Eat Like A Local at an Italian Osteria
Posted by Andy Steves on October 20, 2014.
by: Danielle DeSimone, Guest Columnist
You wind your way down the dark, cobblestoned alleyway in the center of the city towards an alcove of light and the sound of clinking glasses. Pushing through the door, you are immediately surrounded by a room bursting with chaotic voices, the smell of wine, and the bustling movement of plates passed between shared tables. Welcome to a true, Italian Osteria—both a restaurant and your way to time travel back to Italy in the medieval ages.
In the medieval ages, Osteria’s were meeting places for students of the world-renowned universities housed throughout major Italian cities. These restaurants were a space of hospitality for the students, providing just the tables and wine for purchase—in most Osteria’s, it was custom that food was to be brought in and provided by the patrons themselves. Osteria’s built a reputation of being places of intellectual discussion for both students and professors, as well as a restaurant where you could tether your horse briefly while eating a quick meal.
Today, most establishments that call themselves Osteria’s are simple, cheaper versions of Italian restaurants, making them a great option for modern-day traveling students. The menu is typically smaller than other ristorante’s, but the food is quintessential of the region they are found in. As a result, this also tends to be where most locals eat on the weekends. You’ll find traditional plates of spaghetti alla carabonara (spaghetti with pancetta, eggs, and cheese) in Rome, risotto allo zafferano (rice with parmesan and saffron) in Milan, or bistecca alla fiorentina (the famous grilled steak of Florence). Italians take pride in the city and region that they come from and the food that is produced there; Osteria’s are an excellent way to see what kinds of food the locals are eating at home.
Recently, there has been revival movement throughout Italy to bring back the traditional Osteria, as it once existed in medieval Italy. The city of Bologna has a particularly large Osteria scene, especially as the three oldest Osteria’s still operating in Italy are located in the city, all of them claiming origins back to the 14th and 15th centuries. These restaurants are housed in low-ceilinged buildings with long communal and mismatched tables filling the crowded room. Here, the Osteria provides a menu of wine and the glasses, but customers are responsible for bringing their own food.
The atmosphere of these traditional Osteria’s is that of an indoor, group picnic with friends and strangers alike, your tables sprawling with food brought in from local markets. After only a few minutes of sharing a communal table with Italians and their plates of sliced meats, cheeses, olives, and bread, you are bound to make friends. Your new tablemates will be quick to explain that it is bad luck to take a sip of wine while toasting before first clunking your glass on the table, and it is customary to always refill your neighbor’s glass and not your own. It is this sense of camaraderie that sets Osteria’s apart as a different yet truly authentic Italian dining experience.
If you are studying in Italy or plan to travel there, take the time to explore past the touristy restaurants and eat at a traditional Osteria. You’ll soon find yourself raising your glass to new friendships forged with local Italians over shared tables and plates of prosciutto—cin cin!