How To Read an Italian Menu

Italian Menu Board
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If you’ve been to northern regions, like the , , and the south of Italy, like , you know that the items on restaurant menus won’t be similar and, depending on where you’ve chosen to eat, may be written in an Italian that isn’t so standard.

That’s because each region of Italy, and oftentimes, individual cities, have their own piatti tipici, or traditional dishes. What’s more, sometimes the same thing can be called different things from the north to the south, like how the popularly-known is called schiacciata in Tuscany.

Despite the variations you will most definitely encounter, there are some standards that you can learn about in advance when it comes to eating in Italy, and more specifically, being able to read an Italian menu.

In this quick guide, I’ll go through the types of restaurants in Italy, how make a reservation, the order of Italian dishes during a meal, how to ask for the bill, and a few other cultural tidbits that may be useful for you.

Types of Restaurants in Italy

Autogrill - Roadside snack bar

Pizza al taglio - Shop that sells slices of pizza cut by how much you want

Tavola calda - Informal restaurant, like a cafeteria as you often order buffet-style

Osteria - Informal restaurant, like a diner

Trattoria - Medium-priced restaurant that’s often family-run

Ristorante - Restaurant

You can learn some vocabulary that’s specific . If you want to learn some phrases that will help you find the most authentic restaurants and get the best recommendations, click here.

How to Make a Reservation

While it’s not common practice to make reservations at all restaurants in Italy, it is recommended at places that tend to be busier or are the più gettonate, the most popular.

To make a reservation for two people at 8:00 PM, use this phrase: Vorrei fare una prenotazione per due, alle otto.

If you want to be more specific, click here to learn the days of the week, and click here to learn how to tell the time.

Order of Italian Dishes

In Italy, dishes are usually served on separate plates in a specific order. In order of appearance on a typical menu there is:

  • L'antipasto, which literally means "before the meal" and includes hot and cold appetizers, such as crostini and bruschetta.

  • Il primo, or "first course" usually consisting of , , , or (soup).

  • Il secondo, or "second course," and is the main course - often , , or .

  • Il contorno, or "side dish," which consists of vegetables such as (eggplant), (spinach), or (mixed salad).

  • Il dolce, or "dessert," which includes such favorite sweets as , (custard shortbread pie), or (custard of egg yolks with wine and brandy).

Get the Bill (or Should You Leave a Tip?)

To ask for the bill, say: Il conto, per favore. Unless you ask, it’s not likely that they’ll bring the check to you. When it comes to tipping, by Italian law, gratuity is included in the bill, and extra tipping isn't necessary. Remember that a coperto -- a cover charge -- is included as well. If the service warrants it, feel free to leave your waiter a little extra.

If you want the waiter to keep the change, say: Tenga pure il resto.

Tips:

  1. In Italy, those milky concoctions—cappuccino and caffè latte—are consumed only at breakfast, so before 11 AM. To learn more about the types of coffee in Italy, click here.

  2. Al dente means "to the tooth," or slightly chewy. It is used to describe pasta and rice. The inside should be somewhat crisp-tender.

  3. Italians often say Buon appetito! or "Enjoy your meal" when the first course is served, and Salute! or "To your health" when toasting with a drink.

  4. Most likely you will have to purchase water. You’ll have a choice between bubbly water -- frizzante or con gas -- or regular water -- liscia or naturale.