America is efficient and democratic in the distribution of its food. You go to the store and have exactly the same selection of produce everyone else has. You order in a restaurant and you get exactly the same food as everyone else, there's usually no choice in the matter. Everything is run with corporate efficiency.
Risotto al Caffe e Limone con Calamari e Gamberi
Osteria Via San Giorgio, Lucca
It's not like that in Italy--or for that matter in most of Europe. While the larger supermarkets tend to be similar to American ones, most restaurants and the numerous smaller food shops and vegetable markets of Italy are family run and dedicated to making their customers happy--the more frequent the customer visits, and the more interested in the product he is, the happier he can expect to emerge.
And there's the difference. In Italy, developing a relationship with the seller of a product will go a long way in getting the maximum quality of product being offered. It's much the same in restaurants.
Luigi Barzini wrote his seminal work "The Italians" in 1964. It's frightening how his words on the Italian waiter still ring true today:
A waiter taking an order for lunch, for instance, will show the following series of moods in quick succession: (1) bored obsequiousness and professional courtesy, as he hands a menu to the new client; (2) resignation, as he whips out his pencil and keeps it poised on his pad waiting for the usual, dull, unimaginative order; (3) slight curiosity, if the client looks thoughtful, coughs and asks a few pertinent questions; (4) incredulous attention, if the client shows himself really difficult to please, somewhat circumspect in weighing possible choices; this may be followed by (5) a look of alertness, eagerness and pleasure if the client proves himself a knowing expert, or by (6) a return to the bored obsequiousness of the beginning if the order turns out to be, after all, the ordinary thing.
Believe me, it's a whole new world when you start asking questions. Show an interest in the local cuisine and it's highly likely that your waiter will enthusiastically recommend a plate, or even offer to make a special selection of local foods for you. Just telling a waiter or B&B owner that you are anxious to try the local specialties can enhance your dining experience immensely. And it doesn't cost you a dime.
Take a look at how Italians order in a restaurant. Seldom do they even look at the menu. They choose instead to interact with the waiter. And let it be noted that the interaction involves only the food. Waiters don't foist their name upon you, or fondle your wine bottle once it's on the table.
Some years back I took some friends to a guest house in a tiny village in northern Italy where I was told the family cooked wonderful food. On our first night there was plenty of well-prepared food, but it was extraordinarily boring, food you could get anywhere. We began the assault, not with insults about what was in front of us, but with questions about the special dishes of the region. Hint hint.
The very next evening we sat down to a feast of great local food, most of which was unfamiliar to us, but mighty tasty. Our hosts beamed as we wolfed it down, and were happy to answer any questions we had. We made friends. We ate well.
Sometimes Italians try to guess what Americans like to eat, based upon what tourists always ask for in their restaurants. They're usually wrong (about me, anyway).
When a waiter offers to make you a plate of the local specialties for an appetizer, for example, don't think he's got a mind to cheat you, as most Americans and Brits I've observed do (there's a possibility of course, but it's a risk you should take if you like great food and aren't inside a tourist trap restaurant with pictures of the food on the English menu. I've never been disappointed).
Because smaller trattorie are family run places, anything's possible. If you want spaghetti with oil and garlic, just ask. They'll usually make it. The same goes for kid's food. There's no kids menu in small trattorias, buy they'll always make you pasta per bambini, usually pasta with butter and a bit of cheese.
And don't forget that if you're not quite stuffed, and had trouble rejecting one dish over another when you ordered, ask if you can have a smaller portion to try.
Everything's possible. That's what I like about eating in Italy.
But what to order, and how is it made? If you don't speak foodie Italian, see the variations you might find on a typical Italian menu at Italian Menu Master, which offers translations and information about antipasti, primi, secondi, and contorni, the basic parts of an Italian meal.
Do I Have to Eat in Restaurants on My Vacation?
You can, of course, get a sandwich in a bar. But there's another way of eating well that you should know about. Did you know you can eat with "home chefs", people who invite you into their homes for a meal and conversation? Yes, indeed, and you can find out all sorts of secrets only locals know, too. It's a new thing, and it's hot.
One such aggregator of such services is a company we've partnered with, BonAppetour, who offers a plethora of dining experiences in Italy. You find food you'd like to try in a city you'll be visiting and you negotiate a date with the cook. We had a great time visiting Rosario in Pisa, and made a video of snippets of our three hour lunch. Watch if you think this is the sort of thing you'd like to do.
Ordering Good Food in Italian Markets and Shops
In shops it's the same deal. When you enter, you say "Buon Giorno" or Buona Sera" (as you should upon entering a restaurant as well). Shops are considered much the same as people's houses in Europe, you don't just bust in without saying a word.
So now you've started your relationship. Ask questions, make sure your interest in the goods is exposed, and off you go.
I think Julia Child did better at explaining this relationship in My Life in France (notice how it echoes Barzini's observations):
"If a tourist enters a food stall thinking he's going to be cheated, the salesman will sense this and obligingly cheat him. But if a Frenchman senses that a visitor is delighted to be in his store, and takes a genuine interest in what is for sale, then he'll just open up like a flower. The Parisian grocers insisted that I interact with them personally: If I wasn't willing to take the time to get to know them and their wares, then I would not go home with the freshest legumes or cuts of meat in my basket. They certainly made me work for my supper--but, oh, what suppers!"
Europe has some extraordinary raw materials that can be made into those special suppers. It's not hard to follow the simple road map for success: Greet, ask, be interested, and enjoy.
Recommended Food Tours in Italy
Divina Cucina - Food and market tours and cooking classes in Tuscany, Sicily and Puglia.
Cook in Venice - Learn to "cook like an Italian Mama" with Monica Ceserato, or take a food tour with her.
Italian Culinary Adventures - Meet food artisans, eat spectacularly well in Italy's culinary heartland.
Tuscan Women Cook - Oh, those nonnas can really whip up a fine meal!
Italian Food Videos
Ordering Fish in an Italian Restaurant - It'll have a head on it, but it won't kill you to look your food in the eye either.
Inside the Shop of Dante-Quoting Butcher Dario Cecchini - When you're in Tuscany you'll want to check out Dario's shop, even if you're not planning to roast a side of his Chianina beef.
Eating Amongst Tuscany's Locavores - Here's a video about my Italian neighbors and the food they produce.
Cagliari's Fish Market - Mercato San Benedetto is one of my favorite markets, and here's what you see and how to get there.
More on Italian Food
Planning a Trip?
Here are some travel planning tools that are especially useful if you're planning your first or second trip to Italy.