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Antipasto to amaro: What to expect from every step of an Italian dinner

Whether you're going out to dinner in Italy or have been invited to over to a friend or extended family member's home, here's what to expect from an Italian meal.

Tourists sit at the terrace of a Venice restaurant.
Visitors enjoying an outdoor meal in Venice. Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP.

More humble and less fussy than French cuisine, Italy’s cucina povera (literally, ‘kitchen of the poor’) tradition employs minimal ingredients, prioritising fresh local produce over complex techniques.

But while it might not be as elaborate and formal as its Gallic counterpart, an Italian dinner is still traditionally a multi-course affair, often stretching over several leisurely hours and involving various stages.

If you’re invited into an Italian home for lunch or dinner, you’re likely to find it a fairly relaxed occasion that may include all or just some of the courses listed below – though you can expect it to be lengthy and copious.

As in many other countries, it’s polite in Italy to bring a bottle of wine or dessert to dinner in someone’s house; if in doubt, ask what your hosts would like.

Without further ado, here’s what you can expect from a full Italian dinner.


The antipasto (‘before-meal’) is the starter course.

Its remit is pretty broad, and might include anything from bruschetta to salad to a cheese or meat platter. If you’re in someone’s home, you might be served olives or savoury snacks such as taralli.

While you’ve probably heard of the tradition of the pre-dinner aperitivo drink and snack, this is separate from the dinner itself, and usually takes place in bars or cafes rather than in restaurants or homes.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What time do people eat dinner in Italy?

Primo piatto

A primo is a carb-based dish: almost always pasta, though it could also be risotto, gnocchi or polenta.

In line with the cucina povera, which describes the make-do cooking of poverty-stricken rural Italy in decades gone by, this dish serves to fill the diner up before moving on to a smaller (more expensive) protein course.

Because of this, while you might find small amounts of meat or fish in Italian primi in the form of guanciale in your carbonara or minced beef in your ragù sauce, you won’t be served large quantities of meat with your primo.

Polpette, or meatballs, are a separate second course, and you’ll never come across a chicken-based pasta dish in Italy.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Secondo piatto

The secondo is, as its name suggests, your second main dish – usually meat or fish, though most restaurants will offer at least one vegetarian option in the form of something like an aubergine parmigiana.

If you want to round it out, you can order one or more contorni – side plates of salad or vegetables.

Italian restaurants will provide both primo and secondo options, but these days most places won’t expect you to order both, and it’s fine for one person to order a primo and the other a secondo to arrive at the same time.


Once the secondo is over, it’s time for dessert.

The type of dolce you’re offered will likely vary depending on region, but the list commonly includes cantucci biscuits to be dipped in vin santo dessert wine, panna cotta, a crostata tart, and, of course, tiramisù.

If you’ve got a hankering for gelato, you’re probably best off heading out to one of the many gelaterie that populate the piazzas and streets Italian towns, where you’ll have access to a wide range of flavours.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy


Next comes the caffè, which in Italy is an espresso – definitely not a cappuccino or caffè latte, which are strictly breakfast drinks, though you might get away with asking for a splash of milk and making yours a caffè macchiato.

It might seem unwise to consume caffeine at the end of the evening, but you can always order a caffè decaffeinato (usually shortened to deca), and its effects are at any rate tempered by what follows:


At the very end of the night, you’ll likely be offered a bitter amaro liqueur or some other spirit-based digestivo (some restaurants will bring these for free along with the bill).

This could also be a distilled liquor grappa, or if you’re further south, a sweet limoncello.

Taken straight after or along with your coffee, these after-dinner drinks are known in Italy as an ammazzacaffè – literally, a coffee-killer, for its dampening effect on the caffeine.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of an Italian meal! Now you just have to roll yourself off your chair or sofa and make your way home, where you’ll spend a good portion of the following day digesting your meal.

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EXPLAINED: How do you find good Italian food abroad?

It's a challenge all Italians outside of Italy will be familiar with, but there are restaurants out there known for cooking simple, traditional dishes using quality ingredients. Here's how to track them down.

