Our first time in Italy was in November 2017. We arrived at 5pm on a weeknight after a long day of travel from Austria. We dropped off our suitcases at our Airbnb and headed out with James the Poodle in search of dinner. We were excited about having a nice early dinner and avoiding the crowds. We were in for a BIG surprise: restaurants in Italy don’t open until 7pm or 7:30pm! It is crazy! We did not expect this at all.
It turns out that in Italy, there is a schedule for food and drinks.
In the morning, you stop at your neighborhood bar for a coffee. Bars in Italy are not like bars in the US – these are more like cafes. In the morning they serve coffee and pastries. In the morning is when you order your coffee drink with milk. Cappuccinos and lattes are not ordered after lunch time. And when you do enjoy your coffee and pastry at the bar, you stand at the bar to enjoy them. You don’t sit down at a table. At most bars, they charge a coperto, or cover charge, if you want to sit and have your breakfast.
Then at lunch time you enjoy your lunch and head home for an afternoon nap or rest. We’ve been calling this a â€œPauseâ€ pronounced Austrian/German style with the e on the end – like â€œPowsza.â€
Many businesses are actually closed from 12-3pm in Italy. And these hours are SUPER relaxed – meaning – you could arrive at 11:47 and they have already left for lunch. And on the other end, sometimes they might open back up at 3pm one day and it might be 3:40pm the next day. Everyone is just so relaxed and not in a hurry at all.
Then in the mid-afternoon, Italians head back to the bars for an espresso and sweet for their afternoon pick-me-up. Just like with breakfast – you don’t sit down at a table (unless you want to pay more or look like a tourist or heck – sometimes you just need a break from all the walking and exploring and that is okay, too).
Then around what we call early dinner time in the US – around 5pm-8pm is the happy hour. But happy hour turns to happy hours here in Italy and it is called the aperitivo. It isn’t that anyone is ordering shots or hard liquors. Instead almost EVERYONE has an aperitif in their hand – a red, sparkling drink. There are two common aperitif drinks: An Aperol spritz or a Campari spritz. The Aperol or the Campari is mixed with sparkling water and served over ice with a lemon or orange slice. There are usually snacks served during aperitivo, too. Some bars have simple snacks like nuts and olives and other bars have a huge spread of foods and those are usually included when you order an aperitif. I decided to try both drink at different occasions in Italy. The Aperol spritz is light and sweet with just a hint of bitters. The Campari is much more bitter and not sweet. The aperitif is said to stimulate your digestion and get you ready for a big dinner later. The aperitivo is a social event. You don’t go to drink away a long hard day. You go to catch up with your friends or you go out with someone on a first date.
By 7pm or 7:30pm, the restaurants in Italy start to open. An early dinner in Italy is considered to be 8pm! For us coming from the US, 8pm is a late dinner! Dinner in Italy is also a long, slow meal. This is the case in a lot of other countries we visited, too. I think as Americans we are used to racing through our dinners. This is partly because we are always in a hurry to get to the next thing in life: runs to the grocery store, soccer games for our kids, our favorite TV show, etc. I also think US restaurants are designed to get you in and get you out so they can serve another set of guests and make more money. We tried to get in to a restaurant in Treviso, Italy when we first arrived and they were full. But there were SO many empty tables. Why couldn’t they squeeze us in? We ended up grabbing a quick slice of pizza and an hour later, the tables still weren’t full. But when we walked by again it was finally full. And the same set of customers sat at the same tables all night. They were there for hours and they don’t plan on using the same table twice in one evening. We figured this out when we went out to eat. You don’t just rush in and rush out. You sit for a while – enjoying each and every course slowly.