How to Read An Italian Menu

August 19, 2011

No visitor to Italy  wants to feel intimidated by a menu. If you don’t speak the language, how is a discriminating traveler to know what to order?

It is true that in most restaurants the menu will be given in English as well as in Italian but this is not always the case especially when traveling around to small towns and villages. In smaller towns where there is little tourism there often is no posting since the “menu” is whatever is the whim of the chef that day. And these out of the way eateries can be some of the best places to enjoy authentic food. In large cities many restaurants post their menu with prices outside. If a big city restaurant does not post its menu, avoid it.

Once you have decided on a restaurant, study the menu and choose things that are typical of the region: in the case of Tuscany order such classics as bistecca alla fiorentina (Porterhouse steak) for a main entree instead of a pizza or spaghetti with tomato sauce, two dishes more characteristic of the region of Campania in the south. Dishes not typical of the region may be on the menu, but avoid them if you want to eat as the locals do. Please do not ask the wait staff if there are American dishes such as roast beef and hamburgers. It may surprise you, but many people do just that, and it is an insult to your host country.

One of the first things you will see on the menu are the words pane e coperto (bread and cover) meaning that there is a charge to sit down at the table as well as a charge for the bread brought to your table. Your table belongs to you for as long as you wish to sit there even after you have lingered over espresso at the end of the meal and the line for the next diners is out the door. No one will shoo you out.

Italians eat in a succession of unhurried courses. Unlike the American dinner plate sporting meat, vegetables and perhaps a starch all crowded together, Italains will start out with an antipasto of perhaps cured meats such as prosciutto, or a beloved local dried sausage or bruschetta, grilled bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

The first course, called a primo piatto is next and can be soup, rice or pasta. The second course (secondo piatto) brings a choice of  meats, fish or poultry with contorni or vegetables side dishes that might include green vegetables of the season like Swiss chard, or fried zucchini flowers. Green salad is a separate course usually served  after the meat course and is dressed with extra-virgin  olive oil and good wine vinegar, and salt. Don’t expect croutons, grated cheese and bottled dressings. During the course of the meal wine and bottled water either still or carbonated, is served.

Dessert (dolci) can be an assortment of fresh whole fruits in season like pears, figs, melon, strawberries, apples, oranges and grapes brought  to your table in a bowl of water. Use a knife to cut away the skin of oranges and cut apples into segments. Use a fork, not your hands to eat these fruits.  For fancier desserts there may be biscotti, gelato and fruit tarts.

Please don’t order cappuccino with your dessert; order espresso. Capuccino is a breakfast drink and is served up to 11 am, then it’s espresso all the way. Rules are rules.

When your bill (conto) arrives, study it carefully. In Italy the service (servizio) and taxes are already included in your meal price so there is no need to leave a tip unless you feel that the wait staff and the kitchen has gone out its way to please you. You can leave an additional tip as a sign of your gratitude if you wish.

If you follow this simple dining outline then yours can’t help but be a memorable experience!

More From the Blog

Lunch Italian Style

Advocate for Avocados