Chances are, if you’re planning an Italian vacation as a food & wine lover, you’re going to be frequenting a lot of Italian restaurants during your stay. With a multitude of different pastas, pizzas, desserts, and world famous dishes the country is known for, it’s no surprise that you have a lot of things you want to taste on your trip to Italy. But before you think that the Italian dining experience in your home country is the same as in Italy, we want to clear a few things up, so that you can avoid the tourist traps and faux pauxs that lead to you feeling like a fish out of water. Confusion which is understandable, considering that you’d be hard-pressed to find a city around the world that doesn’t have at least one Italian-inspired restaurant serving up menu items inspired by Italy’s most iconic dishes.
While it’s easy enough to dive into a bowl of pasta carbonara or nosh on a slice of pizza napoletana during your vacation to Italy, the authentic Italian dining experience is often an entirely new experience for foreigners. To help you out, we’ve broken down the local traditions and commonly used words and phrases you’ll come across when immersing yourself in the Italian restaurant and dining culture, so you can confidently order a meal on your next trip to Italy.
Your Crash Course on the Traditional Italian Menu
The landscape Italian menu has been carved out over generations. It’s a sacred time where family and friends don’t just come together to eat well, but gather round the Italian table to socialize, celebrate, and create memories together. While such a tradition may not be unique to Italy, you’ll want to share a meal with locals to truly understand Italian dining culture. Italians are famous for taking their enjoyment of food and drink very seriously, and meals in Italy typically follow a four-course structure and after-dinner drinks. This structure includes antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci, and traditional post-meal drinks.
Antipasti: The Appetizer
In Latin, ante means before, and pastus means meal, which brings us the delicious antipasti. Antipasti (the plural of antipasto) is the traditional appetizer course of an Italian meal, and similar to North American appetizers, they are not always eaten at every dinner. Antipasti are typically reserved for special occasions, relaxed weekend meals, or dinners out at a restaurant, but are rarely served at home among family.
Antipasti often consist of small finger foods. Like the charcuterie boards that have exploded in popularity in recent years in the United States, these antipasti courses often include bread, prosciutto, and cheese. The antipasti may vary by region, but the cuisine is typically light and simple to aid in the digestion process. Other famous examples of antipasti include caprese salad, fried zucchini, bruschetta, and crostini.
Generally, the antipasti will be cold items and should be eaten lightly to leave room for the upcoming courses. Bread will typically be served alongside your antipasti, but locals don’t consider it to be a “feature” of the meal. Instead, it’s seen as a helper. For example, if you need to push that last bit of risotto onto your fork. It’s also worth noting that you usually won’t find olive oil served with your bread for dipping in Italy during a regular meal. This is a practice that was born in North America and you can probably owe the addition of the olive and balsamic to some restaurant chains we’ll avoid naming here (we’re sure you can take a guess!). As a rule of thumb, the only time you’ll find olive oil being served alongside bread during a meal is in October when the “olio nuovo” (new oil) arrives, so that you can taste the new oil, or during an olive oil tasting, like the tastings our guests do on select tours of local olive oil varieties from small organic producers.
Primi: The First Dishes
The first course is where pasta lovers want to head first! This section of the Italian menu traditionally consists of dishes where the primary base is a carbohydrate, with popular primi dishes running the gamut of soup, gnocchi, risotto, polenta, and, of course,pasta. You’ll find pasta dishes vary by region and you can learn more about some of the local pasta types by clicking here.
Do be aware that portion sizes vary depending on the type of Italian restaurant you visit; generally speaking, a more rustic restaurant will serve larger portions, while fine dining restaurants will typically serve more portions but smaller sizes. And don’t worry – it’s not considered rude if you don’t completely clear your plate. If you eat all your food while dining in Italy, it’s a sign that you want more food, while if you’re full and leave a bite of food on your plate, this lets the waitstaff know that you don’t want more.
Secondi: The Second Dishes
Secondi is traditionally considered the primary course in a complete Italian dining experience, although nowadays many diners simply order an appetizer with a second dish or a first dish. It is not necessary to order all three, so don’t feel like a fish out of water if you just want a few dishes.
