Primo, Secondo, Contorno, Dolce e Antipasto, Coperto, Servizio e Mancia …. a few words that could make complicate the relationship between restaurants in Rome and their international customers.
The first thing to say is that in Rome the 80% of restaurants are Italian, so not a big choice … but for sure this is what people want to eat in Rome.
The second thing to know is that there is a number of restaurants which (unfortunately) are meant for tourists, the so called “tourist traps”, but at the same time there is a huge number of restaurants which offer authentic Italian good quality cuisine.
The local family run restaurants in Rome usually have clear opening hours: lunch between 12:30 and 3:00 pm – dinner between 7:00 pm and 11:00 pm. On the other side, tourist traps are opened also when Italians would never eat … so if you like to be sure to choose a local restaurant with good food go for a restaurant which “respects” the “Roman” opening hours. On the other side, if you want to choose restaurant for dinner without making a reservation, try to be early on their opening hours (arrive before the Italians who eat after 8:00 pm – the best timing for international tourists is between 7:00 and 7:30 pm)
Another thing to know is the order of courses: usually first is Antipasto (starter), then Primo Piatto (first dish: usually pasta), then Secondo Piatto (second dish: usually meat or fish) together with contorno (usually vegetables or potatoes you eat together with meat or fish), and then dolce (dessert) … at the end café (cappuccino is allowed after dinner despite what many people think). Usually Limoncello or Amaro is offered.
Please remember that some restaurants are still old fashioned: if you order a pasta (first dish – primo piatto) and your wife “Saltinbocca alla Romana” (second dish – secondo piatto) they might bring them in two different times … so tell the waiter to bring both dishes together (if you want to eat at the same time).
Another myth that many travelers to Italy still have, it is that going to a restaurant you have to eat all … a full Italian three courses dinner or lunch … otherwise the restaurant owner would look bad at you: if this was true 30 years ago, nowadays nobody expects customers to eat “Antipasto, Primo, Secondo, Contorno & Dolce”. So be free to take whatever you like!
One suggestion anyway is to check the bill (“Conto“) to see if it is correct, and you don’t have in it, by mistake, dishes that you didn’t order.
One voice that you can find in your bill, is “Coperto” … a small amount per person quite usual in Italy and usually it covers the bread and the “things” you find on the table (usually 2/ 3 EUR per person). To see a “service” charge (“Servizio”) is quite unusual on the other way, but it might happen even in non-touristy places.
Another unusual thing, it is to see a charge for bread (which is usually included in the “Coperto” voice). Usually it is 2/3 EUR.
It is quite unusual to ask for tap water instead of the bottled water. Even if tap water is good and drinkable almost everywhere in Italy, and for sure in Rome, Italians are used to pay for the water.
As for wine, the so called “Vino della Casa” is usually ok in the good home style restaurants (the so called “Trattorie”). On the other side if you order a bottled wine, try to have the situation well under control: do not leave to the waiter the “power” to choose the right wine for you, as long as you don’t have a fortune to spend.
Tipping is not a must in Rome (in general in Italy). If you don’t tip nobody would be offended. The waiters have their salary. Of course, tipping is always a nice gesture, especially if you are happy with the service offered. Usually tips are left in cash on the table (never with credit cards) and usually an amount between 5 and 10% of the total amount (or you can simply round the price).