A trattoria is an Italian term for a fairly casual, mid-priced restaurant. Less formal than a ristorante and more formal than an osteria, the trattoria is traditionally a family-run establishment that offers simple fare and a relaxed atmosphere. Outside of Italy, the term can be applied to any type of Italian restaurant, which can lead to considerable confusion of expectations.
Restaurants in Italy focus on atmosphere nearly as much as food, providing the visitor or resident thousands of choices for every dining experience. At a trattoria, the mood is meant to be relaxed and fairly informal. While ristorantes may offer a wide range of antipasti and several courses of food, trattorias prefer to offer a few, well-executed entrees. Wine is often less expensive and served in a decanter, as opposed to by the bottle.
In terms of cuisine, a trattoria in Italy will frequently offer regional, local, and family specialties on the menu. The focus is generally on the best of local Italian food, rather than adopting a global cuisine. Wines and other drinks may be from local producers or even family vineyards. In family owned versions, recipes may be centuries old and be a tribute to the long history of great Italian food. Eating in this type of restaurant while traveling in Italy can give a tourist real insight into the neighborhood and region.
Foods commonly featured on the menu of a trattoria will vary based on the regional cuisine. In coastal areas, expect to find copious amounts of seafood, usually grilled or fried. Inland areas may focus on the wide variety of fresh vegetables and produce to create vegetable soup, homemade tomato sauce, and poultry or red meat dishes. Expect to find locally produced cheeses, wines, and herbs prominent on the menu.
The easy elegance of this type of restaurant makes it a great option for take-out or picnic fare. Many trattorias feature extensive take-away menus that provide restless travelers with great food on the road. Unfortunately, getting food to go does not allow the patron to enjoy the talk, mood, and atmosphere of the restaurant, which may be worth sitting down for.
Italian restaurants outside of Italy may designate themselves as trattorias to suggest a family-friendly style or relaxed atmosphere. The wise epicure may want to check out the reviews before assuming these establishments are true to their name; while some may indeed invoke the air of a traditional Italian cafe, others are simply chain restaurants masquerading under an Italian name.