Restaurant menus in Italy can be confusing if you’re not familiar with the traditional Italian meal structure. I’ve written this guide to take the guesswork out of it for you!
Table of Contents
A complete guide to the Italian meal structure
How are Italian meals structured?
Traditional Italian meals follow a multi-course structure. Yes, it’s a lot of food!
Nowadays, you might only have a meal like this on a special occasion, like a wedding or a holiday party, but menus are still broken down this way.
In this guide, I’ll explain the traditional Italian meal structure in detail, with more info about how to break it down when ordering at a restaurant below.
How many courses are there in an Italian meal?
A traditional Italian meal is made up of five courses:
- secondo e contorno
- dolce e caffè
Let’s take a look at each course in more detail.
The beginning of an Italian meal
An Italian meal starts with an aperitivo, which consists of a beverage or two and a selection of snacks or finger foods.
The drinks served during aperitivo can be alcoholic or non. A common aperitivo drink is a spritz Aperol or Campari, but you can also have wine, beer or a cocktail.
There are plenty of non-alcoholic drinks in Italy. These include typical soft drinks like Coke, but there are also soft drinks that are specific to Italy, like aranciata or limonata (orange and lemon soda), or, if you’re feeling adventurous, chinotto (a carbonated drink made from tart myrtifolia oranges, the taste of which makes me want to cry). Many places also serve elaborate mocktails made with juices and syrups.
It can be hard if you’re especially hungry, but try not to fill up at the aperitivo! Remember that the Italian meal structure has four more courses to go. I’ve made this mistake many times, usually at weddings, which means I have to creep away as the first course comes out to remove my Spanx and shove them into the depths of my purse.
You may have also heard of aperitivo as being similar to Happy Hour. This is true in some ways – many Italians meet at a bar for aperitivo after work or before going out to dinner.
Again, you can order the alcoholic drink of your choice, or opt for something alcohol free. If you want to have an Italian experience but don’t drink, try a Crodino (like a non-alcoholic Aperol) or San Bitter (like a non-alcoholic Campari).
There will also be food – some places serve chips and peanuts and maybe some olives, but other places go all out and have a whole buffet available.
After starting out with an aperitivo, you’ll move onto the antipasto, or appetizer.
This can take many forms. As with everything else in Italy, a typical antipasto will vary from region to region. You can get cheese or cold cuts, meatballs, baccalà mantecato (whipped salt cod), bruschetta or crostini, and on and on.
When dining in a restaurant, you may be used to having a cocktail with appetizers, as is common in some parts of the world, but many restaurants in Italy don’t have full bars. You may be able to get a spritz or another standard mixed drink, but you might have to stick to beer or wine.
The middle of an Italian meal
Il primo piatto
The first course, or primo piatto, is generally carb-based: think pasta, polenta or risotto, but it can also be soup.
Sometimes, at weddings or special occasions, there are two primi piatti! I meant what I said about not filling up too early – be careful, otherwise you’ll be subtly trying to unbutton your pants under the table or next to me in the bathroom cursing your shapewear as you try to tear it off so you can breathe.
Il secondo piatto
The secondo is usually meat or fish (or something veggie-based if you don’t eat meat, of course).
Again, this will vary depending on where you are, but in Rome, some common secondi are roasted lamb, veal saltimbocca, chicken cacciatore, and salt cod.
Visitors to Italy are often surprised when they order a secondo piatto and it doesn’t come with a side dish (contorno). That’s because you usually have to order it separately!
Some places might give you a couple of chunks or roasted potato or a few bites of salad, but in general, the main course doesn’t come with much.
Some common contorni are grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes or french fries, or salad. In Rome, it’s common to have verdure ripassate, which are greens that are boiled and then tossed in a pan with olive oil and seasonings.
A note on salad
In the US, the salad course comes first, but in Italy, it comes as a side with the main, or it can even be served after the secondo piatto!
After nearly 11 years in Italy, I’ve gotten used to eating my salad at the end of my meal – it’s a refreshing way to finish up.
The end of an Italian meal
The end-of-meal ritual in Italy follows specific steps: first dessert, then coffee, and then, if you partake, a digestif (also known as the ammazzacaffè or “coffee killer”, because it serves to dull the effect of the caffeine and the flavor of the coffee).
Again, the offerings for dessert can vary depending on where you are in Italy, but some common ones up and down the boot are tiramisù, torta della nonna (pie with custard filling and pine nuts), tenerina al cioccolato (flourless chocolate cake), gelato, or cookies like the extra-crunchy sugar-coated ciambelle al vino.
It’s also common to have fruit as a dessert. Many restaurants serve pineapple for example, or a mix of seasonal fruits.
You may also be offered a variety of cheeses at the end of your traditional Italian meal. In my experience, this isn’t very common, but I recently went to a great restaurant in Centocelle called Menabò, and they had a cheese platter on the dessert menu.
