If I’ve learned just one thing in the past year, it’s how to eat in Italy. Like many things here, eating is a respected art backed by rules and tradition. There is a right way to eat a meal, and the waiter will tell you if you’re doing it the wrong way. There are also a lot of steps in the process – up to 8 courses by my count. What’s the difference between a primo and an antipasto? What do I order first? When does it all end? It may sound simple, but it’s not. It’s complicated and ritualistic – for reasons both really sensible and kinda ridiculous that will need their own separate post to explain.
Now with lots of friends and family descending on Milan soon, I’m realizing how much I’ve learned in the past year about so many aspects of life in Italy – and food is a huge part of life in Italy.
Of course, this also means I must have known nothing a year ago. So it’s okay if you know nothing now.
What follows is everything I’ve learned about the art of dinner in Italy after a year of practice. Okay, it’s definitely not everything, but it’s certainly everything you need to know (and some things you don’t) from first course to the bitter end.
Here are the rules of the game: You can skip any course, or skip most of them. You can share one, or share them all – but you never mix up the order. Here we go…
Straight to the bar!
Hah! This is a trick! A “bar” in Italy is not for boozing, it’s where you get your coffee. An espresso should cost one euro, a cappuccino maybe up to 1.50. If it’s more than that, you’re in a tourist trap. (And those are generous Milan prices – in Sicily an espresso costs about 80 cents.) If you can see a beautiful old church from where you’re sitting, expect to pay 5 euro for a cappuccino. In many places if you’re sitting at all you’ll pay more. Sometimes you give your euro to the bartender who made your coffee, sometimes you have to go to the “cassa” first to pay, then show the barista your ticket. You never know, so look around to see what other people are doing and follow suit.
Lunch. I’m not going to dwell here, because the same rules apply as for dinner. Just quicker, and usually with more steps skipped. There’s still the option for multiple courses.
However, if you’re invited to a “pranzo di domenica” or Sunday Lunch, all bets are off. Come mentally prepared for Thanksgiving. Pranzo is a family institution here, and the further south in Italy you go, the more traditional it becomes and the more you must eat.
But I digress. Here’s what you’ll find in restaurants and everyday life in general:
Often translated as appetizer, an aperitivo is really a separate event before dinner, not a starter. It can be followed by dinner at home or at a different restaurant, or not.
After work, or after a long day of touristing, you go to an aperitivo place and order a drink, which will come with food. Just like at the coffee bar, you never know what the aperitivo situation might be, so ask. It’s okay to ask. “How do you do aperitivo here?”
It could be unlimited passes at a buffet with multiple courses, including desserts. In Milan, that’ll cost you 10 euro or (so I’ve heard) even up to 15.
Or it could mean you order your drink and the waiter brings you a plate of finger foods. Mini pizza. Arancini. Potato chips, olives, salami, and cheese. (This happens to be my favorite, as opposed to the buffet style, mostly just because I’m lazy and don’t want to get up to get my food.)
Sometimes places that do aperitivo are restaurants with full menus, but often they’re not. I see a lot of places in touristy neighborhoods that write “happy hour” on their sandwich boards, but don’t expect any two-for-ones. They just don’t quite know how to translate aperitivo.
The truly old-school, local places are coffee bars by day and transition into aperitivo bars by early evening. You’ll see them full of middle-aged men who stop by to drink a glass of wine and read the paper after work. (Side note: If it’s a pink newspaper, it’s the Gazzetta dello Sport, an all-sports newspaper that I do not understand how anyone could actually enjoy, but you see them tucked under the arms of men walking around Milan all the time.) At some of these local joints you can also buy lottery and bus tickets. These are the places where the aperitivo is probably potato chips and olives. They’re not replacing dinner for the overworked and underpaid young Milanese – like the buffet places do – they’re just smoothing the transition toward the eating and drinking part of your day.
Literally “before meal,” this is your true appetizer. It can be anything. However, this is the point at which things get serious. You don’t just order an app and then continue looking at the menu while you munch and chat. No, no. Italian restaurant eating requires organization from the start. You go through the entire menu with your dining companions, choose everything you want, when you will want it, and order it all at the same time. You have to plan your water (never free in Italy), antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, and vini all from the start. Be ready! (Don’t worry, if you forget something you can always add it later, but at least try to be ready.)
If you want free water, go to France. Otherwise, settle for a bottle of either flat or sparkling mineral water that’ll cost a couple euros. There are many names for these waters. Still water is usually called “naturale” or “liscio” (meaning smooth). Sparkling is “gassata,” or “frizzante,” and I think there’s a difference between the two, but not a big one. They’re both bubbly water.
