5 Common Complaints Americans Have About Restaurants in Italy—and Whether You Should Ignore Them

Updated on November 4, 2017
AlexandraHoerl profile image

Alexandra has a Ph.D. and has conducted research all over central and northern Italy.

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Online Restaurant Reviews: Land of Confusion

You've only got two nights in Naples, three in Rome, and two more in Florence. You're trying to do some research about restaurants, and it's actually kind of stressful. You're terrified of picking a dud.

You've already eliminated the obviously bad and mediocre places, but even the most popular restaurants on TripAdvisor still have negative reviews (anywhere from 10-20% negative reviews, in fact). What's worse is that many of them complain about similar things. Should you worry? You've been looking forward to this trip for so long. You don't want anything to be disappointing.

Let me reassure you! In this article, I'll explain:

  • Why some of the most common complaints are usually more about cultural differences than the actual quality of the restaurant
  • Who can safely ignore a particular complaint if it only pops up in a minority of reviews
  • Who should heed a particular complaint, even if that complaint only pops up in a minority of reviews

Will this tiramisu delight, or disappoint?
Will this tiramisu delight, or disappoint? | Source

Issue #1: Reviews Swear the Food is Overrated

The situation:

You've found an inexpensive, traditional restaurant. However, some of the reviews claim the place's friendly waitstaff and large portions have blinded people to the fact that it is (or always was) overrated, coasting on its laurels, and on its way to becoming another embarrassing tourist trap.

Understanding the negative reviews:

There are a couple of possibilities here. The first is that some of the reviews come from self-hating Americans who believe a restaurant is automatically a tourist trap if there are other English-speaking people among the guests.

The second (and more likely) possibility is that the restaurant in question is somewhat inconsistent. Not in a nasty "regulars get great food, tourists get crap" sort of way--just legitimately inconsistent. However, restaurants like this still tend to be popular with most customers because sometimes they really do put out great food, and they are always super-friendly to both their army of loyal regulars and their tourist visitors.

In this case, it's likely the bad reviews come from people who were seeking the very best top-notch local cuisine in an authentic, inexpensive setting. Some of them may may feel they were misled by other reviewers, who were blinded to the true state of the food by the friendly atmosphere.

Ignore the bad reviews if:

You enjoy atmosphere and people watching, especially in a new place. Restaurants like this can have quite a lot of character. Even if the food is only 3.5/5 stars, you're still probably going to have a lot of fun. Try a place like this for lunch. If the food really does turn out to be disappointing, you can try again at dinner.

Heed the bad reviews if:

You care only about the food and have no interest in people-watching or enjoying the vibe of a place.

Does that great view cost too much?
Does that great view cost too much?

Issue #2: Reviews Say Restaurant is Too Expensive

The situation:

You're looking at a restaurant that's a little more expensive than the ones you usually go to at home. However, this is a special vacation, and you want at least one special dinner. You're a little nervous because some reviews say the place is just too damn expensive.

Understanding the negative reviews:

If the only thing these reviews complain about is price, and if the reviews include derisive remarks about small portions or comments making fun of the chef for focusing on plate presentation, you're probably dealing with someone whose complaint is with expensive restaurants in general, not this particular restaurant.

In a case like this, I recommend looking at the Italian-language reviews. Do a CTRL+F search for "buon rapporto qualità-prezzo," which basically means, "good value for the money." If a fair number of Italian reviewers think a place is a decent value, I would take it as a good sign.

Ignore the bad reviews if:

You're genuinely open to and excited to try a fancier style of dining than you're used to, and you're willing to absorb the cost of the dinner as a lesson if it turns out it's not your thing.

Heed the bad reviews if:

You are kind of uncomfortable with the idea of such an expensive meal and are only thinking about going to such a place because you think it's what you should do on an occasion like this. Remember, it's your vacation--there is nothing you absolutely have to do, even if everyone else seems to think it's a great idea.

Artful presentation is an essential part of fine dining
Artful presentation is an essential part of fine dining | Source

Issue #3: Reviews Say Restaurant Fails to Meet Fine Dining Standards

The situation:

You want an absolute showstopper dinner. We're talking Michelin stars here. You think you've found a candidate, but some people complain the restaurant doesn't meet the true fine dining standard.

Understanding the negative reviews:

There are some people who genuinely believe the Italian approach to service is too egalitarian and independent to ever be appropriate for a fine dining establishment. People like this have been exposed to luxury dining and travel for a long time, if not all their lives, and they are not in the habit of writing reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor. They're also not the target audience of this article.

In my experience, the type of people who complain about "failure to meet fine dining standards" on the big internet review sites are people who think the right to be ridiculously rude and awful to the waitstaff is included in the price of the meal. These are people who somehow missed the fact that the stock "aristocrat who abuses his or her servants" character from British TV is not a role model.

