Italian Restaurant 101: How to Order

If you’re planning a river cruise of Italy or a tour around the Italian countryside, plan to enjoy delectable native cuisine found all across the country.

Menu selections from simple basics like bread and olive oil to exquisitely laid-out entrees, seafood, and multiple-course meals are to be expected, and you’ll note that food and drink changes every time you enter a different province or state. But, some things will remain the same, including how you order food in Italy, and how each course comes to the table, and the high level of service you’ll receive while dining out.

The Italian Menu and Courses to Know 

The Italian tradition includes options for five different portions of the main meal, including an appetizer (antipasti), first course (primero), second course (secondo), a side dish (contorni), and a dessert (dulce).

As you choose your dish or side dish for each portion of the meal, put these Italian words to work within your selection, even if your Italian is less than perfect—this will help the wait staff keep up with what you’ve ordered for each portion of the meal.

Quick Italian words and phrases for ordering food and wine

Along with the names of meal courses, the following little phrases will become helpful when ordering out in Italy:

Prendo un bicchiere di vino, per favore. = I'd like a glass of wine.

Ne vorrei un altro tazzo. = I'd like another glass.

Un piatto di affettati del sud, per favore. = A plate of cured ham from the south, please.

Colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch), and cena (dinner), are the main meals in Italy.

Antipasti (appetizers) and carne (meat) are both served at the start of a large lunch or dinner, while dulce (dessert) will usually be some kind of gelato (ice cream), frutta (fruit), or cioccolata (chocolate).

To ask for extra cheese or ask if a dish has cheese in it, ask about formaggio

To order a salad, ask about selections of insalata. For more bread, ask for pane.

If you’re looking for rice, ask for “riso

For more vegetables or for a side dish of vegetables, ask for “verdura

Things to know about eating at restaurants in Italy

Unlike what you may be used to from dining out in the U.S., meals in Italy are slower-paced, and typically last at least two hours, and at least two and a half hours on Sunday afternoons, which is an ideal day and time to get a feel for authentic Italian culture across the country.

If you noticed a long break between your primero and secondo entrees, that’s because wait staff are trained to let you enjoy your meal as you dig in to your first large portion of the meal.

It’s not uncommon for Americans and other sightseers to fill up on primero and wind up taking the secondo home—but, many restaurants are unfamiliar with “doggie bags” or taking food to go, so they may not have the bags or containers you need, especially in rural and seaside towns.

Plan on eating a big meal by keeping breakfast and snacks light until you go out for dinner or a late lunch, and if you feel you’re getting full, eat sparingly so you get to enjoy all five courses.

Enjoy Italian cuisine, wine, and beer as you travel from one beautiful town or city to the next, and consider downloading a translation app or English-to-Italian dictionary with you for ordering meals, drinks, and desserts while on the move in Italy.