In many parts of the world, it’s easy to figure out which business storefronts are the local places to eat – the dining tables, menus on the wall, and yummy aromas usually make it a no-brainer. But in Italy, there are so many different names for places to eat – what do they all mean? Here’s a list of what the different kinds of restaurants in Italy are, what the words mean, and what you can expect in each one.
There will certainly be exceptions to the rules laid out below, so your best bet in any situation if you’re looking specifically for the cheapest place to eat is to check the menu before you take a table. Almost every eatery will have a menu posted outside so you can check not only what’s available but what it’ll cost you. If they don’t have one on display, don’t hesitate to ask to see one.
- Ristorante (ree-stoh-RAHN-teh) – This word should look familiar to you – it’s the Italian word for “restaurant.” A ristorante is where you can expect perhaps the most full-service eating experience in Italy, although there are different levels of ristorante as well. So just because the name of the establishment includes the word “ristorante,” don’t automatically assume it’s going to be the most expensive option. An Italian ristorante is, generally speaking, going to have the most high-end service of any of the kinds of eateries on this list.
- Bar (bahrrr) – You know the word, but your assumption about what it means may get you in trouble. The Italian bar (with a rolled “R” on the end) is like the corner cafe you may have down the street from you, where you’d go to get a quick cup of Italian coffee and pastry in the morning or grab a snack and quick drink between work and home in the evening. You may stop there for lunch, too, although the selection isn’t always extensive. Italian bars are often the cornerstone of their neighborhoods, the perfect meeting place. And by the way, breakfast is generally consumed standing up.
- Trattoria (trah-toh-REE-ah) – It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between a ristorante and a trattoria, because in many cases they’re almost identical. The differences are likely to come in the form of location (a trattoria is less apt to be on a main street or a high-trafficked area and more apt to be on a side-street), and formality. Although many food establishments in Italy are family-run, a trattoria is where you’re likely to find the family matriarch or patriach in the kitchen actually cooking what’s on the menu that night. A trattoria is also likely to be a smaller establishment than a ristorante, too.
- Osteria (aw-steh-REE-ah) – If you think of a trattoria as one step down from a ristorante, you can think of an osteria as one step down from a trattoria. And that’s not “down” in a judgement sense – it’s “down” in a formality/price sense. An osteria is most often going to be a neighborhood joint rather than a place people would travel to visit or a place tourists would stop. It will have elements of a bar, but will have more restaurant-style services than a typical bar.
- Taverna (tah-VEHR-nah) – Like the English word it resembles, a taverna is a small eatery that may focus more on the stuff behind the bar than a ristorante or a trattoria, and is more likely to be rustic in its interior. If the focus of the taverna you come across is more toward a place people stop to drink than eat, then you can think of the taverna as the evening equivalent of the bar where people go every day for breakfast. Menu offerings aren’t likely to be extensive in a taverna, but they’re likely to be inexpensive.
- Tavola Calda (TAH-voh-lah KAHL-dah) – Literally “hot table,” this is the closest thing there is to Italian fast food. In a tavola calda, you’ll find a counter full of pre-made dishes which you order by the piece or by weight and which are re-heated for you. They’re popular with business people who don’t have the luxury of a long lunch break, and are also an option for bringing home dinner when you don’t want to cook. If you eat your food at the tavola calda, chances are good you’ll be doing it standing up.
- Pizzeria (pee-tzeh-REE-ah) – This should be familiar to everyone as a pizza place, but what you may not know is that by adding the ending -eria onto lots of other food-related words, Italians indicate all kinds of different specialty eateries. In a pizzeria, you’re likely to find other things on the menu besides pizza, but generally speaking you go to any of the -eria places to eat what’s in the name. In a gelateria, for instance, there are bound to be other dessert items, but why bother with anything but the gelato? (Says the gelato addict…) Other -eria establishments I’ve seen include a bruschetteria (all bruschetta, all the time) and a spaghetteria (you can figure that one out).
- Rosticceria (roh-stee-cheh-REE-ah) – You could probably guess as to the meaning of this word; a rosticceria will usually have roast chicken or other meats available, but these places usually also have a pretty good selection of all kinds of other pre-made meals and are popular with Italians as the place to stop en route from work to home when you don’t want to cook dinner that night. For lunchtime, there are often smaller portions you can buy and, tavola calda style, have re-heated to eat on the premises for a quick but tasty meal.
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