Eat your way to savings

Tips to save money on dining in Italy and eat better for it

I love to eat while traveling, and though I keep as much of an eye on my collective restaurant bill as I do any other travel expense, I do not view mealtimes (or snack times) as a time to skimp. I refuse on principal to save money at the expense of cheating myself from a truly transcendent culinary or cultural experience.

See, sampling the local cuisine is every bit as important as taking in the art, sights, and history if you want to learn something of the culture you're visiting. Yeah. That's it. Just keep telling yourself you're "exploring the local culture" as you lift another creamy spoonful of tiramisù to your mouth and silently promise to put in overtime at the gym when you get home.

That said, here are some ways to keep that restaurant bill from blowing your entire budget.

Look before you tip

Don't double-tip by accident. If the menu has a line—usually near the bottom of the front or back—that says "servizio" with either a percentage, an amount, or the word "incluso" after it, that means the tip is automatically included in the price. (If it says "servizio non incluso," tip is, obviously, not included.)

Even if the menu doesn't say it, ask É incluso il servizio? (ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo)—"Is service included?" If not, tip accordingly (10%–15% is standard).

Don't be stingy about tipping, though. If il servizio is, indeed, already included but the service was particularly good, it's customary to round up the bill or leave €1 per person extra—just to show you noticed and that you appreciated the effort.

Be a pig at breakfast

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if the hotel won't let you weasel out of the blatantly overpriced breakfast, make the most of it. Stuff yourself to the gills. Take seconds. Heck, take thirds. Then, when no one's looking, slip some extra rolls and things into your daypack so you can have a light midday snack late. (Hey: they deserve it for overcharging you.)

These pilfered snacks, plus your morning feast, will probably enable you to skip lunch. Turn an attempt to gouge you into a money-saving opportunity. (Hoteliers hate it when I give this advice. I hate it when they think they can charge me $7 for a roll and coffee.)

Be your own chef

While you should eat out in the local restaurants as often as possible (I've met some lasting friends over Italian lunches and dinner), sometimes you need to trim your sails and trim the budget. This is an especially useful hint for families.

Try to find a cheap hotel that rents rooms (usually, luckily, the family suites) that come with a kitchenette. Plan to cook a few dinners "at home," or, if its convenient, return to the room to have lunch and take a short riposo nap afterwards to recharge your batteries and regroup your energies before flinging yourself back into the sightseeing grind.

Hey, it's still a cultural experience just visiting the grocery store and discovering you have to weigh your own fruit and then type in the code for "banana" (helpfully, usually it's all done with pictograms) whereupon the scale prints out a price label; or learning that pear nectar is more popular than apple juice.

Plus, to stock your pantry you get a chance to pop into that great little panetteria (bakery), fruttivendolo (fruit stand), vini olio (wine shop), alimentari (tiny grocery store), latteria (cheese monger), and pasticceria (pastry shop) that you've been walking past.

Splash out at lunch

Even on a budget, on occasion you may want to plump for a very special meal at some hallowed temple of culinary mastery owned by celebrity chef who has accumulated so many Michelin stars he uses them to garnish the appetizers. After all, you're worth it. Or, more precisely, she's worth it and you'd better treat her to a fancy meal once or twice if you know what's good for you. What she needn't know is that you are saving big-time by saving the fancy, expensive restaurants for lunch.

There's this funny phenomenon at many top restaurants, and even at just run-of-the-mill famous and expensive joints: the prices at lunch are less than at dinner. We're talking 30% to 50% less—and that's 30% to 50% of a big chunk of change to begin with. The reasons behind practice have never been satisfactorily explained to me, but who cares. It's a whopping savings on a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, and a great way to have your cake and be able to pay for it, too.

Become a street food gourmet

I don't mean you should pick through the garbage. (I actually once read a guidebook that suggested you do just that) I just mean patronize the stalls, stands, hole-in-the-wall joints, and markets that will sell you Italian food cheaply. Anywhere you go, there are streetside stands hawking sizeable nibbles to be enjoyed on the go, delicious and fortifying, for well under five bucks.

Fast food, Italy-style

Italy, like every country, has its own equivalent of fast food. (Oh, sure, it has McDonald's as well, but that's not what I mean.) Every town in Italy is filled with pizza-by-the-slice joints and tavole calde.

A tavola calda (literally "hot table") works like a tiny, high-end cafeteria: you peruse the steaming trays of hot, prepared dishes (rigatoni in ragú, chicken parmigiana, grilled vegetables, ravioli, veal in a lemon sauce...), and pay for your selections by the weight.

