There are hundreds of coffee guides, pages of general rules and traveler manifestos, lists of places to see and cultural guides for Italy. Even at this blog!
But there’s one piece of advice that I never see, though I’ve experienced it time and time again:
Make restaurant reservations ahead of time
In big cities like Rome and Milan this is only necessary if you’re determined to eat in a particular restaurant. Otherwise there will always be a table available somewhere. But in the small towns that this blog loves so much that’s not the case. In small and medium towns the restaurants tend to be small – and popular.
For an American in Italy this might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a question of simple math. In Italy it takes roughly 90 minutes for a dinner party to finish their meal (though it can be much more). If there are only 20 eateries in town each with 6 tables and dinner is served from 7 to 10 pm, when can you get a table? And of course that’s if you’re the only one searching for a table, which, you’re not.
Our night out in Padova was nearly a disaster when we realized that we risked to skip dinner entirely (me 5 months pregnant and not happy!). We arrived in Modena well into lunchtime and stopped at multiple places before finding one that had the room and the open kitchen to sit us and finally, in Ferrara, home of our long-coveted salame da sugo, we were turned away again and again and again, until we resigned ourselves to eating cold deli food at a sad cafe.
So if you’re touring small-town Italy and food is important to you, book your restaurant for lunch and dinner.
Here’s how even if you don’t know Italian:
Ask your hotel
Use online sites
You can make reservations directly from your phone on sites like TripAdvisor or The Fork, and the latter even has discounts for certain restaurants online!
Drop by beforehand
Though Marco and I can obviously call ahead to book in Italian, dropping by beforehand works best for us. We can tour a town all morning and when we find a promising place, we go in to request a table for lunchtime. Then, we already know where it is and it’s easy to find when it’s time to eat! Though Ferrara was a miss for us, in Ravenna we ate at the most characteristic restaurant in the town Ca’ de Vèn (mentioned in this NY Times article also!) through this method. Our table was ready right as the rain came pouring down and dozens of travelers flooded into the restaurant looking for a dry place to rest. Luckily, we were there ahead of time!
I constantly preach about the beauty of small towns, but I’ve realized that there are a few logistical notes a traveler needs to know if they want to visit one. First, it can be a bit more difficult to get to. Second, you might not know what to do without a major site to see. Third, it’s small, so space is limited both in hotels and restaurants. Finally, English is far less spoken here, so asking directions or making reservations can be dicey.
Don’t worry, it can be done and it’s well worth it! After being turned away constantly in Padova, Cividale di Friuli, Orvieto, Modena and Ferrara we’ve finally learned our lesson. Next small town, we’ll book ahead!