Most travelers will agree: the best part of a trip to Italy is the food. That is unless you wind up in a culinary tourist trap.
Restaurants serving sloppily prepared, dumbed-down dishes. Artisanal food shops selling ludicrously overpriced Italian recipe “kits.” With so much competition, restaurants and food producers in Italy’s gorgeous-yet-hyper touristic locations must fight to survive, catering to foreign tastes and sacrificing quality while banking on the assumption that tourists won’t know the difference.
It’s one thing when you are sold inauthentic, bad-quality Italian food outside of Italy. But when you get it there, it’s a crime. The worst part: visitors leave either thinking they’ve had an “authentic” Italian food experience or that “real” Italian food isn’t all that great. If you’d prefer to eat like an Italian when in Italy, here are some tips on how to spot culinary tourist traps.
Signs That a Restaurant Is Definitely a Tourist Trap
The menu is written in multiple languages and paired with country flags.
There might as well be a neon sign flashing: “EAT HERE, TOURISTS!” The translations will also usually be less than helpful, pasted straight from Google translate. It’s hard to find a decent English translation in Italy, and nowhere is this more frustrating than on menus. But we’ve got you covered.
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The restaurant is open for dinner at 5:00 p.m.
Italians eat dinner from 8 p.m. onwards and wouldn’t dream of dining earlier. If the restaurant serves dinner before 8 p.m. (or lunch before 1 p.m.) it’s catering to tourist routines.
The restaurant offers dishes that aren’t typical to the region.
This will be hard to catch if you’re not versed in regional Italian cuisine, but it’s a dead giveaway if a restaurant assumes tourists think all Italian food is the same. Italian food varies vastly (and deliciously) between regions. It’s impossible to list the thousands of Italian regional food products, but here’s a quick cheat sheet: pesto is native to Genoa whereas pasta all’amatriciana, cacio e pepe, and alla carbonara are from Rome.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza, spaghetti alla puttanesca, and sfogliatelle, while Florence is famous for Fiorentina steak. When in Bologna, try tagliatelle al ragù – Bologna’s classic pasta dish (NOT “spaghetti with bolognese sauce”, as it’s erroneously known outside of Italy). Enjoy risotto alla Milanese and ossobuco in Milan. Finally, don’t miss Venice’s famous Cicchetti (Venetian-style tapas).
There’s someone on the street waving you inside.
Step right up, tourists! Overpriced, overcooked spaghetti and meatballs, right this way! If you’re passing a restaurant that seems too eager to wave you inside, chances are they are geared towards tourists and their palates.
Signs That Restaurant Might Be a Tourist Trap
The site rating is in the window.
Travel site-tested, tourist approved. Of course, you can find excellent, bonafide Italian restaurants on travel sites. But think of it this way: have you ever used a travel site to find a restaurant in your hometown?
Proximity to famous landmarks.
The closer a restaurant is to a famous landmark, the more likely it is that the restaurant will be aimed at tourists. Even if it’s not, the prices will almost certainly reflect its touristic location.
Are there Italians inside?
You’ve heard it before: go where diners are speaking the local language. It’s a good rule of thumb, but Italians can be tourists, too. You’ll recognize the restaurants catering to Italian tourists by their telltale blackboards out front, emblazoned with identical menus to the other restaurants down the street. These are hawking the region’s “star” foods, which Italians will be looking for. They will indeed be traditional Italian dishes, but you’ll certainly find better quality (and prices) elsewhere.
Don’t buy those scammy food kits.
Follow your nose down a thousand-year-old cobblestone street into a gorgeous cheese boutique, butcher shop, or bakery. Gawk at hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano, ruby red legs of prosciutto, crusty peasant breads. It’s too much beauty; you can’t take it; you look away. Your eyes rest on the heaping wicker baskets by the door. There they are: the Italian food souvenir traps.
Aglio, olio e peperoncino or bruschetta “seasoning” kits. Risotto in a bag scattered with powdered “flavoring” and paired with a mini wooden spoon. Tri-colored pasta. What nice souvenirs to bring your coworkers. How lovely to be able to recreate a truly Italian meal at home.
Facepalm. Ugly cry. These kits “recreate” super simple recipes featuring ingredients that cost, at most, pennies, that no Italian would ever dream of making from a kit, sold to you for around 5 euro. Sauté a clove of garlic and dried red pepper in olive oil; that’s pasta aglio, olio e peperoncino. Dice a tomato, put it on bread. Drizzle olive oil on top. Bake it. That’s bruschetta.
Italians don’t eat risotto—or any savory dish—with a wooden spoon. Italians also don’t eat pasta shaped like male members. If the product’s name is written in English, it wasn’t made for Italians. Please save your money for truly Italian culinary souvenirs.
What culinary souvenirs should you buy instead?
Artisanal pasta, cheeses, olive oil, chocolate, pastries, coffee. Boutique food shops are wonderful but consider getting your Italian treats at a local supermarket. You’ll find excellent quality products—the things Italians buy to cook with—for less than you’d pay in specialty shops.
When In Doubt, Use This Culinary Insurance
Do your restaurant research beforehand.
Don’t just stroll blindly, assuming that all Italian restaurants are amazing. A quick search of the “best places to eat in [insert city]” will pull up some local favorites as a jumping-off point.
Make reservations beforehand.
This is particularly important in heavily touristic regions like Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast. Book at least a few days in advance; there’s nothing worse than circling an unknown city in search of a table when you’re hungry.
Easy on the tipping.
Sometimes waiters will cheekily hint that you should tip, asking you outright or pointing to an extra blank on the bill. Italy doesn’t have an obligatory tip culture the way the United States does. Italians might kick in a euro if they have spare change or if the waiter was particularly good. If you’re feeling pressured to tip, you’ve stumbled into a game of “Fleece the Tourist.” Resist. Save those extra coins for a post-dinner gelato.