You may have heard that Italians don’t drink cappuccino or other long, milky coffees after 11.
According to some of my readers and friends, this isn’t strictly true – it’s more to do with the proximity to meal time than the actual type of coffee.
It’s common to have a caffè latte as a merenda, or after-school snack, for example, but you wouldn’t have one directly after lunch or dinner, because having a lot of milk after a meal is believed to impede digestion.
While it’s perfectly normal to order a cappuccino with your dessert in the US and other parts of the world, in Italy, you will get some strange looks, and perhaps even flat-out refusals to accommodate your request. Many restaurants that do lunch and dinner service just won’t make them, end of story.
What you can order is espresso, or a caffè macchiato (which has just a drop of milk).
The coffee will generally come after the dessert – you don’t have the two together like you would in other countries.
And yes, if you want the flavor of coffee without the caffeine, you can request a decaf.
Il digestivo (ammazzacaffÈ)
Digestivi are small shots of liquor meant to aid in digestion, or, as I mentioned above, “kill the coffee”. They might arrive in a shot glass, but don’t shoot it – they’re meant to be sipped (as I learned quickly after the first time I was given a shot of limoncello and knocked it back like I was on spring break).
There are many different types of digestivi in Italy, again varying on where you are.
Some common ones that will be available in most places are limoncello, amaro del capo or amaro di montenegro, and grappa.
I always think it’s a good idea to ask if there are any local digestivi that are particular to the region you’re in. Over the summer, I had a digestivo made from black cherries in the countryside of Lazio that was to die for. I also went to Salerno in September and bought a bottle of rucolino, which is made from arugula. The first time I went to Abruzzo I was served copious quantities of Genziana, which is made from a genus of flowering plants called Gentian. All of these liquors have extremely particular flavors that are unique to their location.
Bonus round: caffè corretto
Caffè corretto is a nice little Italian secret. It’s basically an espresso with a cheeky little droppity-drop of alcohol in it. Oftentimes, it’s grappa or amaretto, but my preference is Bailey’s.
The first time I saw anyone drinking a caffè corretto, it was in the morning at a bar, most likely as a part of a hair-of-the-dog situation, but you can also have one after a meal.
I never get coffee in the evening because it keeps me awake, but I quite enjoy a caffè corretto after dinner on the rare occasion that I have agreed to go to what I believe the kids called “a discotheque”, when I know that I will be awake far past my bedtime.
So, do Italians eat lunch and dinner like this every day?!
The short answer is no, generally they don’t.
That said, it’s not a tradition that has been completely abandoned. When I studied abroad in Rome, I lived with a host family, which consisted of me, an older Roman woman, and her cranky cat. She made me dinner every night that I was home and the odd lunch when I didn’t have class. She made a primo and secondo for each meal, with a salad that was served afterwards.
When Jeremy was studying in Padua, he had access to the university cafeteria, and there too they offered a primo, secondo and contorno with a dessert and coffee for students.
Of course the traditional Italian meal structure still exists in some settings, but like I said above, you’ll probably only have all five courses on special occasions.
Ordering courses in a restaurant
So, while people don’t tend to eat like this every day, it’s important to note that menus in restaurants are divided into this structure (with the exception of the aperitivo, which, as I said, happens at a bar before going to a restaurant).
On a typical menu, you’ll find antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci.
So, how does it work if you want an antipasto and a secondo, and your dining companion wants a primo and a secondo, for example!?
Luckily, there is a bit of flexibility. You certainly don’t have to order all five courses!
If one of you orders just a primo and someone else orders just a secondo, the server will probably ask if you want everything together, or they’ll coordinate it so that everyone has something to eat at the same time.
If you want certain things to come out together, just ask.
Wait, where’s the pizza?
As you may have noted, pizza is conspicuously absent from the traditional Italian meal structure that’s outlined above.
That doesn’t mean that you might not find tiny squares of pizza or perhaps pizzette (small round mini-pizzas, often just with sauce on top) at an aperitivo or as part of an antipasto, but it otherwise wouldn’t enter into a meal as a primo or secondo.
Pizza is kind of its own thing, but when in a pizzeria, there are a few good things to know!
A typical meal in a pizzeria starts with fritti, which are fried foods. Common fritti in Rome are suppli (rice balls), zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovy, or baccalà filets.
You’ll also find olive ascolane, which are olives that are stuffed with meat and deep fried, mozzarelline, which are little fried balls of mozzarella, crocchette, which is fried mashed potato, sometimes with ham and/or cheese, and maybe onion rings or french fries.
The pizza is the main event, of course. Remember that Roman pizza is thin and crispy, whereas Neapolitan pizza has a thicker crust and heavier toppings.
Beer is a very common accompaniment to pizza in Italy, but pizzerias also serve wine and soft drinks, of course.
I hope you enjoyed my guide to the Italian meal structure. Questions? Thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Share them in the comments below!