Traditionally the second course is where you’ll find the protein. Mainly meat and fish dishes are found in this section. Although, with vegetarian diets becoming more widespread at Italian restaurants, egg and vegetable options have become available. However, there’s one caveat, which especially is prevalent outside of the big cities in Italy, many dishes that at first glance may seem vegetarian but are not. For example, lentils are often cooked in a broth that is meat based or some sausage is added for some flavor.
Pro-tip: If you’re vegetarian, always check with your server first to ensure your meal was not cooked with meat or its byproducts.
Contorni: Side Dishes
At most restaurants in Italy, your second dish is usually not served with a side. Instead, you’ll get to choose your contorno separately, which is brought to the table after you’ve finished your main. Contorno is generally a simple dish, such as a light salad, sauteed bitter greens or vegetables prepared with herbs and olive oil.
Pro-tip: Want to enjoy your main course along with your sides? Be sure to ask your waiter to bring them together by saying “Potrebbe portarmi i miei secondo e contorno insieme.”
Dolci: The Desserts
Of course, we can’t forget to discuss the traditional dolci, or dessert. Dolci often consists of sweet pastries, cakes, tarts, gelato, or fruit. Many of Italy’s famous desserts have a thick cream base, like Tiramisu and panna cotta, both of which originated in northern Italy, the latter often featuring seasonal fruits. Some locals will skip the dolci portion if they find they’re already over-full from the meal or do not have a strong sweet tooth.
The Drinks: Wine, Espresso, Ammazzacaffè
Wine is often consumed with Italian meals and is paired with food by flavor palate. Fish is typically paired with a white wine, while red wine often goes with beef-based dishes. Wine lovers joining us on our small group Italy tours will get the opportunity to experience an array of Italy’s best wines and unique tasting menus curated just for The Italian On Tour® guests.
After dinner, a tiny, sugared espresso is often served to aid digestion, with an accompanying ammazzacaffè (“coffee killer”) liquor to balance the late-night caffeine. Italians call these alcoholic drinks digestifs, and they often consist of grappa (a liquor you can taste on select tours and visit the place of Italy’s oldest distillery in Veneto with us), limoncello, amaretto, and other vibrant liquors.
Whether or not the restaurant charges for this after-dinner drink will often depend on when the drink is served. If they send the drink after the bill, it is likely complimentary, but if they ask if you’d like it before the bill is brought out, you’ll probably be charged. So don’t just assume because they’re offering it to you that it’s free 😉
Pro-tip: Feel like ordering one item from each course may be too much food for you? No problem! These days on a typical meal out, most people tend to order an Antipasto (appetizer) with a Secondo (Second dish) or Primo (first dish) and a Dolce (dessert). The full course setting is more reserved for big celebrations, Sunday lunches and lengthy tasting menus as office culture and the work days have changed in many parts of the country.
Ordering Like a Local
Because the Italian dining culture is quite structured and specific, visiting an authentic Italian restaurant for the first time while traveling to Italy can be intimidating. However, there’s no need to worry, as the Italian people are generally amicable and famously hospitable.
Here are a few tips to remember before your first Italian fine dining experience:
1. Chiusura Pomeridiana: Understand the Restaurant Hours of Operation
Many Italian restaurants are open for lunch, closed for the afternoon, and open again in the evening. This tradition is called “chiusura pomeridiana” or “afternoon closing.” The typical closing time for an Italian establishment is from around 2:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. This can be slightly disorienting for non-European vacationers who are accustomed to having restaurants available at all times throughout the day.
If you find yourself in need of a meal during these traditional closing times, you can usually find a cafe or local takeaway food shop open for a quick bite.
Pro-tip: Need to make a reservation? You’re going to want to call during opening hours.
2. Meals Take Several Hours
The Italians don’t rush their meals, especially dinner. Meals are a time for family and togetherness as well as celebrating good food and conversation. Enjoying a slow dinner is essential to Italian culture and is not meant to be rushed. Dinner is often served between 8:00-9:00PM. or even later especially if you head to Italy’s southern regions and when the weather is hot during the summer. On average, restaurants typically open around 7:30PM and stay open late to accommodate the slow pace of the meal.
