There are lots of restaurants that are tourist traps in Italy’s major cities. They’re often tempting to eat at because they’re adjacent to popular sights. Who wouldn’t want to eat lunch while gazing at the Colosseum?!
If you’re like me, tourist traps make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Bad food for inflated prices, and service that’s either schmaltzy or sucky is the opposite of what I’m looking for when I’m going out to eat.
Italy is so full of delicious food that you really shouldn’t have any bad meals while you’re here. Despite this fact, I speak to lots of people who tell me that they “couldn’t find good food” on their visit. This might come down to a matter of expectations vs. reality, but I’m sure a part of it is also that they didn’t know how to find good restaurants.
I’ve heard tales of cold pizza and 10 euros for a cappuccino. I read a comment online from a woman who said she didn’t have one. decent. meal. in Bologna. I can’t even begin to imagine how this is possible, especially in BOLOGNA, which is the mother of so many of Italy’s best and most well-known foods.
All of this being said, I have a confession to make: I recently went to a few tourist traps while traveling with my family. I know, I know, I should know better, but sometimes, especially if you’re traveling in a group and people are tired, you end up plopping down at the nearest place that sells wine.
In order to avoid having a rage stroke at the memory, I’ve decided to consider these experiences as research for this guide on how to find good restaurants in Italy, so that you don’t eat at a single tourist trap on your visit!
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How to find good restaurants in Italy
The first step to finding good restaurants to eat at in Italy is to know how to identify tourist traps. Fortunately, there are a few signs that are dead giveaways.
If you see any of the following, run.
How to identify a tourist trap in Italy
There are people outside trying to get you to come in
This is probably the number one way to identify a tourist trap. If there’s a server outside asking you if you’re hungry or thirsty (perhaps in several languages until s/he gets yours right), it’s a tourist trap. Keep a-walking.
Ditto if someone passes you a flier. Cross your arms and hustle by.
There is food, either plastic or real, displayed outside
A plastic display of pasta or pizza with a glass of “wine” is sure to be right next to the server who’s calling out to you. Move it.
The menu is translated into 100 languages and there are pictures of the food
If the menu is blown up to poster size and it’s got pictures and/or is translated into multiple languages, don’t even stop walking.
Note that many, many good restaurants will have menus that are translated, so simply having a menu that’s translated is not an indicator of a tourist trap. It’s the ones that are translated into more languages than the agenda of a UN conference accompanied by photos of generally unappetizing-looking food that you need to worry about.
There’s a ‘tourist menu’ advertised
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you see a tourist menu, sashay away.
Also, if many dishes have an asterisk after them, hightail it outta there. Asterisks in Italy mean that one or more items are frozen. You didn’t come to Italy to eat DiGiorno, did you?
They serve everything all day long
This is one of the things I noticed when we were at at tourist trap near the Colosseum on my recent trip. We had just finished our visit of the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman forum, and everyone wanted a coffee and a bathroom, so we walked down one of the side streets nearby and stopped at the first place we saw.
The servers were accommodating and nice, the coffee was fine, and we could see the Colosseum at the end of the street. Everyone was happy to be off their feet.
I peeped the tables around us to see what people were eating, and noticed that the Scottish couple behind us (yes, everyone was a tourist) was eating lunch at 11am. Lunch at 11am non esiste in real restaurants.
Most restaurants don’t even open until 12 or 12:30, then they close for a break from 3 or 3:30 until opening up for dinner service again at 7:30 or later.
If you see someone eating lunch before noon, cartwheel down the street, and don’t look back.
They’re expensive (because they’re near monuments)
This was lesson number two at the tourist trap near the Colosseum. I went in to pay and was hit with a 40 euro bill for some cappuccini and juices.
You know where I spent 40 euro later in the day to buy what is arguably the best pizza al taglio in Rome for our entire group of seven? Antico Forno Roscioli.
If you’re traveling on a budget, tourist traps will drain it quickly. You’ll be spending 3 or 4 euro on a cappuccino, which shouldn’t cost more than 1.50. Some places in Saint Mark’s square in Venice charge 10 euros for a Coke. A COKE!
Why pay 10 euro for a soda, when you can get drunk on 3 spritz for 10 euros in Venice (if you know where to go)?
So, if the prices are high, git!
They serve Americanized versions of Italian food
One day, while I was happily strolling through Venice with friends, enjoying the summer sunshine, drunk figuratively on happiness and literally on prosecco, I saw a chalkboard outside of a restaurant advertising the following dishes:
CHICKEN PESTO PASTA!
SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS!
I shrieked as I realized that the place was jam-packed with tourists, happily eating something straight out of Chef Boyardee’s kitchen.
Familiarize yourself with “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy, and if you see them on a menu somewhere, get to steppin’.
Mains come with a pre-determined side
This brings us to tourist trap number two that I ate at recently.
I’ll set the scene: Florence, late February, sun shining, table outside, exhausted after sightseeing, beautiful piazza, waiter who spoke very good English. We were ready for a rest, and this place had wine.
I was crabby about eating there, I’ll admit it, but everyone in my group was not, so I decided to just enjoy the view of the piazza and drink a lot.
The waiter, who I’m happy to report was very funny and entertaining and neither schmaltzy nor sucky, brought out the giant menus with pictures of the food on them, and something jumped out at me: the main courses were served with pre-determined sides.
