The words you need to know to get the things you want (and avoid the things you don’t!)
When I was a kid growing up in California, Italian food was still foreign to a lot of Americans. Whenever family came to visit from Italy, we’d have them bring us all of the authentic ingredients we missed. Even though we’ve come a long way since then, there’s so much to Italian cuisine that isn’t well-known yet. If you find yourself faced with an Italian menu you don’t understand, or if you’re looking to branch out from your tried-and-true favorites, don’t worry! These are a few basic terms that will help you navigate a delicious meal from start to finish like a local.
Antipasti (appetizers) are a light start to the meal, often a simple plate of salumi, a blanket term for cured meats, from salami to prosciutto, bresaola (air-dried beef), and ‘nduja, a spicy spreadable Calabrian salami. Formaggi (cheeses) are also an option, including pecorino, a variety of sheep’s milk cheeses often named for their region (pecorino romano, for example)
Primi (first course) are often pastas, which come in all shapes and sizes. You know spaghetti and fettuccine – some other popular types include pappardelle, a wider noodle made with egg that is usually served with hearty ragus, and bucatini, long tubes best known in the Roman dish bucatini all’amatriciana (a tomato sauce made with guanciale, cured pork jowl).
Secondi are what we’d call entrees, often meat dishes (carne) or fish (pesce). When it comes to carne, if you like beef, look for the word manzo. Veal is vitello, while pork is maiale. Frutti di mare, literally fruit of the sea, is a common mix of various shellfish, often including calamari (squid), cozze (mussels), and gamberi (prawns).
And don’t forget to order contorni (side dishes!). Piselli al prosciutto is a classic side of peas sauteed with prosciutto. Carciofi are artichokes, often fried (alla giudia) or braised in white wine (alla romana).