Traditional Italian Meal

A full, traditional Italian meal is something to be savored. It’s a no-phones allowed ritual where friends and families get together. It’s about slowing down, enjoying the food, and enjoying the company of your family and friends. There is a specific structure of eating cultivated over centuries so people can best enjoy their food and company. Having a structure means that the traditional Italian meal offers numerous courses to give everyone a chance to try a variety of dishes, and even soothe digestion.

Different Courses in a Traditional Italian Meal

In Italy, dinner is taken seriously. During holidays and special family dinners, a dinner can last up to four hours or more. Not all dinners consist of many courses, but it’s often reserved for festivities and other celebratory occasions.

In its full form, a structure of an Italian meal includes:


Aperitivo served in a restaurant

The aperitivo starts the meal, and it’s similar to an appetizer. When aperitivo is served, most people are gathered around standing up, and drink alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks like Italian wine, prosecco, champagne, spumante, spritz, or gingerino. These drinks are served with various nuts, cheeses, and olives that are usually local to the region. Nuts, crisps, small quiches, light crackers and cheese or a plant-based dip is the usual feature in an aperitivo spread.  All these can be served on a charcuterie board.  These are what diners nibble on while they socialize and wait for the next course.


Antipasto on a plate

Commonly considered as the starter, the antipasto is slightly heavier than the aperitivo. Oftentimes, it consists of a charcuterie platter like salami, prosciutto, mortadella, bresaola, and other charcuterie products; cheeses like pecorino, parmigiana-reggiano, and mozarella; and sandwich-like foods like bruschetta, panino, and crostino. You may also find marinated vegetables, fishes, cold salmon, tuna, and prawn cocktails.

Some restaurants offer vegetarian options like roasted vegetable bruschetta and balsamic eggplant. Vegetarian dips can also be available.

Primo piatto

Primo piatto served on a plate

Primo piatto is the first course in an Italian meal. It consists of hot food that’s often heavier than antipasto dishes. This is a non-meat dish that’s all about carbohydrates, like pasta, risotto, soup, broth, rice, polenta, gnocchi, cassseroles, crespelle, or lasagna.

It is believed that carbohydrates get the digestive juices flowing, and it helps the body get ready to make the most out of the protein-rich secondi.

You may want to gorge yourself with this first course, but remember, the secondo around the corner. Fortunately, you’ll have about 30 minutes in between courses to get hungry and excited to eat again.

Secondo piatto

A secondo served in a plate

The secondo piatto is the closest thing to a main course in America. This dish features protein-rich foods, usually meats like chicken, turkey, fish, veal, rabbit, sausage, pork, beef, steak, stew, lamb, salmon, cod, lobster, roast, zampone, and more. Secondo dishes are often quite simple to showcase the innate flavors and quality of the protein.

If you’re wondering how you can eat a protein meal after a full plate of pasta, keep in mind that the Italian portions of these dishes are small.

Depending on the specialty of the region, the primo or the secondo may be considered more important.


A potato side dish with egg

Contorno literally means “on the side.” It’s a side dish primarily served along with the secondo piatto. This often involves a simple green salad with olive oil or balsamic vinegar, chicory, broccoli romano, or potatoes, depending on what suits the meat. These are served on a different plate than the meat in the secondo, so as not to mix on the plate to preserve the integrity of flavors. Secondo and contorno are meant to balance one another.


Mixed green salad on a plate

Insalata is exactly what it sounds like – a salad. Depending on the restaurant, this course is sometimes omitted, especially if the contorno is already green and leafy. Insalata usually consists of simple crisp and leafy greens dressed with vinegar and oil, and a little bit of salt and pepper.

It might seem strange to eat a salad after the main course, but Italians have a reason for this. Since green, leafy veggies are high in fiber, they can be hard to digest. Eating the vegetables at the end of the meal will help the body process the food easier, and there’s less chance that you’ll feel heavy or overly full.

Formaggi e frutta

Fruits and cheese on a plate

Formaggi e frutta is a course dedicated to cheese and fruit. Selections of regional cheese will be served, with seasonal fruits that complement the flavors of the cheese.


A tiramisu slice

Next comes the dessert, or dolce! Italian dessert options include tiramisu, cake, pie, panna cotta, crostata, panettone, or pandoro (the last two are most popular during Christmas and New Year). You may also opt of a gelato or sorbetto if you want something lighter and more palate-cleansing.

Though there are nationally popular desserts, many regions and cities in Italy come with local specialties. In Sicilly, cannoli and cassata are popular; while in Naples, zeppole and rum baba are commonly consumed.


A cup of espresso coffee

Coffee, usually a strong espresso, is often served very warm at the end of the meal. Since Italian meals are all about digesting your food well, they do not serve coffee with milk – it’s almost always black, strong, and short. But you can add a spoon or two of sugar if the taste is too bitter for you.


A shot glass of limoncello

To conclude an intricate, decadent Italian traditional meal, the final item is the digestive, or a digestive alcoholic drink. Drinks like amaro, limoncello, grappa, or other fruit or herbal drinks are served. When served after coffee, these drinks are also considered as ammazzacaffè, which means “kill the coffee,” as Italians say it prevents caffeine from taking effect.