Ever encounter an Italian food menu with so many pages it could be a novel?
Or try to decipher the difference between a primo and secondo? Even with some Italian language skills, it can still make your head spin.
Without a doubt, the food is one of the best parts of traveling to Italy – from arancini to tiramisu, pasta to pizza, street food to fine dining, there is so much to explore. But to eat well you first have to know how to order and how to interact with the waiter so you can successfully get everything you need from acqua (mineral water) to birra (beer).
First, Learn Italian Dining Customs
Before we get into how to order, you'll want to read up on Italian table manners, the various types of restaurants, and quirks like why there is a cover charge and how to "fare la scarpetta" (literally "make the little shoe" -- hint: no shoes involved)!
Also, Account For When Italians Eat
Knock on a restaurant door at 5:00 PM asking to be served la Cena (dinner) and you’ll get a look of confusion because Italian meal times tend to be later than in the States.
Most restaurants open for il pranzo (lunch), at 12 PM or 12:30 PM, and then close by 2:30 PM. If you’re on the hunt for an afternoon meal, decide on a spot before then or you may be without options, especially in smaller, more traditional towns. Dinner is served no earlier than 7:00 PM, but you can enjoy aperitivo if you get hungry sooner.
Some restaurants open outside of those times, but they often cater to tourists. You're better off searching out a caffe, a Tavola calda, or a takeaway pizza spot during that time. To get it all straight, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the traditional Italian dining customs.
And The Different Types of Restaurants in Italy
An osteria or a trattoria? A taverna or an enoteca? A bar versus a caffè? Italy has heaps of names for its traditional food establishments, so how do you tell the difference?
Now Let's Go Over How to Read an Italian Menu
Flipping through a multi-page menu might seem overwhelming, but fear not! Once you know the lay of the land, it will feel much more manageable. Most Italian menus feature dishes common to that area since Italian cuisine skews regional. It’s customary to order at least one appetizer, one main, and one side per person, although this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
The classic courses listed on an Italian menu are antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci, and bevande. The antipasti (appetizers) consist of smaller bites, such as olives, cheeses, or bruschetta. Primi (first course dishes), most often include pasta, soups, and risottos. Secondi (main courses) are larger dishes based on meat, fish, or vegetables. Most mains are served a la carte so be sure to order contorni (side dishes) too. And always leave room for dolci (dessert)!
How to Eat A Traditional Italian Meal
You might also see special offerings in sections labeled insalate (salads), pizze (pizza), or pasta, but that's generally only when the restaurant either specializes in that food or they are offering that as an alternative to the secondi aka the second course or main course.
This might seem like a lot of courses, but sitting down for a meal in Italy is an experience to be savored, not rushed. Also, portions tend to be smaller than in the U.S., so it’s easier to try more of the menu. But, similar to how you don’t have to order something from every section of a menu when you eat out at home, you can pick and choose in Italy, too. Skipping the primi after your antipasti and heading straight to secondi? No problem!
How Do You Order Food in Italian?
With a translation app on your phone and the ability to point to what you’d like, you don’t need to speak Italian to get a great meal. But learning some of the basics is a culturally sensitive way to travel, and locals love it when travelers make an effort to speak some Italian.
To order food in Italian, here are some useful phrases and terms to know:
- Manners Matter: Using per favore (please) and Grazie (thank you) is always welcome.
- Upon Arrival: Want to check out the options before you sit down and commit? Ask for “Il menu, per favore.” Ready to sit down and dine? Request a table by asking for un tavolo.
- Accessibility: If you or someone you’re traveling with is differently abled, ask “C'è accesso per persone disabili” to find out if they offer access.
- Dietary Needs: If you have restrictions on what you can eat, let your server know. Because definitions for terms like vegetarian are somewhat squishy (especially in more rural areas), the best way to find out what you can and can’t eat is by getting specific.
Ask, “Questo piatto contiene…grano (wheat), glutine (gluten), noci (nuts), latticini (dairy), or i crostacei (shellfish)?” That translates to “Does this dish contain…” so you’ll get a much more reliable answer. You can also say, “Non mangio…” (“I don’t eat…”)
- Time to Order: A simple way to say what you’d like to eat is to say "Prendo..." followed by your order. It’s the first-person conjugated form of prendere, meaning “to take” — which might sound a little rude by American standards but it’s commonly spoken in Italy (followed by a per favore, of course). You can also say, “I would like…” with Vorrei. For example, you could say "Prendo l'insalata verde" or "Vorrei l'insalata verde."
- Check, Please!: As with most of Europe, you’ll need to alert your server if you want them to stop by the table. When you’re ready for the check, wave someone down and ask for “Il conto, per favore.”
How to Read an Italian Wine Menu
A section of the menu we haven’t covered is the bevande, or drinks. There you’ll find selections like juices, digestives, cocktails, and one of our personal favorites, wine. Learn all about Italian wine menus so you can confidently order a glass of vino in Italy.
Have Us Plan Your Italy Trip
Looking to travel to the Bel Paese? If you are heading to Italy soon, check out our Ultimate Guide To Planning A Trip To Italy, or reach out to have us plan a custom trip for you!
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Photo Credit: Giada Canu