I recently saw an image on Facebook from a supposedly Italian restaurant in Australia. I was reminded how different perceived Italian cuisine is very different from authentic Italian food prepared and consumed in Italy.
For example, Italians would never put pasta together with crumbed meat on the same plate. You will never see meatballs on top of pasta in Italy. It is never done because pasta is strictly a first course while meat or meatballs are mains. Italians are very particular about their food; certain foods are not combined and served in a specific way. For example, it is frowned upon to put cheese on seafood pasta. And salads are never done as garnish together with meat or fish; they are ordered separately as side dishes and are served on separate plates.
An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped together on a plate. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high, and it is expected that food is served in a certain way to respect each ingredient’s unique flavour.
The meal structure follows well-defined steps determined by the individual’s choices from the menu. Each course has its way of being served.
Aperitivo: the aperitif usually happens before a meal, where you sip an Aperol spritz or non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails that help stimulate the appetite.
Antipasto: an antipasto is made up of many small samples of food which are meant to reflect the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. If you have seafood, everything will feature the elements on the main seafood menu. At a trattoria or family-run restaurant, the antipasto will feature the best aspects of local cuisine in tasting plates of everything from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami, slices of bread, fried batters, pickled vegetables and many more.
Primo: The first course is strictly a pasta dish.
Secondo: The main course can be any type of red or white meat and seafood.
Contorno: these are your side dishes served on separate plates and include any types of salads, fresh seasonal vegetables or other vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.
Bis: if you love a particular dish or antipasto, you can ask for a second helping or ‘fare il Bis’ (pronounced BIZ). If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or other major party event, those serving you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.
Dolce: dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons; if it’s summer, there is a selection of gelato or fruits, and in winter, a selection of pastries.
Digestivo/Caffe: to help the meal go down well, there comes the digestivo, which is either a sip of liquor (everything from grappa to limoncello, amaro bitters or hazelnut flavoured nocioletto) or coffee which helps you to digest. I once went to a Sicilian trattoria that offered decadent homemade chocolate flavoured liquor like drinking chocolate flavoured Baileys cream. Each restaurant or trattoria will have its particular speciality for you to try.
By no means are you expected to consume a huge meal like this every time you go out to eat in Italy.
You may go out and have an aperitif with friends after work which is usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives or peanuts.
You can decide to get an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.
A Bis is not obligatory, and neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat all of these courses unless it’s for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over an entire evening or afternoon.
If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then the pizza, and if you have room, a dolce or digestivo.
In the United States, there are many dishes marketed as Italian but, in reality, are not. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans who have taken their Italian traditions and adapted them into the culture of their new homes, in a unique cross over cuisine which do 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
Italian restauranteurs are always very accommodating regarding allergies and other dietary requirements. There are often gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian and vegan options. Also, while there are usually no child menus, the restaurant will offer child meal options if you ask. For an Italian child, the options typically include an antipasto of ham and cheese, the first course of pasta and a main of something like crumbed veal and fries.
I’m often asked for recommendations for restaurants and places to eat, but I never really give any because most places you stumble on will be just great. In general, if you see a restaurant filled to the brim with locals, it’s usually a sign that it’s an excellent place to go.
In Sicily, food is strictly local, fresh and seasonal, which means the best ingredients are cooked in traditional recipes during the appropriate time of year.
Seafood in Sicily is luxuriously prepared lovingly all around the island, from swordfish, tuna, and sardines, all prepared with simple natural ingredients like olive oil and garlic.
Fresh seafood is readily available in the towns along the coastline. At the same time, mountain villages are famous for their traditional farming products such as cheeses, salami cold cut meats, fresh pork and local fruits and vegetables.
A menu for a wedding or other special occasion is dedicated entirely to the delicacies of the land (terra) or seafood (mare).
A Ristorante or Restaurant will be more expensive. At the same time, a Trattoria or Osteria is usually a more rustic family-run restaurant and will offer great food at a much more reasonable price.
If you are in the mood for something quick, your best deal is to get a takeaway pizza at a pizzeria; bars are cafes which offer coffee, pastries and things like pizza by the slice; arancini stuffed fried rice balls.
Even stopping at a bakery or forno will allow you to take away pre-cooked stuffed pizza pockets or mini-pizzas together with bread and sweets.
A rosticceria or Tavola calda will offer hot cooked meals for lunch and dinner, from pasta and lasagna to roasted chicken.
Most towns have weekly fresh produce markets, which offer an excellent opportunity to buy fresh fruit and local delicacies.
Generally speaking, most eateries will offer only local Italian cuisine even though sushi restaurants and craft breweries with American style fast food have become popular over the past few years.
Beer, wine, alcohol and spirits are sold in supermarkets and are available to purchase anywhere food is prepared. There are no laws or restrictions regarding consuming alcohol in public like in other countries, so it is perfectly acceptable to buy a beer with your sandwich or bread roll. If you get stuck finding a place to eat as most stores close in the afternoon, you can easily find a more extensive supermarket open, and they will make a panini on request.
It is probably a good idea to buy a few items from the supermarket for a picnic in the park or at the beach where you can happily drink a bottle of wine if you like. The legal drinking age is 18 in Italy but consuming great wine with good food is a natural part of life on the island, so feel free to indulge.