Hi... Okay, I've been torturing myself with bad restaurant experiences on TripAdvisor. I'm a little sensitive about this because my husband and I are Asian, and I'm still not sure how we will be treated. I'm learning basic Italian and about the regional cuisines. I hope to memorize enough vocabulary to decipher a menu without constantly consulting a book, and to ask things politely in Italian. Do you have any other tips? I'm kind of wondering when to clue in and just leave, too. I was reading about a Japanese couple at an adjacent table (to the reviewer) who was openly berated/ridiculed by the waiter because all they ate was one pasta dish each and bottled water. :( I've seen posts on this forum about how you don't have to order all the courses and you don't have to tip... but I don't really want to get yelled at either! We are going to Venice, Florence and Rome and really prefer to seek out non-touristy restaurants. I'd be interested in your thoughts. Yes, I'm probably looking for reassurance, or at least the best way to handle it if things go wrong. The latter would probably be useful to any traveler. Thank you in advance. :) Edit: Wow my paranoia got the best of me and I mentally confused a couple of reviews. I really apologize!
You won't be the only Asians there. Italy (especially Tuscany) is full of Chinese immigrants and Asian visitors as well (including North Americans of Asian origin). In Italy it is customary that restaurants don't rush you out like in America, where they bring your check immediately. In Italy you can stay at the table for 12 hours and nobody will bother you or bring you a check unless you ask. It is considered bad service to bring the check to the table before the customer has asked for it. Keep that in mind when you wait for the waiter to bring you a check and you have to wait for hours. He will not come with the check if you don't ask for it. There might be some exceptions to that rule for restaurants in major tourist areas used to American clientele, but if a waiter brings a check to an Italian before he asks not only will there be no tip (Italians leave no tip anyway) but there will be a major argument. Since in Italian restaurants people (especially Italians) can camp at the table for hours and nobody will bother them, restaurants may not appreciate it if you order just a dish and water. That usually happen only in very prime locations where you take a valuable seat which could produce a lot of revenue. But if it's not a very busy location where people are in line to get a table, it won't matter if you order little and stay at the table for 10 hours.
One of the gals with whom I do a bit of international volunteer work is Japanese as hell - - she's a quack and teaches advanced quackery at Kobe. We've been pals for at least thirty years. When we get done, we usually go in a little knot to an air hub and spend a couple days wretching and letting off steam. Since we've bumped butts in adjacent soggy sleeping bags so often, there's probably nothing she wouldn't tell me - - she's never said anything and a couple or three years ago we were all goofing off in Rome. We don't eat in touristy places. There's a couple of languages I don't speak. I'm not adverse to taking a discreet tour (okay, I've no couth and couldn't be discreet if I tried, but the idea's in there somewhere) and pointing. I used to be a skimpy tipper, but after reading a couple of Jo's posts I've switched to cutting loose with the money gun. Order what you want. Leave when you're done....or later. If things go wrong, you can either fight or walk away . . . after paying up. I've gotten too old to slug people. Actually, what could go wrong that glaring wouldn't fix? Another thought would be to quit reading TripAdvisor and go snoop around on your own.
That was so quick! Thank you Roberto and Ed. Actually I meant to clue in and leave because we are not welcome.... Roberto, do you think that there is much resentment toward Chinese immigrants? I read one review where a group was not offered a table at a restaurant in Rome. When they spoke up, probably in English, the waiter said "Sorry, I didn't know you were American." I almost wonder if I'm better off not trying to speak Italian. Thank you for explaining about the check and the difference when a restauraunt is busy. Ed, what did you mean by this: There's a couple of languages I don't speak. I'm not adverse to taking a discreet tour (okay, I've no couth and couldn't be discreet if I tried, but the idea's in there somewhere) and pointing. Did you mean we should maybe go on a tour? Thanks again. Yes, we always tip well in general... But it almost sounds like the waiters
expect it from American tourists, regardless of the way they are treated. Edit: I blocked out the tip about quitting TripAdvisor on my first read, LOL. It's probably the best advice, but regrettably I'm a bit OCD.
