A trip to Italy can only be complete if it includes a deep dive into the rich culinary traditions of Italian food and so knowing how to order food in Italy is critical. Italian food is a unique experience; from ordering to savoring, to showing appreciation. This detailed guide on how to order food in Italian restaurants, the main meals of Italian culture, and the courses of each meal will have you interacting like a local in no time!
Main meals of Italian culture
Taking in Italian works of art, museums, and historic buildings requires effort, so a break at a restaurant (al ristorante) or breakfast will fuel you up for the day, and of course, a morning coffee (un cappuccino) is essential!
In Italy, it is common to have many meals throughout the day. It always starts with breakfast, but before lunch, it is possible to indulge in a second breakfast.
In the mid-afternoon, Italians often stop to eat a snack, and before dinner, there is no shortage of aperitifs and the small snacks that accompany them.
There are essentially three main meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here is how they are divided and what they involve.
La Colazione – Breakfast (LA koh-lah-tyoh-neh)
Breakfast is the time when you start to carb up for the day. Some people prefer it sweet and some choose savory.
Every breakfast is always punctuated by coffee, in all its forms, as we will see later. Italian pastries include a wide choice including the humble plain croissant with jam, brioche, and small pastries.
Those who opt for the savory food varieties have just as many options that include focaccia, pizza, or croissants stuffed with cold cuts and cheeses. And yes, more coffee and freshly squeezed fruit juices.
il Pranzo – Lunch: (eel prahn-zoh)
Lunch is considered the most important meal of the day because it serves to break up working hours and as a means of bringing people together.
In an Italian restaurant during the lunch break, pasta dishes, such as pasta served with a simple, but tasty tomato sauce, accompanied by a glass of white wine, are most popular.
It is not uncommon to see bread accompanied by olive oil on Italian tables. It is customary, in fact, to enjoy the short wait for your main meal to arrive with this moorish accompaniment. And don’t forget the phrase, “Che possama avere del pane inpiù, per favore?” (Can we please have a little more bread?)
Aperitivo – Happy hour (AH-PEREE-TEE-VOH)
This is that time of day when work ends and colleagues and friends gather to have a drink or a beer at the bar. Aperitivo time is a recent trend in Italy but has unsurprisingly become a massive hit – so much so that an early-evening appertif is ‘customary’!
The Italian aperitivo tradition originated in the mid-1700s in Piedmont, Turin when Vermouth was invented. The addition of snacks with a pre-dinner drink, often alfresco, and with friends, didn’t occur in earnest until the 21st century.
At Aperitivo time, drinks are served with small snacks such as chips or platters of cold cuts and cheeses, but also with ‘real’ courses such as rice salads or other dishes. This typically Italian phenomenon of adding ‘real’ courses is catching on in many countries. (Of course, this is an idea whose genesis lies with the perfection by the Spaniards of Tapas!)
Today it has become an Italian custom to postpone dinner, first enjoying a drink in the many establishments that have sprung up to meet this need.
la Cena – Dinner (lah cheh-nah)
During dinner, the atmosphere changes again. Everything (the food and the clothes worn to the meal) becomes more elegant, the lights are dimmed, and restaurant menus often change as well.
A traditional Italian dinner meal includes more refined and sophisticated dishes than you would find during lunch. The wine list is also enriched.
Of course, pizzerias, trattorias, and osterias remain available for convivial dinners with friends. Everyone has the opportunity to choose the Italian restaurant that best suits their needs, budgets, and mood!
The courses of a typical main meal in Italy
Having taken stock of traditional Italian meals, it’s time to delve into the specifics of the courses. There are options that allow you to sample the entire menu at a fixed price, or choose a few featured dishes.
When ordering food in Italian, it is important to know the various courses. The main courses can be understood as either pasta dishes or meat and fish courses. These are generally served with a vegetable-based side dish. Here they are in detail.
l’Antipasto – Starter
The antipasto is the course that introduces the traditional Italian meal. It can be a sampler platter from the entire menu or something tailored by the chef to intrigue the diner. It is a ‘starter,’ but it is also a tease, and creates an anticipation of one or more of these tastes in great proportions to follow.
Antipasto is usually platters of cold cuts, cheeses, savory pies, and regional specialties in season.
A tradition that sees its origins in ancient Rome and has been perfected throughout history until it has become a staple of every meal.
Always present in this category is tomato bruschetta, which over time has been enriched and modified by employing local ingredients.
il Primo Piatto – First course
Speaking Italian is sometimes complicated, but when it comes to pasta, the language becomes universal.
Among the most popular pasta dishes, it is never lacking. What is perhaps more complicated is juggling the many formats, but Italian waiters can help with this.
Spaghetti, fusilli, pici, tagliatelle, and many others can be accompanied by an equally well-stocked assortment of sauces.
If the classic carbonara, amatriciana, or cacio e pepe of southern Italy are world-famous, in the north, risotto alla Milanese stands out.
Each region has its own specialties, but certainly, among pasta dishes, it is the type of Italian flour and rice that make these dishes unique. Pasta and risotto rice have a ‘stand up’ quality about them – they are eaten al-dente (to the tooth) and retain their structure which in turn gives a scaffold to the sauces that surround them.
il Secondo Piatto – Second course
Italian cuisine is very diverse, especially based on local materials. The main course is based precisely on this availability and is prepared using traditional recipes.
Ordering food in Italian can be complicated here without the aid of dual-language menus. To simplify the choice, restaurants are wont to separate meat courses, such as chicken, lamb, beef, and veal, from fish courses such as bream, squid, salmon, or tuna.
