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 mozzarella; and finger food like bruschetta, panino, and crostino. You may also find marinated vegetables, fish, cold salmon, tuna, or prawn cocktails as part of this course.

Some restaurants offer vegetarian options like roasted vegetable bruschetta and balsamic eggplant accompanied with plant based dips and sauces.

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.

This course includes a manageable serving since the second main is right 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

The Italians save the best for last, well, second to last. Formaggi e frutta is a pairing of rich creamy cheeses with tart acidic fruits and make up the most delectable dessert you can imagine. Most restaurants serve up a combination of Gorgonzola and pear or another classic combo of Stracchino and grapes or peaches for the perfect end to a balanced meal.

As simple as it seems, this course is easy to mess up and the pairings need to be made mindfully to make sure the fruits and wines compliment the cheese being served. The more creamy cheeses are paired with tart fruits and a cheese like Ricotta will traditionally be paired with ripe figs and a fruity red wine.


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.

Italian Food and Table Etiquette

gourmet meal and white wine image

Italian cuisine ranges from simple, delicious street food to fine dining experiences. Exquisite detail on food preparation is a tradition that always stays in style. Recommended etiquette may vary by environment. Acceptable standards of table manners at Michelin-starred restaurants may differ from those of friendly, family-run restaurants. Here are some general rules of Italian restaurant culture to help you understand and adhere to accepted standards of the Italian way of eating habits. 

Pass food to your left

A key component of the complete Italian dining experience is sharing food. Italians love to eat together or as a family. Once brought to the table for sharing, these dishes circulate quickly among diners for everyone to enjoy. The food moves to the left as it circulates the table. If in an Italian restaurant or hosted in an Italian environment, when food is received, pass it to your left when you’ve taken your share. Also, pasta, rice, or soup start the meal, followed by a main course, optional side dishes, and a dessert to complete. Avoid mixing things up or putting them in the same dish, or you’ll be a laughing stock.

Don’t eat with elbows on the table

Eating with your elbows at the table is not considered a serious offense in a casual environment. In some countries, it shows a hard day of labor that needs relaxation. Additionally, in relaxed settings, such as casual conversation over an after-dinner cappuccino, it may be acceptable to rest your elbows on the table. However, sometimes, elbows on the table may be considered a rude gesture. Putting your elbows on the table can be considered reckless behavior in a fine dining room. It conveys a need for more respect for local customs. Sitting with your elbows straight off the table while eating shows respect and attention to your surroundings. Be careful, as it could be misinterpreted differently.

Handle the utensils properly

a grocer, wearing a face mask, hand cuts a local prosciutto in a shop in Sulmona, Abruzzo, Italy image

A saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This may seem appropriate in the Italian dining context. How you handle tableware can demonstrate your knowledge of dining etiquette and local customs. Italians usually hold the fork in their right hand and the knife in their left. The key is not to switch utensils to your dominant hand while eating. Many people in the United States switch between the fork and knife in their dominant hand when cutting food and then switch back to eating. This standard of utensil etiquette can be difficult for those unfamiliar with it, but adhering to it says a lot about your commitment to learning local customs. 

Did You Know?

Spaghetti on fork

  1. Italians only drink milk with coffee for breakfast, however, coffee is a pertinent part of their cuisine and dinner is followed by a strong espresso shot. 
  2. Pasta dishes in Italy are not traditionally served with meat, especially chicken. Meatballs and spaghetti are thus not a traditional Italian dish. This is why in a traditional multi course Italian dinner you will be served two mains, one with carbohydrates and one with protein but never together. 
  3. Italians are very particular about dining manners. That is why walking while eating is considered disrespectful. Food is supposed to be savored and so it is considered good manners to dress well and enjoy a meal leisurely. 
  4. Traditional Italian dishes are simpler than you think and the flavors are mild and depend on the marriage of fresh ingredients. 
  5. Pepperoni pizza is not traditionally Italian, in fact, a peperoni pizza is actually a vegetarian pizza with bell peppers in Italy. 
  6. Traditional Italian bars are actually breakfast spots where people grab a quick pastry or coffee before work.