Since I cook mostly in an Italian style, on this page I explain the structure of a typical Italian dinner (cena) as it is slightly different from other countries. For each recipe I post on this blog, I will indicate for which course of the menu it is intended.
A cena starts with antipasti, appetizers. This can be one dish like vitello tonnato or a large plate or buffet with a variety of appetizers. Antipasto literally means “before pasta”.
After antipasti comes the primo (first course): pasta, risotto, gnocchi or sometimes soup. In the Italian kitchen, pasta or rice is never a side dish but always a course of its own. This is not true for potatoes, because they are considered to be a vegetable!
The main course is referred to as secondo (second course): meat or fish.
Side dishes (potatoes or vegetables) are called contorni. Do not be surprised if you order a secondo in Italy and you only get a piece of meat or fish! Although contorni are sometimes included with a secondo, very often they have to be ordered seperately.
Dolce or Dessert
Dessert is simply called dessert or dolce (sweet) and in trattorie is often just a piece of fruit.
Do Italians always eat 4 courses?
If I have guests over for dinner, I will generally serve four courses and adapt portion sizes accordingly. However, Italians do not always eat 4 courses and neither do I when I don’t have guests. It is very usual to eat just antipasti and primo, or primo and secondo, or antipasti and secondo. Any of these could be followed by a dessert. It is also an option to have formaggio (cheese) before or instead of dessert. Watch out when ordering a 4-course à la carte meal in an Italian restaurant if you don’t have a huge appetite, because portion sizes are not always appropriate for eating all 4 courses. It is often possible to order a half portion of a primo. In fancy restaurants a menù degustazione is served of six or more servings (portate). Then they always stick to the order of antipasti-primi-secondi-dolci, but there could be multiple antipasti, multiple primi, multiple secondi and multiple dolci. Portion sizes are usually adjusted.
For weekday cooking at home, we often eat just a pasta dish. However, I’ve grown accustomed to the habit of often splitting up even weekday dinners into a primo and a secondo, where we start with a simple pasta dish with or without vegetables followed by a piece of meat or fish with or without vegetables. This makes it easier to eat a great variety of even the simplest pasta dishes (e.g. spaghetti with butter and cheese, nothing else) without having to worry about including enough meat/fish and vegetables in the entire meal. It also makes it easier to mix and match.