7 Essentials you Need to Know about Italy

Do you know?

  1. When NOT to say Ciao or Arrivederci?
  2. How to handle Tipping and Servizio?
  3. What the deal is with Bar Restrooms?
  4. What’s the difference? Bar, Osteria, Locanda, Trattoria, Ristorante.
  5. Etiquette -are you an ugly shopper?
  6. How to recognize false gelato?
  7. The 6 foods never to ask for in Italy?


Your Checklist – 7 Essentials You Need to Know About Italy


Essential No. 1.
When NOT to say Ciao or Arrivederci?

Ciao! has become an international greeting, but Italians don’t say Ciao to a stranger, it is reserved for friends, or at least someone they know. If you say Ciao to a stranger they will look at you quizically and will likely respond with Buongiorno, Good Morning.

If you make Buongiorno your standard greeting you will receive more respect from Italians.

The same applies to Arrivederci! Through songs and movies, we all know the word well. But it is a farewell Italians use among themselves if they know the person, but never to a stranger, when the farewell is Arrivederla – a respectful variation as you are not friends.  If you leave a restaurant or shop saying Arrivederci, the response will be Arrivederla.

There is an alternative greeting that can stand you in good stead in many situations. While Ciao is to us like Hi! and Buongiorno, Good Morning, seems too formal, you can learn to use an in between greeting, which is Salve. This is more like How are you? So it is a little more courteous than Ciao, and yet less formal than Good Morning.

Essential No. 2.
How to handle Tipping and Servizio?

When you read Essential No. 4, the Tipping and Servizio question will clarify.

Tipping was rare in Italy until tourism blossomed. Although some countrymen/women are more generous tippers than others, it is a quandry to work out when and how much. Here are some guidelines  – but read Essential No. 4 to clarify why.

Bar or Cafe – you are not expected to tip if you are having a quick simple snack, or just a coffee. If the Bar offers table service, and you feel the service warrants it, a small change tip is polite. But never tip with ANY coins which are brown! A pile of 1, 2 or 5c pieces will get thrown into the rubbish bin – it is offensive – so if you don’t have change to tip in a reasonable denomination, don’t tip at all!

Osteria or Trattoria – it has become the practice to tip, but never feel obliged to tip 10%. If you have received good food and good service, tip according to your feeling. As these are likely to be family run, you need to tip in cash, so leave your tip on the table after you have paid your bill. Never tip with coins that are not at least a 1 Euro coin. Five or six 1 or 2 Euro coins is just fine, or a E5 note, or E10 if you are happy and feeling generous. Never stoop so low as to tip with a pile of 10c or 20c pieces. If a group of people are eating together, everyone can put a 2 Euro coin on the table and that will be satisfactory for the waiter.

See the note below re Servizio!

Ristorante – or any upmarket establishment you tip at least at the 10% of your account mark, provided you are pleased with the food and the service. Both food and service should be exemplary and often customers are very happy to tip higher than 10%. You will find not many ristorante have the facility for you to tip on your credit card, so you need to have smaller denomination notes in your wallet or purse so you can tip the waiter by handing it to him, or, if you prefer, leave it on the table.

SERVIZIO – always check to see if a Servizio has been added to your account. If you find Coperta on your account, that is not Servizio, it is to pay for bread and condiments. If a 10% or 15% Servizio has been added to your account, then they are obliging you to tip that amount. You have no choice. Do not add any other tip nor leave any money on the table. Servizio is  a compulsory tip.

Essential No. 3.
What’s the deal with Restrooms?

Because Italians have always lived close together, close to where they work, and close to village  shops they never had the necessity for public restrooms because they didn’t drive to a shopping mall and spend a couple of hours any distance from home. Italians still shop locally, eat locally, and live close together and the infrastructure for public restrooms lags behind many countries because Italians themselves are rarely “caught short”.

Many Bars have only 1 toilet, but you need to understand that the plumbing system often cannot cope with a line of tourists, and more importantly, when these Bars began operating there was no law to say they had to provide a toilet for patrons, because patrons all lived close by. A Bar is not obliged to let you use the toilet, so you need to practice polite manners if you are “caught short”.

If there is a Fuori Servizio notice on the toilet, or Out of Service sign, it is often because the system has collapsed under the strain of mass use. This means a big bill for the Bar owner to have the plumbing put right. Some Bar toilets are still Hole-in-the-Floor, which confirms that it was never a law to provide you with a toilet at a bar.

Make a conscious note, as you plan your day wherever you are in Italy, of where you will be able to find a restroom. If you are in a museum, yes, there will be restrooms, if you are sitting down at a trattoria or restaurant, yes, you can use the rest rooms. If you are “caught short” and need to go to a Bar, never just barge in and head straight to the toilet. That is a rude thing to do – remember, this Bar owner is not obliged to let you, nor hundreds of other passing tourists, use the toilet.

