Anatomy of an Italian Meal


For visitors, lunch and dinner menus in Italy can be daunting. Lists of unknown dishes under the headings of antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno and dolce … where does one begin?

The first step is to set aside the way you’re used to ordering meals and decide to fully embrace the Italian way – at least throughout your trip. Italians have had a love affair with food since before recorded history, so it stands to reason that they’ve gotten pretty good at this meal thing. Really, really good, actually.

Typically in Italy, each dish is served separately. (You’ll be hard pressed to find meat, veggies and potato all sharing the same plate.) This separate plate thing means that each dish is enjoyed on its own, and usually leisurely. Don’t you just love that?

secondoEach course also stands on its own. In other words, even though a pasta dish is served before a meat dish, they both share equal ranking in terms of their importance to the meal.

Although it’s not necessary to order a dish from every course, it’s not uncommon either – particularly during a long, Sunday lunch. Although dinners are nothing to scoff at, lunch is traditionally the longer, more substantial meal in Italy, sometimes lasting for hours. (My husband and I have attended lunches than lasted from noon until 5:00pm and, yes, we savored every leisurely bite.)

So here are a few things to keep in mind about dishes and courses when you dine out in Italy:

  • L’aqua is the first decision to make at a restaurant – or even when dining in someone’s home. The choices are naturale (flat water) or frizzante (fizzy water), also referred to as con gas or senza gas –  with or without gas.
  • Il vino can be surprisingly confusing, simply because Italy is the land of wine and the choices are endless. The solution is simple. Order il vino della casa, the house wine (which is often served in a carafe or jug) or go for a local bottled wine. Local wines tend to pair up well with local dishes. And that’s a beautiful thing.
  • L’antipasto, which means literally “before the meal”, is served (you guessed it) before the meal. In central Italy antipasti might be crostini, bruschetta (pronounced brew-sket-ah) or prosciutto with melon.
  • Il primo is the first course and is usually a pasta dish – but not always. Risotto, minestrone or soup might also be served as a first course.
  • arugulaIl secondo, the second course, might be fish, meat, poultry or wild game, such as cinghiale (wild boar) or coniglio (hare).
  • Il contorno is a side dish, and this is where some confusion comes in for those who are used to having a salad before their meal. In Italy the salad is often served as a side dish with, or after, il secondo. Other contorni might be cooked greens, grilled zucchini and eggplant or oven roasted potatoes.
  • Il dolce – literally “the sweet” – hardly needs explanation. Typical desserts are tiramisu, torta di nonna, panna cotta or gelato. Fruit and cheese plates are also common after a meal.
  • Il caffè or il digestivo comes after dessert . Actually, it seems that no meal in Italy is complete without an espresso and/or a sip of liquor, such as limoncello, vin santo or (hold onto your socks) grappa.

Oh … just one more thing. The Italian way of dining is all about the enjoyment and appreciation of good food and good company, so there’s no need to feel rushed. In fact, when it’s time to leave you’ll most certainly have to ask your waiter to bring the bill. Just another thing to love about long, leisurely, delicious meals in Italy, don’t you think?


pamela off stradaPamela Haack is an Italy travel consultant and author of Off the Beaten Strada: Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites. She specializes in creating personalized experiences and group trips for active travelers, helping them to better explore Italy – off the beaten strada.

From art experts and operettas to authentic cooking classes and ancient Etruscans, Pamela helps visitors experience the spectacularly beautiful, endlessly interesting regions of Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio in an up-close and personal way.

Pamela lives with her husband, Luigi, in Umbria, Italy.

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