3. Research the Local Flavor
One of the most notable aspects of the Italian culinary experience is using fewer but fresher ingredients. This often means that the regional specialties will take center stage, and meals will be planned around what produce is in season. In central Italy, where many of our small group tours take place, you’ll often find fresh cucumber and corn available in the summer months, and squash, pumpkin, truffles, spinach and porcini mushrooms in season during the winter months. A little research beforehand will tell you a region’s most famed dishes. For example, a local favorite in the Le Marche region is the vincisgrassi, a pasta dish made of lasagne noodles and meat.
4. Embrace the Culture of Sharing
The Italian dining culture is a communal experience emphasizing family and friendship. When enjoying a more casual dining experience, as in a local family home that you can visit on select tours with us, this often means meals will be shared family-style, Plates will be passed around the table, and this style of Italian dining can also be commonly found in casual restaurant settings as well. However, one thing to note is that this style of sharing doesn’t mean that you don’t get your own plate. Usually you’ll have an empty plate and a variety of dishes each with their separate serving spoons will be dispersed around the table.
5. Express Curiosity
Nobody expects you to be an expert in Italian cuisine on your first trip to Bel Paese. In fact, many Italians are incredibly proud of their country’s famous culinary heritage and would be happy to help you if you have any questions.
Whether you’re asking a server, or having us translate the Italian experience for you when you join us on tour, being a curious and open-minded traveler will likely result in learning something new and trying something delicious especially when it comes to wine!
Pro-tip: when in doubt, ask for a local wine! Wine in Italy is traditionally paired with the local cuisine and the local varieties are naturally what pairs best.
6. Have Fun and Relax
Dining out in Italy is a culinary event that is never rushed. Often, non-European tourists approach food as fuel and don’t take the time to settle in, relax, and enjoy the moment. When you join us on tour, you’ll get to do as the Italians do and relish the experience of dining like a real Italian local with long leisurely meals paired with wine.
Local Lingo for Dining
Many young Italians speak some English and are gracious enough to try and understand you despite the language barrier. You can always use Google Translate to get by, but having a few Italian phrases in your back pocket is essential when dining and exploring in Italy.
Here are a few handy terms to get you started:
- “Prendo…” (I’ll have…)
- “Vorrei…” (I would like…)
- “Per favore” (Please)
- “Grazie” (Thank you)
- “Buono!” (Good!)
Navigating the Do’s and Don’ts of Italian Dining
Every country has societal and cultural norms that outsiders may not immediately know and Italy is no different! Here are a few of Italy’s most prominent do’s and don’ts for navigating an Italian dining experience.
Do Tip (If You Want To) At a Restaurant
Tipping culture in Italy is more optional than in, say, the United States, where tipping is considered by most to be absolutely essential when going to a restaurant. Italians don’t expect to be tipped, but it’s always appreciated, although you may come across quite a few servers that try to return your tip to you. There isn’t a set amount to tip like the standard 15-20% in the United States, and typically a few Euros will suffice.
Tipping at a cafe or bar is unusual and almost never expected. Although, there is the cafe sopeso where you can pay for a coffee for the next person that may not have the money for an espresso.
Do Anticipate the “Pane e Coperto” or Cover Charge
Many restaurants charge a pane e coperto or a “bread and cover” charge. This is a per-person fee added to some bills and typically costs a couple of Euros per person, but can easily go up to 6 or 7 euros in finer dining establishments where the coperto also covers an Amuse la bouche.
Servizio charges are also not uncommon and act as a service charge for the meal. It can range from 10-20% and replaces a typical “tip” but goes to the restaurant and not usually to the servers.
Do Avoid the Tourist Traps
Heavily touristy areas are likely far more expensive than their off-the-beaten-path counterparts. Do your best to avoid restaurants in high-traffic, high-tourism areas. One tip for finding authentic restaurants is to avoid restaurants with photos of food outside and look for signage in Italian, rather than in English.
