Understanding A Formal Italian Meal

Traveling to Italy for many years and growing up in an Italian-American family has exposed me to the love affair Italians have with food. It’s not just food to eat, there is a whole culture around Italian food. It’s part of what people love about Italians….. embracing everything about food starting at the very basic level of growing as much of it as they can….. taking care to pick out the best quality of whatever they must buy from a local merchant….. preparing a meal with love, through traditional methods and a few modern ways that bring out the best flavors in the ingredients….. delighting that their guests are enjoying their meal and ensuring that no one goes home hungry.

And let’s not forget drinks, also an important part of the Italian meal from aperativo to digestivo.

In this post, I wanted to take a break from cooking and recipes to give a brief overview of a traditional, more formal Italian meal served on special occasions and holidays – from start to finish – based on my experiences and family traditions. Many of  our friends and family in Italy will serve each and every course listed below in an effort to be a great host and ensure everyone has the best dining experience. In the US, meals are more traditionally American with an Italian flair (except for major holidays). 


Similar to a light appetizer, the aperitivo opens a meal. Small bites such as warmed olives, bread crisps, and nuts are most commonly served. Wine such as Prosecco is paired with this course, along with mixed alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks if preferred. Here is a comparison between champagne and Prosecco you might find interesting. 



The antipasto is considered a heavier starter than the aperitivo and includes the traditional meats (salami, mortadella, prosciutto), cheeses, bruschetta, vegetables and more elaborate appetizer fare. In Italy, the restaurants we visited brought out 8 or 10 antipasto dishes, not all things we recognized, but all were good, even the octopus!


The first course. Usually this is a non-meat, pasta dish. Examples are gnocchi, polenta, risotto, lasagna, spaghetti. It could also be a zuppa (soup or broth). Tortellini served in a flavorful broth is a great primo! Bread is served with this course. In most restaurants in Italy you  have to ask for bread and you are charged for it so eat it! It’s also great for dunking into a hearty sauce that is served with the pasta dishes. A robust red or rose wine is served with this course. 


The secondo is considered to be the most important course, depending on the region of Italy. It includes the meats and  fishes. Typically lamb, beef roasts, pork, steak, stews, turkey, sausage, chicken, lobster, salt cod, salmon and such. Wild boar is a favorite when we visit the Tuscan region. And more wine with this course, the type determined by the main dish. 


Contorno (side dish)

The contorno is served with the main course or the secondo. The side dish varies by region, but typically includes vegetables like onions, peppers, tomatoes, asparagus, brussel sprouts. In Italy we noticed the contorno is not usually served on the same dish as the meat.  



A salad of greens, mostly consisting of plain lettuce, is served after the main course. It is dressed with a simple splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s considered a cleansing finish before cheese or dessert.


Formaggi e frutta 

An entire course is dedicated to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit. The cheeses will be whatever is typical of the region in Italy. Even in California where I grew up, my grandfather would peel an orange after dinner, and my grandmother would serve it with slices of apples and cheese.  



Dessert! I hope you saved room for some of the most delectable tastes in the world. Popular and well known Italian dolce are tiramisu, panna cotta, panettone, gelato, cannoli, and zeppole to name just a few… worthy of a bite or two, even after a filling and delicious dinner. 




Espresso is often drank at the end of a meal, even after the digestivo.  Italians, unlike many countries, don’t serve milky coffees or drinks after meals (such as cappuccino or caffè macchiato). I marvel at the Italians who drink a strong espresso or two at 11:00 at night. I have a few Italian friends who do!



The digestivo also called ammazzacaffè if served after the coffee, is the drink to conclude the meal. The drinks served at this time are meant to ease digestion of a long meal. These typically include grappa, limoncello, strega, and anisette. In our house, we call our favorite “coffee helper” which is a vodka hazelnut after dinner liqueur. 

So now you know why it takes Italians several hours to eat lunch or dinner. You have to take your time, savor each course, enjoy each other’s company, and get in the last word of a conversation.

When visiting Italy last year, I remember leaving a friend’s house after lunch (literally getting up from the table) and it was 5:00 pm. Okay, so we didn’t start eating lunch until 2:00, but still, that’s a 3-hour lunch! You may wonder if we ate dinner that night. Of course we did! 

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