There are plenty of guide and language books to give you a choice of what to say, but a bright Buongiorno, and ordering a coffee, and then asking politely for the Bagno, will make you seem less of a moron from some other planet than earth.

And never forget to say Buongiorno first for anything!

And, on the way out, turn yourself into a polite tourist by catching the eye of the Barman and giving him a genuine thank you, Grazie!

Essential No. 4.
What’s the difference? Bar, Osteria, Locanda, Trattoria, Ristorante.

Culturally and historically the 5 are completely different and related to the people who frequented them, or people who owned them.

BAR – A Bar is not the same as a licensed public bar, nor is it just a coffee shop. It is a meeting place, a point of congregation where locals drift in and out at various times of the day to make appointments, watch football or exchange chit chat. The price of drinks, including coffee, is set by the local Comune and posted on the wall. Passing locals often stand as they expect to be brief, whereas prices to sit down are set higher. If the Bar owner is renting footpath space from the Comune, prices can rise. Except in hotspots like Venice or Rome, it’s still the cheapest cappuccino or caffe latte in the world.

Bars are regulated in the type of food they can serve. Besides morning pastries and filled bread rolls, they can serve savory food which generally you must hold in your hand to eat, wrapped in a paper serviette, but not served on a plate. Some Bars have a licence to make pizza, again usually served only in a serviette, and some have a licence to serve foods for which you need only a fork to eat (not a knife and fork),  often on a plastic plate with a plastic fork. Regulations have relaxed in some tourist areas as Bars cash in on tourism. A Bar is a lower priced quick food place.

OSTERIA – An Osteria, twenty or more years ago, functioned as a wine bar where bulk wine was served by the glass from an oak cask. Restrictions applied to the type of food Osteria could serve to distinguish an Osteria from a Trattoria. An Osteria could not serve any food which required both a knife and fork, so nothing that needed to be cut, and they served food on platters on the counter, picked up in one hand by the wine drinkers. They were permitted to make dishes which only needed a spoon, like soups, and usually people sat at unadorned wooden tables with a paper placemat, but no table cloth.  Mostly factory, farm workers and labourers came to socialise at the local Osteria. They weren’t comfortable with a knife and fork and a refined table! A glass of wine, a bowl of soup or a platter of salami or prosciutto was more to their liking because they were in their work clothes and probably returned to work after lunch. An Osteria can now “Host” guests who are ok using a knife and fork – but many Osteria still serve simple, honest, uncomplicated dishes. The laws have softened, but  many Osteria do not have a licence to serve coffee or beer – because that is the prerogative of the Bar!  Some Osteria have become Osteria/Enoteca – a natural progression from their original function as a Wine Bar – an Enoteca will offer a library of wines from all over Italy and the world, but generally cannot offer coffee or beer, and often only offer finger food.

LOCANDA – this was a sleeping or stopping off place along a major road, especially roads used by pilgrims on the holy journey to Rome, but also travelling merchants. Usually rustic and incorporated into farm or roadside properties, the Locanda was a place to sleep and eat, like a modern day motel. You could stable your horse, and as a pilgrim you shared a dormitory with other pilgrims. Many Locanda still offer rooms-for-rent above their dining room and usually they are operated by a local family who have lived in the building along the ancient roadway for many generations. Prices vary according to quality, and your overnight stay might include dinner and breakfast.

TRATTORIA – What defines a Trattoria? A trattoria is family operated and a family member, by local law, is obliged to be present on every opening day. Often it is a husband and wife   – one in the kitchen and the other at the tables – usually with sons/daughters/cousins or even grandparents helping out at busy times. The food will be regional and wholesome, often grown in the family garden, but the menu rarely changes and the dishes are simple. In a trattoria you generally remove your knife and fork from your finished plate, leaving them on the table ready for your next course – do not expect to have a clean knife and fork after each course. Wine will be inexpensive and usually Vino del Tavola, or a local wine very often made by the family in their nearby vineyard. Wine will be served in a carafe or ceramic jug or a simply labelled bottle, and you will pour your wine yourself. Basically decorated with rush seated chairs, chequered table cloths and often paper serviettes or napkins, you will eat well, but without creativity. The family will offer traditional dishes from the region. Prices will generally be cheaper than at a Ristorante. Sometimes you pay at the table, or at a cash desk on the way out.

