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How To Navigate A Restaurant Menu In Italy

Heading to Italy but intimidated at the thought of sitting down at a restaurant and trying to navigate the menu? Antipasti, primi, contorni? What does it all mean? We got you:

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First let's talking about common types of restaurants in Italy

Ristorante - indicates a fairly fancy establishment with full menu courses, fairly high prices, and perhaps a well-known chef. But don't worry, you can still find a relaxed atmosphere at a ristorante, so go ahead and enjoy your meal, and take your time!

Osteria - a traditional, casual eatery, often family-owned and operated. It usually serves simple, rustic dishes that highlight local ingredients. Osterias are known for their warm and welcoming atmosphere, where guests can enjoy homemade meals in a relaxed setting.

Trattoria - similar to an osteria but may offer a slightly broader menu. It is a small, no-frills restaurant that emphasizes traditional, regional dishes. Trattorias are popular among locals, providing an authentic taste of Italian cuisine.

Taverna - a cozy establishment, often found in smaller towns and villages. It is a place where locals gather to enjoy wine and simple, hearty meals. The ambiance is typically charming and laid-back.

Enoteca - a wine bar or wine shop where customers can sample and purchase a wide selection of wines. Some enotecas also offer a limited menu of small bites, such as cheese, cured meats, and appetizers, which perfectly complement the wine tasting experience.

Before we continue, make sure to check out some of our favorite restaurants in Italy over on the guides tab on our instagram.

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Navigating the sections of a menu

A traditional menu in Italy is usually split into sections or courses that represent different types of foods and preparations. Lets take a look at a common progression of a Italian menu:

Antipasti - appetizers and small bites that often include an assortment of cold meats and cheeses, and other popular Italian starters such as bruschetta or carpaccio.

Primi - first courses, usually pasta, rice, or soups (zuppe). On some menus you will specifically see a section labeled for pastas (paste) or for risotto.

Secondi - second courses, usually meat and fish dishes (carne and pesce). Some common choices include steak (bistecca), chicken (pollo), breaded cutlet (cotoletta), or fish (pesce).

Contorni - side dishes such as roasted vegetables or potatoes that are meant to compliment the secondi.

Dolci - desserts and other sweets such as tiramisù, cannoli, or gelato.

restaurant in Italy, trattoria, Osteria, Rome, Florence, menu

Caffè / Amari / Digestivo - espresso, and after dinner drinks such as a selection of amaro (bitter liquor) offerings or other alcoholic options such as limoncello or grappa.

Bevande / Vini / Birre - the drink menu, wine list, and beer list. Here you will find all drinks available at the restaurant. You may find cocktails here as well, though cocktails are rarely consumed with full meals. Wine lists are usually split into rosso and bianco (red and white), and on beer lists you will often find bottiglie vs alla spina (bottles vs draft). Also note that in Italy, pizza is most commonly eaten with beer as opposed to wine.

Other helpful things to consider

If the restaurant specializes in something like pizza, AKA you are in a pizzeria, usually pizza will have its own section on the menu. Remember that in most sit down restaurants in Italy, pizza is served as an individually portioned pie (roughly the size of the plate) and is uncut, so you will need to cut yourself a slice using a fork and knife. It is perfectly acceptable to pick-up the slice after you cut it. Feel free to ask for oil (olio), spicy oil (olio piccante), or parmigiano cheese if you would like to put it on your pizza.

As we see above, pasta and meat dishes are separated into different courses. In Italy you will not find large cuts of meat or fish on top of or on the same plate as pasta like you may find at an Italian restaurant in the USA.

Do not feel obligated to order from every course on the menu! It is common to order just a pasta and a dessert, or an antipasto and a meat dish depending on your hunger level.

It is common to pay up at the register when finished with your meal as opposed to your server bringing you your bill. Although nowadays, and in fancier restaurants, the bill can be brought over to your table to be paid by mobile tap or chip payment.

Water is usually not free at restaurants. It is most common to be served a bottle of naturale or frizzante (still or sparking) water for the table that will be added to your bill.

You will almost always find bread or grissini (breadsticks) on an Italian table for all to enjoy.

Tipping is not required in restaurants in Italy, although it is perfectly acceptable to leave the change of the bill on your table if paying cash, or up to 10% of the total bill if you really enjoyed your service.

Other useful phrases and vocabulary

Il conto - the bill

Il coperto / servizio - a common service charge you may see on your receipt

restaurant in Italy, trattoria, Osteria, Rome, Florence, menu

Sono vegetariano / vegano - I am vegetarian / vegan (look for the vegetariano menu section)

Acqua - water

Un tavolo - a table

Buon appetito - Bon appetit

Salute / Cin cin! - Cheers!

Never be afraid of heading to a restaurant in Italy! Most every restaurant you encounter will be accommodating and speak at least enough english to help you enjoy your meal, and when you're really struggling never hesitate to ask your server for help or ask if an english menu is available. Take your time and enjoy yourself doing what Italian love doing the most; eating delicious food!

Interested in booking a dream trip to Italy? Let travel experts at Isarti Travel design your perfect vacation, and utilize our personal concierge services when on the hunt for the perfect restaurant during your trip!

Start designing HERE


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