Italian restaurants and dining habits can be a bit mysterious to first or second time visitors, but soon you'll find they make perfect sense and start to wonder how you've survived until now, putting rice on the same plate as meat or having coffee at the same time as dessert.
First off, there are a number of different places to eat:
autogrill: restaurant along the autostrada (motorway/toll road)—some are very good.
bar: besides drinks, many serve simple lunches, salads and sandwiches.
enoteca: wine bar, generally serving plates of cured meats and cheeses etc.
focacceria: often a take-away, specializing in focaccia.
friggitoria: specializing in fried foods; you'll often find them in a street front snack bar or a truck.
osteria: an informal inn, similar to a trattoria.
paninoteca: a sandwich (panini) bar.
pizzeria: any place that makes pizza, from a hole-in-the-wall pizza al taglio shop to the frequently combined ristorante-pizzeria.
pizzicheria: deli, often useful for making sandwiches for picnics.
ristorante: classic restaurant.
tavola calda: the 'hot table' buffet, once quite common in cities, now rather rare.
trattoria: informal restaurant.
vino e cucina: literally 'wine and kitchen', once the cheapest place to eat, now sadly rare.
Here are some useful restaurant words and phrases (more or less in the order that you'll need them).
Prenotare: to reserve
Vorrei prenotare per una persona/ per due/tre/quattro/cinque/sei persone, per favore: I’d like to make a reservation for one person/for two/three/four/five/six people, please.
Non abbiamo prenotato: We don’t have a reservation.
Per che ora? For when?
A mezzogiorno/all'una/alle sette e mezzo, otto, nove: At noon/at 1pm/at 7.30, 8, 9.
Una tavola fuori/dentro: a table outside/inside.
Menu turistico: a generally inexpensive set price three or four course menu, rarely very exciting.
Menu degustazione: tasting menu (small samples of the chef's best dishes), generally expensive.
Menu per bambini: children's menu.
Carta dei vini: wine list.
Once you've got a menu in hand, you'll find dishes listed under their courses. There's no obligation to order them all; in restaurants, Italian will generally order at least three (a primo, secondo, and a contorno). Typical menu headings are:
Primi: first course/starter (UK) or entrée (US). Sometimes subdivided into minestra, pasta, and risi or risotti (soup, pasta, and rice dishes). The idea is to bulk up on carbs so you're happy with a smaller portion of expensive meat or fish.
Contorni: side dishes (vegetables, fried potatoes, etc).
Dolci: desserts. In old fashioned places this was a bowl of fruit, to be eating with a knife and fork.
Buon appetito! Usually said as the primo is served (ie. just before the three minute silence falls as everyone tucks into their pasta).
Ci porti il conto, per favore: Bring us the bill/check, please. (They won't do it until you ask).
Pane e coperto: bread and cover charge, usually a euro or two per person. Some restaurants have stopped doing it.
Servizio: service charge, which by law should be included in the final total. You may want to leave a bit more for good service.
Images by: SistoZ, Creative Commons License