Visiting Italy? Follow Caterina for tips on how to read the Italian menus at your favorite restaurant—from the Conversational Italian series of books!
The Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook begins each chapter with a dialogue from a story about the character Caterina, an American girl who travels to Italy to visit her relatives. As the story continues from one chapter to the next, we learn Italian, and about Italy, in an engaging way through Caterina’s experiences.
After Caterina arrives in Italy, she stays with her Italian cousin Pietro and his family in Milan for a while and adapts to Italian life and the Italian language. Then, in the last unit of the book, they all go on a summer vacation together. Caterina and her family stay at a typical northern Italian lake resort in the town of Stresa on Lago Maggiore.
Italian menus can look confusing to those who are new to Italian culture, but a few tips will help you understand how they are usually designed. Because most restaurants in Italy offer several courses, the Italian menu will usually list each course in the order in which it is to be served. Read on for a description of each Italian course, and find out what to expect when you order your own delicious meal in Italy!
To listen to the dialogue from Chapter 16, when Caterina and her Italian family arrive at an Italian restaurant and begin their wonderful meal together, go to the interactive audio dialogues on our website at learntravelitalian.com/interactive.html.
Italian menus reflect the typical Italian meal offered at most all Italian restaurants open for dinner, from the family-run trattoria, to the more formal ristorante (with a professional chef). The Italian meal consists of several courses.
Appetizers, called “antipasto” or “antipasti,” are small servings of vegetables, meat, or fish, served either hot or cold, to start the meal. The pasta course can be, and often is, the main course for the meal and is called “il primo.”
If there is time for a longer dinner, or for a celebratory dinner, it is traditional to follow the pasta course with an additional course of fish or meat (usually accompanied by a vegetable) that is called “il secondo.”
And, of course, there is almost always the option of dessert under the “il dolce” section listed on most Italian menus, or at least coffee at the end of the meal.
With all these courses, an Italian dinner may take between 1½ and 2 hours! This is understood by the restaurant owners, who consider the table booked for the evening from the moment it is occupied; dinner in Italy is considered finished only when the diner asks for the check! In Italy, meals are a time for gathering with family and friends, and a well-prepared dinner with several courses is considered a part of “la dolce vita,” or “the good life.”
Below is a list of the courses that comprise a full Italian meal, in the order that they usually appear on most Italian menus.
|La Cena Italiana
|The Italian Dinner
|The First Course
|The Second Course
|The Dessert (Sweet) Course
When looking through Italian menus, expect to see a selection of appetizers (gli antipasti) listed first. Each region has its own specialties, which include a wide variety of vegetables (raw, preserved in olive oil or vinegar, or cooked), as well as cold meats or salami and cheeses. Salad can also be served as part of this course, but it is often eaten after the second course, when the main course has been completed. Salads are usually not formally composed but consist of fresh lettuce and whatever other fresh garden vegetables the chef has on hand that day (insalata mista). Hot antipasto may be served, with a variety of fried foods (fritto misto), very popular throughout the coastal regions of Italy.
Soup (zuppa), often referred to as the most common type, minestrone (made with bean- and tomato-based broth and various vegetables and pasta), on Italian menus is well loved throughout Italy, and during leaner times, soups were a mainstay of the lunch and dinner meals. Soup may come after or replace the antipasto course.
Appetizers and soups are always served with fresh bread (pane) typical of the region. The type of bread is not usually listed as a choice on Italian menus, because bread-making varies by region. That said, bread in Italy is always wonderful—either with a hard, crunchy crust and a soft center, like a French baguette, or soft throughout but golden brown on top, like a thick, light pizza (focaccia). Thin, crunchy breadsticks (grissini) are common throughout northern Italy.
Bread in Italy can be eaten as is, or dipped in fresh, extra-virgin olive oil from a bottle that is provided along with the bread when one is seated. Butter—always unsalted—will only occasionally be found on the table as an accompaniment to the bread, and only in northern Italy. So if butter is not brought to the table with the bread, it probably is not available. When it comes to bread, just follow the local traditions for the best way to enjoy the type of bread each region has to offer!
Next on Italian menus, we come to a list of starchy foods, such as pasta, gnocchi, or rice for the first course, or il primo. The word pasta means “paste” or “dough,” and refers to the method of mixing flour with water or eggs and then kneading the paste that is formed from this simple mixture until the gluten in the flour transforms it into a dough. The dough is rested, then rolled out and stretched, and finally cut into strands or put through a hand-cranked pasta machine at home. Commercial pasta machines, with their metal dyes that shape pasta into its many well-loved forms, and the ability of pasta to be dried and then cooked easily in a pot of salted boiling water, have allowed Italian pasta to become one of the world’s most popular dishes.
Many restaurants in Italy will have a selection of fresh pastas made daily, and it is the custom to make all sauces from scratch using farm-fresh ingredients. Pasta in Italy is always cooked freshly and served “al dente,” which literally means “to the tooth” (a bit firm when chewed). Pasta is served promptly, so it is never soft or mushy.
Italian short-grain rice (riso) when cooked in the Italian way is called risotto and is often served in northern Italy instead of pasta for the first course. The most popular types of rice grown in Italy are arborio and carnaroli. Italian rice is very starchy and is cooked slowly, with constant stirring, to bring out the starch and create a creamy sauce. No milk or cream is added! A variety of vegetables, seafood, or saffron can be added, along with a final enrichment of butter and cheese. How “soupy” the final dish turns out to be varies by region, but the rice itself is always a little firm, despite the constant stirring it takes to create the sauce.
Gnocchi, or potato dumplings, look like little pillows and when made properly are said to be as light as air. They are popular all over Italy for the first course and can be served with red tomato sauce, basil pesto, or Gorgonzola cheese sauce. (See our previous blog post Gnocchi with Brown Butter or Gorgonzola Sauce if you would like to try this dish!)
Il secondo, or the second course, always consists of meat or seafood, and with this course, a vegetable side dish, or contorno, can be ordered. The meat or seafood may be served alone or with one starch only, such as a potato or rice, so be sure to order your vegetables if you are a vegetable lover! Italians are very fond of vegetables and consider them as important as the meat or seafood in this course—important enough to be given their own listing on Italian menus!
For those who like to finish their meal with something sweet, there is usually a wide array of offerings for the dessert course, or il dolce. Whether for an informal meal, a large, important gathering, or a special holiday, several dessert choices are usually listed on the menu. Il dolce may consist of fruit, nuts, cheeses, an assortment of pastries or ice cream, and of course, sweet wine (vin santo), liquors, and coffee.
Try a full Italian meal “al fresco” one balmy evening in Italy, just the way the Italians do. Watch the people stroll by as they take their evening walk, relax, and enjoy. You won’t be disappointed!
—Adapted from Conversational Italian for Travelers, Chapter 16, “Cultural Note – A Typical Italian Menu” © 2012 by Stella Lucente, LLC.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Visiting Italy? Reading Italian Menus