When you are seated, you will usually get a basket of bread and the first questions you will need to answer are: Water; still or sparkling? Wine; house or from the wine list? Okay, this is my second favorite thing about Italian restaurants: house wine. It’s almost always good, incredibly inexpensive and can usually be ordered by the quarter, half or full liter. How convenient is that?
The menu may at first seem quite long, but when you figure out it is simply divided into courses, it becomes less daunting. I have watched many an Italian work their way through all the courses…..an amazing feat to me. I usually order a primi or a secondi, but not both. Sometimes my husband will order the primi and I’ll order the secondi and we’ll share. But, we were living there, trying not to gain too much weight eating pasta nearly every day. You, on the other hand will be on vacation. So EAT!
Now that the waiter has gone off to get your drinks, you have time to peruse the menu. First, what would you like for aperitivi or antipasti (appetizers)? Bruschetta (broo-ske-tah) is always a good choice, and very common; a lovely grilled slice of bread that can have a variety of toppings on it depending on the season, or simply drizzled with good olive oil and salt. It’s nice to get a mixed assortment to try. Just dive in and pick a couple of different things.
The primi list is “first course”, which is usually a list of pastas. The secondi list is “second course”, which is usually a list of meat dishes, and often there is a second list of seafood second courses. You don’t have to order pasta and a meat/seafood, but you certainly can if you’d like. They are certainly hoping you will. But know they will not arrive together. First you will get your pasta, and when you are done, out will come your meat dish. The exception is, if one of you orders pasta, and the other meat, then they will realize you both want to eat at the same time, and bring them out to the two of you together.
The primi and secondi do not come with side dishes such as potatoes and vegetables as they do in the U.S. These items fall under the list of “contorni” or side dishes and will need to be ordered separately. This is the third great thing about Italian restaurants. If you are someone like me, who never really grew up and would still like to eat your food on a child’s divided plate so everything doesn’t touch each other, Italy is for you! Your side dish is going to arrive on a separate plate. Yay! Now, here is the fourth great thing about Italian restaurants: They serve what’s in season. So, even though the contorni menu may offer artichokes or asparagus don’t be surprised when you ask for them in the off-season, and are told they are unavailable today. (Why would they serve them to you when they’re not that great right now?) Here’s the fifth great thing about Italian restaurants: Ask them what they do have fresh today, and they may have a bunch of stuff to talk about that’s not even on the menu! “Wait, what?! You have agretti today? That’s not on the menu!” (If anyone ever says they have agretti today, just order it. Trust me.)
So now, you’ve worked your way through appetizers, your first and second course and your side dishes. Maybe you even ordered a zuppa (soup) or an insalata (salad). Maybe by now, you had to move on to your second liter of house wine. Whatever. Finally it’s time for the dolci (sweets-dessert). Do you have room for dessert? Of course you do because here’s the sixth great thing about Italian restaurants: You’ve already been there for 2 hours at least, and things have had time to settle while you laughed and chit-chatted about your day. Besides, who could pass up tiramisu, or panna cotta or gelato? Or maybe you went to a Sicilian restaurant, and they have cassata or cannoli (yum). So order dessert.
But wait! It’s not over yet. The seventh great thing about Italian restaurants is good things still happen after dessert! Now you get to have a lovely espresso to cut through all that sweetness you just experienced. And nowadays, most restaurants offer decaf. That certainly didn’t used to be the case. AND, you can have a tiny portion of dessert wine too! Many restaurants offer their made-in-house limoncello or a grappa to help you digest your meal.
Don’t be offended if they don’t bring you the check and it’s hard for you to get their attention. Because this all goes back to the first great thing about Italian restaurants. They are not ignoring you. They are just assuming you’re still sitting around yakking about your day, enjoying each other’s company and having a good old time. Most restaurants will simply not bring you the bill until you manage to flag them down and ask for it, which is the eighth great thing about Italian restaurants.
And to make this an even ten; let’s just say the ninth and tenth great things are the food itself, because though I have no idea what you’re going to order, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fabulous and you’re going to love it. Buon Appetito!