It's no coincidence that most Americans understand the word mangia, even if they don't speak Italian: Italy offers some of the best food in the world. But there are so many terms for places that serve food that it can be hard for a visitor to tell the difference between a ristorante, a pizzeria and a trattoria -- not to mention an osteria and an enoteca.
To help you find what you're looking for, here is a list of some of the different kinds of Italian eateries. The names are often combined -- it's not unusual to see a sign reading "Bar Ristorante Pizzeria" or "Pasticceria Gelateria."
A word about hours. In general, restaurants in Italy are open from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 11 p.m. Stores are usually open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Of course, as with all rules in Italy, this one was made to be broken: Hours often change with the seasons, or simply by whim of the owner. Also keep in mind that all restaurants are required to close one day a week. A sticker on a door or window announces which day an establishment closes.
Wherever and whatever you choose to eat, do it the true Italian way. Allow yourself enough time to enjoy not only the food, but the special atmosphere and character of each city, town and village. Savor regional specialties, and do not rush the server. Whether you choose a humble trattoria or a chic ristorante, you'll undoubtedly agree that in Italy, si mangia bene -- "one eats well."
Alimentari: These are primarily food stores where people come daily to buy cheese, cold cuts, bread and sometimes pre-prepared salads, but the proprietors will gladly provide you with a sandwich made with any of their products. They follow store hours.
Bar: The bar is an institution in Italy, and everyone has a "regular." Italians are as creative with their drinks as they are with their pasta. Most of us are familiar with Italian coffees, but try a frullato (milk and fruit whirred in a blender) or a succo di frutta (a thick fruit nectar); they come in pear, peach, apricot and many other flavors.
Italian bars, by the way, serve very little alcohol. Besides drinks, they usually offer a selection of cold and/or hot sandwiches, pastries and ice cream confections in the summer, if not freshly made gelato (ice cream). At the very least, you should be able to pick up chocolates and hard candies. By law, a price list hangs by the cash register, although the owners are permitted to charge more for service at a table.
Many bars keep several newspapers for their patrons to read as they sip. They are usually the first institutions to open in the morning and the last to close at night, and it is not unusual for an Italian to visit "his" bar five times in one day -- once for breakfast, before lunch for an aperitivo, afterward for a digestivo, and again before and after dinner.
Enoteca: An enoteca's menu may not seem unusual, until you turn to the wine list. Each enoteca specializes in the wines of its region. These follow restaurant hours.
Gelateria: As the name implies, these establishments offer gelato -- ice cream -- usually produced on the premises. Some also feature sandwiches and fruit juices. Gelato is softer than American ice cream and rarely accompanied by a sauce, although panna (whipped cream) is available with it. The portions are small but rich. Many Italians insist that a little ice cream after a meal aids digestion. While I am not sure that this has been medically proven, I use it often as an excuse. Gelaterie usually have a few tables, although you pay more to eat on the premises. They are open during store hours.
Osteria or Taverna: At these informal places, open wine is served by the liter, half-liter or quarter-liter, and simple dishes or sandwiches are available.
Paninoteca: Like bars, except with more sandwiches. They offer different varieties of salami, cheese and bread. Note: Italians rarely use condiments on their sandwiches. Paninoteche follow store hours.
Pasticceria: These confectionary/pastry shops sell cookies, cakes and pastries. There are no tables, and they follow store hours.
Pizzeria: Most pizzerie offer pasta and meat as well as pizza. Many also offer take-out (although few will deliver). You may also encounter small pizzerie with signs reading al taglio. These offer slices of pizza and mini-pizzas (called pizzette) to go, and may also have a few tables. Regular pizzerie follow restaurant hours, but often remain open later at night. Those selling pizza al taglio follow store hours.
Pizza Rustica: These "rustic, country" pizza places are common in central Italy. Basically open to the street, they feature huge pizzas displayed on counters; you ask for as much as you want, and they cut it for you -- and heat it if asked. Unlike the more elegant, thinner and cooked-to-order pizzas eaten in the evening in the pizzarie, the pizza rustica is more familiar-looking to Americans, with a thicker crust and more combinations of ingredients. They're available from about 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Pub: A pub varies from a bar mainly in its atmosphere. Many offer a wider variety of beers than the usual Italian bar, having taken their inspiration from the English pub tradition. Most pubs are open only in the evening, although some may remain open all day like bars.
Ristorante: This is the generic term for restaurant, and may often be used in combination with other names on this list. All restaurants offer full meals; many offer a menu turistico, or fixed-price meal. While these may be good deals monetarily, the food is likely to be uninspired. It's a good idea, in fact, to avoid menus altogether -- better simply to ask what's available that day and what the staff recommends.
Rosticceria: For the traveler on a budget, the rosticceria offers a good deal. Occasionally these establishments have tables, but all of them serve take-out. They feature roasted meats, usually chicken cooked on a spit. They also provide grilled and roasted vegetables, and a few local cheeses. Many also offer baked pasta such as lasagne or manicotti. A rosticceria is the ideal place to stock up for a picnic. But be sure to shop early: Popular items often run out before the end of the day. Remember that rosticcerie are stores and therefore closed during the lunch and dinner hour. Sala da Te`: Literally, this means "tea room," so naturally these places offer a wide selection of teas, and the usual fruit drinks and sandwiches. They rarely offer alcoholic beverages (other than beer). The sala da te` often has a more intimate atmosphere than a bar; they tend to spring up around universities. Like pubs, these often open only in the evening.
Tavola Calda and Tavola Fredda: At these hot or cold buffet places, the food's already cooked. You don't take a tray, but other than that it's like a cafeteria -- or a deli with tables.
Trattoria: A trattoria is not much different from a restaurant, except that the name implies a more home-grown style of cooking. You will often see a sign proclaiming cucina casalinga outside of these -- "home cooking." Many trattorie do not offer menus. The waiter -- usually doing double duty in the kitchen -- comes to the table and announces what is available, but do not hesitate to ask if you are in the mood for a particular dish. These small, family-run businesses are eager to please.
Natalie Danford is a New York writer.