What it means is: 1. I speak a few languages, but apparently don't write very well in one of them. 2. If I don't happen to speak or read a particular language, I wander around the restaurant seeing what other people are eating that looks pretty good. If I have to, I point at their plate. Shoot, I do this even if I speak the language. Number 2 can backfire. I couple of years ago I was snooping at dishes in St Malo. (I speak French, but I still look around.) A woman thought I was trying to look down her shirt and really lit into me. Her husband saw what I was actually doing and we all had a chuckle. She gave me a taste of whatever it was, which I then ordered. The backfire was that I bought the after-dinner drinks for all of us just to prove I wasn't a pervert. You couldn't bribe me to take a tour anywhere, anytime, never.
Omg, you must be a riot to travel with, Ed! Thank you for clarifying. I'm always looking at other people's food in restaurants, and it embarrasses my husband. But I don't think I could "tour" as you do. It's a good idea though. :)
Not much resentment toward Asian immigrants in Italy. Only against Arab and North African Muslims (and that dislike goes back several centuries I guess). When I was young, handsome and living in Florence (many pounds ago) I dated a Chinese Canadian from Vancouver BC while she was visiting there. She religiously wore her Maple Leaf flag on herself (either on the T-shirt or backpack or both). Do the same, but to disguise the fact you are an American, say "eh" every other word and order Molson beer whenever you have a chance (nearly impossible to find in Italy anyway). Everybody loves the Canadians, so you'll do fine.
Additional restaurant tips: 1-Restaurants in Italy will not serve butter with your bread. If you need butter ask for it, but specify that you just need a little bit. Once in Rome I saw to American girls asking the waiter for butter with their bread. The Italian waiter had no idea why those girls would want butter, but he understood and came back with a big bowl with at least 5 pounds of butter in it. 2-You don't ask to put Parmesan cheese on a seafood pasta dish. Parmesan cheese and seafood are a no no. If you put parmesan cheese with seafood dishes you will be immediately classified as "unrefined-worse-than-a-German". 3-You don't add Parmesan cheese or vinegar to pizza (see no. 2 for consequences for doing so). Olive oil added to pizza is ok. 4-Waiters don't come to your table until called. That is true for the check, but also for ordering your meal. If you don't call them you'll be sitting there forever before you can order your meal. 5-Leaving tips is "unitalian", however many Americans leave some. Just wear your Canadian flag (see previous post) and you can get away with anything. 6-Never ask for restaurant advice from a taxi driver, they'll take you to the farthest. The best advice for good cheap restaurants used to be from Italian construction workers, but nowadays they are all Romanian. Young students give the best advice on cheap places in city centers. Italians with families prefer out of town restaurants.
Huh! Roberto jogged my memory. The two engineers that work with us - - they were in Rome too. The guy is from China, the gal is from Egypt, which makes her Moslem and North African. The woman who organizes the logists end is from South Africa and about as black as you can get. She was in Rome as well. There was nothing that came up. The Brit, the Argentine, and I are all regular, prejudiced, white guys so I guess I don't have much more to add.
Finding an untouristy restaurant in Venice will be a challange. So no use pretending. Even at RS favorite restaurant, "Here's the English menu and the tip is not included in the bill."
Roberto... You are so funny. I'm actually touched by your sharing that story from your handsome, slender youth. I am familiar with #2 from Chef Mario Batali's cooking show. But the other points are little gems. I especially did not know that the waiter might not even come to take your order until you signal. There was an interesting thread on another site where BOTH Italians and Americans commented it really is annoying in American restaurants when the server is constantly checking in to see how you're doing, usually when you have a mouth full of food! I agree the Italian way of dining makes a lot of sense. Posing as a Canadian would be okay, except what if someone wants to talk about my favorite hockey team? Or Canadian politics? Or Celine Dion? (I'm kidding... no offense meant.) Thanks again. :) Ed, I think that it was probably easier for the minorities in your group that you were such a mixed lot. I'm thinking an Italian husband would really be handy for this trip! ;-) Good point, Sam. Thanks. :)
We find it best to get away from the center a bit to find less-touristy restaurants. In Venice, we like NoNo Risorto for a casual pizza, Trattoria di Remigio for seafood, and La Zucca. In Rome we lilke Antica Taverna (more Italians than tourists despite location), Osteria della Forchetta (in Prati), Osteria QuarantaQuattro off via XX Settembre, La Campana near the river, not too far from the Ara Pacis. BrancaLeone near the American Embassy and offers decent pizza and pasta. Taverna Rossini in Parioli is also dependable, affordable, and our go-to when we don't want to go into anoher part of town. A few words of Italian will go far so keep up your efforts! Order what you want. We split a pasta all the time. In fact we usually order two antipasti, one pasta, two secondi (or vice versa), a veg, and a shared dessert. Or one pizza each: They really don't like to see you share a pizza. Relax and enjoy!
