Salt & Wind Travel

You Can Have A Bad Meal In Italy: Here’s How To Avoid It

Your aunt is lying. Okay, maybe not your aunt but we all have that person who falls over themselves recounting their trip to Italy through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses. The person who declares that it is impossible to have a bad meal in Italy. But, as someone who lived there and works there regularly planning custom trip itineraries in Italy, I can say that person (bless their heart) is wrong.

Uncooked pizzas on a counter
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Look, I get where they’re coming from: the Italian food culture is known across the whole world. The country has a deep-rooted culinary identity, incredibly diverse agriculture, and the food is intrinsically linked its history. Bottom line: food is a major cultural touchpoint across every Italian region.

During a recent trip to Rome, a mother and daughter flagged me down: they were frazzled and lost as they had been searching for a restaurant for over an hour. The minute they told me the name, I cringed knowing it was a tourist trap. Being the food lover I am I couldn’t bear the thought of them having a shoddy 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 that, while a lot of italian food is excellent, there are key things I do to avoid having a bad meal in Italy. 

Ceramic Sign In Italy

8 Signs You May Have A Bad Meal in Italy

Traveling to Italy is a dream come true for many, especially for those who love Italian cuisine. On a trip there, one of the best things is exploring all the food traditions from street food and open-air markets to mom-and-pop trattorias and a high-end restaurant or two. 

But, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to have a bad meal in Italy. To help you avoid this, I’m sharing eight of the top tips we share with our travel planning clients. These tips will help you spot the best places to eat and avoiding the pitfalls of tourist traps. By following these guidelines, you can enjoy the true flavors of Italy and have the best Italian meal pretty much every time.

Avoid Restaurants with Aggressive Staff

One clear indicator of a tourist trap is a restaurant where staff members stand outside, trying to lure you in. A quality Italian restaurant should rely on its reputation and delicious food to attract customers, not on aggressive marketing tactics.

Stay Away from Places with Food Photos

Restaurants that display photos of their dishes are pretty much always catering to tourists. Authentic Italian restaurants usually don’t feel the need to showcase their food with pictures. Instead, they let their reputation and word of mouth do the talking.

Beware of Display Plates

Another red flag is restaurants that have plastic or real plates of food on display. While this might be common in some places around the world, in Italy, it’s a sign of a restaurant aimed at tourists rather than locals.

Avoid Restaurants with “Tourist Menus”

If you’re handed a “tourist menu” with set meals, it’s best to find another place to eat. These menus cater to tourists, are often overpriced, and do not reflect the best of Italian cuisine.

Steer Clear of Major Landmarks

While there are exceptions, restaurants located very close to major tourist attractions like the Trevi Fountain or St. Mark’s Square often focus more on foot traffic than on being the best Italian restaurant. Instead, venture a little further away to find hidden gems that locals frequent.

Watch Out for Extensive Menus

A menu that reads like a novel is usually a bad sign. It’s challenging for a kitchen to excel in numerous dishes simultaneously. Look for places with shorter menus, as they often focus on quality and authenticity.

Check Opening Hours

Italian restaurants typically open for dinner around 7 PM. If you find a place serving dinner very early, it might be catering to tourists. Continuous service restaurants are becoming more common in larger cities, but early dinner service is still a caution sign.

Language on Menus

Menus in multiple languages can indicate a tourist-focused establishment. While it’s normal to see Italian and English, a menu in numerous languages usually means the restaurant is more about catering to tourists than delivering high-quality food.

How To Order Food In Italian

3 Ways To Find the Best Restaurants In Italy

​I don’t want to be a total downer so here are a few tips a good place:

Look for Local Diners

The best way to avoid a bad meal in Italy is to follow the locals. When locals dine at a restaurant, it’s a good indication of the food quality. You should hear more Italian spoken than other languages.

Trust Reputable Reviews and Stickers

While not foolproof, review sites like SlowFood and Gambero Rosso are generally reliable. Restaurants displaying their stickers usually maintain high standards.

