Our Guide to understanding the Italian Restaurant Menu, ouritalianjourney.com

Ahhh, the Italian restaurant menu – first of all – it can be very confusing. Typically, a traditional Italian meal generally has three courses—antipasti, primi, and secondi with the option for dolce, or dessert – of course!

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The word antipasti is derived from Latin for “before the meal. It can be any small dishes that are served as the first course of a meal. Antipasti consists of small items to get your appetite working. An assortment of salumi and cheeses, bruschetta, caponata – anything really could be considered an antipasti.

Even this part of the menu is very regionalized. What you find in Tuscany – you won’t find on the menu in Puglia. Seems like it’s as simple as that. And don’t we want it this way? Specials are served from what is available in a particular region. I know at least I do.

If eating out with friends or family, many order several antipasti dishes to share with the table… let your appetite be your guide.

Primi Piatti on the Italian Restaurant Menu

Cacio e Pepe, ouritalianjourney.com

This term literally means “first plates,” and in Italy is almost always a pasta dish. This is so different than what most of us are used to in the States. There are usually several versions with various sauces to choose from.

There are three main types of primi: pasta, rice, or soup. In northern Italy, you are more than likely to find risotto on the menu, whereas in the central and southern areas of the boot, you’ll almost always find pasta.

While most of the time, Gary and I will each order a pasta dish and then share the secondi or meat dish. When advising your server that you will be sharing a dish, you would say “Una per due.” That translates to one dish for two people.

The Second Piatti or Secondi

This is the main course on your Italian restaurant menu or entrée in the States. This course will have choices of fish, meat, and possibly chicken often offered as roasted, grilled, or braised. Popular secondi include pollo (chicken), bistecca (steak), manzo (beef), agnello (lamb), gamberi (shrimp), salmone (salmon), and frutti di mare (mixed shellfish) 

In addition, the famous massive Florentine Bistecca is always meant to be shared at the table.

Fiorentina Steak is from the Chianina cow found mainly in Florence and Tuscany, Italy. Best Foods of Italy at ouritalainjourney.com
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Salad or Insalata

Normally served first in the States, your insalata will usually come before your secondo or main dish. Italians believe that eating it this way helps your body digest better.

You won’t find ranch or Italian dressing served with your insalata. Salads here are dressed with good extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s funny but I found this difficult to get used to… until I did. Now, I don’t want my salad served any other way.

Most noteworthy… You do not have to order each course unless you truly are that hungry. Depending on the selection, I will order an antipasti dish and a pasta dish. For me, this also depends on the season.

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Then There’s the Contorni

This is your side dish. Vegetables and potatoes will most certainly be part of the selections. You order these separately.

The Italian Restaurant Menu Portions

You will find that the portion size of any dish in Italy is smaller than what you receive in the States. It’s genuinely a good thing as portion sizes have gotten out of control from what we see when back in the States.

Last But Not Least… Dolce

Dolce is dolce and no explanation is needed- I’m certain we all know this term. If you have room – indulge. Why not? Almost every time, Gary and I will “Una per due” the dolce and share. At this point in the meal, after your dessert, you will be asked if you want a café.

I can drink an espresso at lunchtime, but not at dinner. The caffeine, as a result, keeps me awake. For some people, it has no effect and if it doesn’t, you can ask for your espresso to be “correcto.” This means a shot of amaretto, sambuca, or grappa will be served either inside the café or brought to you on the side for you to add.

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True Italians

Italians eat seasonally – there is no doubt about it. In smaller towns, many Italians go home for lunch where they will eat an antipasti and usually a primo. Then, later in the evening, they will have a secondi and almost always a dolce which would consist of fresh fruit.

So when you look at the day in general, carbohydrates are consumed during the day, and proteins in the evening. I wonder if we should start implementing this philosophy for weight control. “Hay Gary… where are we going for dinner?”

Our Guide to understanding the Italian Restaurant Menu, ouritalianjourney.com


    1. Wow – thats quite a compliment! If you have any ideas/sugestions for posts you think would be of interest to others – please let us know! Always looking to publish useful and intresting content! Thanks, Jeff!

  1. I just love your blog. Thank you for putting me on your list. As your books were, your blog is so informative. Looking forward to the next one. 🇮🇹

  2. Ahhhh Evelyn, thank you so much for the compliment. Appreciate it so much. If you ever have any ideas/suggestions for a good post, please email us! We are always trying to provide useful information.

  3. At my hotel there wasn’t a menu. It was all verbal. For me getting to the secondi was difficult. The pasta was more than enough.

    1. Interesting no physical menu. We don’t usually order both, prima and secondo. If we’re hungry, Gary and I will usually share the secondi. Thanks for the comment Jeffrey!

  4. Great blog entry – especially the “una per due” advice, will be helpful during our next trip. I love your experiential advice. And you are correct, portion sizes in the US are pazzo, we usually lose at least 5 pounds on our Italian vacations.

    Concerning the caffè corretto, I thought it was only a northern thing. I asked for it in Capri on a chilly night and was looked at like I had horns coming out of my head. The waiter then explained to us it is not typical south of Veneto, Lombardy, and Piedmont.

    1. Interesting Angelo about the caffe corretto. No matter where we’ve been in Italy, I never experienced that before. They always know what I want and reply if I want it spiked with grappa, sambuca or brandy. Especially in Sicily, usually sambuca or grappa!

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