April 29, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Clear 20°C

Telling them apart

In it's 17th-century incarnation, an osteria was a place for informal dining in which the house decided the menu.
By Eleonora Baldwin
Published: 2017-04-09

our names form the core of the Italian dining experience: ristorante, trattoria, osteria and pizzeria: Each of these establishments has a clearly defined role, but telling them apart in terms of culture and food isn't as easy as it might have been a generation ago.

For example, all Italian bars serve espresso coffee and pastries. But they also sell soft drinks, sandwiches and alcoholic beverages. Seeing someone at the counter drinking beer or Sambuca for breakfast doesn't faze locals. Conversely, not all osterie will provide the reasonably priced meal in unpretentious surroundings their name suggests. Pizzerie obviously serve pizza, but most aren't open for lunch.

The variety, quality, depth and range of Italy's eating establishments is something most countries can only dream of. Here’s my shortlist of Italian restaurant categories, with a pinch of history thrown in.

Ristorante: The word "restaurant" has its origins in 19th-century French, from restaurer, to "provide food for," literally, "to restore to a former state," which means rest and replenishment. Travel was at the heart of the concept. A restaurant was intended to provide rest as well as food and beverages. During long horse-drawn carriage journeys, travelers normally stopped at staging inns, places with stables and rooms where passengers could freshen up. Rested and after a light meal, they'd climb into a new coach with a fresh set of horses for the next portion of the journey.

The large-scale tavola calda, with its heated dishes, is slowly dying off in Rome.

In time, the food served at staging inns became increasingly important, and the idea of being "restored to a former state" was no longer restricted to sleep, rather included a wider form of nourishment through food and drink. The classic Italian ristorante is an eating establishment seen as more sophisticated than an informal trattoria or a humble osteria, with correspondingly higher prices. Printed menus take the place of verbally recited ones and the check is not scribbled on a notepad leaf, rather presented as a legally valid receipt. By definition the service should be elegant and formal, the menu should be articulate, matched with a similarly comprehensive wine list.

Trattoria: The word trattore is Italian for "tractor" as well as a less common term for "farmer." When smallholders hauled their crops into town to sell at larger markets, it was customary to also drop off goods at communal bake houses (an idea dating back to Ancient Rome). These large facilities were equipped with the neighborhood’s only working coal- or wood-fired ovens. They were where residents brought their food to be cooked, eaten and, in some cases, sold. Produce, chickens, sausages, eggs and other rural goods sourced from the trattore’s land would be consumed in this makeshift eatery. A trattoria was therefore a place for a hearty meal made with fresh, wholesome ingredients pulled straight from the farmer’s land.

That aspect is now obsolete. But the term trattoria remains tied to the idea of serving of informal, unpretentious, homespun food. Atrattoria usually offers seasonal dishes on a not very extensive menu. It features a handful of signature dishes that rotate — in Rome in particular — as weekly specials. Giovedì gnocchi, venerdì baccalà, sabato trippa Each day of the week traditionally is linked to a specific dish, so that on Thursday Romans shape boiled potatoes and flour into gnocchi, on Friday they abstain from eating meat and opt for (what used to be) affordable codfish; on Saturday they splurge on braised tripe. Some historic Rome trattorie still abide by these ancient precepts.

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Eleonora Baldwin

Food-lover Eleonora has two popular blogs, Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino and Roma Every Day.

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