A cassoulet, Italian meals, Italy, Italy (Photo by stu_spivack)
A cassoulet

How traditional meals play out in Italy

Breakfast is treated lightly—a cappuccino and cornetto (croissant) or brioche (roll brushed with sweetness) at the corner bar. There are exceptions: many hotels, tired of hearing foreign guests grouse about the paltry morning offerings, have taken to serving sumptuous buffets like those offered in the United States and north of the Alps, complete with ham, cheese, and eggs.

At the big meal of the day (be it lunch or dinner) portions on a plate may be smaller than visitors are accustomed to, but a traditional meal gets you four full courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, and contorno.

First let's takckle Italian meals in general, then the courses you'll find at each. 

Meals in Italy

Breakfast in Italy

Breakfast in Italy is usually continental: a roll or slightly sweetened pastry (called a brioche or a croissant-like cornetto) with butter or jam, plus coffee and/or juice.

Your hotel will almost undoubtedly serve such a continental breakfast at ridiculously high prices ($7 to $15). Some hotels try to justify the price by laying out cheese, ham, and fruit as well, but you're still better off heading to the corner cafe or bar and grabbing a cornetto and cappuccino alongside the locals on their way into work. It's the same grub as at the hotel, at less than half the price.

If breakfast is included in the room price and you can't get out of it, recoup some of your loss by grabbing some extra rolls, meat, and cheese from the breakfast buffet, using this to craft tiny sandwiches at your table, and wrapping them in napkins to slip into your bag along with a piece or two of fruit. There: you now have a free lunch for later.

Lunch: More than just a sandwich

Traditionally in Italy, lunch is a multi-course meal similar to dinner. Lunch used to be the big meal of the day, but modern work schedules have slowly squeezed out the big lunch and added those extra hours to dinner.

This is just as well from a touring point of view, because you've got a lot of sightseeing to do during the day and probably won't want to spend more than an hour on lunch.

Lunch is a good meal to grab on the run or to plan a picnic for, which will save you both sightseeing time and money for a splurge at dinner.

The only remnant of the large lunch is Sunday lunch, which is often still the biggest meal of the week and a time in many countries for extended families to get together and have a massive meal that lasts for hours.

The marathon Italian dinner

The main meal of the day in Italy, which once was lunch but in today's rat race world is increasingly becoming dinner, is often a long, drawn-out affair of three to five courses (plus wine, water, coffee, liqueur, and dessert) that can last two to four hours.

In Italy, you're never rushed through a meal. 

Many Americans at first get annoyed in Italian restaurants because they think service is slow. It's not. The waiters are giving you time to savor every dish and the conversation at your table. After all, eating too quickly is bad for the digestion (so just think about how healthy you're being as you slowly spoon that creamy chocolate mousse into your mouth).

Italians tend to sit down to dinner anywhere between 7:30 and 9pm (a bit earlier in the north, and later in the south). But don't worry that you'll be famished by dinnertime; there's the traditional evening stroll called the passeggiata around 5pm during which you're expected to nibble on munchies (pizza by the slice, or stuzzicchini bar food).

The courses of an Italian meal

Antipasto—The appetizers

The antipasto (appetizer) is often a platter of salumi (cold cuts), bruschette, or crostini (both versions of toasted or grilled bread topped with pâté or cubed tomatoes) and/or vegetables prepared in oil or vinegar.

Perhaps the most delectable antipasto is proscitto e melone—thin slices of prosciutto ham draped across wedges of cantaloupe (oddly divine).

Sometimes you get all of the above, as in the picture to the right.

I, for one, could make an entire meal out of just antipasti and be happy. (Well, maybe I'd add dessert.)

Primo—The first course

Next is the primo (first course), which may be a zuppa (soup), polenta (a cornmeal mush), risotto (a rice dish), or, of course pasta.

Aside from pizza, pasta is probably Italy’s best-known export. It comes in two basic forms: pastasciutta (dry pasta), the kind most of us buy at the grocery store, and pasta fresca (fresh pasta), the kind that most self-respecting establishments in Italy, even those of the most humble ilk, will probably serve.

Pastasciutta comes in long strands including spaghetti, linguine, trenette; and in tubular maccheroni (macaroni) forms such as penne(pointed pasta quills) or rigatoni (fluted tubes), to name only a few.

