Dining is one of the best parts of traveling to Italy. However, reading an Italian menu can be intimidating! Nevertheless, understanding how Italians dine will help you get the most out of your travel experience, especially in the many local, off-the-beaten-path establishments.
Here are some helpful hints on how to pick a restaurant in Italy and how to navigate its menu with confidence (and pay the bill too!).
Where to Dine?
In Italy, there are three meals in a day: colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch), and cena (dinner). Here, we’ll focus on pranzo and cena, which are more complex.
Lunch is usually served from 12pm to 2pm and dinner is from 8pm to 10:30pm. In order to get better seating and to be sure that you find a table, you should reserve in advance. To ask for a table for two at 8pm, for example, you’d say, vorrei prenotare per due persone alle otto. However, if you walk into a restaurant without a reservation, you should say non abbiamo prenotato (we don’t have a reservation).
Use the name of an establishment to pick a place that fits your budget. For example, a pizzeria (for pizza) is a leisurely and inexpensive option, a trattoria (a no-frills establishment) offers a laid-back meal with variety, and an osteria has a focus on wine. For something more upscale, head to a ristorante.
What’s on the Menu?
Traditional Italian menus have five sections, one for each course. A full meal usually consists of an appetizer, a first course, a second course, a side dish and a dessert. The menu might be further divided into a mare (seafood) section and a terra (meat) section. It's not necessary to order from every section, but people usually order at least two courses.
In Italy, you don’t have to be shy. Don’t hesitate to ask your waiter for a recommendation about what to eat (cosa ci consiglia?) or a translation of the ingredients (cosa vuol dire…?). You should also feel free to alert your server to any food allergies that you may have (sono allergico a…).
If you haven’t made up your mind yet, you can ask to take your time by saying un momento per favore (one moment, please) or non lo so ancora (I don't know yet). When you’re ready to order, call over to your server and say vorrei ordinare (I'd like to order).
Whenever you order, start with prendo (I'll have...) or vorrei (I would like...) and end with per favore (please). This sounds more polite. For example: vorrei un caffè, per favore (I’d like a coffee, please).
Now, let’s take a look at each section of the menu!
An antipasto is an appetizer. Literally translated as “before the meal,” this dish stirs up your appetite without filling you up. Most menus offer a wide variety of cured meats, cheeses, bruschetta (toasted bread with tomatoes and other toppings), pickled or fried vegetables and olives. Antipasti are more elaborate than stuzzichini, which are fairly simple snacks that are usually baked or fried.
Sometimes you can order an antipasto misto and get a variety of dishes. Ask for the antipasto della casa (the house special) for seasonal and regional specialities. To keep costs under control and to avoid getting full too early, specify the quantity you’d like. For instance, you could say vorrei un’antipasto per due (an antipasto for two), even if there are three of you.
And now that your appetite is ready…
Primo (The First Course)
The first course consists of pasta, soup, or risotto (creamy rice, found especially in the north). Pasta comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, textures and sauces. Some dishes may be for minimo due persone (minimum of two persons).
You might find the word minestra in the primi section. Minestre is most often used to refer to liquid first courses; such as zuppa (soup), vellutata or passata (smooth soups), minestrone or ribollita (chunky vegetable soups with pasta) and tortellini in brodo (stuffed pasta in broth).
Of course, as with everything else on the menu, these dishes will vary depending on what region of Italy you are in. Ask your server for piatti tipici (local delicacies)!
Secondo (The Second Course)
The second course is usually meat, poultry, or fish. If you’re vegetarian, say sono vegetariano.
Popular secondi include pollo (chicken), bistecca (steak), arrosto (roast), salmone (salmon), frutti di mare (mixed shellfish) and frittata (omelette). Regarding the preparation of the dish, look for the words al forno (baked), fritto (fried), lessato (boiled) and alla griglia (grilled).
Items with an S.Q. (secondo quantità) next to their name are priced according to weight. Ask your server for more details!
Eateries are required to declare if they are using surgelato (frozen) food. You will see this in small print at the bottom of the menu. Everything else is supposed to be fresco (fresh).
A secondo doesn't usually include potatoes or vegetables. That’s why you might want the next course too!
Contorni (The Side Dishes)
Usually you will want to order a side dish with your main course. This could be verdura (grilled or sautéed vegetables), patate (potato) or insalata (salad). By the way, pasta is not a side dish in Italy!
Dolce (The Dessert)
Many great meals end with a dolce. Dolci are desserts and are often divided into torte (cake), dolci al cucchiaio (soft desserts to be eaten with a spoon, such as tiramisù or panna cotta) and gelati (ice cream). Ask your server for the dolci fatti in casa (homemade desserts)!
Often the waiter will take your drink order before you order your food. To get started, you’ll want to order an aperitivo, which is a light alcoholic drink that helps get you ready to eat. This drink could be a sparkling wine like Prosecco or a cocktail.
Most Italians drink vino (wine) with their meal. The wine list includes bianco (white), rosso (red) and frizzante (sparkling) served by the bottiglia (bottle) or al bicchiere (by the glass). There may also be a vino della casa, which is an unpretentious house wine that can be ordered by the quarter, half or full liter.
Birra (beer) often accompanies pizza but is generally not included with any other important meal.
Acqua del rubinetto (tap water) is rare, while acqua minerale (mineral water) is the rule. This can be either naturale (still) or frizzante (sparkling).
Caffè (coffee) is served after the dessert, and can be either normale (espresso shot), macchiato (with a drop of milk) or lungo (a “long,” watery coffee). However, never order cappuccino after 11am! That’s a breakfast drink.
Need help with digestion after your meal? Do it with a strong liquor! Digestivi are usually made from fruit: grappa from grapes, amaro from herbs, mirto from berries, and limoncello from lemons. For something exotic, try Cynar, which is made from artichokes. In some places, they’ll bring a few bottles of their homemade liquors for you to try. As these are offered as an omaggio (courtesy), you are expected to have only one shot glass worth.
Il Conto! (The bill!)
In Italy, the waiter or waitress will bring the bill to your table, but only after you ask for it. When you are ready, simply say il conto per favore (the bill, please). If you are eating out with a group, you might get asked whether you want to pay insieme (together) or separatamente (separately).
An extra fee, called the coperto (sitting charge), is often added to the bill and needs to be declared on the menu. This item lists what the eatery charges for the bread, olive oil, vinegar, and other extra items that may have been served to you, as well as the charge for your use of the tablecloths and napkins. In general, the fancier the place, the higher the coperto.
La mancia (the tip) is not necessary and is never added to your bill. All workers receive a regular salary so there is no need to tip in order to round out their wages. Tipping actually shows that you are a tourist! Typically, you shouldn’t tip unless you’re in an upscale restaurant.
Now you know how to walk into an Italian restaurant with confidence, order like an Italian and even pay the bill! You’ll receive better service and your travel buddies will be quite impressed by your knowledge. Enjoy your meal!