The second course is often served with accompanying sauces to make the meats soft and ‘juicy’.
Tip: In Italy, the cooking of meat in restaurants is not always required. If you prefer medium rare or a well-done steak, let the waiter know otherwise you may not like the outcome!
i Contorni – Side dishes
Side dishes are companion dishes to the second course. They are either mixed salads made with carrots, tomatoes, and seasonal vegetables or hot, cooked dishes.
In this case, they range from grilled vegetables to baked potatoes, and from fried potatoes to ratatouille.
il Dolce o frutta fresca- Dessert course or fresh fruit
The final moments of a meal are often the most anticipated by Italians. “There is always room for dessert”, is one of the Italian phrases most repeated by locals.
That panna cotta seen in the window upon arrival at the restaurant can now finally be tasted. Desserts also vary depending on where you are and the season.
Timeless classics such as tiramisu and tarts remain on menus year-round. It sometimes happens that desserts include cheeses served with jams and compotes, an alternate but equally satisfying end to the meal.
An important element: the wine list
One aspect that should not be underestimated in an Italian menu is the selection and drinking of wine. It is not just a drink at the table, but a real cultural element for Italians.
Wine is a fundamental element of the meal and, often, a pairing with the dish is proposed by the restaurateur.
The wine list is a Da Bere menu, that is, a list of all the bottles that are available in the restaurant’s cellar, divided into categories of Whites, Reds, Sparkling Wines, and House Wine.
Local wines produce in small quantities and often single blocks, are available as you travel around the country. Sampling these as an accompaniment to local and fresh produce is a chance to see and understand the pride of the locals and their ongoing connection to their land and to the values of community and connection.
How to juggle the Italian Breakfast Bar
One of the first challenges for travelers visiting Italy can be the Italian breakfast. Ordering coffee can be a little bewildering if you are not familiar with the many variations on the theme. Here is a simple guide to get out of it va bene (ok).
Un caffè (oon kahf-feh): A simple request that will lead the barista to serve a classic espresso.
This is a beverage made through a special machine that presses and filters coffee at a predetermined temperature and for a defined time. Un caffè is the basic version of coffee.
- caffè macchiato (mahk-kyah-toh): It ranks among the most popular. Hot milk (but sometimes cold milk) has a small amount of espresso coffee added.
- caffè ristretto (ree-streht-toh): The cup is not completely filled. The flavor is much stronger.
- caffè lungo (loon-goh): The cup is filled more than in the classic version. The flavor is lighter.
- caffè americano (ah-meh-reekah-noh): American coffee in Italy tends to be made by adding hot water to the classic espresso.
- caffè corretto (kohr-reht-toh): A slug of vodka, rum or grappa is added to the espresso.
- cappuccino (kahp-pooh-chee-noh): Cappuccino is espresso in a large cup with a fluffy froth of hot whipped milk (often very milky and weak).
Once you arrive at the local bar you can find a table in which case, you’ll have table service, or stay at the counter and ask for a dinner drink or a classic drink.
Here are some of the most requested ones when asked by the bartender ‘Che cosa vi porto?’ (What can I get you?)
- Acqua naturale o frizzante (ah-kwah nah-tooh-rah-leh o freez-zahn-teh) – Still mineral water or sparkling water
- Succo di frutta (soohk-koh dee frooht-tah) – Juices are often chosen to accompany croissants and brioche. Flavors can be as varied as blueberry, pineapple, peach, and apricot.
- Spremuta d’arancia (spreh-mooh-tah dah-raan-chah) – Depending on seasonal availability, juices made from pomegranates, orange, and other fresh fruit can be requested.
How to order food in an Italian restaurant: the basic phrases
Quanti siete? (koo-ahn-tee see-eh-teh)
This is the phrase you will hear as soon as you enter a restaurant. You will be asked for the number of diners so that you can be seated at an appropriately sized table.
Once you have answered this question, a waiter will escort you to your seat and hand you menus, allowing you enough time before taking your orders.
Io prendo: (ee oh prehn doh)
“I take” is how you announce your choice of menu item. Whether it is a pasta dish or a main course, this is the way to indicate what you have chosen to eat during the meal.
To accompany the dish you can add “Un bicchiere di,” (A glass of), adding whatever beverage you’ve chosen.
Sono vegetariana (so-no ve-jay-ta-ree-a-no/nah)
There are also special requests. “I am a vegetarian” is one of the most common phrases said to wait staff. Before giving your order to the waiter or asking for advice, it’s a good idea to introduce this phrase.
Grazie mille (grah-zyeh meel-leh) – Per favore (pehr pha-voh-reh):
Each service is accompanied by the first sentence, namely, thank you very much. Thanking the staff is always a sign of good manners in Italy.
For each request, however, it is appropriate to accompany what is needed with a polite “Per favore”, (please) so that it doesn’t sound like an order.
Il conto per favore (eel kohn-toh pehr pha-voh-reh):
At the end of the meal, it is time to ask for the bill.
It’s also time to consider whether to provide a tip to the staff. In Italy, it is not obligatory but highly recommended and the usual practice, to tip those who work in restaurants, to show them that you enjoyed and appreciated the service.
Ordering food in Italy is considered a sacred activity, to honor one of the fundamental principles on which this nation’s tradition is based: food. This is why these polite phrases should be kept in mind..
At this point, going to a restaurant or pizzeria in Italy should be stress-free – all that remains is to enjoy the meal and Buon Appetito!