It is true that many Romans speak English. Locals (especially those who live outside of touristy areas) are often glad to practice their English with visitors. Also, most places you visit in Rome as a tourist will accommodate the language. They will do this through trained staff or appropriate signage. When in doubt,it’s safe to order food, ask for directions, inquire about history or even admire the beauty of the Italian capital by communicating in English. That said, knowing a few useful Italian phrases won’t hurt and will also show respect towards the culture.
There are few cases however, in which knowing a bit of Italian could save you a little money, earn you a new friend or maybe just give you a further peek into the local culture. Below are a list of situations where a little Italian can go along way. We have included the appropriate Italian phrases for each different context.
In a taxi
Taxi rides in Rome can sometimes be a little confusing. Sometimes it can be unclear what exactly is happening with the meter. To let your cab driver know that you are paying attention you can ask before you get in the cab how much the ride will cost: “Quanto costerebbe da (current location) a (desired destination)? In this way you are using the conditional tense which tells the driver you haven’t yet accepted the ride. This way you can be clear about cost expectations before you even get in the cab.
At the market
Many vendors in the markets might expect tourists to haggle prices in their own language, but would find it quite impressive to hear it them do it in Italian. For example, if you wanted to negotiate down the price of a shirt from 15 euros to 10 euros, you might ask in a curious tone: “Lo prendo per dieci?” This phrase is politely implying that you might buy the shirt if it were less. We recommend studying numbers 1-10 before arriving in Rome.
With the elderly
For reasons of both age and also those related to the Italian scholastic system, many elderly people in Italy do not speak English. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to have ready a few useful Italian phrases. There is a high value of respect and care for the elderly in Italy. You can see this especially in public spaces like the bus or in the supermarket. If you want to offer your seat to a senior citizen on the bus you can say: Vuole sedersi? or “Si accomodi.” This invites them to take a seat if they wish. If you see an elderly person in the supermarket with fewer items in check out line than yourself you can say: Vuole passare? or Vuole andare prima? This will likely get you a warm smile and a “grazie.”
In a cafe or restaurant
The majority of food service workers in Rome do speak English. If you find yourself in a trattoria or cafe that is off the beaten path or if you want faster service, you might use the following phrases. “Siamo pronti.” This means that you are ready to order. After this phrase, your server will likely be all ears. Generally food comes out of Italian restaurants in an orderly manner. If you want to order appetizers you can specify that they are: “Da cominciare” which means to start. Sometimes restaurants will charge a cover or a “coperto.” This often includes a bread basket that they sometimes forget. To specify that you want bread you can say, “Possiamo avere del pane?” To close the meal you ask for “il conto” for the bill.
On a crowded metro
Even Italians commonly use “sorry” to excuse themselves, however there are certain situations where the Italian translation works better. You can give people a polite warning on public transport before reaching your stop. Announce “scendo alla prossima.” This means, I’m getting off at the next stop. Otherwise, if you find yourself in the middle of a crowded metro when the train reaches your stop, it can be useful to say “permesso” loudly. This is essentially asking permission to get through. Most people will gladly move aside.
There are some useful Italian phrases for turning down persistent peddlers. It’s quite common to be approached by people selling bouquets of roses, selfie-sticks, or other knick-knacks throughout areas of the historic center. These pedlars can be persistent, not taking no for an answer, especially with smiling tourists. You can give them the sense that you are actually practiced in denying these offers. Say “no grazie,” or “non ci interessa” is also a good way to let them know you are not interested.