2022 Summer Culture Shock Food Italy Mary Wetherbee Temple Rome

Everything you need to know about eating in Rome

There’s a famous saying that you may have heard that goes “When in Rome. do as the Romans do.” As much as I follow that advice for things such as deciding where to eat, what to order, and how to ask for something, there are just some things I can’t get used to. I grew up eating hearty breakfasts, early lunches, and dinners between 6 and 7pm. One of the most difficult things about Rome is eating food when I want to eat, that fits the schedule I’m used to. It may sound surprising, but even though Italy is revered for its cuisine, it is difficult to eat when you want, or rather, on a schedule similar to that of the U.S. Between the Osterias, Trattorias, Rosticcerias, Pizzerias, Bars and other eateries, many have specific hours and many times I’ve shown up hungry to a place that didn’t open until later.

Colazione (breakfast)
Colazione (breakfast) at the Cannoleria Siciliana

Colazione (Breakfast)

In Italy, many Italians eat their breakfast (fare colazione) before 11am in a local cafe or “bar” as they call it. Breakfast usually consists of a pastry such as a croissant (“cornetto” in Italian) and an espresso.  Many Italians don’t drink the kind of coffee we drink in the U.S. known as caffe lungo.  Instead they have caffe americano, which is a shot of espresso with hot water. Between 8 and 10am bars are pretty busy, and it can be confusing if you’ve never been. In instances like this, I try to follow what the Romans are doing. You always start by telling your order (drink and or pastry) to the person behind the counter. Ordering “caffe” means you’ll be getting a shot of espresso; if you order a “latte” you’ll be getting a cup of warm milk. “Caffe latte” is milk with a shot of espresso, and “caffe americano” and “cappuccino” are the same as the U.S. version. Sometimes they have you pay at the register or “cassa” before you consume, but other times you can pay after you eat or drink. In some bars, they will give you a receipt and you pay later. One thing to note is there is no tip (this goes for restaurants as well). Sometimes there is a surcharge if you sit down, rather than just stand at the counter. In some bars, they’ll offer to bring your order to your table as well, but not always. When you leave, you can leave the dishes as is.

If I don’t eat enough at breakfast I am usually starving by the time lunch rolls around because Italians eat lunch later here: at the earliest, 12:30 pm but often more like 1pm or even 2pm. When I don’t want the authentic Italian experience, I will buy food in advance from the grocery store, or even have leftovers from the day before, so I can eat a heartier breakfast, and sustain myself for all the walking I’ll likely be doing throughout the day. If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast in Rome, there are several options other than bars.  A favorite of many U.S. students is the restaurant Homebaked, located near the Vatican, and I also like the hearty breakfasts served at Irish pubs such as the Flann O’Brien.

Pranzo ( Lunch) at a tavola calda restaurant
Pranzo at Tavola Calda

Pranzo (Lunch)

Lunch in Italy can be found in pretty much any place that serves food between the hours of 12:30pm and 2:30pm, yet outside of those hours, food options are pretty sparse except for the grocery store, il supermercato, Pizzeria al taglio, and some bars that sell tramezzini and panini (sandwiches).  If you’re looking for something light, then a Pizzeria al taglio place would be perfect: you can choose from a variety of different types of square pizza and they’ll cut it and heat it up for you to eat there (mangiare qua) or take away (portare via). Other options for lunch are Rosticcerias, which are a type of Italian cafeteria where you can choose from a variety of pre-made hot food. Finally, there are restaurants: originally the trattoria (or osteria, the two are very similar) was a more informal version of the restaurant or ristorante.  A trattoria romana is a typical roman restaurant that serves antipasti (appetizers), a primo (first course usually consisting of pasta), and a secondo (second course usually consisting of meat or fish). There are also contorni (sides) and dolci (desserts). A Restaurant, or ristorante, is often high end dining with a similar order, but slightly more expensive or more niche food. In Italy I’ve rarely had problems with showing up to a restaurant/osteria/trattoria without a reservation.  Many places don’t even do reservations, and even if they have them, they will try to make room for you, or if they’re busy they’ll add your name to a waiting list. Typical Italian restaurants have a very warm, relaxed atmosphere, so if you are in a rush, you will have to seek out the server to ask for the check, or il conto.

Traditional Aperitivo: Aperol Spritz

Aperitivo (Aperitif) 

After lunch starting after 6pm, there is the famous Italian aperitivo. Aperitivo is served at the same time of day as happy hour but with limited food options. It is often a bit expensive, but many places have a discount for a snack (spuntino) or even antipasto plus a drink. I have seen aperitivo go on later, even until 9 or 10pm.

Carbonara at Osteria Ragno D’Oro in Prati

Cena (Dinner) 

Typically, dinner in Italy starts at 8pm, but if you’re lucky some restaurants may open around 7 or 7:30pm.  Dinner at a restaurant in Italy is generally the same process as that of lunch, however it often lasts several hours and they’ll finish with a digestivo. A digestivo is a small liquor that is meant to help with digestion after a meal. Tipping in Italy is different than in the U.S.: it’s not required or even expected. Other than adjusting to mealtimes, looking for gluten free, vegan, or vegetarian options can add a whole extra level of difficulty. 

Tips from gluten free, vegan and vegetarian students:

In a country where some of the most popular dishes include pasta, pizza, parmesan, and prosciutto it can be hard to find gluten free, vegan and vegetarian options.

For Mason Famiglio, (Tyler ‘22), the hardest part of being gluten free in Italy is having to prep. “It’s not easy to just grab something on the go. I usually pack several things in my bag because I’m not sure when the next gluten free food will be available/out; also sometimes it’s more expensive.” Luckily food like gluten free pasta is sold in most supermarkets. Mason even discovered that the McDonald’s in Italy has a GF burger option, which doesn’t exist in the U.S.! Foods like caprese and salad (insalata) are available in pretty much every shop, but if you’re looking for places that are specifically gluten free, then Mason suggests Mama Eat Lab – where the entire menu is gluten free, and has some of the more classic italian dishes.  There is also A Gogo for pastries and pizza. For a higher-end restaurant, try Soffita renvatio for pasta, pizza and grilled fish.

For vegan or vegetarian options, Anja Montarti (CLA, ‘24) suggests learning phrases such as “sono vegetariano/a” (I’m vegetarian), “sono vegano/a” (I’m vegan), and “senza formaggio/carne/pesce” (without cheese/meat/fish).  But she suggests “pizza marinara and pasta al pomodoro/arrabbiata are always safe.” Buddy Roma is a great option for pasta, since they have vegan versions of some of the classic roman dishes such as carbonara, amatriciana, and cacio e pepe. They even have a student discount as well!

Even though the food culture in Italy can be an adjustment: from the different mealtimes, ordering food in Italian, and finding the food that fits your diet, it is worth it.  Italian food is very fresh, and each ingredient is treated with care. Food is one of Italy’s biggest treasures, each chef bringing their own subtle twist to a classic dish, each region boasting its unique flavors and plates.  Despite some of the difficulties in getting used to eating in Italy, it’s well worth it.

Other students are learning about the cuisine of their host countries. See what Ji Pan is learning about food in Prague.

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