Laurel... I really appreciate your restaurant suggestions and encouragement about the Italian. I'm feeling less anxious, but yes, must.re.mem.ber.to.re.lax.and.en.joy. Thanks so much. :)
I recommend you do not ever order a cappuccino after a meal, you may be immediately expelled from the country............joke
LaVee, thank you! That's a very interesting blog, something I'll end up reading for hours, no doubt. I thought her post about the election was fascinating, too. I even clicked on some of her blog roll links, and I am SO hungry now... Thank you for sharing that. You'll fit right in in Venice, half the island is Chinese these days. Rik, thank you for the reassurance, but somehow that makes me almost sad. But I'm glad you told me because it probably would have shocked me! I remember reading about La Zucca and it sounding good. Thanks for sharing your experience and recs. Claudio... ah yes, the polizia di cappuccino... so the rumours are true. ;-)
Question: Somewhere I read you are not supposed to order two types of dishes together, and I can't for the life of me remember what they are, mainly because it didn't sound like a good idea flavor-wise anyway. Anyone know? Edit: one may have been a red meat sauce?
Elaine, you may want to check out Katie Parla, an American living in Rome who writes extensively about food, especially the Roman restaurant scene. She even has a downloadable app to help you find good restaurants. http://www.parlafood.com/rome-for-foodies/
As Roberto said, the only restaurants that will give you a hard time for not ordering enough will be those that cater to tourists in the really touristy areas. If possible, avoid those like the plague. As a general rule, avoid any place that advertises a "tourist menu" or "set menu". We eat out a lot and we order what we want. My wife is not a big eater so sometimes she just orders an antipasto and shares my primo or secondo. We've never had a problem. You'll fit right in in Venice, half the island is Chinese these days. If you buy a bag at a leather or bag store there, there's about a 99% chance you're buying it from a Chinese person. A lot of the bars and caffes are run by Chinese now too. And of course Chinese and Japanese tourists are all over Venice but they travel in groups of about 200 so if it's just one or two of you, they'll probably guess that you're American. Someone mentioned La Zucca earlier, that's a great place. Another good one is Alla Madonna, near the Rialto.
Roberto: Is your last name BENIGNI? You are a HOOT!
Maybe fish and cheese? I think Rik must be exaggerating when he says half the population of Venice is Chinese these days. . . Elaine, I know your concern was aroused by some posts you saw on Tripadvisor. Do you remember which restaurants? I undertand your concern as I am part Asian myself (look full). My husband is white so maybe our experiences are not relevant, but we have never felt we were treated differently in Italy (better or worse) on account of my being Asian. Maybe that is because we are recognizable American, I don't know. On the other hand, on some occasions I felt we were treated better because of my looks-this is after all Italy, and what Italian male does not appreciate a pretty woman? When going to dinner, we always dress nicely, and greet the host or hostess with a "Buona sera". When going to nice places (like La Zucca) I think it helps to make reservations. We do that either on the phone, or we stop by the day before and make them in person. For dinner, we usually order an appetizer each, and then either a prima (pasta course) or secondo (fish or meat), never both for one person. Never have encountered resistance or weird looks. You are carefully paying attention to detail so I'm sure you'll be fine!
