Navigating an Italian Menu

How To Order From An Italian Menu?

Upon looking at an Italian Menu you will realize that it is divided into several sections. The order in which these are displayed in the many is often somewhat random compared to the traditional sequence of plates cultivated over centuries. Of course, you don’t have to order all courses for every person, but, as a rule of thumb, you could order from a number of sections of the menu and put some to share among the people at the table. A couple, for example, might share an antipasto, order individual primi, and, thereafter, share a secondo. Sometimes, the meal (usually dinner) is begun with an aperitivo – a sort of pre-meal that usually consists of bubbly beverages such as spumante, prosecco, or champagne, or wine accompanied by olives, nuts or cheeses. Click here to learn more about the art of aperitivo. Below we will explain what the different sections mean, and what food to expect under each!


This course is commonly considered the equivalent of “starters”. The word antipasto, in fact, translates to “before the meal”. The antipasti dishes tend to be slightly heavier than the aperitivo ones, which are mainly just to munch on while having a chat and a glass of bubbles. Some of the more common antipasti are different kinds of cured meats (salame, mortadella, or prosciutto) served with cheeses and bruschetta (toasted bread with tomatoes and other toppings), and pickled or fried vegetables and olives. Insider tip: always ask for the “antipasto della casa” —the house special— for seasonal and regional specialities!


Primo literally means “the first” and it is the first course to contain hot food. It usually includes pasta, risotto (creamy rice) or minestrone (vegetable soup). Pasta, of course, comes in an especially endless variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and sauces. As with everything else that you will find on the menu, these dishes will very much depend on what region of Italy you’re in. Around Rome you’ll find lots of amatriciana and carbonara (tomato, pork jowl and pecorino cheese), in Emilia-Romagna you’ll find an enormous amount of Emilia-Romagna, ragù alla bolognese (ground meat and tomato). In Liguria, look for a pasta with pesto (basil, garlic and cheese)!


This is a meat, fish or vegetable main dish, also known as an entree”. Generally it is the most expensive area of the menu. Some of the more popular and common secondi dishes are gamberi (shrimp), salmone (salmon), frutti di mare (mixed shellfish) and frittata (omlette), pollo (chicken), bistecca (steak), manzo (beef), agnello (lamb), arrosto (roast). You will find indications on the menu on the method of preparation. There are three main types of cooking these meats and fish: “al forno” (baked), “fritto” (fried) and “alla griglia” (grilled).


Unless otherwise noted on the menu, primi and secondi don’t come with any sides or vegetables. This is why there is a contorni – side dish section on the menu. Common cotorni dishes are vegetable-based, whether raw or cooked, obviously served on a different plate than the meat or seafood of the secondi in order to preserve of the integrity of flavors.



Dolci means desserts”. Many great meals end with a dessert, including gelato (here’s what to know about gelato in Italy!), cakes and pies, tiramisù (a coffee and custard dessert), cannoli (ricotta stuffed in a crispy shell),  panna cotta (cooked cream), and a cheese plate, just to name a few.

Ask your server for the dolci fatti in casa (homemade desserts) for an extra-special treat.


Under the bevande – drinks part of the menu, or, sometimes, on a separate drinks menu, you will likely find water, soft drinks, wines, coffee and digestivi. But what are digestivi? They are strong liquors that help with the process of digestion and are usually made from fruit: grappa from grapes, mirto from bluberries, and limoncello from lemons. Imsider tip: try cynar, made from artichokes, if you’re feeling adventurous

Note: other terms to look out for are: panino (sandwich), maiale (pig), zuppa (soup), prosciutto (ham). Furthermore, Keep in mind that an extra fee, called coperto (or sitting charge), is almost always tacked onto the bill. Sometimes, usually only in touristic restaurants, servizio (a service charge) is added as well. In this case, do not tip!! Also, if you feel wronged you are allowed to dispute the charge.

Some tips for Italian phrases

It’s always good to use a bit of the conditional tense to be extra polite. If you want to order food in Italian, good ways of asking are: “Vorrei ordinare…” (I would like to order…), “Sarebbe possibile avere…?” (Would it be possible to have…?). If you’re struggling in understanding something on the menu than ask: “Cosa vuol dire questo?” (What does this mean? — assuming you’re pointing to something).

Also, do not hesitate to ask your waiter for a recommendation about what to eat. “Cosa ci consiglia?” (What do you recommend?). To request a translation of ingredients ask “Cosa vuol dire…?” (What does this mean?) and to alert your server to any food allergies say “Ho una grave allergia alimentare a…” (I have a severe food allergy to…).