Have you ever been in a traditional trattoria, maybe a family run, where the menu is only in Italian and it is difficult to interact in English? Sometimes, eating in a less touristy place where people speak poor or no English can be hard and frustrating. But you do not want to give up once you have found the nicest and coziest place to stop, eat and relax. Go on reading because I have the solution.
In order to understand the menu in a restaurant, you have to learn how an Italian meal is made. Let’s start with the assumption that in Italy we love eating, I know that sounds so clichè, and dining is not just the act of eating. Anytime we have to meet someone, whether it is a work meeting or a hot date, we catch up to eat. We discuss better if we sit in front of something to eat and drink.
Although generally, and let me underline generally, especially on working days, we tend to eat less at lunch, that means one course, a drink and a coffee, maybe with a dessert, midday can include a meal with more than one dish.
The most common breakfast is cappuccino and brioche at the cafeteria, or caffellatte (milk and coffee) at home. So, you can imagine how hungry we can be at midday. And by the way, consider that lunch in North Italy is at 12.30/13.00, while in the South at 13/14.
So, how is a complete meal in Italy made? Follow the points which follow that are also the section a menu is generally made of.
Appetizers come directly from the ancient Romans. In order to “open the stomach” and prepare it for the meal. In other words, appetizers are generally salty, so that you become even more hungry and eat more.
Charcuterie, salads, finger food. But also small versions of traditional dishes can be listed at the beginning of a menu. The waiter/restaurant owner may suggest: “antipasti misti per tutti”? That means mixed appetizers for everybody, in other words you will receive a bit of something to share.
Primo means First Course and it is a synonym for Pasta. So here you will find handmade fresh pasta, lasagne, risotto with all kinds of sauces and dressing.
Secondo means Second Course. Many restaurants divide it into two sections: secondi di carne, dishes with meat, and secondi di pesce, dishes with fish. But now you can also find a section for vegetarians.
So, here you will find preparations with meat and fish, which sometimes come with a contorno.
Contorno means Side Dish and it includes vegetables, tomatoes, and potatoes. So here you will have roasted potatoes, chips, grilled vegetables, and green salad. Some second courses can already come with vegetables on a side, sometimes side dishes are listed in their own section called “Contorni”.
According to tradition, after the second course, you can have cheese.
Sometimes, several types of cheese are served with honey or jam. In Piedmont, this jam is called cugnà. But this is another story. There isn’t a section for cheese on menus, normally they are included in the section related to antipasti o secondi.
Cakes, cakes, and more cakes. They are generally “dolci al cucchiaio”, a dessert you can eat using a teaspoon. But you can also find traditional biscuits, small pastries, or sweet drinks. In Turin, for example, you can find Zabaione, a sweet cream to eat warm, in Sicily restaurants serve the traditional cannolo.
Some restaurants can propose the “carrello di dolci”. It means they will arrive with a cart with the daily sweets and you can choose from there what to take. Again, you can pick up a mix of several types.
Caffè is the way to declare that the meal has finally come to an end. This can be espresso or corretto (with the addition of some grape, or spirits in general). You can add cream, but generally, coffee at the end is the strongest espresso to help your digestion.
You won’t find a specific section for coffee which is generally listed at the end of the menu, in the drinks section.
Please, please, please do not ask for a cappuccino at the end of the meal. Cappuccino is only for breakfast. It is too heavy after a meal and you will ruin the entire dining experience. Plus the next few hours of your waiter/restaurant owner.
So now the meal is over.
Kidding! At the very end, after the coffee, while you are at the counter to pay or still at your table, the restaurant owner can arrive with a little glass of grappa or some sort of homemade liquor. 8/10 times this is offered by the restaurant (but do not make the mistake to ask for it for free). Ammazzacaffè literally means “Coffee killer” and it is an extra help for your digestion.
So, have a sip of grappa, centerbe, amaro lucano, and find a place for a huge and quiet nap.