Italian Food Restaurants ‐ Ristorante, Trattoria, and Osteria
Italian food restaurants have really grown in popularity over the past fifty years. In the wake of World War II, many soldiers traveled home to America, Europe, and across the globe, taking the flavors of Italy with them. From the neighborhood pizzerias to the elegant family-style banquet halls, just about every aspect of Italy’s diverse cuisine is well represented.
But not all Italian food restaurants are created equal. Upon closer examination, you may find that one eating establishment is billing itself as a “trattoria,” while the one across the street is a “ristorante.” They both obviously serve Italian food, so what’s the difference?
At one time in Italy, eateries were strictly defined by what type of food they served. These days, the distinction between restaurant types has faded somewhat, as the global popularity of Italian food has continued to spread. More often than not, especially in the U.S., terms like “ristorante” are just fancy words used to lend an air of Italian pretension. But for the purists, there are three distinct types of Italian food eateries: ristorante, trattoria, and osteria.
Ristorante: Fine Dining
A ristorante refers to a full service restaurant. The term came to use in Italy in the late nineteenth century to describe dining establishments that were sophisticated and elegant. These are the types of restaurants you’ll usually find listed in travel guides, with a lot of stars after their name. Most require reservations, and guests will be greeted and seated by a host or hostess. The wait staff (including a sommelier) should be experienced with proper service etiquette and well versed in food and wine. The food should be expertly prepared and served over several courses. For the food, service, and atmosphere of the ristorante, expect to pay a premium price.
Trattoria: Casual Dining
A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, offering casual service and medium-priced dishes. You’re expected to seat yourself, and there may or may not be a printed menu. Sometimes the offerings of the day are handwritten on a chalkboard, or simply recited by your foodserver. The cuisine is generally simple but good, and often served family style. An Italian trattoria is often family owned and operated, and can be found in neighborhoods, small towns, and rural areas. However, in the U.S., the word is often tacked onto the name of an average restaurant to make it sound more Italian.
Osteria: Bar Food
Finally, the osteria is the least formal of the three restaurant types. At one time, an osteria was simply an inn that served wine and simple food. But over the years, osteria has come to refer to any gathering place that serves wine and some basic foods, much like an English pub or an American bar. In fact, sometimes the words osteria and taverna are used interchangeably. The osteria has faded somewhat from the Italian scene, but hasn’t vanished altogether. You can still find a few in the U.S., in the Italian neighborhoods of larger cities, although more and more Italian food restaurants have taken to calling themselves ristorante or trattoria.