I recently saw this image on Facebook from a supposedly “Italian” restaurant in Australia and was reminded of how different food consumption is in Italy.
Yes, the photo does look delicious, but this is in no way an authentic way of serving Italian food. Italians would never put pasta together with meat on the same plate. This is never done as food preparation has determined rules and procedures which are never broken because each food’s taste must be savoured to the full.
An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped together on a plate like this. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high and demand food to be served in specific ways to respect each unique dishes flavours.
The structure of a meal follows very well-defined stages, which can quickly be picked and chosen from yet each course has its own way of being served.
Aperitivo [a-pe-ri-tì-vo]: the apéritif usually happens before a meal, where you sip Aperol spritz, non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails and drinks that help stimulate the appetite for a big dinner.
Antipasto [an-ti-pà-sto]: an antipasto is made up of many small samples of food which are meant to show the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. If you have seafood, everything will feature the elements in the main seafood menu, while at a Trattoria it can highlight the best ingredients of local cuisine in small dishes of everything from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami’s, bread, fried batters, pickled vegetables and many more.
Primo [prì-mo]: this is strictly a pasta, rice or minestra [mi-nè-stra] pasta based vegetable soup dish.
Secondo [se-cón-do]: the main course which can be meat, fish or chicken.
Contorno [con-tór-no]: these are your side dishes which are served on separate plates and include any salads or vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.
Bis [bìs]: if you love a particular dish or antipasto you can ask for second helping or ‘fare il Bis’ (BIZ). If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or another major party event those waiting on you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.
Dolce [dól-ce]: dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons, if it’s summer there are selections of gelato or fruits, in winter usually pastries.
Digestivo [di-ge-stì-vo] / Caffè [caf-fè]: to help the meal go down well there comes the digestivo which is either a sip of liquor (from grappa, to limoncello or Amaro) or coffee anything that helps with digestion.
By no means are you expected to consume a huge meal like this each day.
You may go out and have an apéritif with friends after work which is usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives, peanuts or small canapès.
You can decide on getting an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.
A Bis is not obligatory, neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat these courses unless it’s for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over a full evening.
If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then pizza and if you have room a dolce or digestivo.
There are also many dishes, particularly in the United States, which are marketed as Italian but in reality aren’t at all. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans which have taken their Italian traditions and adapted them into the culture of their new homes, in a unique crossover cuisine which actually does not exist in Italy.
Distinctly Italo American inventions which would surprise and perhaps even be shocking to Italians include:
Lobster Fra Diavolo
Chicken and Veal Parmigiana
Cioppino (fish stew)
Muffuletta (a bread roll with the lot)
Spaghetti and meatballs