Do Ask for More Plates When Sharing
Because of Italy’s generous and communal culture, sharing food is normal. It’s perfectly fine to ask your waiter or waitress for another plate to share your food, although if you order a plate to split it in two there may be a surcharge added to your bill.
Do Get the Server’s Attention If You Need Help
In Italy, it’s customary to flag down the server if you need assistance. They don’t regularly come to your table if they aren’t taking an order or leaving food and drink. It’s normal to raise your hand politely to get their attention or make eye contact and nod. This also extends to getting the check. At most dining establishments in Italy, your table is yours for the entire duration of the lunch hour or evening. This is why restaurants in Italy typically don’t bring your bill without you asking. Instead Italians usually linger and socialize after a meal and if you want to pay you’ll most likely have to flag your waiter down or go up to the till to pay.
Pro-tip: There is one exception to having a table for the entire duration of the evening or lunch hour, this usually happens in major touristy cities that have multiple “turni” (rounds). These spots usually accept an earlier hour for tourists and a later hour in which most locals come to dine.
Don’t Ask to Take Your Leftovers
Taking leftovers home to eat later is relatively uncommon in Italy. However, it has become more common in recent years thanks to tourist influence. It is still somewhat irregular, so you may be met with confused looks when you ask for a doggy bag, particularly outside the tourist areas.
Don’t Anticipate Extremely Complicated Dishes
A hallmark of authentic Italian cuisine is its simplicity, and you aren’t likely to find starkly contrasting flavor profiles or intense spice when dining out during your vacation to Italy. Instead, expect a simple but high-quality flavor palate, and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.
Don’t Expect to Have a Salad as a Meal
Traditionally, salads (“insalata” in Italian) are never ordered as a meal. Salads are seen as side dishes that accompany your meal, and are not typically featured as the main act at restaurants in Italy. With that being said, nowadays you may find some cafes that cater to visitors and more touristy spots featuring “insalatona” (big salad) on their menus. But a word of warning – these salads are generally not loaded with meats, veggies and tons of toppings like what you’d find in the US and Canada. So before you order, make sure you have an understanding of what toppings are included or you may end up with a big bowl of lettuce.
Don’t Plan to Order Different Tasting Menus For Each Guest at the Table
Planning on a Michelin starred evening complete with a “menu degustazione” (tasting menu)? Struggling to decide on whether to go for the 7 or 10 plate menu, or simply order ala carte? This is a discussion you’re probably going to want to have before you even arrive at the restaurant in Italy, as most restaurants in Italy require that everyone at the same table take the same tasting menu. You’re going to want to vet your dining partner wisely and make sure they’re on the same page as you, or it may put a dent in your culinary dreams!
Don’t Order a Cappuccino after Noon
Coffee with milk is traditionally only consumed in the mornings by locals. You might be met with a raised eyebrow if you order this drink in the evenings or at night. Italians typically believe hot milk heeds digestion and therefore ordering cappuccino is a big no-no in Italian dining culture.
Want to learn more about the Italian coffee scene? Click here.
Buon Appetito and Beyond
Navigating the Italian dining experience definitely comes with a bit of a learning curve. Worrying and fussing with all the do’s and don’ts, making reservations, when many Italian restaurants require that you call them on the phone, can be quite time consuming. Instead you just want to sit back and relax on your Italian vacation and be taken care of. That’s exactly what happens when you join us on tour! Forget fumbling over the lingo, stressing over how to get from point A to B, or wondering if what you’re ordering is among the top dishes to try– just discover your Italian vacation today, arrive on tour and we’ll take care of the rest!
Interested in learning more about Italy’s culture, traditions and lesser-known locales as you plan your trip to the Boot?
Check out our comprehensive guide on how to order coffee like a local, find out the best off-the-beaten-path locations to visit (minus the crowds!), and learn what to do (and what not to do) as a tourist in Italy.
PLANNING A TRIP TO ITALY AND WANT TO KNOW HOW TO ORDER LIKE A LOCAL?
SAVE THIS POST FOR LATER!