While there is no requirement to order several courses, my experience and observations are that different courses ordered at the same time (like if one person orders anti-pasta and another orders a main plate) will come at seperate times. That can make for good sharing but awkward meals while one waits for the other to finish before getting their own. Getting the server's attention when you need something, like il conto (check), is perhaps the biggest cultural difference for Americans to get used to. And even when you ask for the check, it can take 20 minutes to get it. The Italian philosophy seems to be, if you sit down, you are in no hurry to leave... Just like in France, don't expect prime outdoor seating in prime meal times just to order a salad and water. If that's what you want, let the host know so they can seat you somewhere appropriate.
Sasha... Thank you for your thoughtful post. I really appreciate it. Not the fish and cheese, because Roberto already mentioned. It was more like a heavy meat sauce dish and some other kind of dish.... I went back and found the review and I must have messed up and confused it with another review... The couple was not ridiculed/berated, so I apologize on that. It just said the waiter was pushy and arrogant. (Edit: the two restaurant reviews I blurred are Alla Madonna and A Beccafico; the latter reviews mention a Chinese couple, but it seems like a lot of people had a difficult time in general with the waiters.) this is after all Italy, and what Italian male does not appreciate a pretty woman? Lol, absolutely... But I'm a little "beyond" being a pretty woman. I probably just write younger than I look. ;-) Douglas... Thanks for sharing your observations. It's helpful to know there might still be a wait even after asking for the check.
Sasha: I wasn't the one who said that half of Venice's population is Chinese. That distinction goes to Prato and surrounding communities, in Tuscany, not too far from Florence. When you go to Florence and buy leather goods or apparel at the San Lorenzo market or in any store downtown who do you think makes that stuff? Those products say "Made in Italy", they don't say "Made by Italians".
We were openly berated in Venice once, and it's actually kind of a funny memory. We were in a little back alley non-touristy restaurant in late September. We had shared an appetizer, and then each ordered pasta and wine. My husband ordered gnocchi with gorgonzola, and it was so good that when he finished it, he asked the waiter if he could please have another bowl. This old, old lady came to our table and scolded us for several minutes, in Italian, shaking her finger at us. We had no idea what she was saying so we just looked at her, and at other people in the restaurant, hoping someone would help us. She stomped away, and we didn't know if we should stay or go. So we waited, and soon another bowl of gnocchi arrived. To this day we have no idea what we did wrong! The restaurant had empty tables, and there were no people waiting. Roberto -- any clues??
Your husband made the poor lady prepare the the gnocchi from scratch twice when he could have ordered more from the start and she would have saved time instead of redoing it all over again. Do you think italian restaurants are like the Olive Garden where pasta is pre-cooked ahead of time and they just put it in the boiling water just a few seconds before serving it? or worse, they microwave it? Real family run restaurants make everything from scratch. Once I was at I'cche c'e' c'e'" with my wife and inlaws in Florence. We wanted to order an 'assaggio di primi" (a sample of several pasta dishes). My American relatives went overboard with the number of dishes they wanted in the sample. Gino (the owner) came out of the kitchen and scolded them at the table saying: "look! I'm alone in the kitchen and I make everything from scratch. You are not at McDonald's here. I'll make you three sample dishes and that's it." And walked back to the kitchen. It was the best "assaggio di primi' we ever had.
Roberto... That's brilliant. You should be an iPhone app or something that can solve everyone's Italian travel mysteries! :) Edit: THANK YOU, Everyone!!! I also read the messages below from Sasha, Swan, Rik, Lexma and George. (Didn't want to bump this thread up, so just editing here.) You've all been wonderful for sharing your experiences. :)
I ate a light meal in Varenna, then got up to go check on the gelato flavors. I was sure that the language barrier would make it very difficult for me to order a flavor of gelato from my waiter. I asked the waiter for my gelato, then returned to my table. A surly waiter brought another flavor of gelato to me. I handed it back and said I had asked for ciaccolato (sp). Then another man, possibly the manager/owner, came to my table and chewed me out. The gist seemed to be that "things aren't done that way!" I was either wrong for getting up to order the gelato or for returning what was brought. I won't be wrong in that restaurant again-ciao. It was shocking to be chewed out in a restaurant. From these postings, I guess that's the way it's done when a tourist/customer displeases the establishment. Oh, yes, I was thouroughly yelled at by a rail station employee once (Italy) after I asked about the next train leaving for a specific destination.
