You don't have to spend a lot of money to eat well in Italy. But in order to eat both cheaply and well, you need to choose your restaurants wisely. That's why we steer readers away from the "tourist menu," sometimes written as Menu Turistico.
In Italy, the tourist menu is generally a complete meal (usually lunch), with beverage included. It might offer the choice of an appetizer (antipasto) and a first or second course, accompanied by water or a glass of house wine, followed by dessert. Some places will let you choose from a small number of items, while most will have a set menu—typically a simple pasta, a salad and a glass of wine. Prices might range from 10-20 Euros, depending on the city or how close the restaurant is to a major tourist site (how else would they lure all those tourists?). In cities where lunch for two with a bottle of wine can easily cost 60 Euros and upwards, the tourist menu seems like a pretty good deal.
Except that the tourist menu is an invitation to one of the least memorable meals you'll eat in Italy—unless, that is, it's memorable in a bad way. That's because restaurants that advertise the tourist menu are typically located in the most visited sections of a city, say near the Colosseum in Rome or Piazza San Marco in Venice. They know they have a steady influx of hungry, tour-weary customers who want a simple solution for lunch and don't want to have to decipher menus. They also know that even if they serve a bad meal to 100 tourists on Monday, there will be 100 more new tourists ready to eat the same bad food on Tuesday.
In fairness, your tourist menu meal probably won't be "bad" food in the sense that it's inedible. But it's very likely to be cheap and easy food, like pasta with a bland tomato sauce, prepared in a big vat and dished out as it's ordered. Other items, like lasagna, for example, might be frozen, pre-packaged fare. The house wine likely comes from a very, very big jug or even a box. You'll be served quickly, and items such as a soft drink, coffee or dessert—or anything else that's not explicitly listed on the tourist menu, will cost extra. Add a 4 Euro dessert and a 1 Euro espresso to a 10 Euro tourist menu and those savings start to evaporate.
How to Eat Well and Eat Cheaply in Italy
The good news is, you don't have to eat cheap, bad food in order to eat inexpensively in Italy. Even in the most tourist-packed areas, you often just need to wander a few streets farther away from the busy piazza or the main thoroughfare to find a quality meal that won't break the bank.
Here are a few tips and ideas for a bargain lunch that won't leave you disappointed.
- Follow the Italians. Locals know where to eat well without spending a lot of money or time, especially at lunch. Look for places that appear to be full of people on a break from work.
- Avoid menus with food photos. Like the tourist menu, a restaurant menu featuring photos of the dishes offered is a telltale sign of a tourist trap. Plus, your food won't look anything like the photo when it arrives at your table.
- Grab a slice of pizza. Pizza a taglio, or pizza by the slice, is a tasty, inexpensive way to have lunch on the go. Most pizza a taglio joints are tiny, with just a few seats or spots to eat standing up. Not fancy, but it gets the job done.
- Try a tavola calda. A tavola calda, or hot table, is a cafeteria-style eatery where you can choose from several hot entrees and side dishes, and usually some cold salads as well. They usually offer a set price for a complete meal —often including water and coffee—and the food is reliably decent, if not outstanding.
- Pack a picnic. People flock to Italy for its glorious tomatoes, piquant cheeses, salty cured meats, and highly drinkable wines. So why not pick up a little of all of the above and have a picnic al fresco (in the open air) on a piazza bench, in a park, or on the steps of a fountain. Just make sure it's a fountain where you're allowed to sit down!