During a recent chat with an Italian friend, I mentioned writing a post about the difference between an osteria and a trattoria. He laughed and said, “Please write it, so then I’ll finally be able to understand the difference myself!”
The food is certainly one of the best parts of living in Italy. I really like to write about food and to share information on Italian food culture with my readers. If you’re a regular here at Luggage and Life, you might have seen this post I wrote about 10 “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy, or maybe this one on dining habits (and if you’re not a regular, check them out!). I’m adding this one to my list of posts that hopefully help people understand Italian food culture better, and to prepare them for eating well when visiting Italy!
So, what’s the difference between an osteria and a trattoria? What about a ristorante? What’s an enoteca? Why do people go to a bar for breakfast? Does a pizzeria only serve pizza? And what the heck’s a tavola calda?! Read on for the answers to all these questions, and more!
What’s the difference between an osteria and a trattoria?
Before we start
Before we dive in, I just want to mention that you’ll find exceptions to the definitions provided here, because things change, and there are all sorts of hybrid eating establishments all over the place.
The other thing I’d like to say is that, as a reader recently pointed out to me, my blog is very focused on cities. This is 100% true, because I spend most of my time in Italy in cities. I love to visit the countryside when I can, but no car + a busy schedule = being a city mouse most of the time. You’ll probably find all sorts of incredible, authentic places to eat in the countryside in Italy, and if you do, please share your experience in the comments!
Siete pronti? Andiamo!
What’s an Osteria?
It’s important to note here that traditionally, the difference between an osteria and a trattoria used to me more clearly defined. The line’s gotten blurred over the years, and most are pretty similar today.
So, one classical difference between an osteria and a trattoria used to be wine.
Osterie, in the past, were basically places where people gathered to socialize and drink wine from casks provided by the owner. It was wine-centric, rather than food-centric. Of course, some did offer things to eat, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the socializing and the wine-drinking (and according to some, the card playing and gambling that often took place over the wine).
The word oste in Italian is still used to refer to the owner of a wine-centric establishment, like an osteria or an enoteca (discussed below).
Nowadays, most osterie offer food. I’ve written two posts about osterie that I’ve eaten at recently, one in Padua and one in Verona. If you’re curious about the modern-day osteria experience, check them out!
The picture above is from an osteria in Padua called Osteria L’Anfora. They have a great, local wine selection, and the menu changes almost daily according to what’s at the market.
What’s a trattoria?
If historically, osterie were more focused on wine, trattorie were more focused on food.
Trattorie generally offered a few dishes typical of their region. For example, in Rome, they’d offer cabonara, amatriciana, etc., whereas in Bologna, they’d offer lasagne, tagliatelle al ragù, etc.
Another difference between an osteria and a trattoria is that trattorie were typically family-owned and operated.
Just like osterie, you can eat and drink at modern-day trattorie. Maybe osterie and trattorie are both a little on the rustic side, or perhaps the owners want to evoke that sense of tradition through the name.
Many of both focus mostly on regional dishes. Maybe they have a small menu, or maybe they’re still family-owned, but you’ll be able to get a meal and some vino at both.
One important difference that still exists is that, according to one of my most trusted Italian sources, you could still just go and have some wine at an osteria, but you wouldn’t go to a trattoria without having food.
So, let’s move on to some other common eating establishments that you’ll see in Italy.
What’s a ristorante?
A ristorante is a restaurant in the classical sense.
At a ristorante, you can expect table service and a menu with antipasti (appetizers), primi (first courses, usually pasta, risotto, etc.), secondi (main courses, often meat or fish), contorni (side dishes like grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes, mixed salads, etc.), and dolci (sweets) available.
The atmosphere might be a bit formal in some ristoranti. The prices might be a bit higher than in an osteria or a trattoria.
In Italy, it’s not uncommon to see a ristorante-pizzeria, which is a restaurant that also offers pizza. If a place is just a ristorante, it probably won’t have pizza. There’s more on pizzerias below.
What’s an enoteca?
Modern enoteche seem to be closer to the old definition of an osteria, in that they’re still pretty centered on wine.
Expect a good wine selection at an enoteca, and I’d say that most offer food, too, although perhaps just a few items – nibbles, a few primi, maybe a meat and cheese board, etc.
If you’re in Padua, check out Enoteca la Moschetà, which has delicious wines at great prices, and is usually sparkling and buzzy just about every night of the week, with a large crowd that spills outside under the portico. I believe they offer lunch service, but in the evening, it’s cicheti and wine for the glitterati of Padua. The people watching alone makes for a great evening out.
A few years ago, I ate at a great little enoteca in Belluno, which is a beautiful little mountain town in Veneto. We were approaching that terrifying hour when places close after lunch (I have food anxiety, guys. When everything closes I get breathless, just like how I can’t sleep at night if I know there’s no breakfast food in the house. Brb, breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought).
Luckily, that day in Belluno, we found Enoteca Mazzini. The gruff yet endearing gentleman inside barked out four items for us to choose from – fresh pasta with deer meat ragù, vitello tonnelato (veal with tuna sauce on top), a mountain-food mixture of sausage, potatoes, beans, and peas, and some kind of baccalà. We ordered our meals, plus some wine, and enjoyed the warmth and uniquely decorated interior.
The food was to die for. I ordered the pasta with deer meat ragù, which was excellent. I then tasted the potato-sausage-pea extravaganza and got envious that I hadn’t ordered it because it too was so delicious.
Signor Grumpy returned to clear our places.
“Do you have any desserts? I asked.
“Do you have coffee?”
