There are many ordinary tasks and common customs that are daunting for a first time traveler to any country, including Italy. Things as simple as friendly greetings (buongiorno before lunch, buona sera after), purchases (money is placed on the counter, not directly in the hand; the same is true for your change), and business hours (ah, the beloved early afternoon riposo closure) require thought and a bit of getting used to…and as soon as you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it, you run into an exception.
The same is true for eating at a restaurant in Italy. Italian meals are articulated into a number of portate, or courses, and it helps to have a general idea of what each means and how to organize both your order and your meal. And then, of course, how to make an exception.
This is a relatively new custom, and not strictly part of a meal but rather a pre-meal drink and snack. Generally, an aperitivo is consumed at a café or bar and not at a restaurant, trattoria or osteria (less formal than a restaurant), or tavola calda (the least informal of eateries), though there is a new trend in a number of cities where restaurants have opened a small wine bar or café adjacent to their main dining room and offer an evening aperitivo a few nights a week.
Regardless, you may come across an aperitivo in a more formal restaurant in the form of a complementary glass of prosecco and a small amuse-bouche either when you are seated and perusing the menu, or after you have ordered to pass the time. Enjoy!
Seafood Antipasto – Do’Batti, Portofino
This is the appetizer course, and can include anything from elegantly plated flans or meat or fish carpaccio, cheese and conserves or charcuterie plates, or a rustic selection of bruschette or crostini. This is generally your first official course (though there are exceptions—see below), and should be chosen to complement your main course or courses rather than overpower with flavor or bounty. An antipasto is also recommended if you have ordered a main course which may take a bit longer to prepare (risotto or a whole baked fish, for example) and you are feeling the pangs of hunger.
The first main course in Italy is almost always the carbohydrate-heavy one. Here is where you will find both dry and fresh pasta, including stuffed pasta like ravioli or cappelletti, risotto, gnocchi, and grain and legume soups. Remember that this, like all the courses you select for your meal, should fit with the other choices to form a harmonious whole.
During the second main course, protein takes the main stage. Here is where the meat, poultry, game, fish, or seafood is served. More and more Italians are adopting vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets, so it has become common to find at least one or two egg, cheese, or legume dishes included, as well. Portions can be smaller than what you may find in US restaurants, and side dishes are generally not included. Which brings us to…
These are the side dishes which you can order to accompany your secondo or on their own (again, see below). Almost always vegetables (but not necessarily vegetarian, so double check with your waiter if you would rather avoid your greens tossed with pancetta), cooked, grilled, or served raw in salads, roasted or mashed potatoes, or dressed bean salads.
The dessert course, which can include cakes or pastries, dolci al cucchiaio (desserts needing a spoon, including tiramisù and custards), fruit dressed (sugared berries or macedonia fruit salad) or plain, or crisp cookies (tozzetti) and vin santo, a sweet dessert wine.
Il Caffè and Il Digestivo
If you’ve made it through all that, you will almost certainly need both a caffè (straight espresso or espresso macchiato with a dollop of frothed milk…never cappuccino!) and a digestivo, served simultaneously (indeed, with an espresso corretto, served in the same cup).
Rules and Exceptions
If you’re thinking that that’s an incredible amount of food, you’re right. In fact, now’s the moment to dispell a common misconception about eating in Italy: you are expected to order an antipasto, primo, secondo, and dolce at an Italian restaurant, and will be in ill favor if you do not do so.
This is simply not true. Aside from very formal occasions, Italians almost never eat an entire five course meal—modern sedentary life simply can’t justify the calories. So feel perfectly free to tailor your order to your hunger and diet. Most commonly, meals tend to be composed of two courses, which can be mixed and matched (for example, an antipasto paired with either a primo or a secondo, or a secondo with a contorno, or simply a primo and a secondo), followed by a slightly guilty hemming and hawing about a dolce (which is often and openly shared).
Also, there is nothing wrong with shifting dishes between their categories. Restaurants are generally fine with diners requesting a contorno to be served as their antipasto, or an antipasto as their secondo. So if you’d rather start your meal with grilled vegetables, then enjoy a pasta dish, then move on to a cheese selection listed with the antipasti, feel free to do so. The only exception to this is ordering a secondo to be served before a primo, which would be considered odd but probably handled with a shrug. It may take a bit of gesticulation to coordinate which dishes are to be served simultaneously with those of your fellow diners, so try to be clear when you order.
Luckily, waiters are generally quite direct and businesslike in Italy (there is very little “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’ll be your server today and can I interest you in…” banter) and tend to march up to your table and with great economy of words bark, “Per Antipasto? Per Primo? Per Second? Vino?”, which makes it easier to simply order the dish you want served during that course, regardless of how it’s listed on the menu. Or, alternatively, simply respond, “No, grazie.” and move on to the next category.
If you continue to feel at ill at ease about skipping courses, keep in mind that your server probably doesn’t really care all that much about how much you end up ordering. It is not common in Italy to tip as a percentage of the total bill (both your coperto service charge and your servizio gratuity for large groups are automatically included in the bill), as Italian waiters are paid a living wage, so the stakes are probably higher for an American server. Italians do, however, put great stress on the quality of your meal, so don’t be shy about asking for recommendations, inquiring about dishes they may offer fuori menu, or, for the more adventurous, letting your server take the reins completely and bring you the house specialties
The only exception to the rule of exceptions? Doggie bags. They are taboo.