Roberto, my apologies. I just saw Elaine's quote and didn't read all the way back. I'll go correct it right now! As for leather in Florence, I've never bought any. And Elaine, there is no age limit on beauty. I am sure you can still turn heads if you want to!
Of course I'm exaggerating but not as much as you might think. Every time I've gone to Venice in the past 10 years or so I've noticed more businesses being taken over by the Chinese. I mentioned it in one of my Venice blogs back in 2005 and believe it or not, Time magazine actually did an article about the phenomenon a few years later. Anyway, it wasn't a criticism, just an observation.
Our experiences might be a bit different than yours; my husband is Indian (born in the U.S., but parents emigrated). He doesn't look very Indian; usually people guess southern Italian, Spanish or Turkish. But we've never had a problem with service or how we've been treated. Speaking English might not be a bad idea, but I'd guess they'll figure out quickly that you're American, English, Canadian or Australian by your clothing, your demeanor, the language of your guide books, etc. Learning "restaurant Italian" isn't necessary, but especially if you're interested in Italian food, it will make the trip more enjoyable. Lots of people don't order every course. If one of you wants an antipasto and a primo, and the other wants a primo and a secondo, then explain to the waiter which dishes you would like served together. Otherwise (i) one person gets the antipasto and the other person sits there; then (ii) you each get your primo; then (iii) one person gets the secondo and the person sits there. An observant waiter will ask you about this. We often share dishes, though more often for lunch, and always an antipasto or a primo; never a secondo. I say in Italian "uno per duo." Probably more elegant ways to do it, but it's always worked for us. Express appreciation of and interest in the dishes. We had a great lunch on our last visit to Florence - we had fantastic gnocchi and asked what ingredients they used. We got a detailed explanation of the trial and error they went through to find the exact variety of potatoes they use. Enjoy!
"Of course I'm exaggerating but not as much as you might think. Every time I've gone to Venice in the past 10 years or so I've noticed more businesses being taken over by the Chinese. I mentioned it in one of my Venice blogs back in 2005 and believe it or not, Time magazine actually did an article about the phenomenon a few years later."
Check your receipts after you pay your bills. When we were in Italy in 2009 one of the more disappointing and sad things for me was how many of the hotels, restaurants and shops we frequented appeared to be owned by oil money. I guess it's a sign of the times.
My personal observation is that restaurant prices in Italy are remarkably constant - a bad restaurant costs about the same as a good restaurant (I'm talking regular places not fine dining). The key to finding a good restaurant? Ask. We had pretty terrible food, at the going rate, whenever we were famished and stopped somewhere near the tourist areas. When we asked locals for recommendations, however, we had great meals and service (at the same price). My impression is Chinese have a bad rep as tourists. The stereotype is they are demanding, argue about minor details (which the Italians hate), and don't tip. Many Americans think we have a bad rep but it's not as bad as other nationalities. Your story about speaking "American" rings true. Once they hear your accent, they will see you as Americans (for better or worse) regardless of your race.
I am Japanese Canadian and travel to Italy almost every year. There are cultural differences in the way things are done especially in Tuscany. I recommend that you always make a reservation even if it's just 30 minutes ahead of time. Get your hotel to call or try calling yourself. In Florence chances are excellent that you can book in English with the person on the phone. Be polite - treat the restaurant like it's your friend's home you are visiting and remember a smile goes a long way. Try to find a restaurant with handwritten daily specials that change every day. I find these usually have good food and that the daily specials are very good in general. My Florentine friend explained very carefully to me that proprietors in Tuscany have a very different attitude to customers than in America (his wife is American but they live in Florence). The customer is NOT always right in Tuscany - don't try to pull that on the proprietor - he might throw you out. Always be very polite when asking for something - my friend said that he himself would be very polite even if he had ordered soup and he needed to ask for a spoon to eat it.
