Eating a leisurely Italian meal is one of the pleasures of traveling in Italy! Italians take food very seriously. Each region, and sometimes even a city, will have regional specialties that they are very proud of. Your experience might be enhanced by telling your waiter that you want to try the specialties. Understanding how Italians traditionally eat will help you get the most out of your travel experience.
The Italian Menu
Traditional Italian menus have five sections. A full meal usually consists of an appetizer, first course, and a second course with a side dish. It's not necessary to order from every course, but usually, people order at least two courses. Traditional meals may last one or two hours or even longer. Italians often go out for a long Sunday lunch with their families and restaurants will be lively. It's a good chance to experience Italian culture.
Italian Appetizers - Antipasti
Antipasti come before the main meal. One choice will usually be a plate of the local cold cuts and there will probably be some regional specialties. Sometimes you can order an antipasto misto and get a variety of dishes. This is usually fun and can be more food than you'd expect for the price! In the south, there are some restaurants that have an antipasto buffet where you can select your own appetizers.
The First Course - Primo
The first course is pasta, soup, or risotto (rice dishes, especially found in the north).
Usually, there are several pasta choices. Italian pasta dishes may have less sauce than Americans are usually used to. In Italy, the type of pasta is often more important than the sauce. Some risotto dishes may say a minimum of 2 persons.
The Second or Main Course - Secondo
The second course is usually meat, poultry, or fish.
It doesn't usually include any potato or vegetable. There are sometimes one or two vegetarian offerings, although if they are not on the menu you can usually ask for a vegetarian dish.
The Side Dishes - Contorni
Usually you will want to order a side dish with your main course. This could be a vegetable (verdura), potato, or insalata (salad). I sometimes order only a salad instead of the meat course.
The Dessert - Dolce
At the end of your meal, you will be offered dolce. Sometimes there may be a choice of fruit (often whole fruit served in a bowl for you to select what you want) or cheese. After dessert, you will be offered caffe or a digestivo (after dinner drink).
Most Italians drink wine, vino, and mineral water, acqua minerale, with their meal. Often the waiter will take the drink order before your food order. There may be a house wine that can be ordered by the quarter, half, or full liter and will not cost much. Coffee is not served until after the meal (read more about coffee in Italy) and iced tea is rarely served either. If you do have ice tea or soda, there will not be free refills.
Getting the Bill in an Italian Restaurant
The waiter will almost never bring the bill until you ask for it.
You may be the last people in the restaurant but the bill still doesn't come. When you are ready for the bill, simply ask for il conto. The bill will include a small bread and cover charge but the prices listed on the menu include tax and usually service. You may leave a small tip (a few coins) if you want to. Not all restaurants accept credit cards so be prepared with cash.
Where to Dine in Italy
If you just want a sandwich, you can go to a bar. A bar in Italy is not just a place for drinking alcohol and there are no age restrictions. People go to the bar for their morning coffee and pastry, to grab a sandwich, and even to buy ice cream. Some bars also serve a few pasta or salad selections so if you just want one course, that's a good choice. A tavola calda serves already prepared food. These will be fairly fast.
More formal dining establishments include:
- osteria - this used to be a very casual eating place but now there are some more formal ones.
- trattoria - also a more casual eating place but may be the same as a restaurant.
- ristorante - restaurant
Italian Meal Times
In the summer, Italians usually eat fairly late meals. Lunch will not start before 1:00 and dinner not before 8:00. In the north and in winter, meal times may be half an hour earlier while in the far south in summer you may eat even later. Restaurants close between lunch and dinner. In large tourist areas, you may find restaurants open all afternoon. Nearly all shops in Italy are closed in the afternoon for three or four hours, so if you want to buy a picnic lunch be sure to do it in the morning!
Find out more about how and what to eat in Italy with this guide to Italian food or with one of these Italy food books and apps.