From time to time in the travel forums, I run across people complaining about the added expense of bottled water at restaurants in Italy. It is possible to drink tap water at any restaurant in Italy, and in some areas it’s the norm, but in many places the request is considered unusual.
Although the water that comes out of our taps is perfectly potable, urban Italians drink almost exclusively bottled water. Not because it’s bottled, but because it comes from real mountain springs (like the one pictured above), and simply tastes better.
City tap water in most parts of Italy that I’ve experienced has a heavily chemical taste – lord knows where they get it from, or what they do to it in purifying. It is also very “hard” – full of calcium. When you see how quickly the inside of your teakettle furs up from boiling tap water, you have second thoughts about trying to process that stuff through your kidneys every day. (Although the technology is available here, very few households have installed the water softening systems that are so common in the US.)
The further you get out into the country, and particularly into the mountains, the better the tap water is: it’s often piped, unprocessed, directly from mountain springs into homes. Many town squares still feature the municipal fountains where people used to get their water before indoor plumbing became common. (In some places, water is so abundant that these can’t be turned off: they simply run, all the time, a waste which always disturbs me.) In communities that have particularly good water, restaurants will put a carafe of the local water on the table before offering you the bottled.
For home consumption, most city households buy bottled water in six packs of 1.5 liter bottles. There are dozens of brands, some local, some national. San Pellegrino is a national brand in Italy – in fact, the town and springs of San Pellegrino are not far from where we live. Most Italian bottled waters actually come from mountain springs in specific locations, and are bottled near the sources for which they’re named. Most come in fizzy and non-fizzy varieties, with the fizzy ones being artificially carbonated, but a few, such as Ferrarelle, are naturally fizzy. Some have recognizable flavors, and after a while you develop preferences (I, for example, can’t stand Ferrarelle).
There is lots of competition between brands, with ads touting their supposed health-giving properties (especially for the house brands at the terme – traditional health spas), low sodium, etc. I don’t take these claims seriously, but it is indisputable that water (bottled or not) is the healthiest thing you can drink – no calories, for starters, and one of the few health statements that most experts seem to agree on is that everyone should drink lots of it. In Italy, this is no problem: not many households keep soft drinks or beer ready in the fridge, but everyone’s always got water. The only two beverages that you see on most Italian tables are water and wine.
You don’t always have to pay for good water in Italy. Enrico and I routinely recycle plastic bottles by taking them to the mountains and refilling them with good spring water: