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.
19 thoughts on “Italian menu”
You continue to inspire – there is so much to learn about food and other cultures. 🙂 My ears certainly perked up at the word “formaggio.” I noticed in your close that you generally don’t eat vegetables in your weeknight dinner – do you miss them? I love a crisp, green salad with a few other colors before a pasta dish…
Oh no — we eat vegetables every day! If we have just a pasta dish on a week day, it will definitely include vegetables. In Italian this is called “piatto unico” (a meal consisting of the one dish). Having a primo and secondo on a weekday has actually become very common lately. The vegetables can then either be included in the primo (pasta) or the secondo (meat or fish), or sometimes both. Like the other day we had pasta with cavolo nero (similar to kale) followed by sous-vide rabbit with figs (well that’s a fruit but you get the idea).
Ah, I see. Lovely! You know quite a bit about Italian cuisine. I love the primo and secondo idea. On a side not, figs and kale are among my favorite produce. Especially figs. You guys eat well, even on the weeknights!
Hello, i’m Cristina, an italian girl, i follow Shanna’s Blog and there was a link to yours! Compliments, i can say you really know a lot of italian foodstyle 🙂
Grazie, Cristina. Mi piace che hai trovato il mio blog!
I’ve just noticed this old post. An excellent post as always.You make one mistake however, and it is one you hear a lot: It usually gets me shouting at the radio or tv 🙂 Pasto is the Italian for “meal” not pasta, so antipasto or antipasti means “before the meal”
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Although you are absolutely right from a linguistic point of view, I think it is silly not to count antipasti as part of the meal. I’ll see if I can come up with a good way to fix this. Thanks!
You are right, it is a bit illogical, but by that reasoning, if you eat a risotto or polenta, you can’t eat antipasti. 🙂 Maybe it can be translated as before the main part of the meal?
I’m from Italy and I like your way of cooking, you reale love what you do. If I have some time, come and visit my blog, it is about cake design. See you
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