Ask for Recommendations

Talking to locals can provide invaluable insights into the best places to eat. However, be cautious if you’re staying at budget accommodations, as some recommendations might be influenced by kickbacks.

Understanding Italian Dining Etiquette

Finally, we can’t emphasize enough that you should try to learn some of the local customs before traveling to Italy. Otherwise, you’ll likely make a italian-restaurant etiquette mistake. Here are a few top tips though we have a whole article about Italian dining cutoms if you want to dive into it further:

First and Second Courses

In Italy, a meal is typically structured into several courses. The first course (primo) often includes pasta dishes like carbonara sauce or fettuccine Alfredo. The second course (secondo) includes meat or fish. Understanding this can help you order more authentically.

Avoid Asking for Extra Cheese

While adding extra cheese might be common in other countries, it’s often frowned upon in Italy, especially if you ask for parmesan cheese on seafood pasta.

La Scarpetta

Using a small piece of bread to mop up the remaining sauce on your plate is called “la scarpetta” and is a beloved Italian tradition. It’s a compliment to the chef and a delicious way to finish your meal.

Drink Etiquette

Cold water is usually served on request, and bottled water is preferred over tap. Italians typically enjoy a glass of wine or an alcoholic beverage with their meals, so don’t hesitate to follow suit.

Santa Barbara Farmers Market

Recognizing Quality Ingredients

Olive Oil and Tomatoes

High-quality extra virgin olive oil is a staple in Italian cuisine, along with fresh tomatoes. Look for dishes prepared with these ingredients like the classic Caprese salad, pasta al pomodoro, or authentic tomato bruschetta to ensure you’re getting the real deal.

Fresh Herbs and Ingredients

The use of fresh herbs like rosemary and basil, as well as fresh produce, is a hallmark of good Italian food. Avoid places that seem to rely on pre-packaged or overly processed ingredients.

Al Dente Pasta

Pasta should be cooked al dente, meaning it’s firm to the bite. Overcooked pasta is a sign of a poorly executed dish.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can avoid a bad meal in Italy and instead enjoy some of the best cuisines the country has to offer. Whether it’s steering clear of tourist traps or recognizing high-quality ingredients, these guidelines will help ensure every Italian meal you have is a memorable one.

Frequently Asked Quesitons

If you experience a bad meal in Italy, it's important to address the issue politely and directly with the restaurant staff. Communicate your concerns clearly, specifying what aspect of the meal was unsatisfactory.

Many Italian restaurants pride themselves on customer satisfaction and may offer to replace the dish or not charge for it. If the response is not satisfactory, you can choose to leave a polite but honest review on platforms like TripAdvisor or Google Reviews to inform other travelers.

To avoid a bad meal in Italy, consider the following tips:

Research in advance: Look up restaurant reviews on reputable websites or ask locals for recommendations.

Avoid tourist traps: Steer clear of restaurants that are situated in the main tourist squares or that have menus in multiple languages, as these are often less authentic.

Observe the clientele: Choose places where you see more locals eating. Local patronage is often a good indicator of quality and authenticity.

Check the menu: A menu that changes seasonally is a good sign, as it suggests the food is made with fresh, local ingredients.

Yes, Italy has consumer protection laws that cover situations including being overcharged or receiving poor service at a restaurant. If discussing the issue with the restaurant doesn't resolve the problem, you can report the incident to the local police station (Carabinieri) or a consumer protection agency such as the "Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato" (AGCM).

It's helpful to keep receipts and any other evidence that can support your claim. Additionally, EU citizens can seek assistance through European Consumer Centres, which offer advice and support in dealing with cross-border consumer issues.

Amalfi Coast Towns

Amalfi Coast Towns

Trying to figure out where to stay on the Amalfi Coast? You’ll want to read up on the 13 Amalfi coast towns to find the right place for you. From famed Positano to bustling Amalfi and lesser-visited (by Americans) Cetara and Minori, were giving you the essential info about each.

Have Us Plan Your Italy Trip

Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency specializing in Italy travel planning? If you’re looking to plan one of the best trips to Italy, our Italy trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.

Photo credit: Raw pizzas on a counterBy Mattia

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