Our comprehensive guide on how to read Italian menus - and how to properly order!
If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly familiar with Italian dishes and ingredients that were decidedly foreign in the U.S. not too long ago! But if you’re planning a trip to Italy, it’s likely that you’ll still be struck with a surprise when you go out to eat. Most American restaurants that serve Italian food have not adopted the traditional Italian restaurant structure, so even if phrases such as fritto misto or al dente roll off your tongue, you might feel a little lost the first time you head out for dinner in Italy. A traditional Italian meal generally has three courses—antipasti, primi, and secondi (with the option for dolce, or dessert, of course!)—that follow a standard template. Read on for your simple guide to deciphering a menu and ordering the Italian way.
While the word has become synonymous in many American stores with a genre of oil-cured snacks such as olives and artichoke hearts, antipasto is derived from the Latin for “before the meal,” and can be any small dishes that are served as the first course of a meal. A plate of assorted salumi such as prosciutto, mortadella, or bresaola is a favorite antipasto option in Italian restaurants, as are bruschettas, raw-fish crudos, and salads. These are almost always shared among the table, and there’s no set amount that is best to order. Let your appetite be your guide!
Literally “first plates,” primi piatti are almost always pastas. That’s right: In an Italian restaurant meal, pasta isn’t usually the star of the show! They’re always presented in smaller portions than you find in American restaurants, to reflect their position as just one part of the meal. Primi are usually chosen individually, but it’s totally OK to order a dish to share between two people if you know your appetite can’t handle the whole thing.
This is what we might call the main course or entrée in the U.S. Secondi are usually a fish or meat dish, often roasted, grilled, or braised. These are generally ordered individually, but some showpiece dishes like the famously massive bistecca Fiorentina are meant to be shared among the table. This section of the menu is not always the most vegetarian-friendly, although you may sometimes find a veggie option like eggplant parmigiana here. You can certainly skip this course if you’re not very hungry or if there are no options that suit your diet, or you can order a few contorni or even another antipasto in place of a meat dish.
Because many secondi are plated on their own, if you want any sides like vegetables or potatoes to accompany your dish, you’ll have to order them separately. Think of this like the steakhouse model—you can customize your meal to get exactly the things you love. One note: As fine dining becomes more popular in Italy, many high-end restaurants will now plate secondi as a composed dish complete with the chef’s recommended sides. Check the menu description to get a sense of whether you’ll need to order contorni, or, when in doubt, ask your server!