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How to spot the Italian restaurants to avoid

Italy's famed cuisine is one of many reasons people love the country so much, but not all restaurants do it justice. To make sure you avoid disappointment, here are a few of the sure signs of a tourist trap.

A couple eat at a restaurant in Venice.
Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP

Dining out in Italy is an integral part of living in or simply visiting Italy. The regional dishes, the high quality ingredients and the faithfulness to culinary heritage are just some of the reasons Italian food is so famous.

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities

Coming to Italy for business, pleasure or even to live, then, should mean you get a slice of that mouthwatering magic no matter which restaurant you step foot in, right? Not so fast.

Cities can be especially tricky places to choose a spot for lunch or dinner. Unfortunately, mass tourism means menus and recipes are often adapted to suit international tastes – and some of them charge eye-watering prices.

There are some obvious red flags for restaurants anywhere – people trying to coax you inside, dishes of congealed food on display in glass cases – but here are a few more Italy-specific tips for spotting the eateries best avoided.

Pictures of food on the menu

As in any other country, this is a dead giveaway that the restaurant is geared towards tourists and not locals. People living there wouldn’t need a visual description of the dishes, would they?

It’s not always true that all tourist traps serve sub-par dishes, but compared to where the locals go, you’re likely to get dumbed down versions of Italian classics – or versions completely adapted to international tastes.

In this case, it’s not even going to be Italian cuisine anymore, as far as Italians are concerned.

So if you see those giant laminated signs with various lascivious photos of alleged Italian specialties, maybe walk on by and see what’s around the corner.


Menu in multiple languages

This is another red flag. While it’s clearly helpful to know what there is to choose from as a tourist, a rule of thumb from experience is, the more languages the menu is translated in to, the worse the quality is.

And if you see a place with pictures of food and menu in multiple languages together? Keep walking.

Red and white chequered tablecloths

The classic, traditional chequered tablecloth is quintessentially Italian. At least in movies like Lady and the Tramp, anyway. Italian restaurants in other countries love to use this prop, complete with candles stuck in Chianti bottles and breadsticks on the tables to complete that ‘authentic’ Italian experience.

But in Italy, it can sometimes be an alarm bell that you are entering a tourist hotspot and mediocre food awaits.

Of course, it’s not always true. Lots of agriturismi The Local’s writers have been to have been adorned with such tablecloths and the food has been abundant and delectable.

But in cities, at least, see them as a sign that you should proceed with caution.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Condiments on the table

Don’t get Italians going with the topic of sauces. Aside from burgers and fries, which obviously isn’t Italian food, condiments are not appreciated in Italian restaurants.

Leave the ketchup, mayo and – heaven forbid – mustard, in the cupboard. You won’t need them in Italian cooking. And equally, if you see condiments on the table in an Italian restaurant, you can be pretty sure you’re not eating in the best restaurant in town.

If your meal requires olive oil and vinegar, these will be brought over to you by the waiter- not left sitting on a table, gathering dust.

Spaghetti bolognese and other Italian ‘adaptations’

If spaghetti bolognese is listed on the laminated picture food menu with descriptions in English, German and French, run for the hills.

This is one of several dishes that are thought of as ‘Italian’ abroad but don’t exist within Italy.

And while you obviously don’t have to order it yourself, its inclusion on a menu doesn’t bode well for the overall standard of cooking. Like ‘fettucine alfredo’ or dubious versions of spaghetti carbonara made with cream, it’s safe to say no self-respecting Italian chef would serve this dish in Italy.


If you’re looking to try the authentic version of this dish, bolognese sauce in Italy is called ragù bolognese and is usually served with the flatter tagliatelle pasta, as it’s better at picking up the meaty sauce than spaghetti.

These distinctions might seem petty and pointless from the outside, but pasta shape – and which sauces they go with – is serious business in Italy.

Try a few authentic dishes for yourself in a good trattoria, and you won’t be able to go back to spag bol: chances are you’ll soon be just as picky about your pasta as the locals.

Have you picked up some tips while eating out in Italy? Let us know in the comments below.

Member comments

  1. Not eating near tourist sites and going into the suburbs, is where the good authentic food and reasonable prices are found.

  2. Well, that is all good and fine, but sometimes not realistic. I am a tourist and hungry, and I don’t have a week to find the one and only super authentic, true, historic, and original restaurant where no one speaks my language and I am looked at as out-of-this-world! If the food tastes good, the service is nice and the staff speaks English, I am glad if the menu is in English!

  3. Ah Wagerners,I am a tourist also when I am in Italy. Your description of yourself seems to be “do as much as possible in a short time.” You should stay with McDonald’s. In every large, tourist-crowded city, you can find many local places to eat a few steps or around the corner from the “tourist restaurant.” Try it… will like it and learn something new in the process. No need for my lecture, I’m sorry your haste and attitude limited the opportunity for an experience of a lifetime. Ciao!

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Is burrata overtaking mozzarella to become the most popular Italian cheese?

Mozzarella has long been Italy's most famous soft cheese, but producers now say burrata has overtaken it after becoming a favourite among international chefs.

Is burrata overtaking mozzarella to become the most popular Italian cheese?

Mozzarella cheese has for years been one of the best-known and most popular Italian foods worldwide – as symbolic of the national cuisine as spaghetti or tiramisu.

But there’s a surprising shift taking place, as burrata, a soft, white cheese often similar in shape and size to mozzarella but with a delicate, cream-filled centre, now appears to be overtaking it in popularity both in Italy and abroad.

Burrata is now the most popular Italian cheese in Italy, Spain, France and the UK, according to one survey by international restaurant booking platform TheFork.

READ ALSO: Are these Italian cheeses really the best in the world?

Their research looked at the number of online searches for keywords related to Italian dairy products over the past 12 months in these four countries, and in all cases burrata came ahead of mozzarella. 

In Italy, burrata was the fifth most popular search term, with mozzarella coming seventh, the study found.

Burrata cheese can be a similar shape and size to mozzarella, but its soft, creamy centre has converted many international chefs. Photo by Iñigo De la Maza on Unsplash

This trend mirrored the controversial findings of the TasteAtlas World Atlas of Traditional Cuisine earlier in 2023, which placed eight Italian cheeses in the world’s top ten, with burrata in third place and mozzarella (specifically mozzarella di bufala campana DOP) in seventh.

This ranking drew international attention after its publication in February – particularly in France, as no French cheeses at all were included in the top ten.

The rising popularity of burrata in Italy and abroad means producers are now rushing to increase their production capacity, according to Italian news reports.

Burrata is produced in the southern Italian region of Puglia, which has held the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation for the cheese since 2016.

READ ALSO: DOP and PGI: What do Italy’s food and wine labels really mean?

The Deliziosa cheese company in Noci, in the province of Bari, has recently invested €10 million into installing four new burrata production and packaging lines, set to double production capacity by the summer of 2024, according to newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The company says burrata already surpasses mozzarella in terms of turnover, accounting for half of its €126 million revenue in 2022. 

A significant portion of this production is destined for international markets, with exports making up approximately 40 percent.

Company owner Giovanni D’Ambruoso says burrata’s rise to international fame began in 2017 as more producers travelled to international food fairs such as those in Cologne and Paris.

“I remember that when we went to Cologne in 2015, the only burrata was ours; from 2017 onwards, everyone had it. I would say that burrata became international six years ago.”

He says international chefs had also “helped us a lot in promoting burrata by using it in many dishes abroad.”

However, producers warn that this international recognition has inspired the creation of “imitation” burrata, as already happens with mozzarella, when similar-looking products are made outside of the IGP area or even outside of Italy.

“There are more and more imitative foreign products that evoke burrata,” states Francesco Mennea, director of the Consorzio di Tutela della Burrata di Andria IGP, the protection consortium for burrata in the province of Andria.

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between parmesan cheese and Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano?

In Puglia, both burrata and mozzarella are traditionally made by hand, and local producers say this is what sets the IGP product apart.

“Now that everyone is producing burrata, in Italy and abroad, we are trying to make a difference by still making it by hand. We only need machines for the post-production stage,” D’Ambruoso says.

The growing trade in counterfeit versions of Italian food and drink – from imitation prosecco to ‘parma’ ham – was worth 120 billion euros in 2023, according to farmers’ association Coldiretti.