“Ok, four caffè macchiati, please.”
Despite the lack of a written menu, dessert, or milk for our coffee, it was a lovely experience, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
What’s a pizzeria?
A pizzeria will obviously focus mainly on pizza, but may offer some pasta dishes, or burgers or something like that. Most Italians I know wouldn’t order anything but pizza at a pizzeria, so keep that in mind if you’re trying to act like a local.
In Rome, pizzerias also offer a variety of fritti, like supplì (rice balls), fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers), crocchette (breaded, fried mashed potato), olive ascolane (stuffed olives) and mozzarelline (mozzarella balls) as starters.
One tip I have to offer here is that you should always go for pizzerie with a forno a legna, or a wood-fired brick oven. You should also make sure that, Dio forbid, the pizza isn’t frozen. There are some tourist traps that might be serving up DiGiorno. Luckily, in Italy, eateries have to indicate frozen items on their menu, pizzas included! If you see too many asterisks on a menu at a pizzeria, keep walking.
What’s pizza al taglio?
While on the topic of pizza, let’s address another pizza-centric place, which are pizzerie al taglio. One of the most popular street foods in Italy, pizza al taglio is simply pizza sold by the slice. It’s cheap and can be reeeeeally, really good. I ate it five days a week for lunch when I lived in Rome, no joke.
You can either order a few different pieces of a few different pizzas, or just go all out and get a big old slab of your favorite, which will often be folded like a sandwich and wrapped for you to take on your way.
Some pizza al taglio places have seats and they’ll give you your pizza on a plate or tray. Generally, they’ll heat the pizza up for you if it hasn’t just come out of the oven. There are a few spring/summer pizzas that don’t get heated up, so expect to have those cold.
I’ve noticed in my travels in Italy that pizzerie al taglio are much more ubiquitous in some cities than in others. In Rome, they’re all over the place, but there aren’t that many in Padua. Bologna has its fair share, but I think piadinerie seem to be more common here. This is because piadine, which are round bread wraps that are folded and filled, kind of like a pita pocket, are from this region and are much more popular here.
If you’re in Rome and want to try some of the best, check out Antico Forno Roscioli.
What’s a tavola calda?
A tavola calda is what we might call a cafeteria-style restaurant. Hot, pre-made dishes are available, and you usually slide down a line with a tray and choose what you want. A typical tavola calda might offer some pasta dishes, roasted meats, vegetables, and other things.
What’s a bar?
A bar is a café. It’s where you go for breakfast for your cornetto and cappuccino. Bars also usually offer panini and tramezzini (white bread sandwiches), and sometimes focaccia, slices of pizza, and other savory items. Some have a small lunch menu, too. You can, of course, also have a drink at a bar. Many stay open late and offer snacks for aperitivo, becoming a ‘bar’ in the English sense of the word.
What are some other common eating establishments you might encounter in Italy?
You might also notice other places with names that contain the type of food they specialize in. A spaghetteria, for example, would specialize in spaghetti, a vineria would be similar to an enoteca and offer a variety of wine, a paninoteca is a sandwich shop, and we all know what a gelateria is!
There’ll be regional differences, too, which I touched on briefly above with the piadinerie. Cicheti, which originated and are very popular in Veneto, means that you’ll see cicheterie in many cities there. Friggitorie sell fried foods, often fish, and are common in Naples.
Are there any eating establishments That you should know about?
Yes! If you venture into the mountains, you might find a rifugio, many of which might also be a hotel. They’ll offer local dishes.
You might see different names for them depending on where you are. My source tells me that in Trentino Alto Adige, they’re called malghe, and in Trieste, they’re called osmize.
Another experience I’d highly recommend is to eat at an agriturismo if you have the chance. Agriturismi are basically farms that serve food and provide lodging. Sometimes you can take cooking classes, go hunting, or help on the farm. Many agriturismi host summer camps for kids, some offer language classes, and others have events, like weddings. You can also book for lunch or dinner at most agriturismi, if you’re just passing through the area.
In order to be certified as an agriturismo, the farm has to be a working one, and a certain amount of the food that’s produced has to be served to the guests. Agriturismi can also sell their products – wine, olive oil, jams and preserves, honey, etc.
I’ve eaten at a few and the food is some of the best I’ve had in Italy. You can’t find fresher or more local food!
I hope that answers all your questions about the difference between an osteria and a trattoria, and much more! Did I miss anything? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
Want to experience more of Italy’s foodie scene on your trip?
If you want to enjoy all the delicious foods that Italy has to offer, consider booking a food tour to get the inside scoop from a local guide.
Hungry? Book this night tour of Rome that offers over 20 tastings! It’s been rated 4.9/5 by 413 people who have tried it.
Interested in something a bit less filling that still offers samplings of some of the city’s best? Check out this food tour, which will take you through Campo de’ Fiori, the Jewish Ghetto, and Trastevere. This tour also has a great rating, at 4.8/5 by 346 reviewers.
Venice has some great looking tours that combine food, wine, and sightseeing! This one goes through my favorite area of Venice, and offers six specialties. It’s also very highly rated at 4.9/5 by 57 reviewers.
447 reviewers have given this tour, which specializes in cicheti and wine, a 4.8/5. It includes four glasses of wine and four cicheti, along with one dessert. Buon appetito!
Explore Venice’s famous Rialto market on this lunchtime food and wine tour. 228 people have rated their experience a 4.9/5!
This super highly-rated food tour of Bologna looks awesome! Sample six local food items, red and white wine, and a surprise dish! 4.8/5 by 73 people.
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