Properly Reading an Italian Menu

Learn to order like a pro

Italian Menu Boards

Richard I'Anson / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

If you’ve been to the Northern regions of Italy such as the Laghi region of Como and Garda and the Southern regions such as the Amalfi Coast and Sicily, you know that the items on restaurant menus won’t be entirely alike, and in some places they might be entirely localized and written in an Italian that isn’t standard.

That’s because each region of Italy, and often even individual cities, have their own piatti tipici, or traditional dishes. Indeed, like some other European countries, the cuisine of each region of Italy reflects local history, the influence of different foreign cuisines, and local ingredients and flair. What’s more, sometimes what amounts to the same thing can be called by different names or have a slightly different twist. The well-known schiacciata in Tuscany is called ciaccia in some little towns and is called focaccia up north, or sometimes even pizza bianca, and it's never quite the same thing.

Despite the variations, when it comes to eating in Italy and making your way through an incomprehensibly vast menu and a palette of foods and restaurants, there are some standard words and rules that are helpful to know.

Types of Eateries in Italy

Of course, in Italy like any other place you will find the cheaper diner and the 5-star restaurant. Here are your options:

Il ristorante: a restaurant. The upper echelon of this list, but not necessarily a luxury restaurant. The label just means restaurant; there are good ones and bad ones. In Italy they do observe the star rankings and, of course, restaurant review sites are popular there as they are in the States (eater, urbanspoon, cibando, foodspotting, and, of course, tripadvisor). Check them out online before choosing; of course, the rule of thumb is that if locals eat there, it means it's good. Check for local faces.

L'osteria: an osteria is considered to be a less demanding, more informal restaurant and often medium-priced, though you should know that the name has now transcended its old meaning as a run-down hovel with decent food and cheap wine. Among the many osterie are places that are just as high-end and nice as any ristorante. Same for a trattoria. But, they are both considered to be places that reflect local flavor and friendliness, are often family-run, and often are the best game in town.

La pizzeria: of course, you know what that is. Pizzerie often serve much more than pizza, but if you want a pizza, that is where you should go (though there are ristoranti that serve awesome pizza too).

If you are looking for a snack, head for a bar (which, you know, is a cafè more than the American-style bar) for a little panino or stuzzichino (a tapas of sorts) or even a grocery store (negozio di alimentari) or a pizza a taglio place, where they sell pizza by the slice. An enoteca is a good place to get a glass of wine and a little stuzzichino too—enough to hold you until dinner. By the way, most bars of any sophistication in Italy, both in cities and little towns, have taken like crazy to the happy-hour trend and you can basically have dinner there pretty cheaply.

Other options you see on the food horizon are la tavola calda—an informal, rather generic place like a cafeteria, and your autogrill, for when you are traveling on the autostrada and you need a snack.

How to Make a Reservation

At peak tourist season, reservations are recommended for restaurants that tend to be busier, well-known, and well-rated (più gettonati, the most popular). You will, 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 p.m., use this phrase: Vorrei fare una prenotazione per due, alle 20.00. Or, if you are not at the conditional tense yet, you can say, Posso fare una prenotazione per due alle 20.00?

If you are a walk-in, you have several ways of asking for a table: C'è posto per due (o quattro), per favore? Is there space for two? Or, possiamo mangiare? Siamo in due (o quattro). Can we eat? There are two of us.

The Italian Menu and the Order of Italian Dishes

Usually, you won't have to ask for the menu, but in case you do, it's called il menù, with your accent on the ù. Most places—even the most sophisticated—often have an English language version of their menu and you will not look like a fool to ask for it (though often it's not very well written or detailed).

Whether it's pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner), meals in Italy are served according to a long-standing and traditional order:

  • L'antipasto, which includes such things as plates of prosciutto and other cured meats, crostini and bruschetta, cured vegetables, and again, depending on the region and the season, such things as snails or little polenta cakes, or small fish appetizers.
  • Il primo, or first course, usually consisting of minestre, minestroni, and zuppe (soups), risotti, and, naturally, pasta in all of its glorious shapes and modes. Along the coast and on the islands, pasta with all sorts of fish is typical, while in the northern hinterland most everything is meat-based and cheese-heavy. Again, every place will feature their local pasta dishes, or piatti tipici.
  • Il secondo, or second course, consists of fish or meat, served with a contorno, or side dish—anything from fried zucchini to braised spinach to a salad. If you want vegetables with your fish or ossobuco, you have to order a contorno. Remember, every locale has a way of doing things: in Milan you eat la cotoletta alla milanese, and in Florence la bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Il dolce, or il dessert, can range from such favorites as tiramisù or torta della nonna to cookies with brandy.

Of course, you don't have to get something in every category; Italians don't either. Unless you are starving and you want it all, you can have an antipasto followed by either a primo or a secondo, or followed by a secondo with a contorno. Sometimes people get a contorno in the place of an antipasto—say, if you want some greens or a little sformato (a custardy souffle-ish kind of thing). Italians do not eat a salad before their main meal unless it's a very small salad-type antipasto. Get your salad with your secondo; it pairs well.

Sample Local, Not Easy

What is recommended, though, is that, if you are adventurous and you have no specific food aversions or strong dislikes, you try the local fare. Eschew your regular plate of pasta al pomodoro or something you can easily get in the States: Eating Italy's regional cuisine is a way to get to know the country more than skin-deep. If you are on the coast, you can expect good fish; if you are in Bologna or in the northern mountains, you could expect good meat and cheeses and many special varieties of pasta. To express a desire to eat the local fare, you can ask for the specialità della casa or the piatto tipico locale.

And of course, you should end the meal with a caffè and some limoncello (often on the house, if you have been nice and spent a lot).

Getting the Bill and Tipping

To ask for the bill, you say: Il conto, per favore, or you can simply get the waiter's attention and make a writing gesture. Unless you ask, or unless it's a very busy touristy place, it’s not likely that they’ll bring the check to you.

When you get your bill you will notice a charge called il coperto, a per-person cover charge that covers the expense of bread, essentially. It is charged everywhere and to everyone, so do not balk. About tipping: Most Italian wait staff are employed by the hour or the week (under the table or not) and paid by law a little more than they are in the States. There is no law or statute requiring gratuity and traditionally it has not been a practice. However, generally speaking, your cameriere or cameriera in an Italian restaurant does not make a lot of money, so if the service warrants it, a tip is a nice touch. Even a couple of euros per person will signify your appreciation for the food and the service (if they deserve it) and earn you a friend when you return.

If you want the waiter to keep the change, say: Tenga pure il resto or put your hand on the bill and say, Va bene così, grazie.

Extra Tips

  1. In Italy, milky concoctions such as cappuccino and caffè latte are consumed only at breakfast, so before 11 a.m.
  2. Italians say Buon appetito! when they begin eating and Salute! when they toast.
  3. 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 (they also make something called leggermente frizzante now, which is less frizzy). If you want to buck the trend and you trust the local water (which you can do in most places), ask for l'acqua del rubinetto.

Buon appetito!