Five Foods To Avoid in Italy

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I’m a Europhile, without question, but sadly I haven’t spent very much time in Italy. It only takes a few moments though to fall in love with true Italian cuisine, but much longer to discern what is best left alone. That’s why I’m thrilled Italian travel expert Jessica Spiegel shared her secrets in this post. Jessica is a Portland-based writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel experts. She’s a confirmed Italophile, author of BootsnAll’s Italy travel guide, and she has yet to meet a gelato flavor she didn’t like.

 

Italy is the stuff of a food-lover’s travel dreams, but that doesn’t mean every morsel you taste in the country will be something to write home about. In fact, it’s possible – easy, really – to eat crappy food in Italy. The unsuspecting traveler is particularly at risk for this pitfall because of what most of us think we know about Italian food already.

The bad news? Eating at Italian restaurants in most parts of the world that aren’t Italy leaves you ill-prepared for real Italian food. The good news? It’s really easy to learn a few simple rules to make sure you’re more apt to swoon over your meals in Italy than regret them.

Here, then, are some tips to help you avoid the bad food in Italy and find the great stuff.

Anywhere with a multi-language menu

It’s tempting to take the easy road when you don’t know the local language, falling into the waiting arms of a restaurant overlooking a famous piazza and proffering a menu in – look! – 12 languages. It’s tempting, yes – but the surest way to a bad meal in Italy. (If only those places with “tourist menus” would spend half as much time on what comes out of the kitchen as they do on translating the dishes…) The Italians stick to places where the menu is only in Italian, and so should you. Oh, and if there’s a guy out front waving a menu at you and imploring you to come into the restaurant? Wave, smile – but keep walking.

Where to go instead: As mentioned, look for restaurants where the menu is only in Italian. And don’t say you don’t speak the language, either – bring a good phrasebook and an appetite for travel adventures and you’ll be fine. In particular, keep an eye out for specials that change daily, as these tend to be seasonal dishes using what’s fresh and local.

Creative commons  - leafar
Creative commons by leafar

Cappuccino after 11am

You’ve probably heard this bit of advice before, and it’s true. The prohibition stems from the fact that Italians think drinking milk after any meal will thoroughly mess with your digestion (Italians are nothing if not obsessed with digestion). So while a cappuccino in the morning is fine – because the cappuccino is, essentially, your breakfast – drinking one after lunch or dinner is a no-no. Of course, most Italians know that the rest of the world is less advanced when it comes to the digestive tract, so you can usually still order a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening without getting a sideways glance. Don’t be surprised, however, if a barista who “knows better” refuses your order. He’s just trying to save your small intestine.

What to get instead: Italians throw back their tiny coffees in one go, but they don’t order “espresso.” A simple shot is “un caffè?, per favore,” and the Italians aren’t shy about adding sugar. Also note that if you order your coffee and then sit at a table you’re likely to pay much more than if you just stayed at the bar to slam down the contents of the cup as soon as it hit the saucer.

Creative Commons by zoonabar
Creative Commons by zoonabar

Mass-produced gelato

Gelato may be the best-tasting souvenir in Italy, and it’s highly recommended that all travelers enjoy it twice a day – at least. Despite how basic the ingredients are, however, gelato can be wildly different from one gelateria to another – and in some cases, it can be so bad that it’s best to just throw it out and start over elsewhere. The biggest gelato sin is mass-produced gelato, often made from mixes, which is to be avoided at all costs – I don’t care how hot it is or how much the kids are whining. Mass-produced gelato doesn’t have what makes gelato truly exceptional – intense and rich flavors that are preservative-free. You don’t want to waste valuable calories that way.

What to get instead: You can spot mass-produced and otherwise sub-standard gelato from a mile away most of the time by looking at color (pistachio gelato sholud be pale and creamy green, not neon, and banana gelato should be cream-to-brown, not yellow, etc.), size (enormous piles of fluffy-looking gelato mean they’re not making it fresh every day), and language (the word “artigianale” usually indicates it’s made with natural ingredients).

Creative commons by dsearls
Creative commons by dsearls

Fettuccine Alfredo

No matter how much you love this creamy pasta dish back home, you won’t find it on the menu at any restaurant worth considering. It’s a dish Italians feed to children and pregnant women with tummyaches – not something any Italian would pay to have prepared in a restaurant. Likewise, “spaghetti and meatballs” is an Italian-American favorite, but in Italy the pasta and meat courses are served separately – putting big pieces of meat on top of pasta is unheard of.

What to get instead: Italians do eat meatballs (called “polpette”), but they’re served on their own as a second course after you’ve finished your pasta. And if you’re feeling a bit queasy (or you’ve got kids who are picky eaters), you can ask for “pasta in bianco” (white pasta) to get the Italian ancestor of fettuccine alfredo. Remember how obsessed with digestion the Italians are – just mention that you’re having digestion problems and you’ll get all kinds of sympathy.

