Rick Steves' Best Tip For Eating In Italy On A Tight Budget

Pizza, pasta, and paninis — talk about timeless classics that never go out of style in Italy! The food in this dreamy European nation is an integral part of this country's culture and might be the closest thing to heaven. While a week-long trip in Italy may be great for recharging your social battery and disconnecting from everyday routines, it can easily have a less-than-positive impact on your wallet if you aren't keeping track of your funds. Not that anyone can be blamed for indulging a little too much on ravioli and focaccia, but knowing where to indulge is key. Rick Steves is proficient in sniffing out local food in each Italian province, with years of experience crisscrossing the Italian countryside.

According to U.S. News, Rome ranked fourth among the World's 30 Best Places to Visit for 2023 and 2024. As an iconic tourist destination, it's not surprising that restaurants in Italy tend to capitalize on their world-renowned cuisine through tourists' wallets. Local establishments near populated piazzas tend to charge more, making the obscure rosticceria tucked along the narrow alley your new best friend in Italy. According to Steves, look for hyper-local self-service counters offering better prices and indulgent dishes. These eateries also operate under the monikers: trattorias, tavola caldos, and pizzerias. Neon signs and English-translated menus tend to be warning signs that you might be in for a higher price tag. Hand-scrawled menus with dishes boasting unfamiliar monikers indicate that your dinner spot of choice is a frugal hotspot.

Pizza and birra — the perfect pairing

As the founders of this timeless staple food, it's not surprising that pizza is one of the most budget-friendly meals you'll come across in Italy. Food & Wine Magazine announced in 2023 that the average price of a large cheese pizza in America is almost $20. Compared to the exorbitant costs of cheese and dough in the United States, the average price of meals in Italy is less than €10 a person, with full-size pizzas coming in at around €5. 

According to Steves, look for a pizza rustica, where pizzas are sold by weight so you can easily order based on your appetite. He notes that pizza and brew are perfect for a quick, affordable, and indulgent dinner. While prices don't nearly skyrocket as much as in the United States, costs tend to differ somewhat between provinces. Cagliari offers some of the cheapest prices for dining out, and it's not uncommon to score an entire pizza for just over €3. 

Just because you're not sitting down to a five-course meal at a posh, bougie ristorante, don't assume that the food served at your local trattoria won't measure up. Oftentimes, these hole-in-the-wall pizza joints are casual family-owned establishments sourcing the freshest ingredients from the streets in Italy. Oftentimes, it translates into an authentic and local perspective of Italian cuisine that looks and tastes just as good as the city's upscale eateries without paying the extra price tag.

Panino, anyone?

Before diving further into Italy's incredible foodie scene, let's not forget that sandwiches are not paninis — they're better! Often foraged from a tavola calda, an Italian food bar serving casual, quick, pre-made, and ready-to-order bites, paninis are one of Steve's top recommendations for a budget-friendly meal in Italy. Italians certainly know what they're doing when curating a quick and satisfying meal, particularly when crisp, crunchy focaccia is involved. Toasted or not, you can never go wrong with a refreshing lunch montage of cheese, bread, and deli meat.

However, not all of these toasted delicacies are created equally. Florence, in particular, is home to a world-famous tavola calda that's attracted quite the following of panini lovers around the globe. All'Antico Vinaio is the most coveted sandwich shop in Italy, specializing in respectable-sized sandos for an affordable price. This Florentine panini shop has garnered a respectable reputation, with over 29,000 total reviews — the most out of any quick-service eatery listed on Tripadvisor. You can't beat the price tag either, with each panini averaging just €6 — an incredible deal considering the enticing stack of schiacciata (Tuscan-style focaccia) layered with stracciatella, pesto, and mortadella you'll receive. While it may be the epitome of a local, stand-off establishment, these oversized sammies will keep you full and satisfied for hours on end while getting lost in the quaint cobblestone streets of Italy. For an extra affordable price, we might add!