Eating in a local Italian trattoria is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures. I’ve been fortunate to find many restaurants in Florence and Rome where the owners treat Jon and I like treasured guests with the food continuously coming and the wine flowing. As the time grows near for our annual sojourn to Italy, I obsess over where (and what) to eat first. The food is that good!
When dining in an Italian restaurant you will notice that they offer a series of courses on the menu. You do not have to order every course. But for a belt-busting adventure that you will remember fondly, sit down and go hog wild at least once in your life. The entirety of the meal will likely take a couple of hours, so make it the focus of your evening’s entertainment. Enjoy having course after delectable course delivered to your table and laid before you like you were part of a royal court.
The rest of the time though, you will probably find that splitting courses will be better on your wallet…and waistline. I generally split an antipasto with Jon and order a primo for my main dish. Or he and I may each get a primo course and then split a secondo. It’s up to you which courses you order, but know that Italian restaurants serve the meal in a specific manner. If you ordered a primo platter and your dining companion ordered a secondo dish, they would come at different times unless you let the server know that you want them together.
- A meal starts with an antipasto (appetizer). At this course, you may dine on toasted bread gently scented with garlic and drizzled with olive oil (bruschetta), lovely cured meats like sweet and salty prosciutto, marinated vegetables, or some other delightful nibble to tantalize your tastebuds and get them ready for the next course.
- For the primo (first) course, you will definitely see pasta on the menu and may see gnocchi, risotto, a hearty soup, or pizza, too. This tends to be my favorite course. One is expected to clear their plate (no doggy bags) so when you’re finished use the bread to sop up any remaining sauce. Heaven!
- The secondo (second) course is where you will find meat or fish. This would be your chance to order meatballs (polpette), because in most authentic Italian restaurants you wouldn’t find them with spaghetti–a primo dish. If you ordered potatoes, vegetables, a salad, or another contorno (side dish), you would be served it with this course.
- Something sweet is perfect to cap off a fabulous four-course meal. In restaurants, you might find macerated fruit, a lovely tiramisu, a decadent torte, or other dessert offered as part of their dolci (sweets) selection. Alternatively, you may want to order cheese after the main part of the meal is finished. You will likely be asked if you want caffè or a digestivo (grappa or limoncello are two popular choices) to finish off your meal and help aid with digestion.
You will notice that I didn’t make any distinction about when to drink wine, because that can (and, dare I say, should) flow throughout the meal. Also, I didn’t mention gelato for dessert, because I suggest having it as a midday snack. The creamy concoction makes a perfect 4 pm “pick-me-up” since Italians generally don’t start dining before 7 pm (and usually much later). Avoid the gelato shops with huge piles of it, because it is inflated to get that volume. Also, avoid artificial colors; I look for small batches of the frozen dessert with muted colors that are a smooth, creamy consistency.
When you are finished with your meal, your server will not bring your bill. This might strike many travelers as rude, but Italians don’t bring it as a matter of course. They don’t want you to feel rushed, so you will likely have to ask for your check. As most workers in the big Italian centers speak English, you can just ask for the bill. If you want to try Italian, say “il conto, per favore (eel kohn-toh, pair fah-vorh-ray)?” If worst comes to worst, just make a scribbling motion in the air like you are signing a receipt.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy frequently enough to have gained a lot of experience with eating etiquette and Italian food culture. We’ve also dined out enough for me to cultivate a list of my favorite Roman and Florentine restaurants. I hope that you get the chance to savor an authentic Italian meal in the future. Working your way through four courses of delicious dishes will will be an experience you won’t soon forget. Buon appetito!
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