There’s little doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Just a glance at the yellow pages of any big city (or not so big city, for that matter) telephone directory will testify to the popularity of Italian restaurants.
But a closer look will reveal that not all Italian restaurants are created equal. One establishment may bill itself as a “ristorante” while its neighbor down the block is a “trattoria.” You’re just looking for good Italian food, so what’s the difference?
Once upon a time in Italy, eating establishments were strictly defined by the type of food they served. These days, as the global popularity of Italian cuisine spreads to levels previously enjoyed only by its French cousin, terms like “ristorante” are more often than not just fancy words employed to enhance a restaurant’s pretensions. This is particularly true in the United States. With that in mind, for the purists among you, here are a few terms and definitions that might help you in your quest for il ristorante italiano perfetto.
A ristorante (ree-sto-RAHN-tay) should be a full-fledged, full-service restaurant. In Italy, the term came into use after the Risorgimento to describe elegant and sophisticated dining establishments. These are the kind of places that usually have a lot of forks or stars after their names in the travel guides. Usually reservations are required and the places are replete with varying degrees of “authentic” Italian décor. There should be a host or hostess to seat you. The wait staff, including a sommelier, should be experienced with foods and wines as well as with proper service etiquette. You should expect complete or à la carte offerings presented on a printed menu with fixed prices. Your food should be prepared by a professional kitchen staff and should represent selections from several ordered courses. Expect to pay a premium price for the food and the service – as well as for the ambiance.
A trattoria (tra-toh-REE-ah) is less formal than a ristorante. Here you’ll find medium-priced fare and casual service. In fact, if you were in Italy and wanted to find an inexpensive restaurant, you might ask, “Può consigliare una trattoria?” There probably won’t be a host or hostess; just pick a table and sit down. Maybe there’s a printed menu; maybe not. You might find today’s offerings handwritten on a chalkboard, or your server may just recite them. The food is generally quite good; modest but plentiful and sometimes presented family-style. Trattoria food is often available for take out. Serving local foods and wines in an open and unostentatious setting, a trattoria in Italy is frequently family owned and operated and can usually be found in neighborhoods, small towns or rural areas. In America, all too often the name is just tacked onto an average restaurant to make it sound more Italian.
An osteria (oh-stay-REE-ah) is the least formal among the formal classifications of restaurant. Originally an osteria was an inn that provided lodging and served simple food and wine. Today’s osteria is more of a gathering place that serves wine and some basic foods, much like an American tavern. Actually, the word “tavern” is derived from the Greek “taverna,” which simply meant “shed” or “workshop.” In some cases, an osteria and a taverna may be interchangeable, although conceptually speaking, an osteria is more a cousin to a locanda; that is to say an inn or a guest house. Here, too, though, the modern idea of a locanda is of a simple restaurant rather than a place that offers lodging. This type of establishment is fading a little from the Italian scene as lines between categories become more blurred, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. In America you’ll find a few places bearing the name osteria in the predominantly Italian neighborhoods of the larger cities, but more places tend to call themselves trattoria or ristorante. Surprisingly, a lot of American eateries employ locanda in their designations, but often this is merely a coat of bohemian paint applied to a pedestrian facade.
The pizzeria (peets-ay-REE-ah) has become ubiquitous not only in its native region but around the world. Originally specializing in one food only, pizza, the pizza parlor was initially popularized in Naples and spread quickly throughout the south of Italy before taking over the planet. A true pizzeria serves up its specialty, baked by a pizzaiolo, in a wood-fired oven. Pizza may be eaten on the premises or taken out. Real Neapolitan pizza is usually folded into a packet and eaten like a sandwich, making it an ideal food for “on the go” consumption. The concept of pizza delivery service is an American invention. Easily now the most popular type of eatery in Italy – and elsewhere – today’s pizzeria no longer limits its menu choices to pizza, but often provides other dishes, usually in an informal atmosphere with correspondingly informal prices.
A paninoteca (pan-ee-no-TAY-kah) is essentially an Italian sandwich shop featuring a great variety of hot and cold sandwiches and coffee.
A caffè (kaff-EH), on the other hand, is a coffee shop that sometimes serves sandwiches, although usually breakfast (colazione) is the main bill of fare. Most of these coffee shops also serve alcohol.
Tea and pastries are found at a sala da tè (sal-ah-dah-TAY), a tea room.
Finally, always popular in Italy and catching on fast in America is the gelateria (jay-lah-tay-REE-ah). This is the Italian ice cream parlor. But rich, creamy Italian gelato is so far superior to its pale American relative as to be barely comparable. In fact, it would be illegal in the United States to call Italian gelati ice creams, as ice cream is defined by the FDA as a frozen product with no less than 10 percent butterfat. Gelato is usually made with whole milk which is 3 to 4 percent butterfat. Unlike ice cream, gelato ingredients are not homogenized, resulting in a product that melts faster. If you are, say, a hundred years old and remember how real ice cream used to be made, then you’ll have an idea of why there’s a gelateria in the heart of downtown Austin, Texas, for example. Buy it by the cone or by the cup in a delightful variety of flavors.
So whether you’re planning to dine at Alfredo’s in Roma, Italia or at Alfredo’s in Atlanta, Georgia, I wish you buon appetito! Mangiare bene e mangiare felice!