Tips on Eating in Europe

By Rick Steves

Very often, Europeans think "vegetarian" means "no red meat" or "not much meat." If you are a strict vegetarian, you'll have to make things very clear. Write the appropriate phrase, keep it handy, and show it to each waiter before ordering your meal.

For inexpensive Italian eateries, look for the term osteria, tavola calda, rosticceria, trattoria, pizzeria, or "self-service." A meal-sized pizza (sold everywhere for less than $12) and a cold beer is my idea of a good, fast, cheap Italian dinner. For a stand-up super bargain meal, look for a pizza rustica shop, which sells pizza by weight. Just point to the best-looking pizza and tell them how much you want (200 grams is a filling meal). They weigh, you pay. They heat it, you eat it. Panini (sandwiches) — calda (toasted) if you ask — are cheap and widely available.

University cafeterias (generally closed during summer holidays) offer a surefire way to meet educated English-speaking young people with open and stimulating minds. They're often eager to practice their politics and economics, as well as their English, on a foreign friend.

The "tourist menu" (menù turistico in Italy, menu touristique in France), popular in restaurants throughout Europe's tourist zones, offers confused visitors a no-stress, three-course meal for a painless price that usually includes service, bread, and a drink. You normally get a choice of several options for each course. Locals rarely order this, but if the options intrigue you, the tourist menu can be a convenient way to sample some regional flavors for a reasonable, predictable price.

Eat hearty in Scandinavia, Europe's most expensive corner. Fill up at the breakfast smorgasbord (usually included in your hotel cost). Keep your eyes peeled for daily lunch specials called dagens rett. You can normally have all the vegetables (usually potatoes) you want when you order a restaurant's entrée. Just ask for seconds. Many Scandinavian pizzerias offer amazing all-you-can-eat deals and hearty salad bars. (Your bill will double if you order a beer.) The cheapest cafeterias often close at about 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. Fresh produce, colorful markets, and efficient supermarkets abound. Picnic!

At most European restaurants, the price of drinks can spoil your appetite. Ask for tap water in Britain, l'eau du robinet in France, Leitungswasser in Germany, acqua del rubinetto in Italy, and agua del grifo in Spain. In other countries, just do the international charade: hold an imaginary glass in one hand, turn on the tap with the other, and make the sound of a faucet. Stop it with a click of your tongue and drink it with a smile.

In European groceries and open-air markets, most food is priced by the kilo (about two pounds). Watch the scales while your food is being weighed. It'll likely show grams and kilos. If dried apples are priced at €2 per kilo, that's $2.80 for 2.2 pounds, or about $1.25 per pound. If the scale says 400 grams, that means 40 percent of €2 (or 80 euro cents), which is a little over $1.

Not everything is strictly priced by the kilogram. Read the little chalkboard price information board carefully: Particularly in the case of specialty items, you might see things priced by the 1/4 kg, 1/2 kg, 100 g, 500 g, and so on. Or it could be priced by the piece (Stück in German, la piéce in French, pezzo in Italian), the bunch, the container, and so on. If the pâté seems too cheap to be true, look at the sign closely. The posted price is probably followed by "100 gr."

Whether you understand the numbers or not, act as though you do. In supermarkets, it's a cinch to buy a tiny amount of fruit or vegetables. Many have an easy push-button pricing system: Put the banana on the scale, push the button that shows a picture of a banana (or the banana bin number), and a sticky price tag prints out. You could weigh and sticker a single grape.

If no prices are posted, be wary. Travelers are routinely ripped off by market merchants in tourist centers. Find places that print the prices. Assume any market with no printed prices has a double price standard: one for locals and a more expensive one for tourists.

I'll never forget a friend of mine who bought two bananas for our London picnic. He grabbed the fruit, held out a handful of change, and said, "How much?" The merchant took the equivalent of about $4. My friend turned to me and said, "Wow, London really is expensive." Anytime you hold out a handful of money to a banana salesman, you're just asking for trouble.

Point, but don't touch. At produce stands and outdoor markets, it's considered rude for a customer to touch the goods. Tell the vendor (or point to) what you want.

Milk-drinkers in Europe can check the carton for the local words for whole or light, such as voll or lett. Get refrigerated, fresh milk. Or look on the (unrefrigerated) shelves for the common-in-Europe but rare-in-America "longlife" milk. This milk — which requires no refrigeration until it's opened — will never go bad...or taste good.