When you look at an Italian menu, you’ll see it’s divided into several sections, one for each course. You don’t have to order every single course, but the general rule of thumb is to order at least two (and you can split one of them). For example, you might share one antipasto, order individual primi, and then share a secondo.

Here are what the different sections mean, and what food to expect under each!


Similar to an appetizer, this dish literally means “before the meal.” For antipasti, most menus offer a wide variety of cured meats and cheeses, bruschetta (toasted bread with tomatoes and other toppings), and pickled or fried vegetables and olives. Ask for the antipasto della casa—the house special—for seasonal and regional specialities.


Primi, or “first dishes,” usually include pasta, risotto (creamy rice) or soup. Pasta, of course, comes in an especially endless variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and sauces.

Spaghetti aglio, olio e pepperoncino -garlic, oil and chili 

Spaghetti al Pomodoro - with tomatoes 

Trofie alla Genovese/al pesto – a typical pasta shape from Liguria served with basil pesto, green beans and potatoes

Penne all'arrabbiata - a spicy sauce for pasta made from garlic, tomatoes, and dried red chili peppers. The sauce originates from the Lazio region, around Rome. Arrabbiata literally means "angry" in Italian, referrning to the spiciness of the chili peppers.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca - tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies, olives, capers and garlic. Translates literally as "spaghetti in the style of a whore" in Italian 

Risotto alla milanese – risotto with saffron

Gnocchi - translates as “lumps” in Italian. They are small, fluffy light dumplings made with potatoes and flour. They are typically served in a sauce such as tomato or pesto, but are equally divine coated in warm butter.

As with everything else on the menu, of course, these dishes will very much depend on what region of Italy you’re in. Many restaurants serve al pomodoro (tomato) and aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil and chilli pepper). In Liguria, look for a pasta with pesto (basil, garlic and cheese; in Rome, pasta all’amatriciana (tomato, pork cheek and pecorino cheese) or alla carbonara (pork cheek, pecorino or parmigiano, and egg)  and in Emilia-Romagna, ragù alla bolognese (ground meat and tomato)


This is a meat, fish or vegetable main dish, and usually most expensive area of the menu.

Popular secondi include pollo (chicken), bistecca (steak), manzo (beef), agnello (lamb), arrosto (roast), gamberi (shrimp), salmone (salmon), frutti di mare (mixed shellfish) and frittata (omelette). Regarding the preparation of the dish, look for the words al forno (baked), fritto (fried) and alla griglia (grilled).

Items with a S.Q. indicated next to the name mean price according to weight, so don’t be afraid to ask your server for more details!

Cacciatore – refers to a meal prepared "hunter-style" with onions, herbs, usually tomatoes, often bell peppers, and sometimes wine

Cotoletta alla milanese - Veal Milanese, or Veal alla Milanese  is an Italian dish, a popular variety of cotoletta. It is one of Milan's signature dishes, along with risotto alla milanese and panettone. It is traditionally prepared with a veal cutlet although a common variation is made with chicken which is popular in English speaking countries and bears the name Chicken Milanese (Italian pollo alla milanese). 


Primi and secondi don’t come with any sides or vegetables (unless otherwise noted). Popular contorni include grilled or sautéed vegetables, green salad and potatoes.

Caponata - a Sicilian aubergine dish consisting of a cooked vegetable salad made from chopped fried aubergine and celery seasoned with sweetened vinegar, with capers in a sweet and sour sauce. 

Carciofi alla Romana - literally "Roman-style artichokes", is a typical dish of Roman cuisine. It is served in all restaurants in spring-time. Together with the Carciofi alla giudia, it represents one of the most famous artichoke dishes of the Roman cuisine. 


Many great meals end with a dessert, including gelato, cakes and pies, tiramisù (a coffee and custard dessert), cannoli (ricotta stuffed in a crispy shell), panna cotta (cooked cream), and a cheese plate, just to name a few. A crostata is an Italian baked tart or pie. Sweet variations use fruit preserves as a filling, typically apricot, cherry, peach or nectarine, or berries. Also popular for breakfast. Ask your server for the dolci fatti in casa (homemade desserts) for an extra-special treat.


Need to digest after your meal? Do it as the Italians do… with a strong liquor! Digestivi are usually made from fruit: grappa from grapes, mirto from blueberries, and limoncello from lemons. If you’re feeling adventurous try cynar, made from artichokes! Another popular digestivo is amaro, bitter digestive; order it ghiacciato if you prefer it iced.


Coffee is often ordered after a meal, either normale (espresso shot), macchiato (with a drop of milk) or lungo (a “long” coffee). Cappuccino is never drunk after dinner: Italians believe that the milk will hinder digestion.


Another popular section of an Italian menu? The wine list, of course! Many restaurants offer white, red and sparkling varieties by the bottle or glass. Cocktails are very rarely drunk with meals, and beer often accompanies pizza. Tap water is very rare to come by; it is customary to order a bottle of naturale (still) or frizzante (sparkling) water with meals.

Don’t hesitate to ask your waiter for a recommendation about what to eat (“Cosa ci consiglia?”), request a translation of ingredients (“Cosa vuol dire…?”), or alert your server to any food allergies (“Ho una grave allergia alimentare a…”).


An extra fee, called coperto (or sitting charge), is almost always added  onto the bill. On some occasions, and usually only in touristy areas and restaurants, servizio (a service charge) is added, too. If servizio is added, don’t tip at all; if just the coperto is, you can feel free to simply “round up” on your meal and leave a couple of extra coins, if you enjoyed it