How To Avoid A Bad Restaurant In Italy

Your aunt is lying. Okay, maybe not your aunt but we all have that person. I’m talking about that person who falls over themselves recounting their trip to Italy. The person who declares it impossible to have a bad meal in Italy. That person, whoever they may be, is lying.

Look, I get where they’re coming from -- in a country with a strong culinary identity, incredible agriculture, and where food is intrinsically linked to the history, food is a major touchpoint. Despite that, when you travel to Italy a bad meal is very much a possibility.

On a recent trip to Rome, a mother and daughter flagged me down -- they were lost, in search of a restaurant, and I realized immediately the spot was a tourist trap. I couldn’t bear the thought of them having a crappy meal so I walked them to one of the most classic restaurants in Rome's historic city center.

En route, the daughter lamented that they had nothing but bad meals while in Rome. In having that conversation, I realized here on the site we’ve shared the must-eat classic foods when you visit Italy as well as some of our favorite spots to eat in Rome's historic city center. However, we haven’t ever done the opposite and given you the tools to decipher the bad ones for yourself.

So here it is: our tips to help make sure you eat well when you travel to Italy.

Avoid Restaurants With People Outside Inviting You In

The number one sign a restaurant is a tourist trap? They've hired someone to sit outside the restaurant whose sole purpose is to bring you inside. Simply put you should have to be begged to go into a restaurant!

Avoid Restaurants With Photos Of Food

Sure, there may be a place out there with beautifully styled shots of its food and equally delicious food, but I have yet to come across it. Until then the rule is that if the restaurant has pictures of its food on display, it’s a tourist trap.

Avoid Restaurants That Have Plates Of Food On Display

The only thing worse than photos of food are display plates (be they real or plastic) of food. The sample plates of food may very much have a time and place in certain cultures but that time and place is not at a nice restaurant in Italy.

Avoid Restaurants With A “Tourist Menu”

The most obvious tip off that you're in a touristy restaurant? They have a tourist menu! I don’t see this quite as often as I did a few years back but it’s still around. Like it sounds, a tourist menu is a set meal or specific menu specifically for tourists and it's usually a double whammy of being expensive and crappy. Bottom line: if you see a tourist menu, get on out of that place!

Steer Clear Of Restaurants Near Major Landmarks

Okay, yes, there are certainly exceptions to this rule (like Spazio Niko Romito near Milan’s Duomo, Armando al Pantheon near the Pantheon in Rome, or Irene near Florence’s Piazza Della Repubblica), but, more often than not, the restaurants within spitting distance of major landmarks are tourist traps. I find this to be especially true in the area surrounding Rome's Trevi fountain and Venice's near Saint Mark's Square, FYI.

Avoid Multi-Page Menu

More often than not an enormous menu means the food isn’t going to be great. Our issue is not so much that it may be touristy but more that it’s hard to do a ton of things well. We believe a menu with less options (say with fewer than 4 pages of food) means the kitchen is more focused and turns out generally better food.

Avoid Restaurants That Open Really Early

As I’ve written about before, Italians eat their meals later than Americans and, as such, the majority of restaurants don’t even open until 7PM. The exception is that I'm starting to see more and more restaurants in the bigger cities in Italy, like Ginger in Rome, that have continuous service (ie serve food from lunch through late night).

Avoid Restaurants With The Menu In Multiple Languages

Nothing against travelers from all over the world, but if a menu is in more than a couple languages it’s a telltale sign that there are more tourists than Italians eating there.  

Ask (And Look For) The Locals

You’ve heard me say it a thousand times: hanging with locals is one of the most sure-fire ways to improve your travels. When Kristen and I research our Salt & Wind trips, we’re always on the lookout for interesting locals with whom we can strike up a conversation. And once we do we ask their opinion and you should definitely do the same.

Speaking of, once you arrive at their recommended spot it should not just be tourists but have at least a couple tables of locals dining there (assuming it’s not so early that no locals have arrived yet). Along those lines you should hear more Italian than English spoken when you enter a restuaurant. 

Side note: Just a heads up about getting recs from locals -- in some hotels in Italy (usually the more budget spots) the staff may be getting a kickback in order to send you to a specific restaurant so, if you're in a budget hotel, take their recommendations with a grain of salt.

Look For The Stickers

We’re by no means slave to review sites because as we all know it’s the most vocal (not necessarily the most discerning) people who get heard. However, in each country, there tends to be a review site or a guide that is in line with our tastes and in Italy those sites are SlowFood and Gambero Rosso.

But rather than use their guides as the end all be all we instead research restaurants independently of those websites or apps and then, if they have a sticker of one of those associations when we arrive, we consider it another vote of confidence that the spot is solid. 

So there you have it: our ten tips to help you find a great restaurnt in Italy. How about you? Any other tips you have for finding quality restaurants when you travel in Italy?

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Photo Credit: All photos by jwelz