Creative commons by rizkapb
Creative commons by rizkapb

Red wine in the Cinque Terre

Italian food isn’t like the menu at your local Italian restaurant – it’s regional, with specialties from opposite ends of the country sometimes feeling like they come from different countries altogether. This is why it’s so important to learn about what’s local and in season wherever you travel in Italy. In other words, you’ll find out why the wine to order in the Cinque Terre is white, not red (that’s what’s grown in the vineyards looming over each village). Being aware of what ingredients and dishes a region or city is famous for will steer you toward more memorable meals.

What to get instead: These days, you can get pizza all over Italy, but learning that it comes from Naples means you’ll find better pizza there than anywhere else. The same goes for steaks in Tuscany, artichokes in Rome, pesto in Liguria, and caponata in Sicily. Learn what’s local and fresh and you’ll know how to eat like a king.

Creative commons by Lee Coursey
Creative commons by Lee Coursey

 

What are your best Italian food secrets?

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By: Jessica Spiegel

Jessica Spiegel is a Portland-based writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel experts. She's a confirmed Italophile, author of BootsnAll's Italy travel guide, and she has yet to meet a gelato flavor she didn't like.

36 Responses

  1. Deb

    Love this post. Being in Italy right now, I have learned quite a few things about the food and you are spot on! We have never been much into cuisine when traveling, but in Italy, we’re constantly going on food walks, taking a cooking course and commenting on the fake gelato that we are seeing in the shops. We made the mistake of sitting at a table one morning near the Vatican. We knew better too, but as Dave was in the washroom, the waitress ordered me to sit down and I diligently listened. My lazy butt cost us a good 3 bucks each and we left the cafe €13 Euro lighter for 2 cappuccinos. Yikes!

    Reply
    • Jessica

      So glad you got into the food in Italy, Deb! Food is a big deal for me whenever I travel, but I particularly loved when the light bulb went off for me so many years ago during my initial Italy trip – how “Italian food” is a non-Italian concept. Ever since then, I continue to be fascinated by regional differences in the cuisine.

      Reply
  2. Andrea

    My addendum to your number 1 is to never order from a menu with pictures. Anywhere. I enjoy the fun of “almost” knowing what is in my food and I always learn words for what I definitely don’t like, but from there I am willing to be surprised!

    Reply
    • Jessica

      Absolutely, menus with pictures (at least in Italy) are a no-no for me, too. And I forgot to mention, obviously anyone with any kind of food allergy needs to be more diligent about knowing what’s in the food, but I’m (thus far) lucky to only risk eating something I don’t love – not getting sick from it.

      Reply
  3. Roy Marvelous

    Wow, had no idea about the cappuccinos.
    Totally agree with the multi-lingual menus. Also menu which offer too many things! I rather go somewhere with a short menu because it means they are actually good at something.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      The cappuccino rule is often quoted, but not as often explained. It’s not really about the cappuccino – it’s about the milk. If you tried to order a glass of milk by itself after a meal, the Italians would think you were just as crazy. 🙂

      Reply
      • DJR

        I lived in Italy for 3 years and was always amused by the funny looks I got ordering cappuccino in the afternoon or evening. I enjoyed pointing out to the locals that no one seemed to have a problem consuming the undeniably milk-based gelato in the evening. Nice country and nice food, but their snobbery and preciousness about food ‘rules’ always seemed boneheaded to me. You can have good food with knowledge and passion, you don’t need the condescending attitude to the food of other countries.

  4. Karen Holt

    Great post, Jessica! I lived in Sicily and after that experience all Italian food paled in comparison. Going with the regional specialties is the best way to eat well in Italy.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      Thanks, Karen! I agree, I think eating the regional specialties is the way to get the best food – and, often, to get something you’ve never tried before.

      Reply
  5. Dean

    Great tips! I’ll have to remember this the next time I’m in Italy. I didn’t know about the wine on the Cinque Terre, but I did get the cappuccino part right. When in doubt, always look to the locals 🙂

    Reply
    • Jessica

      Thanks, Dean! And obviously you can get red wine in the Cinque Terre – and people do drink it there, depending on what they’re eating – but so many people assume “Italian wine = red wine” that they don’t stop to find out what’s produced right in the hills overlooking the towns. The most famous wine in the Cinque Terre is actually a sweet dessert wine called Sciacchetra’ (sha-keh-TRA) that you get in tiny glasses, often as an afternoon “snack,” with a biscotto cookie for dipping. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Kyle

    Large meatballs don’t go with pasta (as a rule), but you will find pasta with tiny polpettine (often in tomato sauce) in the the south, and you’ll also find polpettine in some rich southern lasagna dishes. At least I have, in places that were very traditional.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      It’s true, Kyle, there are some pasta sauces that incorporate those small meatballs – I was just trying to make the point that what we think of as quintessential Italian food – spaghetti and meatballs – isn’t something you’re going to find on menus all over Italy. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Leah Travels

    Perfecto! This is all great advice, and I agree 100%. I totally disregarded the whole cappuccino rule while in Italy. I didn’t care if I got a crazy look or not. Ha!