It was chicken AND something, or steak AND something else. In Italy, generally (but not always!), you order a meat or fish dish for your secondo, and then add a contorno, or side. Sooooometimes meat will be accompanied a small portion of green salad, or perhaps potatoes, or you might get a few sliced cherry tomatoes or something, but usually, you choose your own side dish.
I suppose this one isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, so in order to decide if you’re in a tourist trap or not, see if the place ticks any of the other boxes.
Huge menu in multiple languages near St. Peter’s basilica showing pictures of meat with pre-determined sides? Probably a tourist trap.
Small trattoria in an out-of-the-way neighborhood serving pork with roasted potatoes? Probably not a tourist trap.
Side note: I had a salad with grilled chicken because I hadn’t had a vegetable in three days, unless you count pizza sauce. And yes, it was fine, but it wasn’t Tuscan.
How to find good restaurants
So, now you know the signs of a tourist trap. Let’s talk about how to identify good restaurants in Italy so that you don’t end up like that sad sack in Bologna who didn’t have a SINGLE. DECENT. MEAL!
Check out the Slow Food, Gambero Rosso or Michelin guide
These three guides will point you in the direction of real-deal restaurants and other places to eat. If you don’t have time to do any research, look in restaurant doors and windows for the stickers associated with these guides.
Gambero Rosso bills itself as Italy’s leader in the wine, food and travel sector. They write recipes, guides, and books, and run six locations of their cooking school, Gambero Rosso Academy.
Every year, they release “la mappa del meglio mangiare” or “the map of the best eating.” For 2020, they also did a series on the top 30 chefs under 30 in the country, which is kind of cool.
Gambero Rosso means “red shrimp,” in Italian, so look for a shrimp sticker in the door or window of a restaurant you’re scoping out. Odds are, if you see this little crustacean peeking back at you, it’s a good spot.
Born in Bra, Italy in the 1980s, the Slow Food Movement has spread across the world to become Slow Food International.
Slow Food promotes food that is “good, clean, and fair.” Good for its quality and nutritional content, clean for its lack of harm to the environment, and fair for its prices, for both consumers and producers.
Every year, they release a list of Slow Food certified restaurants, indicated by a sticker with their logo on it, which is a little snail. The list highlights the best of regional cooking.
If you see their logo, make like a snail and slooooow down (I get one bad joke per post, ok?).
My current fave Slow Food spot for a sit-down meal in Rome? Trattoria Popolare L’avvolgibile.
Want to try some excellent, Slow-Food-certified Roman street food? Head to Food Box at the Mercato di Testaccio (and eat like 10 of the potato crochette with scamorza for me).
The restaurants recommended in the Michelin guide are usually a bit on the upscale side. I’ve had the pleasure of dining at some of them here in Rome – Armando al Pantheon, Colline Emiliane, Luciano Cucina Italiana, Felice a Testaccio, and Al Ristoro degli Angeli. I’d recommend all of them.
If you’re celebrating a special occasion in Italy and want to have a memorable meal, check the Michelin guide.
Look for seasonal items on the menu
Do some research about what’s in season when you’ll be visiting Italy, and look for places that are featuring those ingredients. For example, in Veneto in the fall and winter, you’ll see radicchio popping up in pasta, risotto and on pizzas.
Read blogs written by locals on where to eat
Local bloggers (AHEMMMM) are a stellar resource for finding up-to-date information on the best things to eat and do wherever it is you’re going. I always look for blogs to plan meals and trips before going anywhere.
My guides on where to eat in Rome, Florence, Padua and Bologna
Here’s my post on where to eat in Rome. I update this post as often as possible, always including my new favorite places!
Here’s my post on where to eat in Florence. I also update this one when I find a new place in Florence that I like.
Ask a local
This might be my favorite way of finding places to eat. I find that Airbnb hosts are a great resource for this. I even wrote a whole post about where to eat in Catania, based on the amazing list of recommendations that we got from our host there.
Not staying in an Airbnb? Ask a barista, or someone in the shop you’re wandering into, a vendor at a local market or a taxi driver where THEY eat, and then go there.
Download a foodie app
Many cities in Italy have foodie apps, often designed by local bloggers. It’s probably a good idea to check out the blog behind the app to see if you have a similar budget/approach to travel as the blogger.
I’m not a really budget traveler, but I’m also not regularly looking for Michelin stars, so I’d try to find bloggers/apps that have that same vibe.
I’ve never actually used an Italy food app, so if you have one you love, let me know in the comments!
The Raisin app
Book a highly-rated food tour
A food tour with a local guide can be a great way to try out some authentic spots that you might not otherwise find on your own. You can also ask them where they go to eat when they’re off duty.
Want to make sure you’re getting the real deal? Your blogger friends have your back! If you’ve found some blogs you like, start by seeing if there’s a food tour they recommend, or one that they run themselves. Read some independent reviews, too, and then decide if the tour sounds right for you.
Explore residential neighborhoods
Staying in areas that are central but not in the thick of things can be a great idea when visiting Italy. The neighborhood I live in, for example, is between the ancient city and one of Rome’s best foodie neighborhoods, Testaccio. It’s the best of both worlds – the action is just a walk away, and the best cacio e pepe in the city is, too.
If you stay in a residential area, you’ll be sure to find some local spots to eat at, or a local bar where you can ask for recommendations.
Once you’ve decided on some restaurants you’d like to eat at, you may be able to book them ahead of time through these apps or websites! And yes, you should definitely book in advance, especially in cities and during the high tourist season.
I hope this post will help you in your quest for finding good restaurants in Italy! Have any tips to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!