Summary List Placement
- Chefs told Insider that certain dishes at Italian restaurants are always worth ordering whereas others are often a rip-off or something you’re better off making at home.
- Ordering a braised dish, homemade pasta, or another meal that takes a long time to make is a smart way to spend your money.
- Pass on the garlic bread unless it is served in a traditional style.
- You should probably avoid ordering the cacio e pepe since it’s a three-ingredient meal that’s very cheap and quick to make at home.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Many Italian restaurants serve up some seriously tasty classics, but not everything on the menu is equal.
Insider consulted with real chefs to pinpoint which common Italian-restaurant offerings are worthy of space on your plate and which are better prepared at home – or skipped altogether.
Here’s what to order and what to avoid next time you visit an Italian eatery.
Ordering a braised dish is a smart way to spend your money.
Second-generation Italian chef Natale Servino of Servino Ristorante in Tiburon, California, told Insider that ordering a braised dish is a wise option because they are often quite labour-intensive to make.
Braising involves patiently searing or frying food in a pan at a high temperature before cooking it at on low heat in a covered dish with a small amount of liquid.
“Braised dishes can take up to 12 hours to create. I will always order a meat sugo with a pasta or braised meats when dining out, as it’s a way to enjoy the taste of braised items without the labour of making them yourself,” said Servino.
An Italian restaurant is the ideal place to indulge in lasagna.
Personal chef and nutritionist Melissa Eboli told Insider that lasagna is an Italian staple, but it can be a real pain to make at home since it’s a layered dish made with strata of flat pasta and fillings such as meat, vegetables, and cheese.
“Lasagna is actually a very time-consuming and labour-intensive dish to make by yourself. Enjoy someone else’s preparation of it at a restaurant, as a good lasagna is worth spending money on,” said Eboli.
Unlike some more delicate Italian dishes, lasagna actually freezes and reheats very well – so don’t be shy about taking home leftovers and enjoying them the next day.
Handmade pasta is a treat you shouldn’t overlook.
Chef and restaurant consultant Julia Helton told Insider that when you’re at an Italian eatery where chefs make their own pasta, you should always try to sample some.
“It’s possible to make your own pasta, but doing it regularly is a hassle. Nicer Italian restaurants have a person on staff who only makes pasta. There is nothing like freshly made pasta; it makes going back to the dried stuff really difficult,” said Helton.
The best way to appreciate handmade pasta, which is often made daily with real eggs, is to order it with a sauce that enhances rather than conceals its natural flavour.
For example, you might want to pair it with a light drizzle of olive oil or a thin tomato sauce rather than a heavy Alfredo sauce.
Veal dishes like osso buco are usually worth the extra money.
“I love ordering osso buco because veal shanks are hard to find in many local food stores. Plus, this dish takes hours to make and I often don’t have the time to spend cooking it at home,” said Shunk.
Somewhat similar dishes like veal Marsala, veal piccata, and veal scallopini with mushrooms are also tasty options that would be time-consuming to create from scratch, but usually earn their lofty restaurant price tags.
Arancini are a deep-fried Italian comfort food.
“One dish I love to order at Italian restaurants is arancini. They are very time-consuming to make at home and involve frying, which I try not to do often. However, I just love them so I treat myself when I am out,” said Shunk.
Warm, savoury, and often bite-sized, arancini are small rice balls that are typically stuffed with tasty morsels like cheese, peas, or ragú (a meat-based sauce).
The balls are then breaded and fried before being served hot, either alone or paired with a dipping sauce.
Although meat is a traditional arancini filling, many restaurants offer vegetarian versions that are just as tasty. And if you want an authentic Italian flavour, you can try to stick with fillings like caciocavallo cheese, mozzarella, al burro, besciamella, ragú, or al sugo.
On the other hand, Margherita pizza is often way overpriced for what it is.
It’s hard to imagine that pizza could ever be a bad choice, but Helton told Insider that Margherita pies are “a total rip-off,” and are often one of the most overpriced items on any restaurant menu.
“Dough, a little sauce, a quarter of a log of mozzarella, and four pieces of basil. That’s your dinner? You’re paying $US12 minimum for a dish that costs $US1 to make. I know because I was the executive chef at an Italian restaurant for three years, so I worked out the cost many times,” said Helton. “Stop paying for this dish.”
If you truly want a slice of pizza that’s worth its price tag, spring for a flavour that incorporates a few different toppings or is explicated listed as “wood-fired.” These factors can elevate a pizza beyond what you could easily whip up at home for a few bucks.
Unless tomatoes are in season, skip the caprese salad.
Caprese salad is composed of thick slices of raw tomato and mozzarella, topped with fresh basil leaves and a splash of olive oil.
It’s a dish that really relies on the natural flavour of its few ingredients, which means that this salad can easily disappoint if not ordered at the right time of year.
“Caprese salad is a dish that you will find on a menu at an Italian restaurant year-round, as it is always a great seller. However, more often than not, the tomatoes will be out of season and lack flavour. Only order this dish if tomatoes are in season. Otherwise, skip it,” Servino told Insider.
Pass on the garlic bread unless it is served in a traditional style.
Servino told Insider that shelling out top dollar for garlic bread in an Italian restaurant is usually a misstep.
“If the restaurant has to hide the flavour of its bread with butter and garlic, you should probably skip it. Look for fresh, homemade or locally made bread that doesn’t have to be covered in butter and baked in order to taste good,” said Servino.
Plus, if you’re outside of Italy but want an authentic dish, buttery garlic bread that’s loaded with cheese shouldn’t be a top choice.
In Italy, bread is often served hot with roasted garlic and olive oil. To get the aroma of the garlic, diners rub a crushed clove on the bread and then sparingly use oil to bring out the flavour.
Spaghetti Bolognese is another dish that is likely cheaper to make at home.
“Spaghetti Bolognese is quick to prepare at home and not very complicated to whip up. It is one of those dishes that is hard to mess up or over-cook because the dish uses ground beef,” said Shunk.
Making this Italian classic involves sautéing ground beef with some minced garlic and onion, adding a handful of grated carrot and a can of chopped tomatoes, then simmering the mixture with a splash of beef stock for about 45 minutes.
After that, you just ladle it atop some pasta.
Unless you’re only drinking one serving, ordering wine by the glass is usually a bad money move.
Indulging in a glass or two of wine is a great way to complement a delicious Italian meal, but ordering by the glass can inflate your bill.
“Most people will have two glasses of wine with their meal. A bottle holds four generous pours. Four glasses may cost $US60, but a bottle of the same wine may only be $US50,” said Helton.
She also said that if you don’t think you’ll finish an entire bottle, you can ask if it’s possible to take it home to enjoy later.
Cacio e pepe is a three-ingredient meal that’s very cheap and quick to make at home.
Cacio e pepe is made with just three ingredients – pecorino cheese, black pepper, and pasta.
And because the dish is so simple, Linda Harrell, chef and owner at Cibo e Beve in Atlanta, Georgia, told Insider that diners should skip it.
“Cacio e pepe isn’t worth the money. In Italy, this dish is made when someone has no time to make a decent sauce. It’s something made for a quick meal, not a restaurant dish,” she said.