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Meals in Italy

This question may come off as ridiculous but it is a topic that is weighing on my mind.

My husband and I are heading to Italy next week. We've done our best to learn some Italian as well as customs so we can be polite, respectful, and blend in as well as a tourist from the US can (leaving the white sneakers at home...wink).

My concern is about meals...my personal eating habits couldn't be more departed from the norm in Italy. I eat a large breakfast with a lot of eggs, I usually don't eat lunch but will have small bites or snacks throughout the day (if I do have lunch it is later, around 3:00pm), and finally my smallest meal of the day is dinner and I eat that by 6:30pm each night.

I know I'm out of luck on the large breakfast but I'll adapt. For lunch and dinner, are there places that serve smaller portions or am I expected to have at least two courses of food with every meal? Should I stick to enotecas, trattorias, or osterias? I know I'm going to have to adjust my eating times as lunch is earlier and dinner is later. To just add a touch of complication, I'm vegetarian (pescetarian, lacto-ovo).

I don't want to be rude nor do I want to make this trip about how I can morph an Italian experience into what I'm "used to" at home. What would be the point in that? I truly do want to try. I just want to know if there are options for people who just aren't used to eating large meals. Has anyone else with similar habits experienced this? Did you have problems adapting or was it as simple as "when in Rome"?

Sorry if this seems odd...for some reason this is the only thing that I'm concerned about.
Thanks!

Posted by
706 posts

I don't think you need to worry - do what you want.
Are you staying in a hotel or apartment? If an apartment you can go egg-crazy. If a hotel, then you are right: you may have to adapt to a small breakfast (ie - a pastry and coffee).

But as far as lunch and dinner go, you can have a measure of control over when and what you eat. For example, although it may be traditional to eat a multi-course meal, not every single person does it and not every restaurant requires it. I have been in quite a few restaurants where I felt carnivorous and only wanted the "meat dish" and there are times when I have wanted something light and just ordered risotto. There is also the appertivo that is usually a drink and some light snacks. You may have to check as some places may require you buy the entire meal (all courses) at a set price, but there are enough places that don't require that to make you happy. You may get strange looks (like when I order a latte macchiato after 12), but there is no need to feel restricted. There exists a nice balance between adapting and having your own preferences. And don't forget pizza.

Posted by
7900 posts

My eating habits are not really similar to yours, but I am rarely hungry enough to order 2 courses. Sometimes at lunch or dinner I will have a salad or pizza or pasta or soup. If i am really hungry I will add a salad to pasta or soup. In only one restaurant in Rome did the waiter get kind of sniffy that I just wanted soup. He kept trying to make me take the menu back again. I just asked for the check and won't go back there!

Vegetarian will be easy as long as you are not gluten-free. I am vegan and have managed quite well...altho at the end of my trip last fall I could not look at another plate of grilled eggplant and zucchini!

Posted by
8 posts

Thanks, Monique. It seems like such a petty thing to be concerned about but I don't want to spend my trip feeling uncomfortable from eating too much. Especially when so much walking in warm weather is involved.
Thank you for your reply and advice, though. It didn't occur to me to make sure a "one price for all" condition was present!
We will be staying at hotels and B&B's. We're traveling for 3 weeks and will be moving between locations. So we will learn to eat what is provided for breakfast! All good...

Posted by
706 posts

I forgot to mention: not sure where you will be, but don't forget open air markets and regular old super markets to create your own light meals on the go. Open air markets have plenty of fresh veggies or fruits or breads to snack on. Supermarkets sometimes have a prepared food section. The S&D grocery by SMN in Florence had the BEST eggplant parmesan. You determine the amount and it's priced by weight,

Posted by
8 posts

Good to know, Pam! Thanks for responding. I think it is just reassuring to know that for the most part I am not alone in my meal portions and that I'm not going to offend most restauranteurs/wait staff (except the "sniffy" ones...ha ha)! And thank you for mentioning that you are vegan and had no problems.

Posted by
8 posts

I had read that making a small "picnic" is nice to do. Good advice for that, Monique!

Posted by
2245 posts

" I usually don't eat lunch but will have small bites or snacks throughout the day"

To me, this is perfect. The dinner thing can work out, no problem. During the day, stopping a few times to plop down at a cafe for an espresso and a nibble, well that's just the reason I'm here! When in Rome is a good way to look at it.

Posted by
31140 posts

guppy,

You shouldn't have any major problems with meals, although you may have to make some "minor adjustments".

If you're staying in hotels, some of them offer scrambled eggs with breakfast or sometimes hard boiled eggs, so you'll be able to fill up on those. Many also have a "buffet" with a variety of cold meats, cheeses, buns, bread (sometimes a toaster is provided), juices, coffee and tea, so you can pick & choose what you want.