This is also probably a good time to mention the “coperto,” or cover charge. One to three euros per person for things like bread, salt, and napkins, but NOT for the tip. Italians don’t tip. Of course there are exceptions – if the service is really outstanding, or they just feel like, but we’re still talking a euro or two, not 15 to 20 percent. Does this mean waiters get paid a good wage without tips? I’m not sure. I keep asking people and getting mixed responses. As a rule, not necessarily. So leave a buck or two if you feel like it but – I cannot stress this enough – it is completely optional.
You already know this word, right? If you don’t know already, red meat goes red wine. Seafood goes with white wine. Unless you like a different combination, in which case, do that. I’m not going to go further on this subject, because even those basic rules, which an Italian wino probably holds sacred, I don’t always follow.
When the waiter brings the wine, he will ask “Chi assaggia?” (“key asSAWja”) Who’s tasting? He’ll then pour a little splash of wine in the taster’s glass and await the verdict before pouring for everyone.
This is your chance to nominate your leader! It’s also a chance to learn something about your friends. Who is deferential? Who wants to be the boss, or worse, the wine expert? Who, like me, is just happy to get to drink wine?
It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert anyway – you’re just checking whether the wine tastes like cork, not deciding whether you like it or would prefer something else. Don’t let it go to your head.
This doesn’t happen at every restaurant. Only the slightly nicer ones do it, but they don’t have to be truly fancy. In the US, I’m probably priced out of these places. In Italy, it’s pretty easy to find reasonably priced restaurants with service and quality you (I) couldn’t afford at home.
When everyone has a glass, say cheers with “tchin” or “salute,” and look everyone in the eye individually as you toast them.
First Course. A first course is usually pasta or rice or pizza. By Italian standards, this means it’s light. Side note: You will never ever find chicken in a pasta dish in Italy, ever.
Remember, if you start with meat, you stay with meat for your second course, if you start with fish you stay with fish. Don’t mix, or Italians will think you’re weird and gross. I used to think that rule was absurdly picky and pointless, but it actually makes sense. You pick a track and let your taste buds stay on that track throughout the meal, instead of jumping around and confusing them. But do whatever you want.
Usually the first course is when the Buon-appetito! blessings get thrown around. (“Bw-own ah-pe-TEE-toe”) You might hear it shortened to “buon app!” or “tito!”
If you’re eating out, you already know what you’ve signed up for. If you’re at someone’s house, it’s not rude to ask, “So, will there be a second course? Are we having dessert?” Because you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. It took me most of a year to come to terms with the idea that I am allowed to ask and I won’t sound like a nosey, ungrateful glutton, which is exactly how I would feel at home if I didn’t know the hosts well.
The first time I went to a Sunday lunch with the family here in Italy, we snacked on some yummy olives and other antipasti until one of the aunts brought a pan of lasagna out of the kitchen and served me a much larger piece than I would have taken on my own. But it was so darn yummy that when they asked if I wanted more, I relented… “just a little bit!” I said, which means nothing here. I ate my second helping of lasagna and was truly stuffed. Then I found out lasagna was the primo. The secondo was pork chops with gravy and rosemary roast potatoes.
I’m not proud to say that a similar thing happened again at a second family dinner, but after that I did learn.
Second Course. This is a meat or fish dish. Usually larger and more elaborate than a primo. Often if you want a secondo, you skip the primo and order a contorno. If you order a primo, you’ll want an antipasto first. Or you order antipasti to share (or not), then a primo for yourself, then one secondo to split with your dinner date (romantic or otherwise). Or everything! The combinations are endless. Just stay on your track.
Side dish. Vegetables are ordered separately here. You won’t often see multiple foods on one plate in Italy, so if you’re ordering a pasta or a meat it probably doesn’t “come with” anything. A contorno can be served whenever you like – with the primo, with the secondo (the most common option), or after both. The waiter will ask you when you want it. Be ready with your plan.
Whew. Now that you’ve potentially eaten four different plates of food, take a breath because it’s time for a fifth. If you’re in a restaurant, now’s the time to reassess what you’ve done and strategize going forward. If you’re at someone’s house, you’ll be offered…
Fruit. Dessert’s appetizer! Much more likely in someone’s home than in a restaurant.
Near the end of one of my first Italian dinner parties, I was stuffed when the host asked if I wanted fruit before dessert. I reluctantly said yes. I did this for two reasons. 1. I didn’t know if it was rude to say no. (Rookie mistake.) You will be given a hard time for refusing pasta, but fruit is truly optional. 2. I was expecting a couple of blueberries, maybe a nice little clementine. It was a whole apple.
(“DOLE-chay”) Dessert. Finally. This can overlap with coffee if and only if some people want dessert and some just want an espresso as their dessert. But you can’t have coffee first and then dessert. You just can’t.
