December 16, 2014

Antipasto, Primo, Secondo; How to Order Food in Italy

How many times have you sat down to eat in Italy and just sat there, staring at the menu perplexed as to how and what to order? Let's begin by explaining the various items listed on a menu in Italy.

First of all, an antipasto is an appetizer. The list of antipasti might include a savory mousse, a salad or a small version of what might otherwise qualify as a second course. Antipasti are more elaborate than stuzzichini which are fairly simple snacks: pizza, small fried or baked snacks.

primo is a first course; the list of primi includes soups, pastas, rices and other similar items. You might find the word Minestre instead of Primi. Minestre can be dry, such as a pasta dish but is most often used to refer to liquid first courses; such as soup (zuppa), smooth soups (vellutata or passata), chunky vegetable soups with pasta (minestrone or ribollita), tortellini in brodo, passatelli in brodo or zuppa imperiale. Baked pasta is also considered a minestra.

A secondo is a second course often composed of a protein, be it cheese, seafood, meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) or eggs. For your information, this dish does not necessarily arrive with vegetables or a side dish.

Contorni or side dishes. Side dishes usually are vegetables prepared in a variety of ways including grigliate (grilled), al forno (oven roasted), lessate (boiled). In Italy, don't expect pasta to be a side dish  (ever!)

Dolci are desserts and these are often divided into torte which are cakes; dolci al cucchiao are soft desserts to be eaten with a spoon (think mascarpone cream, tiramis├╣ or panna cotta), gelati are ice creams and semifreddi that while are reminiscent of a gelato, are more complex with often an accompanying sauce.

Coffee is usually served after dessert. While some places will bring you whatever you want whenever you want it, not all will. So don't be surprised if the coffee arrives after the dessert, even though you asked for it with the dessert. You might appreciate knowing that that cappuccinos are considered a breakfast drink so if you order one after 11am, it is akin to ordering chocolate milk.

After coffee, you might order a digestif or amaro, literally a bitter which aids digestion or a fine whisky or grappa which you will find under Distillati. If you don't see these on the menu, ask. In some places, the trattoria will bring a few bottles of their home made liquors for you to try including licorice, basil and the more famous limoncello. Please know that these are offered by the house and as common courtesy you are expected not to have more than a shot glass or two, at most!

Good to know: Now that you know what's what on the menu, let's tackle some details.

How much to order? Several of my students have recounted how they felt pressured by waiters to order an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (a first course), a secondo (a second course) and a dolce (dessert). No one, should feel pressured to order all that food, although a restaurant might be understandably perplexed if all you wish to eat is an antipasto and you are by yourself.

For your information, Italians rarely order a dish from each course. It is customary to order 2 dishes, for example:
  • antipasto with either a primo or secondo
  • primo and secondo
  • primo OR secondo and dessert
  • primo OR secondo and a side dish
Also, while not everyone does it, some couples will split a dish or two. I know a couple who will split every course, thus ordering 1 antipasto, 1 first course, 1 second course and 1 dessert. I usually split dessert or a first course with my husband.

There is only one don't that I can think of. Don't expect to get your ordered food in any order other than the category that they belong to, ie., antipasti come first, then first courses, then the second courses and side dishes, then dessert, then coffee and then any after dinner drinks. For example, a side dish with your pasta is a no-no. A first course dish served with your second course dish is another unusual thing.

While a casual place may not care in which order you eat your food and thus may agree to serve the food in the order you requested, don't be surprised if it doesn't come to fruition. The chronological order of the food is so ingrained in Italian culture that while the waiter has agreed to it, the kitchen will send out the dishes in the Italian, preordained order. 

Don't be surprised if you see your menu divided into Mare and Terra. That means that all seafood (Mare) have their section of primi and secondi while the vegetables and meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) are considered earth (Terra) and have their separate section of primi and secondi.

Frozen foodstuffs: Eating places are required to declare if they are using frozen products. You will see this in small print at the bottom of the menu.

Coperto: this item lists what the eating places charges for the bread, oil and vinegar and other items they may serve that you haven't ordered. The use of tablecloths as well as cloth napkins might be included so naturally expect the fancier the place, the higher the coperto. The price of the coperto needs to be declared on the menu.

Tipping: Tipping is not necessary and is never added to your bill. All workers receive a regular salary so there is no need to tip in order to round out a salary. However, if you feel that you've been treated particularly well you could tip 10%. Tipping too much shows that you are a tourist! Especially never tip in a bar, caffe', tavola calda or Osteria. There's the second no-no.

I hope I've helped you understand some of the intricacies of the Italian menu. Buon Appetito!


Sarah Dowling said...

Great breakdown! Wish I had this mini lesson before dining in Italy for the first time. What’s your take on taking leftovers home? This is something customary for Americans to do but I have found that it's rather embarassing for Italians.

Maribelous said...

Sorry to get back to you so late. You are right, leftovers are a no-no in Italy. Its like saying you don't have anything to eat at home. People don't even take leftover pizza home.

I will add this to my list.

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