Until relatively recently, there was a distinct hierarchy delineated by the names of Rome's eating places. A ristorante was typically elegant and expensive; a trattoria served more traditional, home-style fare in a relaxed atmosphere; an osteria was even more casual, essentially a wine bar and gathering spot that also served food, although the latest species of hip wine bars is now called an enoteca. The terms still exist but the distinction has blurred considerably. Now, an osteria in the center of town may be pricier than a ristorante across the street.
How to Order: From Primo to Dolce
In a Roman sit-down restaurant, whether a ristorante, trattoria, or osteria, you're expected to order at least a two-course meal. It could be a primo (first course, usually pasta or an appetizer) with a secondo (second course, which is really a "main course" in English parlance, usually meat or fish); an antipasto (starter) followed by a primo or secondo; or a secondo and a dolce (dessert). Many people consider a full-rounded meal to consist of a primo, a secondo, and a dolce. If you’re in a rush, however, many people only order two of these three courses.
In a pizzeria, it's common to order just one dish. The handiest places for a snack between sights are bars, caffè, and pizza al taglio (by the slice) shops. Bars are places for a quick coffee and a sandwich, rather than drinking establishments.
A caffè (café) is a bar but usually with more seating. If you place your order at the counter, ask if you can sit down: some places charge more for table service. Often you'll pay a cashier first, then give your scontrino (receipt) to the person at the counter who fills your order.
It was not so long ago that the wine you could get in Rome was strictly local; you didn't have to walk far to find a restaurant where you could buy wine straight from the barrel then sit down to drink and nibble a bit. The tradition continues today, as many Roman wine shops also serve food, and are called enotecas (wine bars). Behind the bar you'll find serious wine enthusiasts—maybe even a sommelier—with several bottles open to be tasted by the glass. There are often carefully selected cheeses and cured meats, and a short menu of simple dishes and desserts, making a stop in an enoteca an appealing alternative to a three-course restaurant meal.
Meal Times and Closures
Breakfast (la colazione) is usually served from 7 am to 10:30 am, lunch (il pranzo) from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm, dinner (la cena) from 7:30 pm to 11 pm. Peak times are around 1:30 pm for lunch and 9 pm for dinner.
Enotecas (wine bars) are sometimes open in the morning and late afternoon for snacks. Most pizzerias open at 8 pm and close around midnight–1 am. Most bars and caffè are open from 7 am to 8 or 9 pm.
Almost all restaurants close one day a week (in most cases Sunday or Monday) and for at least two weeks in August. The city is zoned, however, so that there are always some restaurants in each zone that remain open, to avoid tourists (and residents) getting stuck without any options whatsoever.
Also keep in mind that the laws are in the process of changing in Rome, giving proprietors more leeway in their opening and closing hours. The law is meant to enable places to stay open later, to make more money in a down economy and to offer patrons longer hours and more time to eat, drink, and be merry. It has yet to be seen whether or not Italians will find the law “flexible” and use it as an excuse to also close early when they feel like it. E’ tutto possible: anything’s possible in Rome.
Most restaurants have a "cover" charge, usually listed on the menu as pane e coperto. It should be modest (€1–€2.50 per person) except at the most expensive restaurants. Some restaurants instead charge for bread, which should be brought to you (and paid for) only if you order it. When in doubt, ask about the cover policy before ordering. Note that the price of fish dishes is often given by weight (before cooking); the price on the menu will be for 100 grams, not for the whole fish. An average fish portion is about 300 grams.
Tipping and Taxes
All prices include tax. Restaurant menu prices include servizio (service) unless indicated otherwise. It's customary to leave a small tip (from a euro to 10% of the bill) in appreciation of good service. Tips are always given in cash, and cannot be added to a bill paid for by credit card, as is standard in the United States.
Dining with Kids
In restaurants and trattorias you may find a high chair or a cushion for the child to sit on, but there's rarely a children's menu. Order a mezza porzione (half portion) of any dish, or ask the waiter for a porzione da bambino (child's portion).
What to Wear
We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie. Keep in mind that Italian men never wear shorts in a restaurant or enoteca (wine bar) and infrequently wear sneakers or running shoes, no matter how humble the establishment. The same "rules" apply to ladies' casual shorts, running shoes, and flip-flop sandals. Shorts are acceptable in pizzerias and caffé.