You know what? Forget I said anything about "Fast food." This is just delicious food that happened to be inexpensive and fairly quick.

Eat for free

I'm not talking about dine-and-dash here, or flirting your way to having someone else pick up the check. These are two absolutely legitimate ways to eat for free in Italy—and since one method is available around dinnertime (aperitivi bars that lay out enormous selections of canapés, snacks, and finger food) and the other combines breakfast and lunch, it is possible (on occasion) to go a full day during which pay nothing for three square meals... » more

Fixed-price menus

Menù à prezzo fisso (fixed-price menus) are a budget traveler's ticket to full restaurant meals that won't break the bank. They usually include at least two courses, wine and/or water, sometimes even fruit or dessert, plus tax and tip all for one low price—which might be anywhere from $10 to $40. It's usually includes a selection from amongst the medium-priced dishes on the main, a la carte menu.

If, however, it's called a menu degustazione ("tasting menu"), it probably costs a bit more and is something designed to show off the chef's skill. These tasting menus include fancier dishes and far more courses, and are a splurge of $30 to $70, but are usually well worth it (especially as you'll be too stuffed to eat for the next few meals so you save that way).

If it's called a menu turistico ("tourist menu"), each course is likely to offer a small selection from among the cheapest dishes the menu—a savings, sure, but not always a memorable meal (often pasta with tomato sauce followed by a veal or chicken cutlet).

The fine art of the picnic

I've eaten in a lot of fancy restaurants (occupational hazard), and I gotta admit: of the five most memorable meals of my life in Europe, two were picnics.

Hit all the little food specialty shops you can find. Gather loafs of bread, a selection of local cheeses you've never heard of, piles of thinly sliced cured meats, olives, ripe fruit, pickled artichokes, boxes of juice or bottles of wine and water, some pastries, maybe some local chocolates...OK, wait. That's too much. Put some back.

Next, pick out a spot: a grassy slope in the city park, a bench overlooking the ruins, a low stone wall alongside some grape vines or a flock of picturesque sheep, the steps to a shuttered baroque church, the hood of your car parked at a lookout high in the Alps, the middle of an olive grove, or even just back inside your hotel room.

There you have it: a picnic worthy of a king. And it only cost about $5 to $10 per person. » more

Avoid second courses

Most Italian secondi ("seconds," or main courses) are pretty standard fare—meat or fish, simply prepared—and yet are also the most expensive items on the menu. Since a grilled steak is, while quite good, nothing particularly special or unique, you can save money every meal by indulging instead in both an appetizer and a first course rather than a first and a second.

Antipasti (appetizers) and primi (first courses) are where fresh ingredients, homemade pâtés and pastas, and Italian creativity truly shine, as well as where you find the most traditional dishes (because, traditionally, no one could afford much meat anyway). Even skipping the broiled lake trout, you'll still be stuffed by meal's end, and you won't have wasted $20–$50 on something that, frankly, you could probably make at home on the backyard hibachi.

Order half-portions

You don't need to pig out to enjoy Italy's cornucopia of delicious dishes. Just ask for una mezza porzione (a half-portion) and, oh, maybe about 60 percent of the time the waiter will be happy to serve you a pint-sized plate at a reduced price. (This is a great tip for families, too, who might be traveling with kids who order big but end up eating very little).

Tap water is free

In Italy the water you're served at a restaurant is almost always of the bottled sort—acqua minerale—and costs $2 to $5 per bottle. Oh, and by the way: you have to ask for water before you get any (it doesn't arrive on the table automatically, as in the States), specifying gassata (fizzy) or non gassata (still).

But if you ask for aqua dal rubinetto (tap water), you'll get it for free (don't worry; tap water's safe everywhere).

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit I don't follow this particular tip myself, cause I like fizzy water and don't mind paying a bit for it. I even drink it at home.

Pick the Chianti My-Brother-In-Law, '09: Table wine is fantastic

They'll show you a wine list, and it'll probably be loaded with fantastic, memorable bottles of great wines that are almost always far cheaper than what you'd find at restaurants in the States (where there's usually an usurious 400 percent mark-up on wine).

You must resist the temptation. Just smile and ask for the vino della casa, the house table wine. It'll be cheap—often no more than $3 to $10 a liter—and probably most excellent in of itself, sometimes made in the vineyards of the owner's family or in his home village.

As you toast your travel smarts, put that money you saved on wine and all the other tips here to splurge on something that really counts: dessert, and that creamy tiramisù we talked about in the intro.

Mmmm. Culture.

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