For lunches you should be able to find vegetarian offerings at local deli's or whatever, or even at places that offer "sit down" meals.

For dinners you don't have to feel obligated to order several courses with dinner (I never do). Although I'm not vegetarian, i tend to only eat poultry and fish, and quite often order vegetarian meals in Italy. You could (for example) order a Contorni item like grilled vegetables or Insalata (perhaps a Caesar or house salad), along with a Primi item like Pasta Alfredo.

I'm sure you won't have any trouble adapting to the dining habits in Italy.

Buon Appetito!

Posted by
16807 posts

Faster-food outlets such as pizza by the slice or gelato will be open through the day. Traditional Italian bars (which are for coffee as much as any other beverage) often have a selection of nice sandwiches and other bar snacks in a glass case. The specialties vary in different cities. The early-evening chichetti tradition is strong in Venice, as well as bars there have many triangle-shaped tramezzini sandwiches, with fillings such as egg salad, available all day and I have used them as breakfast. In other cities (such as Milan, Torino) some bars will have an early-evening apperitivo buffet - maybe a cocktail for 10 euros + snacks included.

Rick's budget tips advocate sharing an antipasto plate or a pasta and some of the restaurant listings in his books will sometimes mention phrases like "splittable salad," but those aren't the only options. See more tips at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/sleeping-eating.

Traditional hotel breakfasts in Italy were just coffee, roll, and jam, but many hotels have expanded breakfast offerings to stay competitive.

Posted by
8 posts

Thanks, Ken and Laura!

I had read briefly about chichetti in Venice. I need to do a little more reading about that. And thanks for the link, Laura. Not sure how I missed one! There is so much information here...

Wow...I have to say that I'm impressed at how responsive this forum community is. You guys are great!

Posted by
651 posts

Don't forget gelato for a quick bite of something in the afternoons! And panini also make a great little lunch on the go.

Posted by
6401 posts

It wasn't hard for me to adapt, even with the primi piatti and secondi piatti (first and second/main entree portions) for dinner or the small (cornetto) breakfasts. The primi piatti (typically pasta) portion was light and had so little sauce that it was no problem accommodating both and dessert (tiramisu etc.) and a carafe of wine, even after 9pm. None of the Italian meals I ate were that heavy at all and it's possible to sit around for hours eating without anyone disturbing you (I only ate fish, no meat). I started around 7-8pm and finished after 10pm. Each portion was manageable and there was time in between to digest.

I think the key to eating late is you want to make time to walk it off, for both health and digestion reasons ("la passiagiata" is very important in Italy). You don't need to change everything (or anything), although I think that's the beauty of travel - it allows you to experiment with totally new ways of doing things for a while. The easiest way to adapt is to try it out at home for a week before the trip. I used to eat breakfast religiously and now I don't each much at all - only because I got used to it and it stuck.

You many also find that you are more active on your trip than usual, and the meal changes/times are not as hard to tinker with as you thought. I never expected to eat as much as I did prior to the trip but, after walking 12 hours a day and being really active, it felt like the most natural thing in the world (and no weight gain, thankfully, but I owe that solely to the extra walking).

Posted by
11852 posts

Guppy, I wouldn't worry. We are a little different than you are in that we eat big breakfast and an early dinner but no lunch except for maybe a snack. Anything more is simply too much food for us. We didn't have any trouble finding places to eat early, and portions were not usually the giganto piles too often served in the U.S. Just eat what you can. As suggested, pizza and sandwich shops are great places to pick up a casual bite without a lot of fuss and bother.

We also rested toes over a cappuccino at some point in every afternoon with nary a funny look from waitstaff.

Posted by
11613 posts

If you want a full buffet or cooked-to-order breakfast, check booking.com or another booking site and look for photos of breakfasts - if they offer a good buffet, they'll have photos, and read the guests' reviews for more info.

Posted by
1692 posts

We don't frequent fancy restaurants but find many nice, sit down regular type places. We aren't big eaters and rarely have ordered more than a pasta dish or such for each of us and perhaps a salad, sometimes sharing the salad. We have never had a problem nor have we been treated poorly. I think you will see that many locals do likewise. Bon apetitio!

Posted by
4357 posts

From someone who can 'Hoover' a breakfast buffet with the best of them (sorry for that mental image), I understand your trepidation. I Brake For Breakfast LOL!

Do you know for a fact that your hotel will have a 'traditional' roll and espresso-type breakfast? As already noted, many hotels now offer some form of those huge 'German-style' buffets - anything you would possibly want to eat, and some things that you wouldn't ;-) (If the hotel websites aren't clear, check them on TripAdvisor for a more fleshed-out idea of breakfast - usually with photos!) After that, we usually snack for lunch or skip it altogether (something we aren't accustomed to doing at home!), and have an early-ish dinner.