    Reply
    • Jessica

      There are some things I’m not willing to cave into, either, Leah – including the idea that not blow-drying your hair will make you ill. No way I’m using a hairdryer in the Italian summer heat!

      Reply
  8. Sienna Reid

    Thanks for the great article Jessica! I agree completely! To add to the discussion: Pizza must be tasted in Naples, but you also have to try Pizza in Rome, which is very different, but also famous! It is extremely thin and much lighter than Neapolitan Pizza. A good way to learn about regional specialties is to take a food and market tour in each place you visit. That way you can learn at the market about the special kind of artichokes only found in Rome, how the zucchinis are different in Naples and Rome, how the Radicchio of Treviso near Venice is so darn special, and see how many varieties of tomatoes there are in Italy and learn how they are eaten in different ways, etc… THEN you can go on a tasting tour and learn about the specialty foods and ways of ordering in Italy, and have a wonderful time eating along the way. In each city you can learn a little bit of slang as well so you can say something like a local! With a food and wine tour you can learn about the local wine and what is best to order in a particular city, things that the locals know, but are difficult to figure out for a visitor, as well as what is great to accompany it. By the end of one of these experiences you will be an expert on local cuisine and traditions! .

    Reply
    • Jessica

      Thanks, Sienna. The pizza in Rome is different, I agree – I don’t like those articles that try to pit Roman pizza against Neapolitan pizza, since they’re two different foods to me. The Roman pizza I’m most familiar with, however, isn’t lighter than the pizza in Naples – it’s the pizza al taglio, which is often focaccia-like in thickness. It makes an excellent lunch or afternoon snack!

      Reply
  9. Shanna Schultz

    Thanks for the great info…we made the mistake at eating at a couple of those touristy restaurants when we were in Italy and won’t ever do it again. The food was bland and boring, not at all what I expected Italian food to be. Italy was also our very first big trip outside of the country, so I think that if we went back now, we would feel a little more comfortable getting away from the tourist restaurants and into some more local places without a menu in English.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      It’s easy to make the tourist menu mistake – we’ve all done it. I only get concerned about that when people base their opinions of the food in Italy on those experiences.

      Reply
  10. Sam

    Excellent advice and not hard to follow, I’m not a fan of cappucinos so it was easy for me to slip into drinking espressos, the hot chocolate in Italy is also worth trying as it is thick and sweet. We travelled around Italy for about 4 weeks and only had 2 uninspiring meals the entire time, purely our fault for not taking time to explore further from the tourist area and for eating lunch so late that we would have eaten almost anything. For the majority of the trip we asked about local dishes and tried local wines, having a little knowledge about the specialities of each region also helped but we were mainly guided by the staff in the restaurants and cafes.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      Thanks, Sam! I agree, it’s not hard to eat well in Italy, if you follow some simple rules. That hot chocolate is divine, isn’t it? It’s typically only available in the winter (since it’s so stick-to-your-ribs thick), but if you’re visiting in cooler weather it’s worth asking to see if the cafes are serving it yet!

      Reply
  11. Reggie

    I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your article. Informative and witty… got a few good chuckles this morning. Thanks….

    Reply
  12. Changes In Longitude

    We just finished up three weeks in Italy and these are all brilliant tips. We’d add truffle oil to the mix. They told us at a truffle farm that it’s not truffles and it’s not oil.(Well it is oil, just not the good stuff.)

    Here’s a story about our truffle hunting experience in Italy: http://www.changesinlongitude.com/truffle-hunting-italy/

    Cheers!

    Larissa and Michael

    Reply
  13. Patrizia

    Hello Jessica & hello everyone!I’m Italian..so these tips are useful but..”there’s a but” ( local expression in Italy) you shouldn’t always avoid the multilanguage menù..For examples, there are the Restaurant “I fratelli la bufala” ( a brand known all the around the world) where you can get a lovely real “Napolitan” pizza and lovely thin fried chips using an english menù.
    So it depends. And it is not true that you can’t go in a coffee bar and ask for an espresso coffee. It depends where you are in Italy..if you’re in Puglia (my region is in the South) you can ask also for an Espressino, that is a coffee prepared with more creamy milk than a normal espresso but less than a normal cappuccino and you can get a lovely “cornetto” (our croissant) to eat while you drink your coffee. So, guys it depends. Italy is a beautiful country..that you’ve to explore!But, please don’t go to McDonald..you’re in best FOOD country that you’ve ever beeen!