Pasta fresca is made in broad sheets, then cut into shapes—used in lasagna, cannelloni, and the stuffed pastas tortelloni and ravioli—or into long noodles ranging from wide papparedelle to narrow fettuccine.

If you sense that this isn’t even a dent in the world of pasta, you’re right: There are more than 600 pasta shapes in Italy.

Secondo—The main course

The secondo (entree) may include meat, fish, seafood, chicken, or game.

To accompany it you order a contorno (side dish) of verdure (vegetables) or an insalata (salad).

You almost always have to order a side dish separately. Rarely does one come on the same plate as your main course.

Dolce—The dessert

At the end of the meal, dig into a dolce (dessert)—fruit, gelato (ice cream), tiramisù (sweet cream atop espresso-soaked lady fingers), or formaggio (cheese) are traditionally offered.

Bevande—What you wash it all down with

Meals are usually accompanied by wine and a bottle of aqua minerale (mineral water)—either con gas (fizzy) or naturale (still).

At the end of the meal—sometimes before dessert, usually after—comes an espresso—which honestly won't keep you up; it actually seems to help settle the big meal in your stomach.

(Oh: One sure way to alienate an Italian waiter is to order cappuccino after dinner—it’s usually drunk only in the morning.)

Espresso is often followed by grappa, a fiery digestivo liqueur made from what’s left over after the wine-making process.

Decoding the Menu

Many guidebooks translate a limited list of local dishes and food names. Italian phrase books have more and the pocket-sized Marling Menu-Masters (Altarinda Books) are particularly good resources for both ingredients and dish names (yes, it was published in 1971, but all the food names are still the same!). Alternately, you can take your English-Italian dictionary and look up individual words on the menu.

Or go high-tech and download the Google Translate app (iPhoneAndroid) and set it up to work offline (you download the Italy module) and you can then just point your phone camera at any Italian text and it will start translating it on the fly, overlaying the Italian words with English ones, virtual reality-style. Creepy, but cool (and it usually works fairly well).

Most waiters speak enough English to at least tell you what plant or animal stars in a dish. When it comes down to it (allergies aside), you needn't know the official name of the dish or full list of ingredients, just whether it's chicken, fish, pasta, or sheep's testicles.

If you're friendly and show great interest in the food, waiters (and especially owners) love to show off their kitchen's talents to visitors. The more outgoing and curious you are, the better chance they'll bring out unexpected tidbits for you to try, invite you into the kitchen to meet the chef or down into the moldy ancient wine cellar below, and even join you at the table for an after-dinner drink on the house.

Culinary Tours

Culinary tours links


About the restaurant star ratings (☆☆☆ to ★★★)

You will notice that all restaurants (and sights and hotels) on this site have a ReidsItaly.com star designation from ☆☆☆ to ★★★.

This merely indicates that I feel these eateries offer a little something that makes them special (or extra-special, or extra-extra special, etc.).

These star ratings are entirely based on personal opinion, and have nothing to do with any official local restaurant ratings or grades.

In general, a pricier restaurant has to impress me that it is worth the added expense.

This is why I give ★★★ to some inexpensive eateries or sandwich shops that happen provide amazing value for the money—and similarly have ranked a few fancy but notable restaurants just ★★☆.

About the restaurant price brackets (€–€€€)

Here at ReidsItaly.com we simply provide a general price range indicating the general amount you should expect to pay for a full meal in the eatery.

Each eatery is rated into a price category, which indicates—very roughly—what you could expect to pay, per person, for a standard full meal: Three courses—primo (first course), secondo (main course), and contorno (side) or dolce (dessert)—plus something to drink.

There are three price ranges, giving you a sense of which restaurants are budget, which are moderate, and which are splurges:

under €15
€€ under €40
€€€ over €40
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for dining

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
...a casual restaurant una trattoria
oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
oon ohst-air-EE-yah
I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
...this questo KWAY-sto
...that quello KWEL-loh
chicken pollo POL-loh
steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
...rare al sangue ahl SAN-gway
...medium rosato ro-ZA-to
...well done ben cotto ben KO-to
veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
fish pesce PEH-shay
meat carne KAR-neh
I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
dessert dolce DOAL-chay
and e ay
...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah
...red wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh
...beer birra BEER-a
Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).