World ? Europe ? Italy

Italy: Tips On Dining

For a quick bite, go to a bar. Although bars in Italy do serve alcohol, they function mainly as cafes. Prices have a split personality: al banco is standing at the bar, while Ȥ tavola means sitting at a table where you'll be waited on and charged two to four times as much. In bars you can find panino sandwiches on various kinds of rolls and tramezzini (giant triangles of white-bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off). These both run 1€ to 3€ ($1.30-$3.90/65p-ţ2) and are traditionally put in a kind of tiny press to flatten and toast them so the crust is crispy and the filling is hot and gooey; microwave ovens have unfortunately invaded and are everywhere, turning panini into something resembling a soggy hot tissue.

Pizza a taglio or pizza rustica indicates a place where you can order pizza by the slice -- though Florence is infamous for serving some of Italy's worst pizza this way. Florentines fare somewhat better at pizzerie, casual sit-down restaurants that cook large, round pizzas with very thin crusts in wood-burning ovens. A tavola calda (literally "hot table") serves ready-made hot foods you can take away or eat at one of the few small tables often available. The food is usually very good. A rosticceria is the same type of place, and you'll see chickens roasting on a spit in the window.

A full-fledged restaurant will go by the name osteria, trattoria, or ristorante. Once upon a time, these terms meant something -- osterie were basic places where you could get a plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine; trattorie were casual places serving full meals of filling peasant fare; and ristoranti were fancier places, with waiters in bow ties, printed menus, wine lists, and hefty prices. Nowadays, fancy restaurants often go by the name of trattoria to cash in on the associated charm factor; trendy spots use osteria to show they're hip; and simple, inexpensive places sometimes tack on ristorante to ennoble themselves.

The pane e coperto (bread and cover) is a 1€-to-3€ ($1.30-$3.90/65p-ţ2) cover charge that you must pay at most restaurants for the mere privilege of sitting at the table. Most Italians eat a leisurely full meal -- appetizer and first and second courses -- at lunch and dinner and expect you to do the same, or at least a first and second course. To request the bill, ask "Il conto, per favore" (eel con-toh, pore fah-vohr-ay). A tip of 15% is usually included in the bill these days, but if you're unsure, ask "Ȁ incluso il servizio?" (ay een-cloo-soh eel sair-vee-tsoh?).

You'll find at many restaurants, especially larger ones and in cities, a menu turistico (tourist's menu), sometimes called menu del giorno (menu of the day). This set-price menu usually covers all meal incidentals -- including table wine, cover charge, and 15% service charge -- along with a first course (primo) and second course (secondo), but it almost always offers an abbreviated selection of pretty bland dishes: spaghetti in tomato sauce and slices of pork. Sometimes a better choice is a menu Ȥ prezzo fisso (fixed-price menu). It usually doesn't include wine but sometimes covers the service and often offers a wider selection of better dishes, occasionally house specialties and local foods. Ordering a la carte, however, offers you the best chance for a memorable meal. Even better, forego the menu entirely and put yourself in the capable hands of your waiter.

The enoteche (wine bar) is a popular marriage of a wine bar and an osteria, where you can sit and order from a host of local and regional wines by the glass while snacking on finger foods (and usually a number of simple first-course possibilities) that reflect the region's fare. Relaxed and full of ambience and good wine, these are great spots for light and inexpensive lunches -- perfect to educate your palate and recharge your batteries.

A Ban on Public Smoking -- In 2005 Italy launched one of Europe's toughest laws against smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants. All restaurants and bars come under the ruling except those with ventilated smoking rooms. Otherwise, smokers can retreat to the outdoors or private homes. Smokers face fines from 29€ to 290€ ($38-$377/ţ19-ţ194) if caught lighting up. Only 10% of Italian restaurants currently have separate smoking areas.

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