1. What's in a name? Everything!
In Italy all restaurants are ristorante. They serve, guess what, Italian food. Some better than others. But once abroad, hell breaks loose. The name ristorante covers a wide variety of eating options.
The mere naming is already an issue. Beware for misspelled city and other names. And avoid translated city names. You know, Rome, Florence or Venice.
Just for the sake of it, look up the words you don’t understand. And then decide whether a visit is worth it.
2. Ristorante or pizzeria
In Italy there is a clear distinction between ristorante and pizzeria. Both have different skills, foods and even different kitchens. Don’t expect great dishes in a pizzeria. And don’t expect great pizza’s in a restaurant.
There are, of course, exceptions. Those are rare which does not mean you can’t be lucky.
Improvised and often dishonest Italian restaurants give Italian food a bad name.
3. Red flags
Do not expect the ‘ristorante’ to be cheap. Good ingredients, imported from Italy are expensive. Remember that you pay for what you get. When lucky.
Pictures on a menu are suspicious. Oddly enough, what you receive hardly ever looks familiar to what you choose.
Inaccuracy, poor service and erratic cooks do not characterize the Italian restaurant. It is but a bad interpretation of Italian easy-going.
4. There ain't such a thing
It’s all in the menu. Can food be Italian when not known in Italy?
Parmigiana is an eggplant dish. Not a sauce nor condiment.
Pineapple does not go on pizzas. Not even as a joke. Italian get upset over that kind of things.
Pasta Alfredo is yet another example. No such a thing, with that name, exists in Italy.
Lasagne and Bolognese and spaghetti with meatballs. Sorry. Not served in the ristorante Italiano.
5. Ristorante locale
The ubiquity of Italian restaurants is alarming. Most serve the same downgraded versions of good food. Many have no trouble setting ethics aside.
Regional restaurants are a cut above the rest. First of all, there is pride. One may be Italian, but above all from a region or city. Disrespecting Italy for money is a tradition. Betraying your region or city instead, is not done. So the food is usually pretty representative and close the to original.