Don’t Order Pasta in Italy. Do This Instead.

by Bianca @ Italian Fix

how to order in Italy

The first time I went to Italy I had it all wrong.

I thought I was eating well, but when I look back, I know it was a foodie-fail.

The mistake was completely avoidable, as the song goes; you just need a little help from a friend.

A Simple Way to Order in Italy

I actually married the Italian “friend” who showed me the menu ropes, so let’s just say he did a pretty good job.

First, he explained the elements of an Italian meal.

Then, he ordered like he normally would.

What came to the table was ten times better than all the meals I’d eaten in Florence the month before. Combined.

Why? Because it wasn’t just pasta and salads.

That was the mistake I was making. Since it was my first time in Italy, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I played it safe and ordered what I knew. Even if you’re on a budget, pasta and salad shouldn’t be your go-to. No way José. There’s a better formula — I’ll get to that below.

The Italian Menu Breakdown

I’ve broken down the elaborate algorithm of Italian night-time eating.

Let’s assume it’s Saturday night, and you’re living like it was your last. Here we go …

Pre-dinner:

Aperitivo
An aperitivo is an after work, but before dinner, Italian institution. It’s one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I always make sure my trips have some awesome cocktail sessions baked into the week. There are a few go-to aperitivi in Italia, like a Negroni, an Aperol Spritz, or a Bellini. Prosecco also does the trick (that’s my fave). As does a small beer. Aperitivo is served with snacks; anything from peanuts to mini-sandwiches, meats or cheeses. Every region has their own spin. An aperitivo doesn’t just have to have alcohol; ask the bartender to make an analcolico con frutta and see the beautiful creation that arrives.

Dinner:

Pick wine: Of course this is Italy, so wines are serious business. When confused, just pick vino della casa – it’s usually 5-12 euros for a carafe/bottle. If you dive into the wine menu, you’ll notice vino fermo (regular wine) and vino mosso (bubbly wine). You’ll also choose from red or white of course, but regions will dictate what’s local. For example, if you’re in the Cinque Terre and want to drink a local wine, your choices will mostly be white. If you’re confused, ask the waiter for recommended pairings.

Pick water: In Italy, water doesn’t come free to your table. You order bottled water, and you specify acqua frizzante (sparkling) or acqua naturale (still).

Antipasto
The antipasto is the appetizer. Sometimes the menu will be divided by antipasti di mare (from the sea) or di terra (from the land). Since Italian food is regional, sweeping generalizations on what you’ll find don’t work, but that’s the idea.

Primo
On the menu, the “first plate” is the opening act, and carbs are center stage: pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta, etc.

Secondo
The “second plate” is the featured performer, and proteins are where it’s at: fish, meat, or cheeses, etc.

Contorno
Contorni are side plates of vegetables, the stage-hand of the meal, if you will. Think grilled vegetables, fried zucchini blossoms, braised greens, fresh tomatoes, etc.

Then, the strong stuff

Dolce
Desserts can be simple, and typically regional. In Tuscany, you’ll see cantuccini (small twice-baked cookies) with Vin Santo (fortified Tuscan wine). In the Cinque Terre, you’re not going to find a Sicilian dessert.

Caffè
When you ask for a caffè in Italy, it means espresso. After dinner, you drink an espresso or a macchiato (espresso with a bit of milk). If you order a cappuccino after dinner, the waiters will gab about you in the kitchen because cappuccino is considered a morning drink. You might order a caffè corretto (spiked with your choice of spirits: grappa, sambuca etc.).

Amazza caffè
Just when you thought, holy shizzles, I can’t possibly ingest anything else, you still can. There’s a special cavity you grow when in Italy, it’s a third stomach, and it holds the ammazzacaffè. The word ammazzacaffè means “coffee killer.” It’s a little downer after your upper. A coffee killer is a strong spirit or liquor, like grappa (40% — made from grape skins), limoncello (the yellow stuff, made of lemons) or amaro (bitters; aids in digestion). Don’t order a cocktail — it’s too much cold liquid after dinner. The idea here is short and strong: Sylvester Stallone style.

After Dinner:

Then, because Italy is a hedonistic place, you have a candy drawer of options until 5 am:

a) hang out on a bridge or other hard stone surface and chat b) chain-smoke on the sidewalk c) get a gelato (cause you’re starving), d) go find more grappa e) go to a bar to see music and people

You notice how sleeping isn’t an option? I love sleeping so much, but I’m the only one in Italy who does, so that option isn’t usually offered to me when I’m out with friends.

Now I have it figured out. Here’s the deal

I spend long periods of time in Italy, and I like to eat well but not stuff myself. I naturally gravitate to healthy food and try to avoid excess starch, sugar and processed foods.

Italy is great if you like to eat this way, and over the years I’ve refined how to navigate Italian restaurant menus. My choices maximize yumminess and experience (eating is sensual and fun), but ditch the lethargic food coma. This is how I roll when eating out:

Antipasto.

  • Order the antipasti misti, a selection of small bites that the chef decides. You can divide one order between two or three people.

Primo

  • If the primo is knock-your-socks-off-I-gotta-try-this, then order it. If the pasta is made in-house, that could be a good motivator (the stuffed pastas often are, just ask). But I tend to skip this course. If you’re only in Italy for a week and food hangover isn’t an issue, then go wild!

Secondo

  • I pick the secondo over the primo; rarely will I eat both, unless I skip the antipasto.