    Reply
  14. Brian Swanick

    I am all too aware of the negative effects of the afternoon coffee…yet I do it anyway. 🙁 Also, learning about local and seasonal food is something we suffer with in the US, so it’s no wonder we don’t consider it when we travel abroad. Great article, Jessica! Cheers

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Traveling in Europe has taught me a lot about the importance of fresh, seasonal food. Traveling there for weeks at a time and eating a LOT doesn’t have the same effect that it would on the body if you did that in the US.

      Reply
  15. Leyla

    Great piece, Jessica, and as the others have said, spot on! I’d add… stay away from Chinese food. And why would you ever TRY Chinese food in Italy, you might justifiably ask?? After several months of living on Italian fare I was desperate for something different so I caved and tried a Chinese place in Como – possibly the worst Asian meal I have ever had. Lesson learned.

    Reply
  16. Abigail Rogers

    Right now I’m loving Rick Steves’ “Postcards from Europe,” and I thoroughly enjoyed the Italy section. Die-hard Anglophile that I am, I’m beginning to appreciate some other parts of Europe too 😉

    Thanks for the informative post!

    Reply
  17. Mike

    I only made one of these mistakes when I was in Italy, being the gelato one. You can definitely taste the difference! It’s not even close to being as good. When I return too talk I’ll keep all of these in mind. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      You bet and you’re right, there’s no comparison.

      Reply
  18. Malin

    Brilliant article, had no idea about the no no for Red wine in Cinque Terre.

    You should have added the sit down – stand up coffee culture eg that you often pay the double for your morning cappuccino if sitting down in the bar instead of standing.

    Reply
  19. ed luczak

    Our first long stay in Rome. We were in Italy on a quick tour that really did not include time for eating out so any comments regarding Rome and restaurants are welcome. We are staying in a hotel by the Spanish steps. Thank

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Rather than give you a name, my recommendation is to just wander and find out of the way places on your own. Look down alleys and side streets and seek out places popular with locals and not just the tourists.

      Reply
  20. Alessandro

    Hello Jessica,

    I have to admit that the article is well written and very clear about italian “costumes”.
    But as a local maybe I can add something.
    If tourists want to eat in real italians restaurants maybe they should avoid main attractions places and avoid main touristic cities (Venice-Rome-Florence).

    It would be easier for you to eat something real italian in cities like Bologna, Napoli or Genova where there is not the invasion that cities like Rome and Florence have.
    Infact it’s harder to eat real and fresh dishes in Roma Center that in Bari.
    The thing of the menus is right, but I can suggest You to avoid restaurants with menus in 3 or more languages but in last years even the “real” italian places are beginning to put some english suggestions. So don’t be scared about that, but try to see if locals tend to eat there.

    About Cappuccino anc coffee, is true we have some trouble to understand why a person should drink Cappuccino after dinner. That is so strange and even not good for many things, anyway everyone has its habits but you can expect some strange vibrations from people around you if you order cappuccino not in the right hour.

    I can tell you, on the other hand, that in Italy is always time for a fast coffee (there is no limitation, before or after dinner and even at night).

    Italians are obsessed with digestion, but more largely You can simply say Italians are obsessed with everything about food (and good food).
    Italians can be very disordered but when it comes to food everyone has rules and things to respect very tightly. Is not just digestion, even on other sides we are very obsessive (I admit it).
    Anyway very good article, and good suggestions.
    Come back to Italia and try Pizza in Napoli, I can help You finding some real Neapolitan pizzerias.

    Reply
  21. Ian

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking coffee anytime you feel like it. Cappuccino is mostly warm milk with a simple shot of coffee. Lots of cultures believe in a drink of warm milk before going off to bed and it doesn’t give them bad indigestion. Only Italians could turn drinking it into some kind of religion based around the time of day. Maybe they just have weak stomachs. It’s like espresso, what kind do drink has to come with another drink in order to quench your thirst? An Italian I know is having kidney problems, after working with him for a day and witnessing him drink espresso and believing he is actually taking on board liquid, then it’s easy to understand why. I’ve only ever been disappointed with Italian cuisine, even food I’ve sampled with locals off the beaten track. This is possibly because they hype it so much, to the point of boredom. So when you finally get down to eat it you’re expecting something exquisite but it never quite is. Yes it’s good but never out of this world. As for Napoli, I could live two thousand years and never feel the need to see the place again. The only thing more commonly seen on the streets than rubbish was the prostitutes. Truly a revolting hole.

    Reply

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