Tavole calde, literally “hot tables”, have been around in Italy since the time of the Romans, when they were referred to as thermopolium. At that time, pottery vats were filled with hot and cold drinks, soups, pastas and more. These places served as the local bar or meeting place, and were often considered the town or village’s center of activity. Now, one can visit the remains of thermopolium at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia Antica, or just above Rome in Capena at Lucus Feroniae (pictured).
In good-sized towns or cities where business crowds can be found, such a place is now called a tavola calda, providing good food and variety at very reasonable prices. You can make your selections from pizzas, hot and cold pastas, salads, panini (sandwiches), main dishes and side dishes, in addition to desserts, soft drinks, wine and beer. The “hot” dishes will have been prepared in advance, and perhaps even reheated in a microwave.
After you have chosen your various dishes on your tray, you will pay a cashier, who will also take your drink order. Unlike bar (cafés), where you will pay extra for table seating, there is no extra charge here, and you can sit where you like. It is not uncommon to eat quickly and lavishly for under €10. This is a great option when you are short of time and don’t have the opportunity to sit down and dine as Italians usually do.
Transport yourself back 2,000 years and imagine yourself dressed in a toga, talking with your neighbors as someone dishes up a bowl of pasta from a thermopolium.