For what it’s worth, our rules for eating out in Italy (unless you’re desperate, of course):
1. Avoid any restaurant large enough to accommodate a busload of gawkers. Especially one with bright lights, huge, curtained windows, and elaborate chandeliers. Gaudy is good—just not that kind of gaudy.
2. Avoid any restaurant with English menus out front. Look at what everyone else is eating and point politely—they’ll get a laugh out of it. Never give in to the blandishments of a busker stationed at the door to harangue you inside–if the staff knows how to cook, they won’t need him.
3. Specialized is better. Any place with a sign like “Ristorante Bar Pizzaria” or the like doesn’t care what they serve you, as long as you pay the check. Avoid any restaurant with “pizza” in its sign unless you see that pizza is the only thing they serve (stand-ups are best).
4. Small is beautiful–a TRATTORIA should be the size of your mama’s kitchen, a ROSTICCERIA or SALUMERIA should have a few stools and maybe a table (or a bench in a nearby square). RISTORANTES are for formal dining and often overpriced and overwrought (and see rule #1 above). The classifications have been bastardized over the years, but they still mean something.
5. Avoid major squares and avenues. Ignore foreign guide book recommendations. Avoid any high-traffic area where they assume they’ll never see you again. If you walk by a poorly lit eatery packed with locals (dark or bleached hair and darkish complexions; overalls, old suit jackets, plain shirts, long pants, plunging décolletages; no gawking or selfies), make a note and reserve and/or return for the next meal.
6. Lunch at either 11:55 or 2:15 and dinner at either 6:20 or 9:40. That way you can get in almost anywhere with no notice. If not, reserve with the owner for the next meal on your agenda.
7. Pasta is a first course (Primi Piatti), not an entire meal, especially at lunch (which is dinner). Ristorantes and Trattorias used to enforce this rigidly, but have grown lax with the onrush of tourists. Nevertheless, if the pasta is that good, the meat or fish course will be even better (and portions will be adjusted). Go with the Italian flow.
8. We don’t expect good manners from servers, and if the owner and her bambini are frantically rushing about trying to do everything themselves, so much the better. The food will get to you when it gets to you. The check will come in less time than it takes to grow a beard. Have another glass of wine and enjoy the chaos.
9. Drink a carafe of the house red unless you want to throw money away on a bottle that probably won’t be any better. Same for the white, except start with a glass.
10. If the door is locked near or during opening hours, ring the bell and ask for a table. Seriously. If they’re trying to discourage casual diners, you might have hit the culinary jackpot.
11. Do your research on regional foods and/or ask the owner. Eat Neapolitan in Naples, Tuscan in Florence, Piemontese in Turin, Trentinese in Venice, and Roman in Roma. Don’t expect a great Carbonara in Palermo or a mouth-watering Bolognese in Genoa or terrific Vongole Veraci in Milan. Fish on the coast, meat inland–as a rule anyway, outside of Rome.
12. Tipping will never buy you the love you might crave and has been technically outlawed by the EU anyway. Some Americans still insist on tipping, and in the gaudy tourist joints on the big squares, it’s probably expected—of them. Otherwise, it just marks you out as a foreigner who doesn’t care much about the local scene and will never return. Don’t expect the servers to fawn over someone like that.
13. Eating in Italy is the main event of your day and not just a stop on the way to the leather market or the Coliseum. Expect at least two hours for lunch, and you’ll always come away happy.