Eating Italian Style

A typical Neapolitan Menu

Italians eat one course at a time. They don’t like to mix different foods on one plate. A full meal includes:

  • Antipasto(appetizer)
  • Primo piatto(first course): pasta, riso (rice), zuppa/minestrone (soup).
  • Secondo piatto (second course): carne (meat) and pesce (fish).
  • Contorno (side dish): insalata (salad), patate fritte (French fries), contorni misti (mixed vegetables), etc.
  • Frutta (fruit)
  • Dolce (dessert)

When you go to a restaurant, you don’t need to order a full meal with all the different courses. You may have appetizer, pasta, and dessert or a second course with a side dish and fruit. You can ask the waiter to explain dishes on the menu and also to help you select a good wine. If you choose to drink wine, remember that usually the red wine goes with pasta and red meat; white wine goes with fish and/or white meat. Rose wine can accompany every meal. If in doubt about wines, you can order some local wine (vino da tavola/locale/di casa). Local wines costs less, and they’re good wines. They’re not dry because they’re new wines.

Important: In an Italian restaurant it’s not customary to order coffee, tea, or cappuccino with your meals, nor ask for ketchup or request a doggie bag.

If you order pasta, remember that Italians like their pasta al dente (firm to the bite). Parmesan cheese is not used on pasta with fish or garlic. In a few words, if the waiter doesn’t bring it, it means that you don’t need it!

Bread is served with all Italian meals and is generally part of the coperto charge. Butter is served only at breakfast.

You will find salt, olive oil and vinegar on the table or the waiter will bring these with your salad. Sometimes, Italians prefer to use lemon juice in lieu of vinegar.

When you order fish in an Italian restaurant it is usually served with the head, bones, eyes, and tail. Shrimp is served with its shell, legs and feelers. Clams and muscles are served with their shells. This is customary in southern Italy. When you order "spaghetti con le vongole" (spaghetti with clams), you will get an extra plate for the empty shells.

At the end of your meal, you need to ask for il conto (the bill). The bill in Italy is itemized and includes:

  • Coperto (cover charge): usually 2000/3000 per person. This is for the linens, place settings, and bread.
  • Food & drinks you’ve ordered (include overhead).
  • Servizio (service charge): between 15/18%. This is figured out on the total. This is to pay staff salaries.

Tipping at the restaurant is customary in Italy. When you pay the bill, add a mancia (tip) for the waiter (6/7% of the bill).

Most restaurants do not require a coat and tie or formal attire, but remember that Italians usually dress with casual elegance. In the summer, shorts, tank tops, or any sort of "beach attire" are considered inappropriate.

Taking children to restaurants is not a problem in Italy. In some restaurants you can ask for a seggiolone (high chair) and/or mezza porzione (half portion).