Eating in Italy is my favorite part of Italy. I’ve come a long way since my study abroad days. Planning my trips around food is something I really enjoy, though I do have to challenge myself to continuously try new restaurants when we travel. Real food is just something else, and I always want to make reservations at my favorite places.
Tom will tell you that when we first started traveling to Europe, meals were an adjustment. (It was number one on our cardinal list of mistakes to avoid in Italy!) He wasn’t used to people charging for tap water. The portions were smaller than they are in the United States. Service is slower. Restaurants are crowded. All of the things that I took for granted (having been to Italy before) were foreign to him, and I had not done a good job of preparing him for the differences.
The good news is that his determination to master the experience improved our dining experiences significantly. When we sit down to plan a trip, I am content to hand over all the restaurant research to him, though he’ll tell you that I do equally as good restaurant research in Italy.
For the most part, we practice intermittent fasting and subscribe to ketogenic diets at home. When we travel, we are more relaxed on our meals. We try to stay within the intermittent fasting window, but we are willing to deviate from it. We are not (and probably will never be) three-meals-a-day people though. For the most part, we skip breakfast and lunch, maybe opt for a mid-day snack or apertivo, and simply have a filling dinner. (A good dinner usually necessitates a late evening walk, too.)
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Basic Tips for Eating in Italy
- Take a food or wine tour when you first arrive in a city or region. I especially love the Eating Europe Food Tours. They completely changed our experience with food in Rome, and it opened me up to a lot of new foods in Florence and Tuscany. Tours can introduce you to local specialties. You can also ask your guides for restaurant recommendations.
- If someone is trying to entice you to come in to their restaurant, go another way. I’ve never had a good meal in Italy when a waiter was begging me to try their restaurant. This is particularly true in very touristy areas. Yes, a table with a view is nice… but a table with a good meal is a far better use of your travel budget.
- Reservations are almost always necessary. The only time I’m ever disappointed is when I haven’t been able to get into my favorite restaurants in Florence. Sometimes I can show up before a restaurant opens and get an early seating, but I’ve been turned away, too. Don’t be afraid to call or email for reservations. (I always send my emails in Italian. Google translate is your friend.) If there’s a restaurant you really want to go to, make reservations or ask your hotel concierge to help.
- Fancy and/or expensive restaurants don’t guarantee quality meals. When Tom starts restaurant research in a few area, he starts with one or two dollar signs. Our cheaper meals have been some of our better meals. You want to find the places the locals go. Even Italian “fast food” can be a higher quality and tastier alternative than “fast food” in the United States. (After eating a good panino in Florence, I’ll never eat Subway again.) The notable exception to this is almost always the “fresh pasta to go” places. I have never had a good experience with these places in Italy. (Don’t get Dal Moro’ed. They are definitely scamming Trip Advisor. When I posted my review, they tried to discredit me.)
- Grocery stores can have great picnic options. Obviously, you can go to Eataly, but the local grocery stores and markets have delicious options as well. We love to get olives, try various salumni and cheese, fresh bread, and a bottle of wine to create our own picnics.
- Eat with the season and the region. One of my favorite splurge meals is when we ordered the White Truffle Experience menu at the Winter Garden restaurant in Florence. We also did the San Miniato truffle menu at Il Palagio for my birthday in Florence and loved it so much we went back after Christmas. White truffles are a winter delicacy in Florence, and it was the perfect time to try them!
- Gelato that is piled high is not good gelato. Stay away. (Similarly, avoid gelaterias that don’t post their prices.)
Eating in Italy by City or Region
Where to Eat in Florence
Head to Trattoria Sostanza to try the best bistecca Fiorentina in Florence (or their famous butter chicken). I’ve been coming here since 2004 and it’s been around a lot longer than that. It’s my favorite place to take people on their first trip to Florence. It’s a limited menu, but they do everything well. I like to start with an appetizer of prosciutto – it goes well with their tuscan bread. (They also have a delicious tortellini in brodo, if you can’t make a trip to Bologna.) The berry and cream dessert is one of the more unique desserts I’ve ever had. It was so good that my cousin ordered two. You’ll need a reservation for dinner (or you’ll need to camp out and cross your fingers before they open for lunch). Some people say the service is gruff, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s a short walk from the train station (and the St. Regis Florence).