You have a great attitude about the whole 'when in Rome' thing, so you'll figure it out once you're there.

BTW, make a note of how many locals are wearing those white sneakers ;-)

Have a fabulous trip!

Posted by
1834 posts

along with a Primi item like Pasta Alfredo.

Sorry, I know I could google it... but who is Alfredo? And what kind of pasta does he make?

@ the_guppy
You can eat what you want, the way you want and, if the restaurant is open, when you want.
Typical Roman waiters have a "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe" approach to tourists.

Posted by
8 posts

Thanks so much for all of your replies! Great tips. I'm so excited about this trip and feel much better about the meals. The food truly is one of the aspects of this trip that I am looking forward to experiencing and I didn't want to seem overly "fussy" (as I'm really not a terribly picky eater).

Eileen...you're crackin' me up!

Posted by
7737 posts

Dario, Alfredo is the cousin of Al Fresco. Both are American.

Guppy, don't ever worry about what someone else might "expect" you to eat. Eat what works for you. As pointed out, if you get an apartment with a fridge and a small kitchen, that will open up a lot of options for you. Also, there are these places called "Tavola calda" and also "rosticceria" that offer cooked take-home items, including lots of grilled vegetables.

Posted by
31140 posts

Dario,

Alfredo Di Lelio was a restaurateur who operated a number of restaurants in Rome. I'm sure he made a variety of different types of pasta. Most if the Italian restaurants that I frequent typically make pasta. However the important feature in this case is not so much the pasta but rather the Alfredo sauce, which I believe us made with Parmesan Cheese and Butter. Fettucine Alfredo is a common item in Italian restaurants in this area.

The point I was trying to illustrate is that there are vegetarian items available. Perhaps I should have used Pesto as an example (one of my favourite items in Liguria is Trofie al Pesto).

Posted by
167 posts

Was a in Verona for a few days, now in Lucca for a few days. Maybe it is different in towns with more tourists, but so far it has been totally no problem to order what I want and only what I want from any part of the menu. Sometimes I just go for the veggies, sometimes not.
In addition I have been amazed at the level of awareness for gluten free food, and the restaurants are very pleasant and helpful.
I say eat what you want when you want it, after all this is your time!

Posted by
466 posts

A lot of Italian workers have to have light and fast lunches in their working pause, so if you look carefully there are a lot of places - bars, bakeries - that offer something to eat at relatively low prices by tourist standards.

A couple of places to try in Florence are Cantina da Verrazzano for a sandwich and a glass of wine, and the upper floor of Mercato Centrale when you can buy single dishes from stands - say, a slice of pizza or a pasta dish - then sit down and a waiter will bring you beverages (paid separately).

Posted by
1834 posts

Alfredo Di Lelio was a restaurateur who operated a number of restaurants in Rome.

I've just googled it. This guy was an evil genius! What a story, he made money and became famous just making the good ol' "pasta al burro", the dish that italian mothers cook when kids are sick!

Posted by
4551 posts

Guppy,
As the others have mentioned, you shouldn't have any problems finding what you want to eat in Italy.

I've taken several trips with my mom, who generally eats small meals, so often times we end up sharing a meal which usually includes fish (mom's favorite) or another type of protein & vegetables or salad.

On our last trip, we were visiting Lake Garda & I asked the waiter for, "pesce di mare" & he corrected me by saying, "pesce di lago!"

Be aware that many restaurants, trattorias, pizzerias, etc... usually close at 2 or 2:30pm & they don't open for dinner till 7 pm.

Our main meal was a late lunch (around 2pm) and I always found a grocery store & purchased fresh fruits to snack on.

Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
3388 posts

As Kathy said, the portions are not as big as they are in the US. That, and the fact that a meal often takes a couple of hours, is why those multi-course meals are not as daunting as you might think.

And remember that no matter where you are, you are not required to clean your plate. No matter what your mother (or mine) said, you don't have to eat it all.

Once you master Italy, you can think about going to Spain for more meal and meal time challenges.

Buon appetito!

Posted by
8 posts

Thanks so much, all!

Asps...Thanks for the recommendations in Florence. We'll be there for about 3 days so I'll have to keep those in mind.

Lo...Thankfully mom was never a hardliner for the "clean plate club" and since I was not able to tolerate meat even when I was little, she never pushed it anyway (I was probably the only kid she knew of who ate any vegetable put on the table, though). Never felt obliged to finish everything if I wasn't hungry. Just hate to waste food. But since the portions sound MUCH more reasonable than what you get here, I'll probably eat better.

LOVE the idea of just going to a deli or supermarket and picking up some cheese or fruit. I think that will be a regular thing between lunch and dinner.

