There’s an established way to eat in Italy and menus maintain the gastronomic order. They’re divided into courses and begin with antipasti (starters) that can be as simple as bruschette (toasted bread topped with tomatoes) or fiori di zucchini (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with anchovies). The point of the antipasto is to relieve hunger and prepare stomachs for the meal to come. Antipasto della Casa (house starters) are a safe culinary bet featuring regional hams and cheeses that can satisfy multiple appetites.
Primi (first courses) consist of pasta, risotto or soup. There are hundreds of traditional pasta shapes all of which are combined with unique vegetable, meat or fish based sauces. Not everything can or should be translated and this is a chance to get adventurous. Roman menus offer sauces flavored with thick cuts of bacon (Amatriciana), pepper and goat cheese (cacio e pepe) or clams (pasta alle vongole). Soups like papa al pomodoro (tomato stew) and ribollita (vegetable stew) are popular in Florence and fortified with pasta, beans or barley. Rice is primarily grown in Northern Italy and risotto with fish or crustaceans is common on Venetian menus.
Many people surrender after the first course and that’s a shame for stomachs. If you need help getting through a 3-course meal order mezzo porzione (half portions) and leave room for the secondi (second courses). Secondi consist of meat or fish and are the gastronomic main event. Let waiters know if you like your protein al sangue (rare), cotta (medium rare), or ben cotta (well done). Unless you order a contorno (side) your Fiorentina (T-bone steak) will be lonely. Options include salad, grilled vegetables and roast potatoes listed at the end of menus along with dolci (desserts) and bevande or bibite (drinks).
Waiters often ask what aqua (water) you’d like even before you’ve had a chance to study the menu. The choice is naturale (still) or gasatta (sparkling). Italians generally don’t accompany meals with soft drinks although they are available. Caffe (coffee) is nearly mandatory after lunch while dinner can end with a digetif liquor. Restaurants usually have a separate wine menu and daily specials which may need repeating. A 3-course lunch or dinner with dessert and coffee will set you back €25–40 per person and should be savoured at least once on a journey to Italy.
A Note About Tipping
Tipping is not expected in Italy. This is compensated by the coperto (€1-3 per diner fee) that covers bread, utensils and service . Waiters earn a decent living but no one refuses money and leaving €3–5 behind after a good meal is one way to show appreciation. The other is to say grazie, era molto buono (thank you, it was very good).
Your Guide to Italy:
Moon: Rome, Florence & Venice