Osteria, Enoteca and Trattoria: What makes their design distinct?


In October, we explored the design distinctions of several French eatery types: the bistro, brasserie and cafe. As the second chapter in our series of culinary archetypes, we moved onto the Italian equivalent. Here in North America, we often borrow from the Italian vernacular at random, calling one restaurant an osteria; another an enoteca, a third a trattoria, all without fidelity to the origin of the terms. While this isn’t problematic per se (what do you take us for, Miranda Priestly?), we wanted to explore the history of these terms so the next time you step into a trattoria you can evaluate for yourself if it’s more like an osteria…or not.

ENOTECA / “WINE REPOSITORY” : If only all things in life could be so clearly labeled. We like to imagine if an alien landed on earth right now they might zip past the bars, quikmarts and fine dining places with perplexing names and end up at an Enoteca, where they could clearly grasp its function: ‘wine repository’. The Enoteca traditionally serves wine and mostly wine. The oldest wine bar in Italy, Enoteca Al Brindisi (and the world) predates Italy itself, established in 1435 and allegedly served Copernicus and Titian their daily pours.

Enoteca Al Brindisi, photo credit

Think ‘wine bar’ design of today: dark, cozy, romantic, but not too polished. Major staples of decor might include rack upon rack of wine shelving, perhaps a little dusty after 500+ years. One could easily write a whole book about wine shelving, perhaps the most gorgeous intersection of form and function in the history of storage. Unassuming, yet arresting because of its repetition, ultra efficient (taking advantage of ceiling height), and displaying wine bottles, an object d’arte in and of itself, wine shelves date back at least 8,000 years. Wine shelving patterns include straight across, bookshelf style, honeycomb, herringbone as shown below at our Bar Pastoral, and freestanding at Apellation (our header image), its sister restaurant. It is worth mentioning that wine shelf design followed the design of the wine bottle, which was specifically crafted to present optimum storage conditions for the health of the grape liqueur inside. For an absolutely fascinating history of wine containers through the ages, Vine Pair has got you covered. Other design features of the Enoteca include casual bench seating and spare wooden tables.

OSTERIA / From the Latin word ‘hospite’, and Italian word ‘ospitalita’ meaning ‘hospitality’)
Of all the dining establishment lingo in Italian, osteria has probably transformed the most in meaning and function. Straightforwardly, it was a wine bar, similar to an enoteca, but with some simple, local food offerings. At one point, it was a place for weary travelers to picnic, serving wine and offering seating, but where patrons would bring and consume their own food. Some even offered lodging. The prices were very affordable, suited to its target market of locals and passersby. 

Think of the osteria as your local dive, or as an inn straight out of The Hobbit. Gatherings of men would gulp down vino and chit chat and then order the tater tots (someone always does). TL;DR: Osterias were not a focal point for food, but if you were a little tipsy and peckish, damn if it wasn’t just what you wanted.

Think the communal dining table originated on the set of Portlandia? Osterias in Italy were jamming people in with strangers long before they were Fred Armisen. Dining concepts are always modulating with the times, and now super elevated food can be found on small, shared plates with communal seating; not just in white table-clothed dining rooms.

Florentine trattoria, complete with checked tablecloths. Photo credit

TRATTORIA / Trattore, “host, keeper of an eating house”
Think of a trattoria as a family restaurant, one with regional and local dishes, an informal dining set-up, sometimes with kids as waitstaff and mom or pop at the register. This is no salad fork dining room, but instead a place where one can secure a full meal, enjoy the daily catch or special, and sit down and have a conversation. Dishes might include homemade pasta with generationally secured pasta sauce prepared simply, heartily and flavorfully.

In a 1989 Tribune Article, William Rice laments the desiccation of the term ‘trattoria.’ Attempting to serve haute cuisine in a trattoria is blasphemy, he argues, and so is it to serve samey, assembly line food products from any corporate overlord. A true trattoria should feel “like eating at home.” He cites Little Italy’s Tufano’s, which has been open for over 35 years as a true Italian-style trattoria. Its unpretentious vibe and family recipes, none presenting sticker shock, cement its status. True to form, chalkboard menus and a full wooden bar underscore the casual nature of the establishment. Overhead pendant lamps, not unlike the kind one might have at home, reveal sly details that point to the design era of their inspiration. The classic red and white checked tablecloth is also a staple of the trattoria. At Trattoria Sostanza in Florence, daily menus are handwritten, something that simply wouldn’t fly at a top of the line ristorante. This trattoria also features an open kitchen, another design feature of a more neighborhood establishment.

As with all things, this is only the beginning, and other establishment types abound in Italy and beyond. Just think of the term “Fro-yo”; it barely existed 15 years ago and is now a bonafide eatery “type”. Watch our blog for more on the history of dining and design. Ciao for now and buon appetito!