza
  • Do visit vineyards to tour and taste
  • Do pace yourself — most Italian meals can consist of multiple courses
  • Don’t expect authentic Italian food to be the same as Italian American food
  • Don’t drink a milky coffee after breakfast time — it’s espressos all the way
  • Don’t forget Italian meal times may not be what you’re used to — expect dinner anything up to 10pm
  • Don’t miss produce markets — grab seasonal food and have a picnic
  • Don’t pick restaurants in touristy areas — you’ll often pay over the odds for average food
  • Don’t ask for tap water in a restaurant — mineral water is normally the only option
  • Don’t be afraid to try regional specialities — you never know what you’ll enjoy

Important information about eating in Italy

Let’s get right into the nitty gritty so you can start to get excited about eating in Italy.

Eating out in Italy — basics

Food is taken very seriously in Italy. While the pace of life in Italian cities can often be fairly frenetic, meal times are traditionally slower, with time to sit down and savor several courses with friends or family. Don’t expect to grab and go.

Lunch is usually a bigger meal for Italians, compared to dinner — although both can be filling and consist of a broad range of different dishes. Let’s start with a look at the different eating establishments you’ll come across in Italy — and their Italian names — so you can recognize them when you see them:

  • Trattoria: typically an informal or family run restaurant, great place to get local dishes
  • Ristorante: likely to be more formal, with reservations required in advance
  • Osteria: traditional restaurant, more similar to a trattoria
  • Enoteca: wine bar, but likely to also serve antipasti and snacks as accompaniments to drinks

Italian menus — course names and meanings

A meal out in Italy could involve multiple courses — to avoid getting confused by Italian restaurant menus, check out this guide to the names of courses, and what you can expect:

  • Antipasto: appetisers, which could be on the large side, and typically involve breads, marinated or grilled vegetables, cheeses and cured meat options. Not sure what to get? Ask for antipasto misto — a mixed plate, which is usually on offer

  • Primo: first course — here you’re likely to see filling dishes like pasta, risotto, soups and gnocchi. It’s worth knowing that pasta dishes are likely to be listed by their local names, so you may need to ask for help in selecting if you don’t recognize them

  • Secondo: second course, which is usually a meat or fish dish — bear in mind that the first course may well have been on the hearty side when you’re deciding, and watch out for local options like fresh seafood at the coasts, and daily specials all over the country

  • Contorno: side dishes of salads, vegetables and carbohydrates like roast potatoes, often served alongside or just after the second course

  • Dolce/frutta: fruits, desserts and cheese, offered to close out the main part of a meal

  • Caffè: coffee is an art form in Italy, and while you can get one at any time of day, an espresso after a meal is the perfect pick-me-up

  • Digestivo: coffee not enough to get you moving after all that delicious food? Get into the Italian spirit with a digestivo — an alcoholic drink served after a meal to help digestion, often bitter or herbal

Breakfast in Italy

Even early risers are likely to choose a relatively small breakfast in Italy — although the one thing that nobody should forego is a coffee. Milky coffees like a cappuccino or a caffè latte are acceptable in the morning — they’re considered rather heavy to have after a meal, when espresso is favored.

For breakfast food, pastry is the most common option — although hotels may well serve American style buffets, and brunch is often available on weekend mornings, at least in the cities.

Aperitivi — kickstart your evening


Aperitivo means a drink and snack, usually served starting from the early evening before dinner time. And as Italians tend to dine on the later side, this feast can go on until main meals start to flow, around 8pm or later.

Aperitivi may be served in a buffet form, where the price of your drink will get you access to snacks and antipasti. Go easy if you’re planning on eating a full meal after — or dive in for dinner on a shoestring.

Italian American food vs authentic Italian food

This isn’t the place to settle the longstanding debate about what is — and isn’t authentic in Italian food. If you’re planning on a trip to Italy, you’ll certainly form your own opinions on that.

Some things to note, though, some of which we’ll cover a little later. Italian food is very varied from one region to another. Even if you think you know Italian food inside out, the chances are that a visit there will turn up new delicious dishes. It’s also highly seasonal — so get planning that next trip at a different time of year, so you can eat a whole different range of food!

An authentic — and traditional — experience of eating in Italy will be slow and paced, often with robust flavors which err on the side of simplicity. If that’s your thing, you’re going to have a good time, and possibly need some bigger pants.

What are the Italian meal times?

Lunch — whether at home or in a restaurant — is likely to be eaten at around 12 noon to 1pm. Restaurants will often only open for a couple of hours around this time, with a break before the evening service.

Dinner is eaten late — although there’s always the aperitivi to keep you going — at 8pm or after. Simple restaurants may start to open their doors at 7pm or so, but do check before you head out to eat.

What to eat in Italy?

To make sure you get the most from your gastronomic tour of Italy, it’s worth doing some advance research into what will be seasonal, and what’s popular locally wherever you’re headed.

Use this guide as a starting point, ask friends, family and locals in your destination for advice — and join food tours if you’re pressed for time to make sure you get to try as much as possible. Let’s look at some of the must-eats from different regions of Italy.

Popular dishes by region



What better place to start than with pizza?

Roman pizza has a super thin, crispy base. You’ll find margherita everywhere — but don’t expect ham and pineapple, that’s really not a thing in Italy. Pizza is served whole in Pizzerias — usually only in the evenings to give time for the wood fired ovens to heat — or in slices from cafes and roadside stalls. Popular toppings in Rome and beyond include prosciutto ham, olives, salami or basil — simple flavors, and not typically smothered in cheese.

