One of the most frequently asked questions I get from anyone visiting Italy is about the various nouns we use to name a place where you can have lunch or dinner. It should be very easy because in the rest of the world these places are commonly referred to as Restaurants, while in Italy we call them in several different ways and that is why sometimes, foreigners are confused and can’t understand the difference between a Osteria and a Trattoria, or between a Taverna and a Restaurant.
Languages are fantastic because they allow us to express thoughts, concepts and ideas in several different ways. In some cases they may cause misunderstandings, especially when the so-called “false friends” are used – which are words that may sound the same in 2 different languages but convey different or even opposite meanings.
As far as Italian Language is concerned (by the way it has been recently awarded with the title of “Sexiest Language in the world“), I have to be honest: it is a very difficult language. Despite an undisputable musicality and a round and sweet sound, the language is still based on Latin with major contributions by antique Greek, thus grammar rules are pretty complicated and even the majority of the native Italians do make a lot of errors.
When a doubt pops up into my head at times of writing a concept properly in my own language, solution is to contact the authority in charge of supervising the correct use of the Italian language and to provide solutions to anyone coping with a correct writing. It is called Accademia della Crusca and it is headquartered in Florence. On the other hand, whenever I need to know the exact meaning of a word, the correct use of a verb, a pronoun etc.. I do refer to another Authority which is the official Encyclopedia of the Italian Language, which also is available on line, called Treccani, which I referred to for this article.
Therefore, for all my friends and my readers around the world, who are uncomfortable at time of choosing between a Trattoria, an Osteria, a Ristorante or a Taverna, here is the difference!!!
In the past, Osteria was a term referred to inns where people could have meals and find accommodation. Most of their attractiveness was the poor quality of their wine, sounds silly but it was so, because thw wine was very cheap. Today, Osteria is referred to a public establishment, with a modest and popular tone, which serves wine and often also food. A saying is also referred to this kind of places: “To stop at the first Osteria = settle for the first thing that happens or not reflect enough on your choices.
Trattoria is a public establishment, with one or more rooms, where you can have complete meals; it generally has a more modest tone than the restaurant, However the name of trattoria is also used by characteristic high-level restaurants (as long as they are independent businesses, that is, they are not part of hotels, stations, ships).
In the past the term Tavèrna was used to refer to a low-ranking restaurant frequented by unsavory people. Today the term has been readopted without any derogatory value to indicate restaurants and trattorias and sometimes luxury ones, furnished in a rustic style.
Tavola Calda is the Italian version of the American Fast Food. These places supply assortment of foods (both hot or cold dishes) that are consumed, quickly and in a simple way, in public places (takeaways or bars, especially in train stations, airports or similar transit areas). They do usually supply standing areas, benches or high stools. In some cases they even offer tables. By extension it indicates the meal service itself as well as the place where the service is performed.
A restaurant is a public establishment where complete meals are available, which are served by waiters on tables arranged in a special room (the term indicates or wants to indicate a high category establishment)
Please note that each language is well rooted in the past centuries, so that words and nouns are still today defined by the concept they were used to convey in the past. Nowadays we do use all of these terms, regardless of the actual meaning of them: a high quality food service can be available at a Osteria (in 2018 the best restaurant in the world according to the San Pellegrino Guide was “Osteria Francescana” by Chef Massimo Bottura. A Taverna is not anymore a place to find bad quality food and criminals. The term may just refer to the ambience and the furnitures which are usually rustic, but the quality of the food might be very high.
To sum up: in Italy it is very difficult to have bad meals at any place. There obviously are some differences depending on the volume of food each place do prepare daily: do not expect exceptional food at Tavola Calda along the highways (Autogrills). My recommendation to those who want to have exceptional food in Italy, is to skip the places in the city centres (especially in big touristic areas such as Rome, Venice and Florence), and to move to less centrally located areas or even the outskirts. That is where you can find good food regardless of the name each chef choose for his/her place.