Anatomy of an Italian meal

If you've been to Italy, unless you've been to a touristy spot, the menus look a little different, since they reflect the way an everyday Italian meal is structured. When eating at home, the meal is simpler than when you may be eating at a restaurant or a formal event like a wedding banquet.

Let's start from the home meal, then move to more formal ones.

First of all, there are a few things that will be present on the table when you sit down:

  • bread
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil and vinegar

You'd be tempted to put some olive oil on a small plate and eat it with the bread. Don't do that please, unless you're really, really starving. The bread is there to accompany the dishes, like cheeses and cured meats, and to eventually do scarpetta, scooping up the sauce.

In a formal meal, you'd start with the appetizers, called antipasti, but they are rarely served in informal/home meals.

The actual meal begins with a primo, which means 'first (dish)'. Primi are generally either a soup or something starchy: pasta, polenta or rice.

After the primo you'd have a secondo, which means 'second (dish)'. a secondo is usually something with proteins, like meat, fish, frittata, and it is accompanied by one or more contorni, side dishes.

If after the secondo, you're still hungry you may be presented with a cheese/cured meat tray, which are best enjoyed accompanied by bread.

At this point, in a home setting you'd end your meal with some fresh fruit, while in a restaurant or a formal setting, you'd be presented with dessert. According to correct etiquette, dessert should be offered before fruit.

After lunch, most italians get also coffee. Optional, after coffee you can get an 'ammazzacaffe' aka 'coffee killer', usually a digestif to both help digest the food, and to wash up your coffee breath.

So let's sum it up!

  • Antipasti (Appetizers, optional)
  • Primo (first dish, something starchy or a soup)
  • Secondo (main course, usually meat or fish)
  • Formaggi (cheeses, optional)
  • Dessert (optional)
  • Frutta (fruit, usually at home but not at the restaurant)
  • Caffe' e Ammazzacaffe' (Coffee and/or digestif, also optional)