Planning an authentic Italian dinner for your next get-together? Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO shares a step-by-step guide to the courses that make up a traditional Italian meal.
Quintessential Italian entertaining involves hours-long meals with many courses, often held in the middle of the day. The food is served up family-style – platters are passed around the table rather than individual portions. And because there are many courses, portions tend to be smaller than North Americans are used to. Italians think in terms of plates rather than courses: in English we say “main course” while Italians say primi e secondi piatti (first and second plates). Here are the steps of the meal itself:
A pre-dinner drink. The term comes from the Latin word for “open,” and that’s the point: an aperitivo is meant to open your appetite. Traditional aperitivi include Vermouth, Prosecco or Italian herbal liqueurs, but recently, spritz and other cocktails have become very popular.
Antipasto means “before the meal,” and roughly speaking it’s the translation for “appetizer.” Usually a variety of antipasti, hot or cold, are served together. There are countless varieties across Italy, including olives, cured meats, cheeses, carpacci, breads, crostini, preserves, and grilled or fried vegetables or seafood.
These are starches like pasta, risotto or polenta. It’s not uncommon to see two primi – gnocchi alla sorrentina (gnocchi with tomato and Mozzarella di Bufala DOP) could be served with spaghetti al guanciale (spaghetti with guanciale and Pecorino Romano DOP) – so you have a variety of tastes and dietary options. Primi are self-contained dishes, not to be added to plates of proteins and vegetables as you might see outside of Italy.
Proteins like meat, poultry, and seafood dishes, sometimes egg dishes like frittata. Famous secondi include osso buco (veal shank), pollo alla cacciatora (hunter-style chicken) and branzino al sale (salt-baked sea bass). There are also a few vegetarian secondi like melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmesan).
Contorni and insalate
Contorno means “outline” and refers to the kind of dish you eat alongside a secondo piatto, but on a separate plate. Contorni range from simple verdure alla griglia (grilled vegetables) to more complex creations like peperoni ripieni di riso (rice-stuffed peppers) and polpette di zucchine (zucchini balls). Insalate (salads) can be served as contorni, or as a separate course to cleanse the palate.
Some Italians serve a cheese platter to transition from savoury and sweet flavours. It typically includes a mix of fresh cheeses (like Mozzarella di Bufala DOP) and aged ones (like Parmigiano Reggiano DOP) that can be paired with fresh fruit (pears, apples, grapes), dried fruits, jellies, honey or nuts.
Dolci means sweets, and there are thousands of varieties – rustic biscotti e torte (cookies and cakes), regional specialties like cannoli siciliani and panforte di siena, or seasonal ones like panettone and colomba di Pasqua. Sweets are served with local, seasonal fruit.
Caffè e digestivi
When Italians say caffè (coffee) they mean espresso – cappuccinos and macchiatos are breakfast drinks. Bottles of Grappa, Amari (bitters), Sambuca, Limoncello and other liqueurs are placed on the table for accompaniment – playfully called ammazzacaffè (coffee killer) because they finish off the taste of coffee and stimulate digestion!