When dining in or out, Italians generally think about the quality and how flavorsome their food is, followed by the order and timing to ensure digestion and maximize enjoyment. Meals are a multi-course affair that tends to expand and contract as needed. You can be assured that there will be at least three courses, maybe two, but never just one plate. Pizza, however, is the exception because you will be enjoying an entire pizza of your own, so an additional salad or small starter would be about all most people could fit in. Naturally, there are many variations on the Italian dining experience, but the traditional menu throughout all of Italy consists of antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti with or without contorno, dolce, and beverages.
Antipasti: These are the myriad small starter dishes, served before the pasta. The selections are usually divided between cold and hot, and oftentimes whether they are from the earth or sea.
Primi Piatti: First plates are usually starches like gnocchi, risotto, or pasta, although other selections might be a rustic tart, vegetable flan, or very occasionally, soup. Soup is usually a home selection not often found on Italian menus. You might occasionally find a special soup on a menu or maybe a pasta and bean dish called pasta fagioli.
Secondi Piatti: Second plates are usually the main or meat course, which ranges from fish to pork, rabbit, or beef. Lamb and goat are found on menus around holidays. Chicken is not often found on most menus as it is considered to be home fare. You will, however, find turkey and quail in its place.
Contorno: Vegetable side dishes not usually included unless it is a home-cooked meal or a fixed price meal.
Dolce: Sweets or dessert, with endless possibilities. Some of the most recognizable would be tiramisu, pannacotta, cannoli, rum baba and the legendary Italian gelato and sorbet.
Water: Sparkling or still is the normal offering at an additional cost unless included in a set menu, even though water from the tap is quite drinkable. It’s just the tradition.
Wine: Optional house variety by the glass or carafe or a bottle of your choice. Fixed price meals, or tourist menus as they are sometimes called, include a 1/4-liter carafe, red or white wine.
Coffee: An espresso, as that is Italy’s coffee.
Digestive: This category includes a small shot of strong alcohol, normally sipped to bring the meal to a close and aid in digestion.
When dining at home, most Italians would include a small antipasto, just a nibble to get the digestive juices flowing. It might be a simple slice of salami, Parma ham, marinated vegetables, anchovies or olives, just to name a few. After antipasti or starters, home diners might have a primi piatti or secondi and on some occasions both for an everyday meal. They might opt for fresh fruit for a simple daily dessert. Table wine is young, less complex with lower alcohol content, and usually served with most meals. Some families still make their own wine but it’s possible and very economical to buy table wine. Many people buy a large 50-liter damigiana (large glass bottle) and fill it up at the local wine consortium. Most meals are finished off with a coffee, maybe followed by a strong spirit known as a digestive. Some Italians, like my in-laws, like to combine the two after lunch and dinner with what is called caffe corretto, which translates to “corrected coffee,” consisting of a nip of grappa added to espresso.
A restaurant’s fixed price menu is a streamlined three-course menu of simply prepared dishes that is popular everywhere in Italy, especially at lunchtime. The modest price includes one dish from several choices of primi piatti, secondi piatti, and dessert. A small bottle of water, 1/4 liter of table wine, and coffee are included as well. It’s a good value and makes it easier to get back to the workplace on time.
Sunday lunch is a time-honored tradition. Most families still like to gather at Mamma’s for her home cooking whenever possible. If not, then family or friends will meet up at a favorite restaurant to share a leisurely meal together. Lunch commences at noon and stretches out over the courses till at least 4 pm. The menu expands with two or three antipasti, possibly two meats with two vegetables and two desserts, one being gelato and the other a cake of some sort. The beverages are water, wine, coffee and digestive liqueur.
At holiday meals like Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, and all special occasions including weddings, one must really learn to pace yourself in order to make it through the entire meal. Each category expands, and others are added. All the regions and families have their own special additions and traditions to add to the feast and it makes for a festive, if not somewhat overwhelming, experience.
According to my in-laws, a good wedding dinner needs to have at least five antipasti. Cold, hot, fishy, and meaty would all be represented. There should be two primi piatti, always a pasta dish, usually filled pasta, and another starchy dish like gnocchi. The wine is naturally flowing, and if the meal started with an aperitif or sparkling wine, it has moved on from white to hearty bottles of red by now. The stream of dishes continues with two meat dishes, one maybe a fish, or fowl with a vegetable, then another red meat dish with accompanying vegetable. Breath deep and maybe stretch a bit as there is still more to come. Some weddings I have attended encouraged dancing between courses, which not only helped tamp the food down, but was also downright fun.
You might think now was time for dessert, but here in the Alps, famous for its cheeses, this would be the time for the cheese course. Usually there are several local cheeses like Tomini and Toma, but Gorgonzola is usually on offer too. After the cheese sampler, the fruit course is often referred to as the Macedonia, or a mixed fresh fruit cup to refresh the palate.
Next up is the gelato and then the cake or other luscious creamy dessert. In addition, just when you thought you had made it through all of the courses, the pastacini, or miniature pastries that this area so loves are brought out. Other areas have many different sweets that will be on offer too. For this course and maybe the cake as well, sparkling dessert wines like moscato or passito will be brought to finish the meal. Espresso is served as the final course, followed by the digestive spirits, which by now everyone is in need of. Grappa is the most well known Italian spirit offered after dinner. Every region or pocket of Italy has its own traditional, and sometimes homemade spirit, liqueur, or infusion that is enjoyed at the close of a meal. This truly is the end of the meal, and it’s time to consider taking a passeggiata, which is the traditional after-dinner walk to savor all the flavors and conversations of the day.
Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita (“beautiful mountain house”), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.