To be honest, I’ve never heard in Italy the “mangia, mangia” that seems to be such a standard expression in Italian-American families. BUT I’ve also never visited anybody’s home there and not have been offered some type of food (sweet or savory depending on the occasion and the time of day) along with the ubiquitous offer for a “caffe’” (espresso that is – always!).
While traveling to Italy and depending on your choice of accommodation, a certain number of your meals will be taken in restaurants. Everybody is so used to eating out nowadays that I’m sure the idea doesn’t frazzle you, but while traveling in Italy there are two factors to consider: the language and the menu structure.
Let me explain:
Many restaurants in the main tourist areas usually have English menus available. But not 100% of them and once you stray away from the main tourist attractions and the most touristy restaurants – which I would wholeheartedly encourage you all to do – then your chance for a menu in English get pretty slim. Short of giving you a crash course in Italian, here’s some suggestions on how to deal with the language issue:
Consider investing a little bit of time before your trip learning some basics of Italian. I always recommend knowing some of the most commonly used expressions (e.g. how to ask for directions, how to ask for the restroom, how to ask for the check, how to say “please” and “thank you”) as well as some basic vocabulary. This will give you a boost in confidence, make you feel more “worldly”, calm some of the anxiety linked to being abroad and will also go a long way with the locals when you’ll need to ask for their help.
If you’re unable to enroll in Italian language classes before your trip, don’t forget Smart phone apps to help you navigate your way.
Smart phone apps: For the tech savvy and/or for the ones who don’t have a lot of time to invest in learning, there are several smart phone applications for translation. Most of them are free and fairly accurate, especially for single words or very short sentences. Learn more about travel apps here
Language is a particularly difficult obstacle for any traveler with food allergies. In this case, learning the necessary vocabulary to identify the problem food in menus; how to ask to make sure certain ingredients are not used in the preparation of a dish and to let your waiter know about your allergies are a must. And the smart phone app becomes almost an indispensable tool. Once in the restaurant ask your waiter/waitress for help. Often they will have enough English to explain the menu’s basics. And while Italians are indeed famous for their lack of English, they are legendary for the commandeering the art of hand gestures, so I’m sure they’ll find a way to “show” you what you need to know.
The standard “Appetizer/Entres/Dessert” menu structure is fairly rare in Italy for the simple fact that it does not reflect the Italian meal structure. Traditionally an Italian menu is divided into 5 main sections:
Antipasti (literally “before the meal”)– which roughly equates to the appetizers section
Primi (“First courses”) – which contains all the pasta dishes and soups. In Italy pasta is always served on its own and is never a side dish to an entrée. Also, in Italy pasta and soup are mutually exclusive, so expect a weird stare if you order a “minestrone” (Italian vegetable soup) followed by “tagliatelle al ragu’” (tagliatelle Bolognese) in the same meal.
Secondi (“Second course”) – this section is fish and/or meat entrees. Most often a side dish needs to be ordered separately. And soup and salad never come with any entrees.
Contorni (literally “what’s around”) – this is all your side dishes. In Italy, green or mixed salads are considered a side dish, so they will be listed in this section of the menu and they’ll be served with your fish or meat entrée, not at the beginning of the meal.
Desserts – Relax, this section is what you think it is.
This kind of menu reflects a typical Italian meal composed of “courses”. So Italians would order an “antipasto”, then a “primo”, a “secondo” with a “contorno” and finally a “dessert”. Each course would be brought to the table separately (but for the “secondo” and the “contorno” – entrée and side- which would be served together) and enjoyed before the next course arrives.
Nowadays, unless it’s a formal occasion (a business dinner, a formal party dinner, a wedding), almost nobody order all courses anymore in a single meal and the structure of the meal (and of many menus) has become more fluid. Most commonly people choose an “antipasto” (often shared with others at the table), followed by either a pasta dish or an entrée. And dessert of course is always optional!
If you are a pasta lover or if you simply can’t pick just one “primo” off the menu they all look so good, ask your waiter if you can have an “assaggio di primi” (pasta sampler). Many restaurants will offer you the possibility to choose 2 or 3 pastas from the menu and get smaller portions to sample.
Menus have also become more creative and less rigid, especially at lunch to allow for a quick bite when needed. It is not uncommon now to find lunch menus with a wide variety of “entrée-ish” sized salads. Just don’t expect “Italian” dressing with it: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, salt and optional red wine or balsamic vinegar is the norm.
Unsure on how to select a restaurant in Italy? This blog will tell you all about it.