MOVING FORWARD: dining out in Italy right now

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Restaurants in Italy are an institution, a way of life.

There are few, if arguably any, countries on earth that have food as entwined with their culture as Italy does. Colloquial expressions and idioms are formed out of food terms. Friends discuss how to prepare a dish as animatedly as they do a soccer game.  Visitors to Italy return home with memories of world famous sites, architecture, beaches. But also of the perfect plate of amatriciana or the first time they tasted fresh mozzarella alla bufala

Italy is rightfully proud of its culinary heritage. The act of eating out and the importance of a meal here is so much more than just using food for sustenance.  It’s a social event. It’s a time of closeness with friends and family. It is a moment to stop and appreciated life and its pleasures. Food is a national pastime. 

Moving on from COVID

The Italian national quarantine in March was one of the strictest on a global level as of yet to combat COVID. Thankfully, it seems to have worked.  We could not know what the future held as the country started to reopen in early June. But we did know that one of the first things we would do would be to go out and eat.  Grab a caffè with a friend on in the morning. Have an aperitivo at the bar on the corner. Visit our favorite neighborhood restaurant for a leisurely Sunday lunch or the local pizzeria for an easy dinner.  In Italy, we knew that we would eat out again as it is so much a part of our culture and a piece of what makes our national fabric. 

As we have reopened up the country to many European countries, we are seeing, many restaurants are returning to the swing of a summer rhythm.  The restaurant industry was perhaps one of the hardest hit in the country. In many places restaurants in Italy are almost completely dependent on tourism. It’s heartening to see these places start to climb back up on their feet again after COVID brought this industry to its knees.

Dining out in Italy is something that we can again enjoy. And now, it is a pleasure in life that we now appreciate so much more.  However, there are many new rules set forth by the government that diners and staff need to follow this summer.  These are just a few of the things to expect dining out in Italy this summer!

Social Distancing at Restaurants in Italy

To ensure social distancing, many restaurants lost over 50% of their tables. This is to make sure diners were seated at least 1 meter (roughly 3.28 feet) from each other. You can see an example  below in the picture of Gucci Osteria.   In some cities like Florence, the city has given permits for restaurants to put more tables outside. This means you can dine outdoors when you previously couldn’t. You will also find many tiny streets now full of life and happy, socially distanced diners on a summer evening.

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However, in tiny towns with no extra space to be given, many small restaurants have gotten even smaller. Therefore, more than ever, it’s wise to make a booking in advance.  Also, many restaurants are working on reduced or limited hours because post-quarantine. Money has been very tight in lots of tourism driven areas. These businesses are financially stretched very thin, and cannot necessarily afford to rehire their normal summer staff. 

Many places that didn’t accept reservations in previous years are also now working on a reservation-only policy for other reasons. For one, they want to avoid any sort of line or queue in front of their place of business.  (Assembly of any group of people is illegal.). Also, they need to have a list of full names and phone numbers of diners in order to trace and inform of any contagion.  It’s required by law to take contact information of any reservations.  That way diners can be informed of any new outbreaks (so far, this hasn’t had to be used in Italy!).  

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Masks Mandatory

Masks are required by law for anyone over 6 years of age. This includes when entering, exiting, walking around any restaurant. Even outdoors if you are in a restaurant’s space, a mask can only be removed once seated at your table dining or consuming a drink at a bar. And if standing at the bar, the 1 meter social distancing is still enforced.  Many restaurants in Italy will provide masks for you if you have forgotten yours, as it’s a huge fine to risk on both sides (the diner that doesn’t have a mask as well as the restaurant would be fined in the event of a violation). 

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Gel, Gel and more Gel

Guests are asked to sterilize their hands before entering the restaurant or bar as well, and hand gel is found at the entrance, restroom and “cash point”.  Anyone with a fever (some places will even make you sign a “self-declaration” of health  – like Kate, below, before entering a bar with Christine in Florence – or even take your fever before entering) will be denied entrance, no exceptions.

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Anything that a diner can touch needs to be sterilized after every use.  This means that many places have switched to paper menus (that get thrown out after every guest) or “e-menus” that can be found online or using a QR reader (see below at La Terrazza bar at Continentale, Florence). 
Traditional menus are wiped down with disinfectant every time they are touched.  Anything you would have found on a table beforehand – salt, pepper, olive oil, sugar packets – have been changed to single use packets, or the waiter will in many cases sprinkle cheese on your pasta (just remember, not on seafood ) for you to avoid potential contamination.
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Contactless payment is preferred in many locations with a wifi credit card POS, so the waiter can come directly to your table and process your payment without having to have any personal contact touching your credit card or cash.

Waitstaff needs to sanitize or wash their hands from one table to another. Each time they approach a guest, this must be done. They also need to keep their mask on the entire time they are working or inside the locale.  Kitchen staff as well needs to remain masked the entire shift. They must also wash and sterilize hands between each item they cook.  Other policies that restaurants are enacting are up to the restaurant – for example, in the seaside bistro La Cantina Di Miky in the Cinque Terre, in addition to following the national guidelines they have put in place extra policies to be even more careful. 

Staff members have their temperature taken and recorded before every shift starts (any temperature more than 37.5c/99.5f is sent home).  A kitchen and bathroom cleaning checklist is available with times and disinfectants used so it’s transparent how often these areas are sanitized and what products are used.  Air conditioning units are sterilized twice a day, and windows are doors even in indoor dining rooms are left open to promote airflow.

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It seems like quite a bit, but the majority of these policies fall on the restaurant to follow and not on the diners.  For us, we simply get dressed up in our favorite Saturday night outfit with our new summer accessory, the mask, and go out to eat, enjoy a beautiful evening with good food, good wine and even better company.  Supporting our local businesses and enjoying our favorite Italian pastime – eating are the perfect combination at restaurants in Italy!

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