Travelling in Europe is undeniably expensive and Italy is certainly no exception. Most travellers on a budget expect their eating options to be limited and the availability of the high quality, world renowned Italian cuisine to be out of their reach. Fortunately, in reality, there are many varied and affordable options on offer, even in the packed tourist destinations such as Venice and Florence.
Without a doubt, Italy is a gastronomic heavyweight with an abundance of fine restaurants to choose from. But it is not difficult to enjoy some of this cuisine without leaving a huge dent in your budget. You simply need to know where to look. Although this can take a bit of work in the heavily commercialised tourist destinations, the money saved is well worth the effort.
Breakfast (colazione) is key. If you have breakfast included with your accommodation, ensure to make the most of it. The more you eat the less you will have to spend later on snacks and big lunches. Most hotel breakfasts in Italy are buffet style continental fare of bread, cake, cereal and fruit. If you do not have breakfast included, why not do as the Italians do? (When in Rome…) In Italy it is common to have a pastry followed by a quick espresso in one of the many cafes or bakeries. Austrian influence has resulted in there being a wide range of Viennoiserie with favourites such as cream filled brioche while French influence has created a collection of Italian croissants or cornetti. These can cost as little as 3 euros but make sure you don’t sit down! The price if you stand at the counter or bar to have your food is usually about half that of the seated price. This can also apply in bars.
When you visit your local Italian restaurant you will see that the menu is set out in a specific format. This can be up to five courses. Although the menu format is the same in Italy, here you can pick and choose as you like. So it is possible only to have a main course. However, in Italy you are expected to have at least two to three courses. This would normally be a pasta course (primo) followed by a meat or fish course (secondo), a dessert (dolci) and a coffee (caffè). This is of course expensive and can be quite a lot of food, even for your main evening meal. While you can order one course, I wouldn’t recommend it. Even in restaurants in the most commercialised cities you will get bad service and a sense that you are unwelcome if you do so. That said, while Italian service is usually slow, it is almost always attentive and friendly.
There are several ways to avoid this situation. The commonsense option is to stay away from restaurants at the centre and those near popular monuments, as they are the most expensive and tourist orientated. Although it is possible to get a cheap meal, for example on Rome’s main square for about 12 euros for two courses, the food is usually of average or even poor quality with frozen food predominating (read the small print of the menu!). Family run trattorias are the best option if you want to enjoy a traditional Italian evening meal with a warm and welcoming atmosphere at a much lower price. These establishments have a smaller menu featuring regional specialities and are usually further from the centre. But they are normally within walking distance of the main sites allowing you to mingle with the locals and get away from the crowds of tourists.
The cheapest option is to avoid having your main meal in the evening. Lunchtime deals can be extremely good value for money, even in the city centres. I enjoyed an amazing three course meal with a glass of wine for only 10 euros directly behind Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. This then allows you to take advantage of aperitivi. This Italian innovation is a direct response to the harsh economic climate, as it allows you to buy any drink for between 5 and 8 euros with a buffet of breads, pizza and even pasta included. As long as you don’t finish your drink you can fill up your plate as many times as you like! Aperitivi is available in most bars in the big cities from between around 5 to 9 pm and is popular with young travellers and locals alike.
So Italian cuisine needn’t be out of reach of those on a budget. By simply acting more like an Italian than a tourist you can save a lot of money and still enjoy incredible food.