Respect the eating hours. Dinner is later in Italy. 7:30 is early and the staff may still be eating dinner at 7:30 before they have to serve. Don't try to eat earlier at a good restaurant. I've never felt any animosity because I'm Asian (I have in other countries, but not in Italy). And, there are now a lot of Chinese immigrants in Italy. I watched a fascinating documentary on Italian TV last year about the Miss China in Italy contest. The contestants interviewed all spoke Italian. I think there are now second generation Chinese Italians - I went to a Chinese restaurant where the owner spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Italian, but his kids really only spoke Italian.
LOL Roberto - reminds me when we were in Cinque Terre and there was a couple there and she had on a Roots Canada sweatshirt. These 2 guys were like...'Oh, Canadians, where are you from?' (they were Canucks)...the girl looked pretty abashed when she said...'New York'... ...and us being mistaken for Irish (well, here in Nova Scotia, we do have a little teeny 'brogue') by a so-called linguist in Italy, and my husband being mistaken for Scottish by someone from...Toronto...lol. (My sister lives in UK now for 5 years, people all the time think she is Irish or Scottish). We've never ordered all the courses - I don't have a huge appetite, so even a pizza sometimes is hard for me to finish, let alone app, 1st and 2nd course and dessert. A few times we may have left a few euro, but tip is included, but we are just ingrained here in NA to leave tips. And of course, here we are so used to being rushed right out of a restaurant...Italy - it's hard to leave when you want! You have to be good about catching their eye...as mentioned - we were in CT last year and we sat at a rest. for at least 3 hrs chatting with a New Zealander...not once did we get the 'are you leaving yet' look...
I prefer restaurants or cafes where I can order just pizza or pasta and salad. Getting the bill can be a challenge if you don't do it "just right." After finishing my pizza at one place in Venice, I signaled to the waiter and tried to indicate I was ready to pay. He seemed clueless about what I could possibly want. Another time, in Sorrento, I indicated to the busboy (no waiter in sight) that I was ready to pay my bill. He repeated my request in English, so I'm sure he understood. Then nothing happened. There was no longer a waiter or busboy anywhere visible. I finally just left money on the table and left.
Swan - your post reminds me of some of my favorite people-watching at Italian restaurants. Watching some customers, usually American, sit down to lunch with only 15-20 minutes to eat before dashing off to a tour or museum. Most practically blow a gasket as time drags on just to get a waiter, not to mention how long it takes to get a check...
The bad thing about the waiters not wanting to come check on you...our 1st trip in 2008, we are in Rome eating near the Vatican...well, my husband ate, they never brought me my meal...so after about 45min (I guess I must have been patient)...we finally got up and went in to the cash, I told them we wanted to pay...and that I never got my meal...well, the waiter was flabbergasted! By this time I was pretty peeved, so we just paid and left. This was our 2nd day of our first big trip anywhere, so now I know more about eating in Italy, I would never let it happen again - I'd give it about 5-10 min then go after someone (in a polite, Canadian kinda way)...needless to say that evening we stumbled across an Irish pub near the Trevi Ftn...OMG, soooo good...
I had not realized this thread had gone to a second page! Thanks everyone for sharing your travel experiences. I loved reading your stories and insights. I guess it's about learning the customs, being a gracious guest, expecting that anything can happen, and hoping to be pleasantly surprised. :)
My best restaurant experience in Italy: in Siena on a RS tour, one member of the group had a recommendation for a restaurant; about 8 of us walked half a mile to a small restaurant and were seated outside. We ate splendidly; the only food I remember was incredible, fresh gnocchi. After our meal the owner came out and treated us to an after-dinner drink in a most friendly manner. Each of us paid a portion (probably an eighth) of the bill. We walked away fully happy and satisfied. I think the lesson here is: go to dinner with someone who knows what he/she is doing and has a connection.
In October, we spent four days in Verona. There was a pizzaria right across the street and we ate nearly every meal there. It was family-run and after the second day, they treated us like family. It's one of my favorite memories of Europe.