RISTORANTE – What about a Ristorante? Regulations are different for operating a Ristorante. Generally it is expected to be of a higher quality in decoration, ambience, service and creativity in the kitchen, which will usually be operated by an employed Chef or Cook. Although the owner may be there to take your money, he is able to employ service staff to cook, take your order and serve you. A Ristorante does not have to be run by the family, but can be operated by paid staff. The menu should be creative, influenced by the Chef who should offer seasonal changes to his menu. Prices depend on the quality and on the name of the Chef and his/her creativity, but will generally be more expensive than a Trattoria. Often the owner will double as the Sommelier and offer a wine list of wines from all over Italy and beyond. Your wine will be opened at the table, you will be offered the opportunity to view, smell and taste before the waiter pours the wine into your glass. Cutlery is definitely changed between courses and you should have quality tablecloths and cloth serviettes or napkins! The account will be brought to your table.

Essential No. 5.
Etiquette – are you an ugly shopper?

I’ve watched Italian shop owners, open mouthed, heads shaking, wondering where on earth you come from to display such dreadful manners in their shops. Can you imagine how many people from how many countries with how many languages are in their shops every day?

But it is a cultural difference between you and Italy that you can become aware of, and easily bridge. In your country, when you enter a shop, especially if you are used to larger shopping malls, you wander in and the last thing you do is meet the eye of the shop owner because to do so is more or less a buying signal, and you prefer to be left alone to browse through racks of merchandise.

In Italy, if you don’t want to be an ugly shopper, the first thing you do when you enter a shop is find the shop owner, smile and say Buongiorno. What you are really saying is – thanks for opening your shop for me today! If you just want to browse, open your arms wide and say “Posso?” which is like May I look around? If you find nothing you want, don’t just turn your back and walk out. Meet the eye of the shop owner and with a smile, say Grazie, Buongiorno.

It is true that some shop owners seem bad tempered and even worse, especially in the cities. But if you, as an Italian, had to deal with 20 or 30 languages a day and bad, loud or even dreadful or no  manners, if you were constantly ignored in your own shop, and if people just walked in, handled your merchandise and then tossed it on the bench, and walked out, you would probably get bad tempered too. It is a cultural thing, but if you decide not to be an ugly shopper in Italy by paying attention to your greeting and farewell, you will be pleased at the way you will be treated in return.

If you enter a shop and there is not much on display, but all is on shelves or in boxes behind the counter – you are in a typical Italian shop where the shop owner doesn’t want you pulling merchandise in and out, and where he/she tends to each customer personally. You tell them what you want and they bring things to the counter for you.

This is usually a hard way for tourists to shop, not least because if something is unpacked from a box and layed out for you, you tend to feel as if you ought to buy and don’t like to say no. If it is something you find difficult, then use the Buongiorno when you enter, but when you see if it not a comfortable situation for you, then do the Grazie, Buongiorno farewell, and find somewhere you feel comfortable.

Essential No. 6.
How to recognize false gelato?

Italian gelato can be the most delicious genuine treat twice a day, or it can be a floury, artificial taste and a watery substance that drops all over your arm in seconds.

It isn’t hard to recognize false gelato – which is cheaply made mass produced frothy stuff for often unknowing tourists. Here are the guidelines:

  1. If the gelato is piled sky high in great big swirls in a huge counter – walk away – the gelato is air whipped to give it height and is not made fresh each morning. Its quantity over quality, and as soon as it is out of the fridge it turns watery. If a great big serve is piled into a cone, its a big serve of false gelato.
  2. Look at the colour of the gelato. Banana gelato should not be bright yellow, Pistacchio gelato is never bright green, Mango gelato is not orange – and so forth. That brightly coloured gelato is full of artificial colouring and flavouring and goodness knows what else. Avoid it.

There are plenty of guide books to give you the names of Artisan Gelato shops all over Italy, so do your homework. You will find artisan gelato in modestly small trays, or even under lids with only the flavour marked on the lid. The gelato will be made fresh each morning and in the village I lived in for 23 years that meant that Piero got to the gelateria at 4.30 each morning to begin making his gelato for the day. A flat spatula or scoop will be used to serve your gelato, and it will be at a temperature cold enough for the gelato to resist the scoop or spatula. The gelato holds together and will hold together long enough in the cone for you to enjoy every lick – without it running down your arm.

Essential No. 7.
What are the 6 foods never to ask for in Italy?

Italian food is probably the most international of all cuisines, but some foods which we think are Italian are not, and some are only found in one place in Italy.

Never ask for:

Anything Alfredo, for any kind of food, it doesn’t exist in the real Italy.

Spaghetti and Meatballs do not exist on an Italian menu.

Pastrami is probably a Jewish invention – it is not Italian.

If you ask for latte, instead of caffe latte, you will get what you asked for, which is hot milk.

Peperoni is capsicum or bell pepper in Italy – if you want hot salami on a pizza, ask for Salame Piccante.

Forget Spag Bol unless you are in or close to Bologna. Outside of Bologna ask for Ragu which is pasta with meat sauce.