The Italian ethos is completely hostile to this type of person. (This is one of the reason I like Italy so much.) Italians aren't exactly keen on being treated like servants and "The customer is always right" is not exactly a cultural norm.

I have only ever had excellent service at the Michelin-starred places I've eaten at in Italy. That's why I'm confident in asserting that the overwhelming majority of "does not meet fine dining standards" reviews are code for, "I'm a fragile baby who is angry that throwing around my money wasn't enough to make these people lick my boots for my personal amusement."

Ignore the bad reviews if:

You are a reasonable human being.

Heed the bad reviews if:

You (or someone in your party) are generally very difficult to please and are always looking for something to criticize.

Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy delights like fresh tomatoes, briny olives, and creamy mozzarella
Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy delights like fresh tomatoes, briny olives, and creamy mozzarella | Source

Issue #4: Reviews Say Restaurant Does Not Honor Dietary Restrictions

Your situation:

You or someone you travel with has dietary restrictions. You think you've found a possible restaurant, but then you see some reviews that say the restaurant isn't sympathetic to dietary restrictions.

Understanding the negative reviews:

In my experience, restaurants in Italy will do everything in their power to accommodate allergies to things like nuts or shellfish, but they can be more resistant to accommodating vegans or gluten-free diners.

The good restaurants I frequent tend to deal with this in one of two ways. Some of them are happy to make a simple dish or two to accommodate someone with dietary restrictions. Some of the others, especially the ones whose reputation is based on adhering closely to a specific culinary tradition, would rather decline a reservation altogether than put out modified plates that do not meet their usual standard for traditionalism and creativity.

I speculate a lot of the bad reviews are coming from disappointed diners who did not communicate their party's needs in advance and were unable to be accommodated to their satisfaction by the restaurant.

If a member of your traveling party has an allergy or dietary restrictions that will severely limit his/her options in Italy, be sure to mention this when you ask for a reservation. If the restaurant says they can't accommodate you, thank them for their honesty and move on.

Ignore the bad reviews if:

You have already communicated with the restaurant and they have agreed to accommodate your party.

Heed the bad reviews if:

They mention the restaurant was unwilling to communicate with them beforehand or the restaurant refused to make accommodations it had agreed to in advance.

Fortunately, chances are all these people are being treated well, even if they're not locals
Fortunately, chances are all these people are being treated well, even if they're not locals | Source

Issue #5: Reviews Swear Owners/Staff Are Rude to Tourists

The situation:

You're reading about a restaurant that sounds like it might be a candidate for a nice, but not super-expensive/fancy meal. However, you're concerned because some reviewers claim tourists are treated much worse than Italians.

Understanding the negative reviews:

Two or three of my favorite places have review profiles like this. They are all in northern Italy, which may actually matter a little. Some Americans still stereotype Italians as passionate and overly emotional, but people in Northern Italy are, in fact, generally quite reserved. Some Americans perceive this as unfriendliness.

Also, these restaurants' generally excellent reputations are almost completely staked on meticulous dedication to very specific culinary traditions and local ingredients.

In short, these are the type of restaurants that would rather decline your reservation because you have someone who is allergic to Ingredient X because Ingredient X is essential to the type of food they prepare.

They don't accommodate special requests from people who booked a table because they saw the restaurant on a "Best of City Y" list without first checking to see if they actually like the type of food the restaurant serves.

They may become strictly formal and a little distant if a guest dismisses their careful recommendations as vulgar upselling. They also aren't into the glad-handing, time-consuming "Ciao bella! Mamma mia! You're-ah like my famiglia!" performance art that some tourists expect.

I imagine the bad reviews are from people who weren't able to get the special modifications they felt entitled to or were disappointed by the atmosphere and perceived brusqueness of the staff.

These types of restaurants are not for everyone, and that's OK. I couldn't take my parents, who are both pretty picky eaters, to places like this.

However, if you show interest in the food and allow the staff to use their expertise, even if you're the most unstylish, uncool, Italian-butchering American who ever lived, you'll have friends for life.

Trust me on this one.

Ignore the bad reviews if:

You're laid-back, extremely open to all types of food, and willing to take suggestions or guidance from others.

Heed the bad reviews if:

You're a narrow or picky eater, you live by "the customer is always right," or you hate being told what you want is not available or not possible.

Final Thoughts

It's important to be honest about who you are and what you want from a restaurant. If you don't like seafood, you don't like seafood. If you're a vegan, you're a vegan. However, if you're a seafood hater in Venice or a vegan in Tuscany, it's your job to do the legwork to find places that work for you.

Finally, don't forget to practice the Golden Rule! Some tourists are so scared of being ripped off they send out a really combative and defensive vibe without realizing it. There's no need! People who run good restaurants really do put their heart and soul into everything. They're not going to price gouge you, they're not going to recommend things you don't like, and they want you to love their food as much as they do.

It's as simple as that.

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