You won’t see me ever eating in a tourist trap in Florence. I know the signs and how to choose the most authentic restaurants.
Here are MAJOR red flags when searching for a restaurant in touristy cities:
Avoid menus with photos
National flags and translations of dishes
Offering a tourist menu (menu turistico)
Menu items with an asterisk (indicting frozen food and they are microwaving your food)
Seasonal dishes offered in the wrong season
Regional dishes offered in the wrong region
Follow these signs instead
Ask where the Italians eat. Locals know where the good food is located. Keep an eye out for small side streets where the place is full at lunch. These places usually have simple, delicious dishes for a reasonably price.
Not too hungry? Grab a slice of pizza. Pizza a taglio or pizza by the slice, is a very inexpensive way to have lunch when you out and about in Florence. Most pizza a taglio places are small inside and in the summer they usually put tables outside on the street.
Have you heard of a tavola calda or a hot table? This is a cafeteria style eatery where you can choose from many entrees and sides. Most offer a complete meal with water and coffee. Mercato Centrale has a eatery like this on the second floor. Very good food!
Pack a picnic on a warm summer day. Most of the parks are free to enter (except Boboli and Torrigiani). You can always eat in a piazza on a bench, with a delicious panino in hand and watch Florence walk by.
When you know it is an authentic restaurant
The menu is handwritten. When the restaurant prides it self on their own dishes the menu changes daily. I found that the staff at the these places were much more friendly and willing to answer questions about the menu. They would also recommend a dish if you are undecided. If you aren't able to read Italian well, remember to bring you dictionary with you. Not all wait staff speak English, don't assume, please.
The correct regional dish is on the menu. You will not find cinghiale, wild boar in Rome or pizza napolitano in Florence. Make sure you know what each region is famous for so you don't stumble into a tourist trap. Also small towns also have their specialties, research before you go.
Seasonal dishes are offered out of season. Here's a basic guide for that:
Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and fennel are staples in the colder months, and fresh leafy greens only hit plates in the springtime.
Summer is the best time for most, but not all, fruits. Melons are the big draw this time of year.
The fall harvest in Italy is grapes, apples, squash, mushrooms
Don't forget truffles! Chestnuts and truffles are the other most popular fall food
You are not given the bill without asking. Most restaurants allow you to spend as much time as you want at the table. You must ask for the bill, il conto, per favore (the bill, please). Don't be offended if they never come to your table to check on you. Italians find that rude to bother you while eating. So enjoy your time enjoying your meal and conversing with friends until you are ready to leave.
I hope these tips were helpful. I know it might take longer to find an authentic restaurant but you will thank me later.
Step out of your comfort zone, try to speak Italian, learn to ask for the bill, and be kind.