Mangiamo! Tips for eating out with your little ones in Italy

Italy is known for the food. The wine. The cheese. The whole dining experience.

What traveler doesn’t dream of a candlelit table outside on a quiet street, sipping a Chianti while waiting in anticipation for your 3rd course to appear, breathing in the fresh Tuscan air, and listening to the hum of Italian being spoken around you.

A parent with young children. That’s who. Viewed through the lense of a parent with toddlers this night becomes a slurry of worries and stress about how to keep the kids from ruining your and everybody else’s evening. The real dream is about finding a babysitter or attempting a second honeymoon trip.

Let me calm your already-stretched-too-thin parental nerves for you. With proper understanding of Italian dining culture and realistic expectations of your children, one can enjoy a wonderful meal. I hope that my trials and errors learning all this over the past year can be passed on to you so your vacation to Italy satisfy those culinary cravings without the learning curve we had.

Like any problem, the solution lies in finding the best ways to work around the constraints presented. Ok, maybe that’s my engineer mind getting too caught up in this, but what I'm trying to say is that you need to know what you’re working with. Compared to the USA, restaurants in Italy open late for dinner. A 7:30 or 8:00 pm opening time doesn’t bode well for children who are used to putting on their PJ’s and finishing another riveting parental rendition of a “Llama Llama” book by then. Eating in Italy is also a slow process meant to be enjoyed and not a “dine and dash to get the next customer seated asap” experience so common in the USA. This means dinner can last more than 2 hours. Easily.

What we are left with is simple equation:

Late dinner + long dinner = cranky kids and parents who wished they could be anywhere but at the aforementioned dinner.

Add in a full day of site-seeing or traveling before dinner time and you have a recipe for disaster.

The solutions to this are actually really easy.

A) eat at another time and enjoy the long meal

B) eat dinner but not take 2+ hours

C) other dining options that aren’t the “typical Italian dinner”

The simple solution for A is to do lunch. Where the hours for dinner are absurdly late to many Americans, lunchtime hours are usually around 12-12:30 and open til 2 or 3pm. Fairly normal and a Godsend for parents who want to enjoy a good meal. This may mean adjusting your “go go go schedule” (I’ll get to my thoughts on that topic in a future post) to take a solid break for lunch, but it’ll be worth it. We have a 2.5 year old who still needs an afternoon nap, but she can put it off until 2 or 3 if she’s happily eating. Plus after a morning of site-seeing they (and you!) deserve some downtime to sit and enjoy.

Most establishments have pretty large lunch menus and most things you’d want to dinner are likely to be available for lunch, sometimes at lower prices. One thing we’ve ran into before is sometimes they don’t serve pizza. Since having to back out of a promise to a kid is just about the worst feeling in the world for a parent (and bound to include a meltdown in response), double check that if the restaurant has pizza on the menu, that they actually serve it for lunch before enthusiastically saying “who wants PIZZA?!”

“Wait, what?” You say. “Why wouldn’t they have pizza for lunch?”

Well, a pizzeria that’s open for lunch will, of course, have pizza. Another restaurant, like an osteria or trattoria might advertise pizza al forno, which is made in a wood oven and the type of pizza you’re going to want while in Italy, but also is a lot of work to get to heat and keep hot, just to shut it all down again until dinner. Believe me, we have one in our backyard and making pizzas becomes a whole day event.

This whole talk about pizza brings me to option B. If you are just doing pizza for dinner, it won’t take 2 hours. We’ve gone to a local restaurant that serves delicious wood fired pizza and opens at 7pm, ordered only pizza (don’t add any appetizers), then gone down the road to a gelateria and were home before 8:30. Pizza is a great quick solution for dinner. Same goes if you only order a prima (a first plate, typically a type of pasta). If your whole group orders pasta and you head out, you’ll be out in under an hour. Another helpful note, since you'll be hard pressed to find a kids menu, know that any decent restaurant will have pasta pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce), pasta ragu (meat sauce), or my kids personal favorite, pasta bianca (plain pasta with oil). Don't be afraid to ask for this, its what many Italian kids eat it too!

Lastly, we get to option C. There are other authentic dining experiences that aren't the 3 course, wine sipping, classic Italian meals. There are some delicious options like focaccia (a flat oily bread stuffed with delicious things like cheese, meat, or savory spreads) and other sandwich shops that serve amazing bread, prosciutto, salami, and cheeses. My husband has also eaten a plate of sliced meat and cheese as a meal, happily, many times. Another popular option that could serve you well is to find a spot that offers an apertivo  hour with lots of food. Apertivo is usually from around 4-7 and is when Italians like to walk around the town (called passeggiata), meet up with their friends, and share a drink. Think of it like Italian happy hour. Since dinner is so late, they’ll munch on appetizer like foods (bruschetta, cold pasta salads in summer, focaccia bread, etc) while enjoying their wine or cocktails. Some of these buffets are quite large and could do as a type of dinner, especially if you’d been eating a lot during the day. One final option I haven't mentioned yet is, if your lodging has a kitchen, pick up some fresh local pasta, cheese, veggies, and meats and cook your own meal. Sometimes staying in is a nice break after days of eating out and your kids can do their thing.

Working around the challenges of a late, long dinner leaves everybody happier and meltdowns at a minimum. Don't be afraid of a culinary adventure. I didn't really mention it here, but Italians also love kids. Your sometimes noisy, fork dropping, crawling around the table kids won't bother the staff and Italian diners. You'll be more likely to get complements on your lovely family and gentle pats on the kids' heads than you will glares of frustration. So relax. Enjoy. Mangiamo!