How to Dine Like an Italian

Posted by    |    April 28th, 2011 at 5:50 am

Europeans and Americans normally think of pasta when they think “Italian” food, but there is so much more to it! A traditional Italian meal structure includes at least four to five courses and usually takes place during special occasions such as weddings or birthdays. Italians tend to eat out with large groups of friends, family and business associates for traditional meals. Bread and wine are always on the menu, no matter what the setting!

While modern day Italians have evolved to only one or two courses to fit their lifestyle and schedule, let’s have a little fun and explore a traditional Italian meal in all it’s glory from beginning to end!

Apertivo Course - Photos Courtesy of:,, and


Formal meals are opened with the Aperitivo or Apertif course. This course includes drinks and appetizers served standing up prior to seating in order to stimulate the appetite. Bitter carbonated drinks such as Campari Soda are consumed along with wine, prosecco and champagne.  Sometimes, small bites of food are served such as olives, nuts and tiny sandwiches.

Antipasto Course: Photos Courtesy of:,, and


Antipasto or Antipasti is the next starter course. The word “Antipasto” means “before the meal.” What is typically served in this course varies by region. Some examples of the Antipasto course are Bruschetta, which is toasted bread with a topping of tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil; chicken liver or mushroom pates with crustinis; and a variety of cold marinated vegetables such as zucchini, red peppers, eggplant, garlic, pepperocinis and artichokes served with cold meats and cheeses.

Antipasto meats could include proscuitto (sometimes with melon), salumi, soppressata or carpaccio. Popular Italian cheeses are mozzarella, pecorino, provolone and parmesan. Antipasto is usually served cold but one could serve “Fritto Misto” which is battered and fried vegetables such as the zucchini blossom.

Primo Course - Images Courtesy of: and


Primo or Primi is the official definition of the first course in the traditional Italian meal. This course is served hot and is a non-meat dish. Risotto, gnocchi, pasta and soup are typically served. Pasta tends to vary by region as does what sauce is served with it.

It is important that the pasta is able to hold up to the sauce. Here are some general “rules” of ordering pasta:

  • A smooth sauce is served with a long pasta such as spaghetti or fettucine.
  • Chunky sauces, with meat or vegetables, are served with smaller pasta, such as penne, to help absorb and hold the meat and vegetables when eating.

Risotto (pictured above, left) is Arborio rice cooked to creamy consistency with a broth base.  This rice was named after the town of Arborio. There are a million varieties of Risotto using many kinds of vegetables, cheese, meat or saffron. It takes about 20 minutes to create this dish to perfection with constant stirring. Gnocchi (pictured above, right) are soft dumplings that are made from flour or potato.  The dough is formed into a snake like shape and cut into small pieces which are boiled or fried to create the Gnocchi.

Sauce is served with gnocchi similar to pasta and can be combined with vegetables, meats and cheeses. Crepes or polenta may be served during the Primo course as well.


The Secondo course follows the Primo course with meat or fish along with appropriate vegetables and sides. Pork, Chicken, Veal or Lamb may be served during the Secondo course. This is the heartiest course of the meal and is sometimes referred to as “Piatto Principle” also known as the main course or entree. The meat can be prepared in many different ways: grilled, roasted, baked, braised or fried.

Chef Juan Garrido at Cassandra Fine Catering loves to make his wonderful Roasted Mustard Seed Crusted Veal Chop with Trumpet Royal Mushrooms and Marsala Demi for the Secondo course in Italian menus. If they are in season, Wild Boar, Hare, Squab and Pheasant are meats that may be served during this course. Butter and oils are not normally used during this course to have the flavors of the meat more prominent.


The Contorno course is served with the Secondo course that includes the sides. Vegetables are normally boiled and drizzled with olive oil or simply marinated in olive oil. Fresh salads may be served with olive oil and vinegar dressing.

Dolce Course - Photos Courtesy of:,, and


Dolce is the dessert course and it’s very popular! Due to climate and geography, the dessert served will sometimes vary due to what fruits are in season. The best known Italian dessert is the Tiramisu which means “pick me up.” This is made from mascarpone cheese, lady fingers and coffee liqueur. Another favorite is Zabaglione or Sabayon which is whipped egg yolks, sugar and champagne or wine formed into a light custard. It is fantastic with fresh berries.

I personally love a wonderful Panna Cotta with fascinating flavors such as an Espresso or Pomegranate Panna Cotta which is a popular custard-like Italian dessert. Interesting Italian fruits are figs, blood oranges and a variety of berries. But wait…the meal is not over yet!

Digestivo Course - Photos Courtesy of: and


The Digestivo or Digestif is the drink that concludes the meal. Grappa, Limoncello or other fruit/herbal drinks are served. This drink eases digestion after such a long and heavy meal. Once when traveling and dining in New York City, I had the pleasure of experiencing a Sgroppino – a fabulous Digestivo that is a blend of Lemon Sorbet, Heavy Cream, Prosecco and Vodka.

According to a great article I read in the New York Times, these digestives, or digestivos, are known collectively as amari. This word refers to the bitterness, derived from quinine, that unifies this group of liqueurs. Hundreds of amari are produced in Italy. Each has a formula that generally includes various herbs, roots, flowers and spices, which are macerated in alcohol, sometimes blended with a sweet syrup and tempered in barrels or bottles.

Espresso Course - Photo Courtesy of:


Finally Caffe is served after the Digestivo also known as Espresso. Unlike Americans, Italians drink small strong cups of Espresso instead of milky sweetened coffee. Espresso is served in a demitasse cup and sometimes with biscotti or small cookies.

Hopefully, we all get to experience a traditional Italian meal in our lifetime! Enjoying a meal such as this is one of life’s amazing gifts that create quality time with our loved ones and adventures of the palate!

Kimberly Jameson, Cassandra Fine Catering About the author: Kimberly Jameson
Guest writer, Kimberly Jameson, is a Menu Creator for Cassandra Fine Catering. Kimberly has a passion for food, wine and enjoying everything that comes with it!

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