Ristorante Etiquette

By

Trattoria

I have discussed many an etiquette over the last few months as it is something that interests me. I find it curious that different people behave in different ways because of the way they have been brought up. Different countries and cultures are have their own etiquette when it comes to behaviour, and even the simplest of things are done in a wide variety of ways.

Today, it is the turn of the restaurant.

Behaviour in restaurants in the UK is pretty much set in stone, and apart from fast food places, etiquette rarely differs from one place to another. In my experience, it is usually a good idea to telephone the restaurant before leaving the house to ensure they aren’t fully-booked or holding a private function. During the week this rarely creates a problem, but on Fridays and Saturdays it is always a good idea to book a table or at minimum check availability. To me, this is common courtesy and can save disappointment should the place be crammed to the rafters.

On arrival, the general idea is to loiter near the main entrance until somebody comes over to greet you. Some restaurants have a desk and may even have a permanent staffer waiting to take your coats and direct you to a table. Even Little Chefs make an attempt at doing this, although I don’t believe they offer to disrobe you. The staff show you to your table, ask for drinks and hand out menus. They will (if applicable) bring the Specials Board to your attention and may even suggest the chefs speciality dish, or what the restaurant has that is fresh that day. Some restaurants, particularly those offering seafood, change the menu daily to offer what has been caught. Sometimes certain things are out of season or simply uncatchable that day!

A waiter will bring your drinks over and give you 10 to 15 minutes to decide. The order is taken, and experienced waiters will always answer questions and make suggestions. A good way to tell if the employee is new is to ask, “What would the chef recommend today?” and then watch the waiter stumble over their words and look worryingly towards another waiter.

Most meals would simply consist of a starter, main and dessert. The starter is usually light, as you’d expect, and the desert is typically sweet. Drinks before and during with maybe a coffee afterwards. Most British people tend to eat quite quickly and the meal tends to not last very long. I’m not saying we are impolite, far from it. But I do think the culture from our homes (eating rushed microwaved-meals in front the TV) has spilled over into the dining-out culture. We always seem to be late for something else, and I think this affects the way we enjoy (or not) our meals.

After finishing, drinks are finished and conversations wind down. When the person who is paying manages to catch a waiters eye, the bill is asked for and bought over to the table. Either a card is placed on the tray, or a wad of cash from each person, depending on the group. Whenever there has been a lot of people, I tended to pay using my debit card (as I’m always the one with little cash on them) and everyone pays me cash. This also means I can avoid the inevitable argument of, I only had a cheap meal, therefore I should pay less. It would appear that British people still get hung up on money, even when it is only a matter of a few pence.

Once the waiter has accepted payment, a tip of about 10% is left, or added to the card payment. I always try to leave cash as adding the gratuity to the card payment can mean the staff do not get to see it. And I only leave a tip if I felt the service was satisfactory.

When I compare our eating habits to Italy, us Brits look like uncultured savages!

When Claire and I first ventured into an Italian trattoria, we felt completely out of place and probably looked equally so to the other diners.

Firstly, Italian restaurants rarely get full simply because there are so many of them. For sure, the famous places in the cities probably get booked up, but these are so few and far between it isn’t even worth talking about them. Most restaurants are within walking distance of each other, even in the remote hill towns and Italian culture tends to be, “We may look full, but if you give me 2 minutes to borrow a table and chair from next door, I’ll squeeze you into the corner!” No, Italian restaurants are never too full to accept a customer.

When you arrive, don’t do what we did and wait by the door for someone to greet you. Just march straight in, take a quick glance around to see where you would like to sit, and sit down. If a waiter is wandering around, they will greet you as you head over to your table, or will mutter something in your direction as he* dances around the tables.

The reason for this is because most trattorias/ristorantes employ a chef, a waiter and an old man to sit in the corner to read a paper. That is it – just 3 people. It doesn’t matter how big the place is, or how many people eat there – just 3 staff. Well, 2 staff and 1 old man. So as you can imagine, the waiter is always busy rushing around getting drinks and serving food. He doesn’t have time to stand still and take your coats, ask you how your holiday is going or escort you to a table.

Initially, this made me feel a little uncomfortable as I felt it was rude to walk in and take a seat. What if it was reserved, what if the waiter didn’t want us to sit there? But that is the way of life in Italy, and we soon got used to it. We also learned that – if the restaurant looks busy – we should help ourselves to menus, usually placed on a central table or on the side. Sometimes the waiter is grateful for those who help themselves.

