Martin Scorsese once said: “If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant?”
But not everyone has an Italian mother—so not every table is laden with delicious, home-cooked Italian food.
And while cooking can, of course, be learned, the fine art of making incredible Italian food isn’t easy to perfect.
So if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself vacationing in Rome, working in Naples or just exploring your local Little Italy neighborhood, make sure you stop by for a meal at an Italian restaurant.
To get exactly what you want, how you want it, you’ll need some important vocabulary and phrases to get you started.
Fortunately, ordering food and drink in an Italian restaurant is as easy as one, two, three! And maybe four and five, if you count the extra courses typically served at robust Italian meals.
Whether or not you indulge in the extra courses, there’s definitely no need to go hungry when you’re in the vicinity of an authentic Italian restaurant.
Mangia! (Eat up!)
What to Expect During an Italian Meal
Italy is a country that’s well known for its expansive nature regarding nearly every aspect of life—and that applies to its culinary attitudes, too.
In other words, there’s a lot of incredible food in Italy—and you’ll want to try it all!
The Italian cena (dinner meal, pronounced “chena”) is comprised of several courses.
- Initially, there’s an antipasto (before the meal) which is food to nibble on, like cheese, cured meats, crackers and olives.
- Primo (first course) is usually pasta, soup, rice or polenta.
- Secondo (second course) is the main course of the meal. Usually, it’s a simple meat or fish dish.
- Sometimes, vegetable side dishes are served with the meat portion. They’re called contorno (loosely translated to mean “contours”) and are often made from whatever’s fresh at the produce market.
- Americans generally eat insalata (salad) before a main course but in Italy, insalata is sometimes served with the vegetable dishes.
If you think you’re done eating after the main course, think again! Don’t get out of that chair yet, because there are still many appetizing delights to savor:
- Formaggi e frutta (cheese and fruit) are brought to the table after the meal’s main course.
- Dolce (sweet) is the actual dessert course. Hopefully, you’ve saved room for some tiramisù, gelato or a mouth-watering cannoli.
- Caffè (coffee) served in Italian restaurants is usually espresso. If you’d like a cup of coffee similar to what most Americans drink in their local coffee shops, ask for a Caffè Americano (American coffee) and you’ll feel right at home.
- After caffè, you might consider a digestivo (digestive). It’s a small glass of liquor that some Italians feel helps digestion after a full meal.
Colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) and merenda (afternoon snack) aren’t as course-heavy as cena, but the food is equally delicious!
Let’s Eat! How to Order Food in Italian and Feast Like a Roman
Whether it’s a humble café in a piazza (plaza) or an upscale restaurant in the heart of Rome, eating in Italy is a delightful experience. The music, tinkling fountains, dripping candles and beautiful artwork all set the tone for more than a quick bite.
Eating is a social occasion in the Italian culture, so expect to be welcomed into an eatery as effusively as if you were stopping by a friend’s home for a meal. You’ll most likely be treated like family as soon as you walk through the door—and that’s a great way to begin a meal, isn’t it?
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Getting a Seat and Asking for a Menu
When you’re greeted at the door, you’ll want to ask:
“Possiamo avere un tavolo?” (“Can we have a table?”)
You might get a cozy seat by a window that’ll allow you to people-watch while you eat!
If you’re not handed a menu immediately upon being seated, it’s okay to say:
“Posso vedere il menu, per favore?” (“Can I see the menu, please?”)
Ordering Drinks in Italian
The first question from your server will probably be a casual “Da bere?” (“To drink?”).
Some possible choices include:
tè freddo (ice tea)
To ask for any of these, simply begin your sentence with this useful phrase:
“Vorrei…” (“I would like…”)
This sentence opener covers food and drink requests, as well as just about any other Italian request. It’s an excellent phrase to add to your repertoire.
For instance, you might say:
“Vorrei dell’acqua, per favore.” (“I would like water, please.”)
You may want to specify whether you want acqua frizzante (sparkling water) or acqua minerale (mineral water).
“Vorrei un litro di vino della casa.” (“I would like a liter of house wine.”)
The example above is a simple request. Many restaurants offer their house wine in both vino rosso (red wine) and vino bianco (white wine) varieties.
Whetting Your Appetite with Appetizers
Once you’ve had a chance to look over the menu, your server might ask, “Che cosa vi porto?” (“What can I get for you?”). When you hear this, then the staff is ready to take your order.
If you’re unsure of what to order it’s okay—encouraged, even—to ask for suggestions. The waitstaff could be very helpful! You can ask:
“Cosa ci consiglia?” (“What do you suggest?”)
This is sure to elicit a few options for your consideration.
Antipasto della casa (house antipasto) is a fine way to begin a meal. Alternatively, asking for antipasto misto (mixed antipasto) could be a wonderful choice. Ordering mixed antipasto means that the waiter will bring a platter of small samples to the table.
Placing Your Order: The First Course
When you’re asked “Per primo?” (“For the first course?”), you have any number of options. Most first course menu items feature pasta or risotto. Some possible responses to this are:
“Pasta con olio e aglio, per favore.” (“Pasta with oil and garlic, please.”)
“Vorrei il risotto ai funghi, per favore.” (“I would like mushroom risotto, please.”)
Just remember that adding per favore (please) always makes any interaction more pleasant!
Keeping It Going: The Second Course
Once the first course is out of the way, your waiter might ask “Per secondo?” (“For the second course?”). Since this is the meat course, here are a couple of words that may prove important:
Your order might sound like this:
“Vorrei una bistecca al sangue, per favore.” (“I would like a rare steak, please.”)
“Vorrei una bistecca ben cotta, per favore.” (“I would like a well-done steak, please.”)
Adding the “Contours”: Side Orders in Italian
When the waiter asks “Per contorno?” (“For sides?”), it’s your chance to add the “contours” to your meal by choosing from the vegetable dishes on the menu.
Some things to try include:
zucchine fritte (fried zucchini)
spinaci con aglio (spinach with garlic)
If you want your meat and vegetables served together, just ask!
“Può portare tutto insieme?” (“Can you bring everything together?”)
The Sweet Finale: Ordering Dessert in Italian
Dolci fatti in casa (desserts made in house) round out a meal nicely. Typically, the homemade desserts are divine, so loosen your waistband and indulge!
Now’s not the time to be shy. Sample some (or all!) of these:
cannoli (pastry shells with a sweet, creamy filling)
panettone (sweet bread filled with dried fruits and, often, chestnuts)
panna cotta (thickened sweetened cream formed into a mold)
…and everything else on that dessert tray!
Ending Your Italian Meal
To bring your dining experience to an end, use the following phrase:
“Il conto, per favore.” (“The bill, please.”)
That was fun, wasn’t it?
If you’re fortunate enough to visit historic Rome, Naples (where pizza was invented!), picturesque Sicily or any other fabulous Italian city or village, you’ll be able to order like a native with these phrases in your conversational repertoire.
Italians are known for being very friendly and for many, mealtimes are the biggest social events of the day.
So linger like the locals do. Talk and eat, then eat and talk. Don’t be in a hurry to eat and run—savor the experience.
Cultivate an Italian lifestyle—one bite at a time!
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