One of the many pleasures of traveling to Italy has to be the fact that you can enjoy a leisurely Italian meal. This is because the Italians are very passionate about their food. Each region that you go to, sometimes even different cities in that specific region, all have their own specialties that they are usually extremely proud of. We recommend that you ask your waiter what the specialties of the region (and the house) are, because this could enhance your dining experience. In order to get you the most out of your travel experience, we want to share how Italians traditionally eat.
The Italian menu
There are five sections to the traditional Italian menu. If you are ordering a full meal, it usually means an appetizer, first course, and a second course that comes with a side dish. You do not have to order from each course, but most people go for at least two courses. It is quite normal to see these meals last between one or two hours, possibly even longer. If you want to experience the Italian culture, remember that it is typical for Italians to enjoy a long Sunday lunch with their families. This means that the restaurants are often bustling with people and very lively.
The antipasti – the Italian appetizer
Before the main meal ever arrives, you get your antipasti. There may be some regional specialties and you can expect a plate of the local cold cuts. Sometimes it is possible to get a variety of dishes when you order an antipasto misto. This is typically great value for your money and can be a great deal of fun to share amongst yourselves.
The primo – the first course
The first course consists of risotto (rice dishes, mainly found in the north), soup, or pasta. You will usually have a number of different pasta choices. Most Europeans and Americans are surprised by how little sauce the Italian pasta dishes have. Rather than the sauce being the main attraction, the type of pasta is often more important in Italy.
The secondo – the second or main course
The second course is usually fish, poultry, or meat. It does not usually include vegetables or potatoes. There are sometimes one or two vegetarian options. Even if there is not a vegetarian option on the menu, you can ask for one
The contorni – the side dishes
Along with your main course, you will often receive a side dish. This could be a verdura (vegetable), insalata (salad), or potato. Oftentimes people who are vegetarian or vegan will get the salad instead of the meat option.
The dolce – the dessert
You will be offered dolce at the end of your meal. This could be cheese or your choice of fruit (often offered in a large bowl so you can select your own option). After dessert, you will be offered a digestivo (after dinner drink) or caffe (coffee).
What to drink
During the course of their meal, most Italians are going to have mineral water (acqua minerale) or wine (vino). Oftentimes you will find that your waiter asks for your drink order before they ever take your order for food. Oftentimes you will be able to order a house wine that is relatively inexpensive and can be ordered by the quarter, half, or full liter. Iced tea is rarely served and coffee is not served until after the meal. There will not be free refills if you do order ice tea or soda.
Getting the bill
Until you ask for it, it is doubtful that the waiter will bring you a bill. Even if you are the last people in the restaurant, chances are that the bill will not come automatically. Simply ask for il conto whenever you are ready for the bill. This will include a small cover and bread charge, but the prices you see on the menu will typically include tax and usually service. If you want to, feel free to leave a small tip. Remember that not all restaurants (especially the smaller ones) will accept credit cards, so make sure that you have euros on hand.
The Italian meal times
Typically, Italians eat late meals in the summer time. They will not start lunch until 1 PM and not start dinner until 8 PM. In the north of Italy and during the wintertime, meals may start an hour earlier, while in the far south (and in the summer) you may start even later than 8 PM.
Most restaurants throughout Italy are closed between lunch and dinner. The only place where you can find restaurants open all afternoon is in large tourist areas. If you want to buy a picnic lunch, be sure to do it in the morning, because almost all shops in Italy are closed in the afternoon.