Stretching Your Dollar in Italy

Dine at the local bar

By Kristi Nelson Cohen

Rising exchange rates don’t have to put you in the red when traveling in Italy. With record high Euro exchange rates, travelers can stretch their dollar when dining by trying some new dining options.

Eating is a pure pleasure for Italians and visiting guests. Italians take their meals very seriously and a full 3-5 course dinner in a fancy ristaurante can eat into a travel budget quickly. In order to stretch a budget, try these simple tips.

Breakfast is often included in a hotel’s room package. If it is not, follow the locals to a neighborhood bar for your morning coffee and pastry. A bar in Italy is not a place to consume alcohol and dance the night away. They are fancy little candy box establishments, found on nearly every corner. Italian bars are the place where patrons socialize over their morning coffee (sometimes several times each morning), return for a light lunch, and arrive again in the evening for an apertivo or cocktail before dinner.

Bars in busier cities, especially those in tourist areas, traditionally charge one price to stand at the counter (al banco) or a higher price to sit at one of their café-style tables (al tavolo). If you want to sit and enjoy the view, then the price is usually worth it. A coffee that might cost 1.50 Euro at the counter could cost twice as much to sit at a table. During the late morning/afternoon and evening hours, service at a table traditionally includes some salty snacks like potato chips or nuts, even olives, with your beverage.

If you choose to stand at the counter, patrons traditionally pay the cashier, and then present their receipt to the barista who will complete the coffee order.

Most bars have a tasty selection of pizza and panini.

Italians consume a variety of coffee drinks throughout the day. Most will start the day with a cappuccino which is a shot of espresso served in a large cup with steamed milk and topped with frothy milk foam. Most Italians will not drink cappuccino after mid morning but switch to other coffee drinks. Of course, they’re happy to accommodate tourist requests for cappuccino at any time of the day.

Later in the morning, and throughout the day and into the evening, Italians consume what they call caffe which is espresso, or a small cup of very strong coffee topped with a delicious caramel colored foam called crema. This coffee is rich and strong, and usually sweetened with sugar. Espresso is the basis for most Italian coffee drinks.

If you want a weaker version of coffee that resembles what Americans drink, order a caffe Americano which is a shot of espresso with steamed hot water in a larger cup.
This is also called caffe lungo.

If you want to be more adventurous, order a caffe corretto which is espresso corrected with a shot of liquor like grappa, cognac or flavored liquor. Nothing warms your heart faster or settles a full stomach.

Besides serving fantastic coffee throughout the day, an Italian bar usually offers a selection of sandwiches called pannini. These can make an affordable option for lunch or dinner. Some bars also offer a limited selection of pre-made one dish meals, like pasta or vegetables. These establishments are referred to as tavolo caldo. A simple one-course meal with a mineral water aqua minerale or a house wine (vino della casa) is an exceptional value for the traveler.

Italians traditionally dine relatively late (8-9 p.m.) for dinner. After a long day of touring, visitors might opt for a lighter, less expensive option for dinner. Many of the local bars offer light snacks to entice cocktail business. Some wine bars also offer a variety of little sandwiches, potato croquettes and grilled vegetables either complementary or for a very reasonable price.

In Venice in particular, this selection of snacks is referred to as Cichetti. Combined with a spritz (cocktail made from Campari and Prosecco) or a great glass of local wine, these light snacks can make for a satisfying dinner.

Each region of Italy offers regional food fares, typical for that area. The Cichetti in Venice may include such items as marinated sardines, Bacala which is a salt fish cod spread for bread or polenta and deep friend calamari. Antipasto offerings in Tuscany may be a selection of salamis, cheeses and olives.

In Rome, the antipasto might be crusty bread with tomato, herb and olive oil topping called Buschetta or a sampling of small slices of freshly-made pizza.

Whatever, the region, the food is delicious, fresh and attractively prepared. Even the simple selections from a bar will satisfy your hunger and your quest for a delicious yet affordable meal.

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