Properly Reading an Italian Menu

Italian Menu Boards
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If you’ve been to northern regions, like Milan, and the south of Italy, like Cosenza, 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, we’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 to the dining experience here. If you want to learn some phrases that will help you find the most authentic restaurants and get the best recommendations, explore our article on Italian phrases of authentic Italian food.

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. You'll, of course, have to know some common Italian phrases and how to say the time in Italian for this.

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

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 soup.
  • Il secondo, or "second course," and is the main course.
  • 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 tiramisù, torta della nonna (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.

Extra Tips

  1. In Italy, those milky concoctions — cappuccino and caffè latte — are consumed only at breakfast, so before 11 AM.
  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.