Dining Out in Italy

Meals in Italy follow a different course than what we’re accustomed to. You might begin with an appetizer if you like — called an antipasto — but from then on things change quite a bit. Italians prefer to eat one dish at a time, rather than having a number of items served on one plate (it’s probably one of those inner-child things). So, after the antipasto comes the “primo” (first dish), usually some kind of pasta. Following this is the “secondo” (second dish), which is what we would think of as the main course — a meat or fish dish — which arrives unadorned with the vegetables, rice or other side dishes we are used to. You can order a “contorno” (side dish) if you like — usually roasted vegetables, potatoes, or salad — but unless you specifically request otherwise, it will usually arrive towards the end of the secondo. Following the contorno, things return to what we’re used to: dessert, coffee, etc..

Ordering your meal can be quite an experience when you get off the main tourist track — especially if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. In restaurants in major cities, you will almost always be presented with a menu, often translated into English. But outside the cities, the waiter might arrive at your table with the menu of the day memorized and start verbally reeling off the list of antipasti, primi, secondi, etc. There may not be a set menu because what the chef cooks depends on what he found in the markets that morning. Unfortunately, if you don’t know Italian, there isn’t an easy way around this, barring having a translator present. Keeping a list of words handy which you and the waiter can gesticulate over isn’t a bad idea — and to that end, I provide below a list of the major dishes you’ll come across in Italy.

It’s likely something you’ll want to keep handy, or else you might find yourself in the situation a friend once did, before he knew “survival Italian”. Around lunchtime one day in Florence some twenty years ago, he came across what looked to be a decent, well-off-the-beaten-track trattoria. Inside, he found himself seated at a long table with a dozen Florentine workmen, enjoying their mid-day meal. The menu was enormous (as were most of the workmen’s bellies) and, after some study, he decided all he really wanted was a plate of beans – nothing fancy. After all, Tuscan beans are supposed to be a great dish, as he had heard. he knew the word for beans started with an F and had a G in there somewhere – which word he soon located on the menu. When the waiter arrived, he pointed to the word, and of the waiter dashed, though with an odd expression on his face. Twenty minutes later, the “beans” arrived: a quivering mound of beef liver. Fegato, that is…and certainly not the Fagioli our friend had hoped for!


pane — bread
acqua naturale — plain, bottled water
acqua gassata — effervescent water
vino rosso — red wine
vino bianco — white wine
un litro — one liter (about one quart)
mezzo litro — half liter
un quarto — quarter liter


funghi — mushrooms
pomodori — tomatoes
margherita — cheese and tomato (for pizzas)
prosciutto — ham
olive — olives
alici — anchovies
carciofi — artichokes
formaggio — cheese
bianca — “white” (no tomato sauce, usually with rosemary or onions)
rosmarino — rosemary
cipolle — onions


antipasto misto — mixed cold meats and cheeses
bruschetta — toasted bread with olive oil and garlic
crostini — small slices of bread with various toppings
insalata di mare — seafood salad
prosciutto con melone — cured ham with cantalope
salame — salami

Primo (first course):

zuppa — soup
brodo — clear broth
cannelloni — large tubes of pasta, stuffed
gnocchi — small potato and flour dumplings
penne — small tubes of pasta
risotto — rice dish with sauce
tagliatelle — narrow ribbons of pasta
tortellini — small rings of pasta stuffed with meat or cheese

Pasta sauces (salsa):

arrabbiata — spicy tomato sauce, with chilis
carbonara — cream, ham and egg
funghi — mushroom
panna — cream
parmigiano — parmesan cheese
pesto — basil and garlic sauce
pomodoro — tomato
ragu — beef and tomato sauce
tartuffi — truffles
vongole — clam and tomato sauce

Secondo, meats (carne):

agnello — lamb
bistecca — steak
cinghiale — wild boar
coniglio — rabbit
cotolette — cutlets
fegato — liver
maiale — pork
manzo — beef
piccione — pigeon
pollo — chicken
polpette — meatballs
salsiccia — sausage
tacchino — turkey
trippa — tripe
vitello — veal

Secondo, fish (pesce):

alici — anchovies
anguilla — eel
aragosta — lobster
calamari — squid
cozze — mussels
gamberetti — shrimp
gamberi — prawns
granchio — crab
merluzzo — cod
ostriche — oysters
polipo — octopus
sarde — sardines
sgombro — mackerel
tonno — tuna
trota — trout
vongole — clams

Vegetables (contorni) and salad (insalata)

insalata verde — green salad (lettuce only)
insalata mista — mixed salad
carciofi — artichokes
carotte — carrots
cavolfiori — cauliflower
cavolo — cabbage
fagioli — beans
fagiolini — green beans
finocchio — fennel
melanzane — eggplant
patate — potatoes
peperoni — green/red peppers
piselli — peas

Desserts (dolci):

Just say yes! (“si”)