As Italy's famed restaurants reopen, here's what dining out is like

Italian Food at an Italian Restaurant in Rome
Bologna, a city known for food, is starting to reopen - what will dining out in Italy look like after the pandemic? ©Christine Wehrmeier/Getty Images

As Italy begins the process of easing one of Europe's toughest lockdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic, Lonely Planet writer and Bologna, Italy, resident Kevin Raub set out to grab a bite at one of the city's best restaurants. Here's what he experienced.

The first thing I see when I step into a restaurant in Italy for the first time in over two months is a sign that says, "#AndràBeneUnCazzo!" It's a sarcastic jab at what became Italy's unofficial mantra since the country entered into one of the world's first and toughest COVID-19 lockdowns on March 8, "#AndràTuttoBene," meaning "Everything will be alright."

Italian restaurants are now open for diners. Mangia!

Everything will be alright

However, Fabio Berti and Alessandro Gozzi, whose big personalities and jovial humor are as loved as the traditional Bolognese cuisine at Trattoria Bertozzi, would never stand for such wishy-washy optimism. Their sign roughly translates as "Everything will be alright my ass!" and that just feels perfect for a city (Bologna) and region (Emilia-Romagna) that arguably harbors Italy's most important culinary traditions in its kitchens.

Tourists have long flocked to this region of central Italy for Maseratis and medieval towers and Lambrusco and Lamborghinis and palaces and Pavarotti, but it's the food of Emilia-Romagna – tagliatelle with ragù, lasagna, prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, tortellini, mortadella etc – that ensures Bologna and its surrounding areas see a steady flow of arrivals and departures. So wondering what dining out in a coronavirus world will be like here is palpably concerning for the 5th-most-visited country in the world.

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A sign reading "#AndràBeneUnCazzo!" (Everything will be alright my ass!) © Kevin Raub / Lonely Planet

Luckily, I live above Trattoria Bertozzi (the scent of slow-cooked ragù fills our apartment daily, the soundtrack of Berti yelling at staff, local providers and delivery couriers is our main soundtrack). Bertozzi is considered among the Bolognese as one of the city's unmissable traditional restaurants, and it was the first place I wanted to eat when this new gastronomic world opened for business on Monday, May 18 (the first day, post-lockdown, that restaurants in Italy could begin welcoming back dine-in patrons). The new rules, which vary slightly by region, run long and deep: masked servers, 1m distance between tables, no buffets, frenzied sanitation etc. Would it even be worth going out to eat again?

Small differences

Sì, signore! Jacopo, our masked server and the owner's son, greets my Italian partner and I at the door for our 7:30pm reservation and escorts us to our table. We are the first to arrive. The dining room doesn't immediately jump out as noticeably different because it's not – Bertozzi has only lost one table inside and three from its outdoor patio; there's no plastic screens between tables or any futuristic dining pods. Nothing beyond the masks seems amiss at all.

Condiments have been removed from the tables but I wouldn’t have even noticed that if Jacopo didn't tell us; and the bread, normally served in a communal basket, has been individually wrapped in paper bags (probably a good idea regardless of the pandemic). There's hand sanitizer available next to our table.

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Inside Bologna's Trattoria Bertozzi as Italy begins to return to normal © Kevin Raub / Lonely Planet

Jacopo explains we must wear our masks entering and leaving the restaurant and if we go to the bathroom (which he will escort us to if needed). Additional rules are scribbled away on a giant mirror: "Please stay seated as much as possible," "Ask for the bill from the table," "Avoid lining up for the toilet," etc.

Jacopo arrives and pours us a welcome glass of spumante (as is customary at Bertozzi) and begins saying the magic words we've longed 10 weeks to hear: "We have our usual special tonight, potato souffle with Parmesan cream and mortadella mouse," he says, reciting the menu. "For primi, we have traditional tagliatelle with ragù, our signature gramigna with salsiccia and a special passitelli with asparagus and crunchy ham …" I want all of it – every piece of pasta in the house - but we settle on the mousse and three primi: the passatelli, stuffed tortelloni with potatoes and mortadella and tagliatelle with morel mushrooms (in season just in time for the reopening of restaurants!).

By this point, the restaurant is full and as lively as ever. A local taxi driver, a bit of a Twitter star (@RobertoRedSox), sits at one table; friends of the owners hold court at another; a New Age hippie couple dine nearby – all 1m from each other. A change, incidentally, I'm all for – I got kicked out of a restaurant in Tuscany last year for complaining that the tables were too close to each other. I guess that won't be an issue anymore.

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Pasta from Trattoria Bertozzi © Kevin Raub / Lonely Planet

Fabio, the dining room face of Bertozzi, ambles about delivering pasta cooked to perfection to each table, hanging out and shooting the breeze with everyone just as he always does, sanitizing his hands along with the rest of the staff after touching pretty much anything (again, probably a good idea to begin with).

Dining out in La Grassa

Our food arrives and it goes without saying that everything is marvelous (Bologna isn't nicknamed La Grassa, The Fat One, for nothing). The wine flows throughout (local Sangiovese Superiore, thank you very much) and we finish as one does in Bologna: zuppa inglese, the hometown dessert, which is neither soup nor English, but rather a layered custard and sponge cake soaked in bloody red Alchermes liqueur. How sweet it is to dine out again.

So does this mean Italy is ready to accept visitors from abroad? At the time of writing, the country is said to be opening its borders to travelers from fellow Schengen countries on June 3 (no official government decree quite yet), though several Schengen nations seem to be leaning more towards a mid-June opening. So, domestic and intra-EU travel will likely be the way things go this summer travel season. If you hold a Schengen passport, rest assured eating will still be a highlight of your trip to Italy.

Another spumante is generously opened and Fabio fills everyone's glasses while proposing a restaurant-wide toast. We all raise our glasses to the new normal, which isn't all that different from the old normal. Nearly everything about the experience was thankfully ordinary (but more sanitary!).

Italians were right – everything is going to be alright.

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