WHERE TO EAT IN ITALY - RISTORANTE, TRATTORIA OR OSTERIA?
In your Italian to English dictionary, these words might all be translated into English as restaurant, but there's an important difference between them all. A ristorante is the most formal and upmarket of the three with waiter service, while a trattoria is less formal, usually family-run and slightly cheaper, and an osteria - or hostaria or taverna - is the budget option.
Osterias were once local watering holes: they served only wine and you'd bring along your own food. This is still the case in only a very few places. The distinction between eateries is becoming less important, with many osterie shifting upmarket on the one hand and ristoranti calling themselves 'trattorie' to seem cosier on the other. Meanwhile, if a drink is all you're after, head to an enoteca (wine bar) or birreria (pub), which will often serve small appetizers too.
TAVOLA CALDA - BUFFET-STYLE CAFETERIA
Literally translating as 'hot table', a 'tavola calda' is a cafeteria or takeout place - but not as you know it.
It's a great way of getting a good lunch without spending too much: there's a selection of hot food, usually kept in dishes behind a counter, almost always prepared that day and reheated to order. There's usually a selection of several warm pasta or meat dishes, as well as salads and possibly pizza and pastries too.
BAR, CAFFE - CAFE
Confusingly, these are more or less the same thing and sometimes you'll see them called a 'caffè bar'. Often, they will stay open late, serving alcohol and/or aperitivo in the evening, but unlike bars in the English-speaking world, by day they're the go-to place for your coffee and 'brioche' (pastry).
The ordering system is usually different here compared to places which serve sit-down meals. After eating in a trattoria or ristorante, you'll have to call a waiter over to ask for the bill, as it's considered rude to interrupt your meal - even if you finished a while ago. But in an Italian cafe you'll usually pay first, and it's often a confusing two-step procedure, where you'll order first and get a receipt, which you then take to the till to pay and receive your food.