Your aunt is lying. Okay, maybe not your aunt but we all have that person. As in that person who falls over themselves recounting their trip to Italy through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses.
The person who declares that everything was perfect and that it is impossible to have a bad meal in Italy. Sadly, that person (bless their heart) is lying.
Look, I get where they’re coming from -- in a country with such a strong culinary identity, incredible agriculture, and where food is intrinsically linked to the history, food is a major cultural 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 frazzled and lost and had been searching for a certain restaurant for over an hour. The minute they told me the name, I recognized it to be a tourist trap. Being the food lover I am I couldn’t bear the thought of them having a shitty 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 Rome 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 top tips to help you avoid a junk meal when you travel to Italy.
Avoid Restaurants Where There Are People Outside Inviting You In
The number one sign a restaurant is a tourist trap? They've hired someone whose sold job is to sit outside the restaurant and entice you to enter. My rationale is that a good restaurant will stand on its own merit and that you shouldn't have to be begged to go into a restaurant!
Avoid Restaurants With Photos Of Food
Sure, there may be a place out there with Instagram-worthy beautifully-styled shots of its food and equally delicious food, but truth is we have yet to come across it. Until then the rule is that if the restaurant has a portfolio of 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. Don't get me wrong: the sample plates of food 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 menu that's literally labeled the "tourist menu!" Truth be told I don’t see this quite as often as I did a few years back but it’s still hanging around certain corners of the country. Like it sounds, a tourist menu is a set meal or specific menu specifically for tourists and it's usually a double whammy of terrible-ness in that it's often expensive and crappy. Bottom line: if you're handed a tourist menu, get on out of that place!
Steer Clear Of Restaurants Near Major Landmarks
Okay, yes, there are most definitely exceptions to this rule -- just take for example 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, a restaurant that's within spitting distance of major landmarks are tourist traps. We find this to be especially true in the area surrounding Rome's Trevi fountain and Venice's near Saint Mark's Square, FYI.
Avoid The Menu That's Longer Than War & Peace
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 fewer options (say with less than 4 to 5 pages of food) means the kitchen is more focused and that the food generally turns out much better.
Avoid Restaurants That Open Really Early For Dinner
As I’ve written about before, Italians eat their meals later than Americans as in the majority of restaurants don’t even open their doors until 7 PM. So if a restaurant is open at 6 PM for dinner, we'd be weary. There are two exceptions to this however. One is that some places may be open from 5PM on for aperitivo but that is more akin to happy hour than it is a full service dinner.
Also, I want to note that we're seeing more and more restaurants in the bigger cities in Italy (like Ginger in Rome) that have continuous service and serve food from lunch through late night. So, if you see a place that's commiting one or more of these other faux pas and is also open early? We say it's a no go. But we don't think you should judge a place only for the fact it's open early.
Avoid Restaurants With The Menu In A Ton Of Foreign 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 restaurant.
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 slaves 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 yet another vote of confidence that the spot is solid.
So there you have it: our ten tips to help you find a great restaurant in Italy. How about you? Any other tips you have for finding quality restaurants when you travel to Italy?
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