If you are looking for a great late night pizza option and you don’t want to wait in line with the college students at Gusta Pizza, head to Munaciello or O’Scungnizzo for delicious pizza and a place to sit. I am not a fan, but a lot of people really love the 2nd floor food court at Mercato Centrale. It is always buzzing and there is something for everyone! However, for a cheap and easy pasta lunch, skip the fresh pasta place on the second floor and head to the first floor. FN Pasta Fresca La Primeria is the best fresh pasta!!
It was a cool and rainy evening the first time we stumbled into Buca dell’Orafo. They gave us one of the last tables in the tiny restaurant, thank goodness. We enjoyed a slow dinner of spicy penne (a bis – split for two!) and Chianina beef that cooked to perfection. I can’t ever put anything else in my stomach after a meal here, but one day I’ll be back for the poached pear.
One of my favorite gelaterias in the city center is Gelateria dei Neri. Skip Perche No? and head straight down to Via dei Neri for all the best quick food options in Florence. Skip the panini shop that always has a line in favor of some of the better panino shops in the same area.
Where to Eat in Tuscany
Tuscany is one of my favorite regions for eating in Italy. If I had to choose the best Tuscan town for food, I would choose Cortona every time. Every meal in Cortona has been incredible. Pasta, meat, apertivo – everything is good.
If I had to choose one restaurant in Tuscany for a great bistecca, I would choose Acquacheta in Montepulciano. (You have to enjoy rare / medium rare steak though.) This is another place where you need a reservation. This is another great restaurant to take the first-time traveler to Italy that isn’t sure about Italian food. Guilo is more than happy to make recommendations. In winter, I really enjoy the pecorino and white truffle appetizer. (We wouldn’t have tried that on our own!) I’m also a big fan of the pastas at Acquacheta. The pici with garlic, chili and olive oil is the best. I’ve tried to recreate it at home, but it’s still not as good at Guilo’s.
The best gelato in Tuscany is at Buon Gusto in Pienza. Hands down. There is no better gelato man than the Pienza gelato man. I highly recommend the saffron, but his fruit flavors should not be missed either. Try it all. Go back every day. Make the drive. Whatever it takes, you should make it there. I enjoy Kopakabana in Siena as well.
You can see more of my favorite restaurants around Tuscany here, too.
Where to Eat in Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is a great place to learn how to eat with the regional specialties. Liguria is known for pesto and focaccia and those two things do not disappoint. You should book a Manarola wine tour or take a pesto class to learn more about the local specialties, too.
BOOK HERE: Cinque Terre Wine Tour
BOOK HERE: Cinque Terre Pesto Lesson
The best pesto I’ve found is in Manarola at dal Billy or Vernazza at Gianni Franzi. Dal Billy is up in the hills behind La Torretta in Manarola while Gianni Franzi offers stunning views of Vernazza harbor. Word to the wise, as good as the wine from Gianni Franzi is, don’t try and scale the mountains after drinking it. It’s painful. (I know from personal experience.)
As far as focaccia goes, I think the best plain foccacia is at Il Massimo in Monterosso al Mare. It’s right underneath the train station and it always has a line! If you want a more filling and dense focaccia (with olives!), head to #62 Via Colombo in Riomaggiore. Both are delicious.
If you’re looking for gelato, I think Vernazza is the best option. Head to Gelateria Vernazza, il Porticciolo, or Stalin. Corniglia is a close second and the workout to get there makes it taste that much sweeter. I took one for the team to find the best gelato in each Cinque Terre village. It’s a hard job but someone has to do it, right?
Where to Eat in Rome
Rome was an incredibly tough nut for us to crack as far as eating in Italy. (Venice is harder though.) If I could do it all over again, I would have booked a food tour of Trastevere on our honeymoon in Rome, and we would have had less terrible meals.
