Italian Eateries: Ristorante, Trattoria, and the Osteria

Italian Eateries: Ristorante, Trattoria, and the Osteria

Oscar Wilde once said, “Non riesco a sopportare quelli che non prendono seriamente il cibo.” Meaning, “I can’t stand people who do not take food seriously.” In Italy, food is taken very seriously. So too are the designation of their dining establishments.

Many North American eateries boast of having the most authentic Italian food. They often throw Italian words like ristorante, trattoria, or osteria into their titles. While these titles may add to the impression of authenticity – both because they are Italian-sounding and, ergo, the majority of people do not understand them – they hold a very distinct meaning in Italy in terms of culture, history, and economics. They belong to a classification system that differentiates exactly what type of eatery you are dining in. In most cases, it indicates the class of people dining there.

The most common title that we see in North America is the Ristorante. As suspected, a ristorante is a restaurant – a place where meals and drinks are sold and served to customers. But traditionally a ristorante is more upmarket and formal. In Italy, the term came into use to describe elegant and sophisticated dining establishments. These are the places where professionals like bankers, politicians, and movie stars eat. They feature expensive foods that are not limited to season and locality, assert the most decorous service etiquette, and require many, many forks.

Less formal than a ristorante is the Trattoria. It is a casual and unpretentious place to dine. Although more formal than the bare-bones osteria, a trattoria makes the best of local favorites, and features an ever changing seasonal menu. Oftentimes there are no printed menus and the service is very casual. Local wine is sold by the decanter and prices are low. These were places where stall owners and shopkeepers could retire for a long lunch in the marketplace.

The trattoria, although still offering a pleasant and luxurious dining experience, operates as more of a fast-food venue. Emphasis is on steady clientele rather than on haute cuisine, so the portions are larger and are sometimes served family-style at common tables. The word trattoria is equivalent with the French traiteur—meaning a catering business with the purpose of providing take-out food. Although many trattorie have adopted restaurant-style practices (such as upscale quality and atmosphere,) traditionally the trattoria is the closest Italy gets to a fast-food venue.

The Osteria was traditionally an informal place with very low prices. Note the stem: ospitalita (hospitality). This is the bare minimum provision for a dining experience, like a food court or an inn. Osterias were actually used until the 1960’s as a place where only wine was served and people would bring their own food. Such places peppered the countryside, feeding and housing traveling pilgrims for a night in exchange for a few coins.

Nowadays, the actual meaning of these titles is primarily lost. You can find very expensive and upscale restaurants called trattoria or osteria, and vice-versa. Despite the pretentious wait staff, you can find poor quality cuisine in a ristorante. If you are looking for expensive fare, often featuring seafood and snobbery, or the odd aging TV personality, by all means visit a ristorante. If you are looking to enjoy local fare, enchanting roadside charm, and to eat in the company of interesting and eccentric locals, visit the widely beloved trattoria. If you are weary, lost, in need of sustenance, and if you do not mind drunkards and fleas, the osteria is your refuge.