One of my very few Italian culinary achievements is that I can make tiramisù and panna cotta – which are factually the best Italian desserts. Even real Italians say my dessert work is good, and they don’t give out food compliments lightly. This is another thing that’s been hard for me to get used to around the table – brutal honesty. No one says something is good if they can say it’s just okay, even at the expense of the cook’s ego. My theory is that food is too serious a subject to praise if the praise is not absolutely deserved. It makes sense. Since most classic Italian dishes have been around for centuries, people don’t want to encourage straying too from the recipe without a good, taste-tested reason. Recipes are often named after a region or even one city or town. Traveling maybe 30 miles outside of Milan you’ll find different local specialities that are hard to find in the city, and wouldn’t be nearly as good there anyway. If culinary traditions weren’t this closely guarded, they probably wouldn’t survive.
Coffee is practically medicinal at this point. Caffeine helps digest everything else. However, contrary to the popular belief of Italians and everyone else, espresso has less caffeine than other coffees. The water passes through the coffee grounds so quickly in an espresso machine, that it doesn’t absorb as much caffeine as French press or drip-brewed coffee does. But you can still ask for decaf after dinner (no one will look at you funny).
Beyond that, you have two options: Espresso normale, or espresso macchiato (“MOCK-key-ah-tow”) which means “marked” with a spoonful of milk froth. Do not order a cappuccino. Cappuccino is for morning, as in before noon or else you’re a weirdo. Maybe in the afternoon with a sweet treat, but never ever after dinner. You’re too full of prosciutto and cheese and pasta, now is not the time for a cup of milk. Of all the unforgivable food faux-pas (aka: different preferences) that Italians mercilessly mock non-Italians for, this is the biggest one. You have been warned. The waiter will inform you ‘that’s really not we do it here,’ and suggest an espresso or espresso macchiato instead. Any Italians around you will shake their heads.
Now, there are two perfectly legitimate responses to this is. One is Who Cares? I agree with that. I’m a big fan of enjoying what you like, not just doing what’s expected, so if you want a cappuccino, order a cappuccino. But I’m also a big fan of trying life the ways the locals live it. When I was in Cambodia I ate a fried tarantula at a bus stop snack-stand. When I was in Guatemala I lived on scrambled eggs, fried plantains, beans and rice for a month. If you’re in Italy, it probably wouldn’t hurt you to try your espresso the Italian way once or twice.
A final clarification: When Italians say coffee or caffé, they mean espresso. There is no other. Whether you ask for “un espresso” or “un caffé” or either of those with the word “normale” after, you will get the same roughly one-ounce shot, straight up.
If you ask for “un latte,” that’s just milk. “Latte macchiato” is what we know as a latte. It does exist here – obviously the name is Italian – but I can’t say I’ve ever heard a local order one. I’ve heard in Napoli it’s hard to convince baristas not to pre-sugar your coffee, but I need to go down there to confirm that.
(“am-MATZah cahf-FAY”) “Coffee killer” means after-dinner booze! Aka, un digestivo, or a digestive. But coffee killer is by far my favorite term. The classics are limoncello and grappa, but there are so many more.
Many are infused with herbs and some amount of sugar. People will tell you the herbs and booze put together are an ancient medicinal concoction that aids digestion, which is probably not true, but it will have the pleasant effect of helping you forget how much you’ve just eaten. I recommend Amaro del Capo (“the boss’s bitter” – less sweet, more herby) and Mirto (a specialty of the island of Sardinia – fruitier and a bit sweeter, less herby).
Sometimes the digestivo is on the house. A bottle (or several) of something might appear on the table without you even asking for it. Sometimes the waiter automatically brings glasses of the house digestivo, or asks what everyone would like (this would be often be after the bill is delivered).
Hint: “Can we offer you a digestive?” = Probably free.
“Would you like a digestive?” especially if you’re eating in a very touristy area = Probably not free.
Just see what happens.
The check. (“il CONE-toe”) It had to come to this. Take solace in the fact you’ll probably pay a fraction of what you’d pay in an Italian restaurant anywhere else in the world for the feast you just enjoyed. You can ask for the check at the table, but it’s usually settled at the cassa (register), especially if you pay with a card.
There are different ways of splitting the check named after Italian cities. Paying “alla Romana” is the most common one – just splitting the total four ways if there are four people eating, for example. “Alla Milanese” means sitting down with a pen and calculator and divvying up each person’s due, down to the last dolce, bottle of water, and cover charge. I suppose this is because Milan is the working city – people move here from all over the country for jobs, and the prices are higher than anywhere else. There are several other local legends about how people settle the bill, each backed by regional stereotypes that are a huge part of Italian life and culture. I’ll explain the rest in another post soon!
So there you have it. You know everything you need to know. Never mix up the courses. Always know what you’re getting yourself into. And enjoy.