My favorite pizza in Rome has been at Da Remo. With its simple decor, cheap wine, and delicious pizza, it made for a solid evening after a bad experience with a taxi driver. If you’re wanting pizza in the old city center, Montecarlo can be a solid option, but it’s not Remo. I love jovial atmosphere, particularly if you can get an outdoor table at night.
If you are looking for pasta in Rome, Che Pasta is quick and easy while you’re out sightseeting. For a more relaxing meal, I’ve had some really special experiences at Mastrociccia. If you want to try an iconic Roman pasta restaurant, Armando al Pantheon (in the shadow of the Pantheon), is a lovely experience, though you have to book months in advance. I really enjoy Casa Mia and Tonnarello in Trastevere for pasta or polpette (but never together!).
One gelato place that lives up to its hype is gelato at Giolitti. Though it’s a bit intimidating to choose your flavors with a line snaking behind you, it’s delicious gelato. I also really like Old Bridge Gelateria near the Vatican. (The fruit flavors are delicious!)
In April 2018, we headed to Eataly in Testaccio. It’s an entire airplane hangar of delicious goodness. It might be worth making the trip out there, especially if you are looking for products to bring home. We definitely made more than a few picnic meals out of the things we bought, too. For more Rome restaurant ideas, you can find my complete list on Trip Advisor. (The restaurants I haven’t tried are private.) Some day I’ll get them on the blog. 🙂
Where to Eat in Venice
Venice is the perfect example as to why eating in Italy is an art. I’ve had more bad meals in Venice than all of Italy combined. Since 2010, I have truly enjoyed, Da Gianni, in Dorsoduro. It closed briefly in 2020-2021, but it was back in 2022. I suspect its under new management, but I was glad to see it back. (It also does close over the Christmas and winter holidays.) When we spent Christmas in Venice in 2018, we ended up at a restaurant nearby, but it was average at best. We should have skipped dinner and headed straight to Nico’s for gelato.
In 2022 (after 11 trips to Venice), we took a Spritz masterclass on Murano. This opened me up to cicchetti and Venetian apertivo traditions. (I am not a seafood person.) Once we did that, I felt like Venice opened itself up to us. Here are a few of my favorite easy meals in Venice.
The friendliest staff in Venice is at Barcaro Quebrado. I love their extensive cicchetti menu (I can never resist a stuffed olive). The pasta is delicious. You should get there early or get a reservation unless you want to be turned away. The inside is tiny and they have a few tables outside.
After several recommendations, we finally tried Bar Puppa. I think this a great place for drink and a pizza. Prices are extremely reasonable.
So wood-fired pizza ovens are basically outlawed in Venice. Everyone says it’s hard to find good pizza in Venice for that reason, but I loved Antico Forno. You can get your pizza to go, but you can also enjoy a slice of the (incredible) focaccia pizza at the small bar. Tom loved their beer, and I enjoyed an Aperol spritz (in a bottle!). The staff, dubious at first, warmed up to us when they realized that we loved their food.
Saving the best for last? Maybe. I LOVE La Bottiglia. This canal side wine bar is incredible. The meat and cheese platter was incredibly fresh and there was no shortage of wine and beer to try. (Amarone is from the Veneto, if you’re looking for something beyond prosecco.) The staff was VERY friendly and happy to make recommendations. It was a fight not to go back every single night because everything was so tasty.
If you are just wanting to warm up with coffee or people watch on the San Marco, I enjoyed my mint hot chocolate from Caffe Florian immensely. It is pricy, but you’re in the living room of Europe and it’d hard to imagine a more beautiful place to enjoy a drink.
More Resources for Eating in Italy
Tom uses a very complex system of google reviews and Trip Advisor. He’s very successful at this, especially when we are on the road. I, on the other hand, prefer my many books and read everything I can get my hands on. I use the following books to read more about restaurants and start building my lists of places to try:
Top 10 Florence and Tuscany, Rome Day by Day, the Italian Riviera, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, Back Roads Italy, and the subsequent iterations for each region of Italy. We also ask tour guides and other locals for recommendations when we can.