Posted by
5457 posts

Make sure your packing list includes zip-lock bags -- sandwich and quart size for toting snacks as needed in your daypack/purse. That way you can eat on your own schedule even if restaurants aren't open.

Posted by
75 posts

Some of this thread brings to mind a question I've been wondering. Often when I go to lunch in America, I take home half of my order to eat it later for dinner. Is this also a possibility, or common practice, in Italy?

Posted by
31140 posts

guppy,

One other point to mention......

Some people like to pack zip-lok bags or whatever so they can grab some items from the breakfast room to eat for lunch. Hotels DO NOT like that practice, and a stern finger wagging reprimand from hotel staff is highly likely if you try to do that.

Posted by
4901 posts

For breakfast, in the more commonly traveled areas, you may very well find restaurants advertising an English or American Breakfast. Seem to recall seeing this in Rome, Sorrento, and other towns. Basically, any place that has an expat or tourist economy of Brits, Canadians, or Americans, you will find a heartier breakfast served someplace.

Myself, might be something to seek out every few days for comfort, but part of travel is to try out another culture. I too eat relatively little, but have learned to appreciate and lanquish over a multicourse ( we usually get an antipasti or two, a dish of pasta to share, a fish dish, a contorni, and on a rare occasion dessert) meal not starting until 7 or 8 (we are early birds) and lasting a couple hours. Same for breakfast being a leisurely coffee and a pastry on a piazza.

Posted by
5457 posts

Further to Ken's observation, it depends on the hotel and the breakfast style -- if they deliver two rolls to your table and you can only eat one, it's different than grabbing four rolls and six pieces of fruit from the breakfast buffet. Some hotels post notices that you will be charged for taking food out of the breakfast room.

Posted by
2940 posts

We just returned from our 16th trip to Italy. What strikes me is that over the years, Italian restaurants have become much more relaxed about how many courses one "should" order and about sharing. This time, our request to split a course aroused not slightest negative reaction; whereas back in 1984, such a notion was unheard of. My husband often finds that some of the first courses (primi piatti) are enough for him for a main. No one ever objected. Every place we stayed, from family-run b&b's to large business hotels, offered elaborate breakfast buffets, including, at some, the offer to cook eggs to order. The kind of breakfast you describe of a roll and coffee is more tyoical of France. The idea of vegetarianism is also no longer strange to Italians.
The one problem you may find, that hasn't changed much, is set times for meals. You can almost always get coffee, rolls, and small sandwiches at bars and, perhaps cafes. Proper restaurants (trattorias, ristorantes, etc.), if open for lunch, will close around 2 and re-open for dinner no earlier than 7, more likely 7:30.

Posted by
11613 posts

Ken is right, don't take food out of the breakfast room. Doggie bags were unheard of in Italy until very recently. There is history for that: during the Roman Republic and Empire. Increasingly lavish feasts were offered; the poor could bring sacks from home to take food away to eat later. It was considered rude for anyone else to do it (note the phrase "bread and circuses".

Don't ask why public bathrooms in Rome are still called "Vespasiani".

Posted by
14131 posts

I've been to Italy several times and never had a problem ordering strictly vegetarian. I have seen on a lot of dinner menus that there is a service charge for sharing a main dish. I've also found that many restaurants simply are not open for dinner before 7 p.m. But every trattoria I've been in had a fine selection of dishes.

Posted by
498 posts

I have a piggyback-question for this thread, if you all don't mind...

How amenable are Italian restaurants to our "sharing" a dish? If we are lighter eaters, would it be seen as strange to order two 1st course dishes and then one Coteletta Milanese to split? In parts of the US, for a long time restaurants would make a fuss about this (adding split charges, bringing extra plates or replating) but it seems pretty common in the Northeast where I live now, and waiters don't even comment.

Posted by
14131 posts

jtraveler - the extra charge I noted is for 2 people ordering 1 dish. If ordering 2 dishes (even one primo and one secondo), I wouldn't expect any difficulties.

Zoe - okay, you piqued my curiosity, so I googled and came up with this site for bathroom facts It's hard to get anything done by computer, too many interesting distractions.

Posted by
68 posts

If you find that breakfast is not enough to fill you up you can always get something from the bakery, grocery store, or a mini mart to supplement. I get hungry late at night and always like to have something to nibble on, especially if it came from a bakery. Or you can hit up a cafe on your way to your first sight for a coffee and pastry (or be like me and at least 2 coffees before the first, then one inbetween every sight) If you eat it at the counter it's cheap, fast, and good.

Posted by
901 posts

Ksb -- In answer to your question about taking home the uneaten portion of a dinner (doggie bagging). I don't believe this is common in Italy. Have heard plenty of tales of exasperated Italian waiters who were asked to bring doggie bags by American tourists.