If the place is busy, you shouldn’t wait for the waiter. Choose your drinks and when the he is next walking past just raise your voice and look at him while you ask for your beverages. The waiter will rarely stop, so you have to be quick or increase your volume as he moves away. Again, if you show the waiter courtesy by not interrupting his flow, your drinks will soon arrive. Generally, an aperetif is taken before the meal. This is (as I read in Annie Hawes’ book – Extra Virgin) to open your stomach in readiness for a large meal. I do not know if this is true or not, but a lot of European countries do it. Coffee – by the way – closes the stomach, hence why it is drunk after the meal.

Antipasto is the starter. It consists of sliced cold meats, which can either be cooked or uncooked. Maybe some bread and a variety of oils to dip in. Bruschetta has become popular, and consists of thick toast, oil and fresh tomatoes.
Prima Piatti – Pasta and soup. Minestrone is the staple soup, but there are others and some restaurants offer a speciality. Pasta is a favourite starter as well, and comes in more varieties than you thought possible.
Seconda Piatti – The main course which consists of either meat or seafood. The seafood is always fresh and again, menus tend to change with the seasons. Meat is often cooked over charcoal and is of a very high quality.
Contorni and Insalata – usually eaten with the main course and is essentially a side dish of seasonal vegetables or salad.
Dolce or frutta is a desert of either sweet (dolce) or fruit.
Digestivi – again, usually alcoholic and mirrors the aperetivi. It is apparently meant to help digestion.

So there are lots of courses, more so than us Brits anyway. Italians tend to take their time eating their meals, and often there are long pauses between courses and conversation never stops. It is also worth noting that a table at a typical Italian restaurant will consist of many generations of one family. They all go out together to enjoy a meal, from the 90+ grandparents to the 5 year old children. And generally speaking, I haven’t seen one poorly behaved child. For sure, I have seen a child get stroppy or a little loud, but being with so many family members, there is always someone to put the child in its place.

Italians aren’t so concerned over the bill like us Brits are, and customers will often leave the approximate amount on the table and leave, often without a glance at the waiter. I have done this myself when I can see the waiter is in full flow, and it feels again quite uncomfortable. But I think the waiters appreciate this. The menus (if you ever get to see one) will always state if service is included or not. If it is, a tip is not expected, but again, even if it is a few coins, it is always accepted. If service is not included, then about 10% is the norm – although most people just round up to avoid having to wait for change. Again, helping out the waiter is the primary objective when eating out in Italy!

I have to mention one restaurant Claire and I visited a lot in San Cipriano. Taverna del Lago is one of those places that deserves nothing but praise. It is a typical countryside restaurant that caters for both local families, passing businessmen and tourists from all over the world.

The first time we went, it was quite early (about 6pm or something) but we had an early lunch and were feeling hungry. We hung around waiting to catch a member of staff, but after 10 minutes of waiting, we ventured inside (it had an outside eating area, that was also larger than the inside – I love Italy’s climate) and found some menus. Still standing, we leafed through them until a tall thin chap who looked no older than 25 said in pretty good English, The kitchen is not open ’til 7pm, maybe 7.30pm. The bar does panini (sandwiches) if you like.

We just ordered a couple of beers and sat outside while the waiter set the tables for the evening. He occasionally smiled as he passed and I think we made him feel uncomfortable because we were not doing what Italians usually do. He probably wanted to suggest we sit by the lake and stay out his way while he does his job, but couldn’t think of the polite English phrasing. Instead, at a little past seven, he came over and made some brief conversation. He translated the menu quite well and every attempt was followed by a smile. As we attempted to return his goodwill with a bit of Italian, he simply noted it down on the pad, and questioned/corrected only a couple of times. The food was superb and the service was great. Being a very large and very popular restaurant, they employed more than one waiter, and they also employed some foreign people who may have been taking a year out of uni. There were a couple of British girls there, but I think the Italian staff got fed up with their shyness and inability to speak the language. Having said that, they were not allowed the easy life and they rarely were allowed to come over to assist us (and other English-speaking diners) with our ordering.

To sum up, the Italians don’t have time to be asked what they want, but they can’t spend long enough with the meal itself. They never stop talking during the meal and the atmosphere is always fantastic. They don’t care how you pay, just as long as you do, and the lack of service is made up by excellent food.

English restaurants are little more strict. More control is placed with the waiters, and whilst service is usually very attentive, this can occasionally be spoiled by the sense of urgency. Even before you leave your seat, the table is re-laid for the next guests! I cannot decide if this is a good or bad thing, but I do know that the reason for dining out is to eat good food in a good atmosphere and to not have to do any dishes afterwards. If that is what eating out is, then I would have to favour Italy over Britain, simply because the food is better. Even if I do end up feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed at not knowing the correct etiquette, the beautiful weather and fantastic food makes up for the lack of attention from the staff.