Dolce

  • I love dessert and go for it, but prefer to share.

Caffè

  • I don’t drink espresso after dinner if I’m planning on going to bed in the next 15 hours. Most Italians can handle the late caffeine top-ups (it must have been in the baby-bottles), but my weak Canadian constitution can’t handle it (you might think we drink bacon fat and maple syrup by the litre, but that’s only at Christmastime).

Ammazzacaffè

  • I will have an after-dinner spirit ninety percent of the time — it’s super small and rounds out the meal perfectly.

There you have it! I hope I’ve helped you avoid JUST eating salads and pasta!

I would love to know the best meal you’ve had in Italy, or what you’re looking forward to eating when you go?

Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks and happy eating,

Bianca

P.S. Check out one of my most shared articles: Honey, Does This Vacation make My Ass Look Fat?

{photo credit: Leela Cyd}

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Tim

Particularity well written & funny sweet Bianca. Xx

Bianca Gignac

Ciao bella,

Thanks so much for the love note. Right back attcha.

xx
Bianca

Nupur

Delightful post, Bianca! Loved the part about ordering cappuccino after dinner – I did, and that was the exact expression on the waiter’s face 🙂

Bianca Gignac

Hi Napur,

Thanks for dropping by! The most hilarious part of dining in Italy, and understanding Italian, is hearing the waiters talk amongst themselves. Priceless!

Thanks so much for sharing,
Bianca

bob miller

Many years ago, when we lived in the Ne York City area, we would often eat in a restaurant in “Little Italy”–downtown NYC. The food was superb and the prices very reasonable. We´d finish off dinner with coffee and sambuca but instead of getting just a cup of coffee and a dash of sambuca, the waiter, once he had gotten to know us, would bring a pot of coffee and a bottle of sambuca yet still bill us the cup price! Years later, when reading a book about the Mafia, I found out that the restaurant was run by and was the favorite hang out for the Genovese family, one of the 5 cosa nostra families in NYC.
We spent 2 weeks in Rome last June and I became addicted to grappa as my after dinner pousse cafe´. It´s hard to find in the small town in Mexico where we live but I persuaded our local store to order a bottle and keep one in stock for me.La bella vita!

Bianca Gignac

Ciao Bob,

Thanks for sharing such a great story. Bringing a bottle of liquor to the table is very sweet, and it’s common to have that kind of hospitality in Italy, especially if you frequent the place a few times or if you make a special connection with the staff. It’s just another reminder that traveling isn’t about just “seeing” stuff. It’s about connecting with people, and sharing great feelings. What the owner did for you in NYC was such a small gesture, but it made such an impression on you that it has lasted years. I like to think about these small gestures; being a conduit of small kindnesses does make the world a nicer place to live in, and this is a great reminder.

Happy grappa hunting! Have you tried the dark, amber colored ones? Those are my new favorite. 🙂

A presto,
Bianca

Cheryl

Your advice is well-taken. BUT I will say that the best dish we ever had in Italy was in Sorrento and the first course was pasta with fresh truffles. For my husband, who usually preferred a big hunk of meat to any sort of carb to gush about pasta was unusual. He said it was the best thing he had ever put into his mouth. I had to agree. Don’t know if it’s kosher to name the restaurant, but I will if people want to know where to go for this fabulous dish.

Bianca Gignac

Hi Cheryl,

You’re so right! There are some incredible delicious pasta dished in Italy … and you really must try them too! Your Sorrento experience sounds amazing and yes, do tell us where it is! People from all over the world check out Italian Fix for inspiration and tips and you might just make someone’s day (or meal) with your knowledge.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Love,
Bianca

Cheryl

The place where we had the amazing pasta with fresh truffles was L’Antica Trattoria in Sorrento. My memory is that you can do a three-course menu, but it was entirely too much food for me (and I am not a small person). If you get the chance to have any dish at this restaurant with fresh truffles, jump at it. Enjoy!

Robin

What about sharing courses? When my husband and I were in Florence we would share an antipasti, and a primi, and then order our own secondi. Is this acceptable? Sometimes we would get weird looks, sometimes not. My husband always ordered a cappucino no matter what time of day so we got the look for that as well. Oh well!

Kiiri @ Italian Fix

Ciao Robin,
Yes, the Italians will definitely stare at you dumbfounded if you order a cappuccino or a caffe latte in the evening, and especially right after dinner! That being said, sometimes sticking with what you like despite the disgusted looks is the best way to go. If I want a cappuccino at 9 pm, I will order it unabashedly, and you should do the same if sharing courses is what works for you. It’s great to do as the Romans do – they might be on to something, after all. But it’s also important to remember that this is your vacation, and ultimately what makes you happy is what you should choose.
Happy travels!
Kiiri @ Italian Fix

Jeannie

Bianca, I just want you to know how much I enjoy your blog. My husband and I will be renting an apt for a month in florence this coming may..so excited, but had we not already had plans I so would love to join you on your offered trip with the girls…maybe another year. I love italy…7th time I have been there, but what I really love is your attitude about connecting with people and enjoying life. I couldn’t agree with you more.
Good luck to you, and maybe one day we will meet.

Kiiri @ Italian Fix

We hope so, Jeannie! If you sign up for updates at the top of this page you’ll be the first to know about future tours and workshops. Maybe one day the timing will be right 🙂
Thank you for stopping by to comment!
Kiiri @ Italian Fix

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