When you head to Italy, you will find lots of different eating options. There's the ristorante, the trattoria, and osteria - but that's just the beginning. If you look at the signs above storefronts you'll also see tavola calda, mescita, hostaria, bottiglieria, and even the hard to pronounce, fiaschetteria. But what do they all mean? And is there really a difference between a trattoria and an osteria?
Long ago there were very distinct differences between say a ristorante, a formal eating establishment, and a trattoria, an informal spot that focuses on home-style cooking. These days, however, many trattorie have morphed into ristoranti, and vice versa. Don't let this frustrate you, though. It's still easy to spot the degree of difference from the moment you walk into an eatery or check the menu posted outside. In the meantime, here's a primer on the differences among all your eating options.
Ristorante: A restaurant. Here you'll find the ambiance a bit formal or at least the decor is thought out and cohesive. Tables are usually dressed in linen; tableware and china all match. Waiters are professional and knowledgeable. The menu is usually extensive and the food is often inventive (in other words, you may not find the traditional poor-man's dish of trippa). Expect to pay for all this service and forethought.
Trattoria: A small, family-run eatery that often serves a few choice regional dishes (think carbonara in Rome; ribollita in Florence; pesto in Genoa), with many of the recipes past down from generation to generation. Mom or grandma usually cooks. Dad handles the cash register. The kids wait tables. Decor can range from neat and comfortable to a real "hole in the wall." Prices are usually much less than a ristorante.
Osteria: Back in the day, an osteria, or inn, was a local gathering spot where the old men played cards and drank local wine from the innkeeper's oak barrels. It was almost like what we'd call a bar. Some served food but that wasn't the main focus. Today, however, an osteria is an eating establishment very similar to a trattoria in that they serve simple, home-cooked meals. Some have a "rustic" ambiance to them.
Hostaria and Taverna: Once bars or taverns, these establishments have slowly transformed into osterie and trattorie. They can also have a bohemian or rustic feel to them.
Mescita, Fiaschetteria, Enoteca, Bottiglieria: All wine shops, wine bars or taverns. These days, most sell a variety of panini (small sandwiches), light nibbles such as olives and cheese, as well as a few pasta and meat dishes.
Tavola Calda: Translated it means "hot table." We'd know them as quick-service fast-food places or a cafeteria. They are a great spot to get an inexpensive, home-cooked meal.
Rosticceria and Girarrosto: Quick-service fast-food establishment that mainly sells high-quality, fire-roasted chicken and other fowl. Eat in or take out.