You’ll come across Penne all’Arrabbiata — pasta with a spicy tomato sauce — all over Italy, but it was born in Rome. If you’re a pasta fan, also look out for Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe — local pasta served with cheese and black pepper.



Moving on to Tuscany now, for some more regional delights. Panzanella — stale bread salad — is a speciality in the region. It may not sound all that, but once you incorporate fresh ripe tomatoes and salad veggies — and dress in a zingy traditional vinaigrette, you’ll love it.

Consider following this up with Bistecca alla Fiorentina — Florentine steak. This dish is priced by the weight, and meant to share — with the giant T-bones weighing upwards of 2 pounds each.



Visiting Naples? Here’s what to eat.

From just down the Neapolitan coast, in Sorrento, try Gnocchi alla Sorrentina — baked gnocchi with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella — for some classic Italian flavors. You’ll also want to try Sfogliatelle pastries and onion based Pasta alla Genovese — a speciality of Naples despite the name being linked to Genoa.

Still hungry for pizza? Neapolitan pizza has a thicker, chewier crust compared to the Roman pizza style. If you’re not sure which you prefer, it’s essential to try both.



One famous food from Sicily which can often be found elsewhere in the world is arancini — stuffed and fried balls of rice, with a variety of fillings. Try them in their home for a fresh experience.

Popular throughout Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, try Parmigiana di Melanzane for layered eggplant with cheese and tomatoes, baked to perfection and often served as an appetiser. You’ll also find wonderful fresh produce, meat and fish in Sicily, for simple grilled dishes including sardines. Trattorias in Sicily may also serve horse and donkey meat, so translate menus if you’re looking for something more familiar.

If you’re in Palermo you’ll want to try street food Pane con Panelle — fritters in bread, made with garbanzo beans. And no matter where in Sicily you are, don’t miss finishing out a meal with Cannoli Siciliani — fried pastry tubes stuffed with a ricotta filling. Classic.



It’s no surprise that our final stop — Venice — has some famous dishes of its own. As an antipasto, look for Baccala mantecato — a creamed cod mousse served with bread or polenta, or various sardine dishes popular throughout the region.

You’ll also come across Risi e Bisi — a sort of rice and pea dish made with fresh local peas in the springtime, and squid ink risotto. And if you’re there at the right time of year, grab Fritole — sweet fried pastries, served during Lent.

Traditional cheeses to try


Each region of Italy will have a range of local specialty cheeses — so you’ll have plenty to pick from. Look out for produce markets where you can grab fresh bread, cheese and meat to eat in the countryside — simple, perfect, and simply perfect.

Here are some of the most well known Italian cheeses you’ll want to try while you’re there:

  • Mozzarella and burrata
  • Pecorino Romano
  • Taleggio
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Gorgonzola
  • Scamorza
  • Stracciatella — it’s a creamy cheese; not the same as the gelato flavor
  • Mascarpone
  • Fontina
  • Ricotta

A quick overview on Italian wine


Wine is served with many meals in Italy — and Italians are rightly proud of the different local wines available. Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine, with grapes being grown all over the country — and a history of viticulture which predates the Roman empire. Impressive.

Wine in Italy has a complex, structured classification system — often called appellations — which helps people see the provenance of a bottle, including where it was made, what wine growing practices the maker followed, and even how long it has matured. Wines marked DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)

If you’re interested to learn more it’s worth visiting vineyards, talking to growers, joining wine tours, and reading further on the topic to be sure you’re getting the very best when you’re in Italy. For the rest of us, house reds and whites are usually perfectly palatable — and often cheaper than many alternative drinks.

You can also look out for some of these famous Italian wines:

  • Sparkling wines: Asti and Lambrusco
  • Whites: Soave, Frascati, Gavi and Lugana
  • Reds: Chianti, Sangiovese, Amarole, Barolo
  • Dessert wines: Vin santo, Moscato d’Asti

How much does eating out in Italy cost?

As with anywhere in the world, the costs of eating out in Italy can vary widely. Overall your budget can change depending on the type of place you choose to eat at, and where in the country you are.

Cheaper options — like making the most of aperitivi — can appeal to people looking to make their money go further. Or you could choose to hit some high end venues in a bigger city if you’re looking for luxury. The food will be pretty top notch — no matter what you decide.

To help you build a picture let’s look at dining costs in some popular cities in Italy — the bill in a rural trattoria is likely to be significantly lower:

CityCost of a 3 course meal for 2, mid-range
Rome¹60 EUR
Florence²60 EUR
Naples³50 EUR
Palermo⁴40 EUR
Venice⁵77.50 EUR

Note: costs taken from, and correct at time of research — 19 October 2021

Not so familiar with EUR yet? Check the handy calculator below to see how much this would be in USD

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Eating in Italy is a sublime experience. If you’re planning a trip around the country, you’re in for a treat. Use this guide to build a picture of where to go and what to sample, and don’t forget to get your Wise international account and card to save on currency costs in Italy and beyond.


  1. Numbeo - Cost of living in Rome
  2. Numbeo - Cost of living in Florence
  3. Numbeo - Cost of living in Naples
  4. Numbeo - Cost of living in Palermo
  5. Numbeo - Cost of living in Venice

Sources checked on 10.26.2021

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