How to Avoid Common Menu Blunders in Europe

Because some things don’t always mean what you think they do

Regardless of how adventurous or curious an eater you are, disembarking in France with little to no knowledge of the language can often mean eating something you really didn’t think you’d ordered. Navigating the nuances of a menu, assuming you’re an intrepid traveler who avoids the tourist traps with translated versions, can be a real challenge. More than just a matter of knowing that poulet means chicken or that there is actually no such thing as “marinara sauce” in Italy, reading a foreign menu is a matter of semantics. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/theCarol)

Hamburger may be a universal language, especially in France, but toppings, sides, and doneness of meat are all important factors in your enjoyment. Same goes for your pizza in Italy. You may enjoy a spicy pepperoni stateside, but order pepperoni on your pie in Italy and you’ll be surprised to find a helping of bell peppers — peperoni in Italian. Those slices of meat you were looking for are called salame.

Even asking to take a look at the menu can get you in some multi-coursed hot water — a menu in many European countries is a prix-fixe menu whereas the à la carte options are usually found on a carte, carta, or speisekarte. Perusing the carte, in France, you’ll notice the entrées at the top where our appetizers usually appear. They are one and the same across the pond — the word entrée refers to your first course; your main course, or plat principal (sometimes just plat), comes second.  

If you decide to order a steak, you’ll want to tell your server how you’d like it cooked. Let’s break it down in terms of rare, medium, and well done:

Italy: al sangue, al punto (or al media cottura), and ben cotta

Germany: roh, nicht zu roh, and durch

Spain: poco cocido, a punto (in Argentina, jugoso — literally "juicy" — is somewhere between rare and medium), and bien cocido or bien hecho

France: saignant (bleu for really rare), à point, and bien cuit

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/AD Blues)

More than cooking doneness, menu items have many other distinctions to take into account — is that salmon poached or smoked? Is that chicken fried or roasted? In Italy, your choices would read fritto (fried), arrosto (roasted), or alla griglia (grilled) where the French would present you with rôti (roasted), fumé (smoked), poché (poached), and à la vapeur (steamed). Germans serve their food geröstet (roasted), geschmort (braised), or gedämpft (steamed).

Hungry travelers looking to get a taste of local specialties can be misled by familiar American versions. For example, ordering a bolognese stateside will get you a delicious plate of spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce. In Bologna, you just order ragù, because un bolognese means a person from Bologna. But in France, a ragoût is a stew, not a sauce at all. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/CodeFin)

Whether you love or hate spicy foods, knowing the word for spicy is essential. Spicy foods in Germany are scharf, in France they’re épicé, in Spain, you’d ask for a dish to be more or less picante, and, similarly, in Italy the word is piccante.




Then there’s coffee. In France and Italy, a coffee is an important undertaking. In Italy, a caffè is an espresso, a caffè latte is espresso with milk, and a cappuccino — well, that translates. An important note, though, is that Italians (as a rule) do not drink cappuccino or caffè latte after noon. They are considered too milky and heavy, and are limited as breakfast drinks only. Ordering one after dinner will conjure confusing glances (read: eye rolling) between the wait staff.

In most of Europe, ordering an “American coffee” will give you the longer brewed cup of Joe you’re used to back home, though it’s not available everywhere. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/devrieda)

Trying to imbibe alcoholically can even be tough. Order a martini in Italy or France and you’ll probably receive a dry vermouth (unless you're in a fancy hotel bar or somesuch). The most popular vermouth brand in Europe is Martini & Rossi, hence the mix up. If you’re searching for the cocktail, ask for a “martini cocktail.”

Likewise, order a manzanilla in Spain and you’ll either get a cup of chamomile tea or a glass of sherry. Then, Champagne is only Champagne in France. Italy’s equivalent is prosecco, in Spain you’d order a cava, and in Germany, a sparkling wine is sekt. The confusion at the bar in Germany continues if you’re after some schnapps. American schnapps are very sweet, fruity liqueurs. In Germany, though, schnapps is a widely used term for all clear brandies distilled from fermented fruits with no sugar added — an acquired taste, we’re told.

Rounding out the end of the meal, there are a few remaining faux pas to avoid. Telling your server that you’re full (and that, indeed, they can take your plate) is tricky. Literal translations are rarely correct. Take the French translation for “I am full” — Je suis plein. Your waiter would give you a pitied smile and reply to you in English. One rule of thumb is that most European countries use the phrase “that’s all” as their indicator. So that’s c’est tout in France, basta cosi in Italy, eso es todo in Spain, and dast ist alles in Germany. Alternatively, the French sometimes say terminé and the Spanish terminado, both meaning "finished". (Photo courtesy of Flickr/SjoerdvW)

Asking for the bill can also present some moments of uncertainty. Don’t let it trip you up — instead, just ask for l'addition in France, die Rechnung in Germany, la cuenta in Spain, and il conto in Italy. Working out what to tip is a whole other story (so stay tuned).  

One of the more fun parts of dining and drinking abroad is venturing into uncharted territory and you should always be able to offer cheers to that in the native tongue! That’s:

Italy: salute, cin cin!

France: santé

Germany: prost! (when drinking beer), zum whol (for wine and formal occasions)

Spain: salud, chin chin

Any other lost in translation menu moments we missed? Tell us yours in the comments!

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