Reading and understanding the Italian menu

While in Italy, do not expect the menu to look like the one from your favorite Italian restaurant back home…

In this very basic section you will be introduced to ‘reading’ the ‘carte’ at restaurants in Italy.

Some restaurants have menus displayed outside, most restaurants will give you written menus once you are seated; the less formal and the less expensive ones often will give a verbal list.

Most menus are à la carte, allowing you to order from a list. High standard restaurants can have ‘menu degustazione’ which is quite expensive in general and has a lot of delicious dishes, the most creative picks from the chef.

Restaurants of 5 star hotels can also feature children’s menu while the lower standard places, generally speaking, can offer ‘menu turistico’, a selected list at a set price.

The best way to choose your meal is to only pick one dish from each section and ask the waiter for advice just in case, possibly asking information on the daily specials that very often do not appear on the written list.

These are the Typical Italian courses (and do not believe to the people who tell you that Italians have one from each of them every day…)


antipasti italian menu
Antipasti as in “before-pasta”

This is the first in order and in fact the origin of the name is ‘before the pasta’.

As you can easily imagine, they vary from one region to the other and usually include salumi (cold cuts) such as prosciutto and salame. You will also find selection of cheeses, mozzarella and tomato (also said Caprese), grilled bell peppers, sun dried tomatoes, fried zucchini flowers, grilled bread (bruschetta) topped with olive oil, tomatoes and basil.

Primi piatti – also including soups – minestre

primi piatti pasta risotto minestra
No caption needed for pasta!

The classic almost all over Italy is pasta!

You can expect Italians to eat pasta every day (me, even twice a day…!) and it will never turn boring as there are so many shapes and so many different sauces and toppings! Also, restaurants offer fresh made pasta in a selection of shapes. It will be a brilliant journey, believe me.

There are exceptions, and just to name a few, risotto is great in the area of Milan and in some areas of Piedmont and try not to miss the Tuscan ribollita if you are in Florence. It is the traditional boiled and reboiled black cabbage soup that you will never forget.


secondi piatti
After pasta, you can usually ask for some meat or fish

At some restaurants you will find it written in more specific sections: fish and meat.

Today, a good number of places offer vegetarian dishes too.

As above, the variety depends on where you are and on the season, especially for lamb and fish coursed. Be prepared of ordering your side dishes separately, unless the vegetables are clearly written in the description. I strongly advice to rely on the waiter’s suggestions in term of typical recipes which are so numerous in that I will not even start the list here…


These are the side dishes I was mentioning before.
The most popular, all over the Country, are roasted potatoes (patate arrosto or patate al forno) and spinach. Remember not to  leave Sicily without tasting ‘caponata’  – browned vegetables with an additional flavor of anchovies and capers plus pinenuts.

Salad is found everywhere of course and I advise not to try to dress with the kind of seasoning the you find outside this Country… use olive oil instead: you will not be deceived.

Food lovers do not use balsamic vinegar on salads, they use wine vinegar instead.


While fruits (frutta) is a great way to end an Italian meal, desserts or ‘dolci’ are worth a taste.

This section is perhaps the most inspiring and the most difficult for me to describe in general terms as each region has its own specialty. I will now name one which is for sure the most ‘spread’ along the Country and it can be not terrible at some places and just amazing in others. Perhaps you know it already: it is ‘tiramisu’ (liquor and coffee-soaked spongecake layered with mascarpone).

Should the restaurant make its own gelato, do not miss it!

At the end of your Italian meal, coffee should be a must (please note: NOT cappuccino, I wrote coffee…!)

You will find here a very short ‘guide’  on various kinds of coffee in Italy which will make you very proud of asking one.


The real coffe: the espresso

This is the quintessential Italian coffee. Espresso means ‘made to order’, brewed quickly and resulting in a intense aroma, a full body and a firm cream. Espresso is served in a small cup.


Decaf coffee, it is easy to find it as it is very common in every bar

Caffé lungo

This can also be called ‘caffé  doppio‘. it is long coffee. If you want  a milder version, ask for ‘americano‘ so hot water will be added and it will be served in a bigger cup.

Caffé macchiato

An espresso ‘stained’ with just a drop of milk. It can be ‘caldo’ or ‘freddo’ so you have to ask ‘hot’ or cold’ respectively.

Caffé freddo

It is usually  served in glass and is especially popular at summer time.


This is the one that is more common for italians at breakfast. Its name comes after the Capuchin monks, whose robes are the same color.

Caffé latte ( also written caffellatte)

This kind of coffee is generally served in a glass and it is a milkier version of the cappuccino, with less foam. Please bear in mind that asking for ‘latte’ you will only get milk!

Latte macchiato

Served in glass, it is warmed milk with just one drop of coffee.

Caffé ristretto

A ‘short‘ coffee, just the first drops of coffee coming from the machine  with a very concentrated but not bitter flavour. Curiously it has less caffeine than an espresso.


I have spent my whole life working on high end events and travelling both for job reasons and for real passion; now, it is time to share notes with you! My passion for travel started when I was a child and now it is not just a passion, it is part of my business as I work in the field of luxury travels and events. In private life, luxury is the joy I find also in details and in small things.

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