Some Lessons Learned about Eating Out in Rome
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
I feel like it’s important to share something about eating out in Rome because when I see mixed reviews about a restaurant I’m considering online, often the negative reviews have a lot to do with the service. I think normally Americans would say “The service is terrible in Italy!” but I actually think it’s just a totally different approach to dinner service.
Here’s an example. We went out to dinner this week with Mike's brother and his family, who are visiting, at the touristy Da Bucatino in Testaccio, which I thought was excellent, by the way. We ordered a few antipasti and contorni to share as appetizers and then everyone chose one main, mostly primis (aka pastas) but I got a secondi (maialino, suckling pig, very unusual for me but we’ve been having a lot of pasta so I’m branching out). A proper Italian meal is coursed: antipasti (veggies, fritti, etc), primi (pastas), secondi (meat, fish) and contorni (veggies), dolci (dessert). This is an obscene amount of food. So often people - certainly tourists who are eating out almost every meal - will just order either a primi or a secondi.
The way I think of it is, if you’re not following the rules, why should they? If you’re skipping courses and asking for sides as starters, why should they figure out how to properly course your meal?
At Da Bucatino we ordered prosciutto e melone, fagiolini (green beans), scamorza (a cheese served grilled, in this case on bread) to start. Each of those things was from a different section of the menu. Then everyone chose a pasta and I had a meat dish. The prosciutto came first, followed by the green beans shortly thereafter. A few minutes passed and out came the scamorza and my maialino con patate. Fifteen minutes later the pastas arrived.
OK, in the US, I would have been pretty mad. In fact, once I ate at one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, the casual and mostly affordable Limon, which is Peruvian, and they brought out the empanadas, then a whole roast chicken with sides, and 30min later a bunch of ceviche. It was so weird we figured they’d forgotten the ceviche. When we complained they said they bring things out as they are ready (why uncooked fish was not ready while a whole roast chicken, fried empanadas, and several hot sides were we did not discover).
Well, at Da Bucatino I was not mad. Eating involves ritual here and there is a robust food culture in Italy in a way that we just don’t have in the US. So when a bunch of Americans pick from three sections for their starters and conflate secondi and primi, I’m sort of ok with them just being like fine, but you get it on our terms.
After all, this was the same waiter who moved us to a six top even though two of the six were under three, then gently settled WP into her high chair, bringing a pillow for her back and tying a tablecloth to secure her, and who didn’t flinch when she started crying because (no, let’s be honest, I do not know why she was crying). Yes, we have been to places where the waiters don’t really look you in the eye and repeat your order back to you in a way that makes you feel like they’re actually trying to correct your pronunciation, but I don’t think that’s most of where the “bad service” rap comes from.
All I’m trying to say is, you might not get the service you expect in the US, but a lot of the time I think it’s kinda our fault.