EXPLAINED: How do you find good Italian food abroad?

Frustrated fans of good food living outside of Italy may have rejoiced at the recent news that the Italian agriculture minister (the ‘Minister for agriculture and food sovereignty’, to be exact) has proposed the creation of an official ranking system for Italian restaurants abroad.

The minister said he’d had enough of “chefs who can’t cook Italian” and of supposedly Italian restaurants which have “nothing to do with Italy” – a feeling many people can likely identify with after coming across one too many disappointing versions of their favourite Italian dish.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s government wants to rank Italian restaurants abroad

As any of the estimated five million Italian citizens living outside of the country would probably agree, sourcing quality raw ingredients with which to recreate nonna’s recipes, never mind finding acceptable restaurant versions of classic dishes, is generally a challenge.

And though big, cosmopolitan cities have no shortage of credible-sounding Italian restaurants, it can take a lot of effort (and expense) to find out which are the real deal.

Luckily for lovers of Italian food around the world, the ratings system proposed by the agriculture minister already exists. And there are a few other things you could try if you’re craving well-executed Italian classics, but can’t make it back to Italy just yet.

Here are a few suggestions that we hope will take you one step closer to the authentic cacio e pepe of your dreams:

ITA0039 100% Italian Taste Certification

This certification scheme seems to be exactly what the minister is looking for: created by Italy’s main agricultural association Coldiretti with the Asacert certification body and national food safety and education authorities, it aims to help consumers abroad identify and appreciate quality Italian ingredients.

It has so far been used mainly to certify that products sold abroad and labelled as Italian were in fact made in Italy – but has also now begun to certify international restaurants which use authentic ingredients and meet other quality standards. 

READ ALSO: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

The certificate has only been applied to a few dozen restaurants around the world so far, including pizzerias in Malta and France, a restaurant in Suzhou, China, and a small chain of restaurants in UK cities including London and Manchester. However the website states that it’s planning to add many more to the list – which you can see here.

A traditional Italian pizza.

A traditional Neapolitan pizza. Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

Restaurants have to apply for the certification themselves, which may be one barrier to more small businesses signing up – though the scheme’s creators say it’s a valuable marketing tool for Italian restaurants abroad who want to set themselves apart.

Meanwhile, Italy’s Chamber of Commerce has also reportedly been working on the creation of another, similar certification scheme jointly with the National Tourist Research Institute.

Gambero Rosso

Many visitors to Italy look to the Michelin guide for restaurant recommendations, but when searching for truly Italian restaurants abroad you may want to turn instead to the listings compiled by prominent Italian food and wine magazine Gambero Rosso.

Within Italy, the Gambero Rosso Top Italian Restaurants guide is considered a significant influence on the country’s culinary scene. The international version of the guide is similarly well-regarded, and highlights the work of some of the top-rated Italian chefs around the world at restaurants everywhere from Stockholm to Los Angeles.

As well as fine dining, the list features pizzerias, wine bars, bistros and other venues, many of which put a creative twist on traditional cuisine. You can search the guide by city in Italy and worldwide here.

Word of mouth

Perhaps one reason there aren’t more online resources signposting authentic Italian restaurants abroad is that Italians themselves simply don’t tend to rely on them.

As you might have discovered, in Italy the best (or only) way to get reliable information is usually to go somewhere and ask in person – attempts to phone or search online are often a path to frustraton, or just a waste of time. And as far as Italians are concerned, personal recommendations from family and friends are the only ones to be trusted.

READ ALSO: Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

The same rule appears to apply abroad: Italians who move to other countries usually develop a network of close Italian contacts in their chosen city who they’ll ask for recommendations for just about everything.

So if you want to know where the good Italian food is in your area, the best way to find it might be to follow their lead and, well, ask an Italian.

It’s obviously much harder for non-Italians who don’t have the contacts, but if you have an Italian acquaintance, colleague, or coffee shop barista, it’s worth asking for some tips – you’ll probably find they’re more than happy to talk to you about Italian food.

Do you have any other tips for finding authentic Italian restaurants outside of Italy? Please share them with us in the comments below.