Last updated on December 29th, 2023
Have you recently found yourself in front of an Italian menu and confused about where to start and how to order food in Italian? The Italian meal structure and menus can be tricky to navigate but with a few pointers and insider information, you will be eating in Italy without any hesitation in no time.
I have been eating around Italy for over 15 years now and I can tell you that back in the day I made quite a few mistakes, not to mention embarrassed myself terribly. But once I learned the basics, I was fearless – and you can be too.
Let’s go over:
- basic, important Italian food etiquette
- step-by-step instructions on how and when to eat in Italy as the Italians do
- how to order and pay for food in Italian
- when to expect service at various restaurant options in Italy
Eating in Italy is above anything else tasty and enjoyable but it should and can also be easy and fun with some basic rules under your belt!
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Eating In Italy Etiquette
Consider these big do’s and don’ts when it comes to eating in Italy. You know what they say, when in Rome, do what the Romans do!
What makes eating in Italy such a unique culinary experience is that every region varies greatly in what you will find and what is produced in that geographical location. Ask the restaurant or store what the regional specialty is and order it. It will be the best thing on the menu!
Eat Pizza With A Knife And Fork
When you order pizza in Italy it will come as a whole pie, not already sliced. Most Italians start eating their pizza with a knife and fork and may pick it up and eat crusts or the last part as slices. If you try and eat a freshly cooked Italian pizza by the slice right as it hits the table, it will fall apart.
Tip: When Italians decide it’s time to abandon the knife and fork and move onto eating the rest of their pie in slices, they usually cut large wedges and fold them in half.
Never Order A Cappuccino After A Meal
It’s considered unhealthy to drink a cappuccino after a meal according to Italians. You really shouldn’t be ordering any milky beverage (caffè latte, latte macchiato, etc.) but rather, opt for a simple espresso with a bit of sugar or a nuvola di latte or a cloud of milk at most.
Never Eat Pasta With A Spoon Or A Knife
Italians eat their pasta with only a fork by twirling a few strands into a nice tight ball and popping it into their mouth. For more pasta etiquette, read Is it Illegal to Break Pasta in Italy? + Quick Guide to Italian Pasta Etiquette.
Don’t Overdo It At Aperitivo
Aperitivo is a sacred moment for Italians that involves having a light drink and a small nibble. It’s not meant to ruin your appetite but rather, open your stomach and tie you over for dinner. It’s tempting, especially at buffet-style aperitivo scenes but be modest and reserved in both your food consumption and beverage consumption.
Read all about aperitivo culture in Aperitivo In Italy – How Italians Do Pre-dinner Drinks + How To Recreate It At Home.
Don’t Order ‘Out Of Order’
Follow the course and menu structure of the Italian meal. Start with a primo or first course and move onto a second course. Italians would never serve you a meat course and then your pasta.
Order Like a Pro in Italy: Be sure to read How to Order Food in Italian.
Salad Is Served With Your Meat, Not With Pasta
Salad is considered a contorno or side dish, to be enjoyed with your protein course or secondo. Don’t ask for it before your pasta or with it, you will get a strange look!
Order Only One Item Under Each Course
You may not be expected to eat every course when eating in Italy but you are expected to only order one per category or course (except for contorni in which you can order more than one). For example, you should never order pasta and gnocchi much like you would never order a roasted chicken and a steak.
Eggs Are Not For Breakfast
A typical Italian breakfast is made up of a coffee beverage and a small, sweet pastry. No eggs. Eggs are reserved for lunch and dinner and can be found under the secondi section of a menu.
Don’t Order Cocktails With Your Meal
As a general rule, Italians typically drink wine and water with their meal. Beer is another favorite when you are eating pizza but cocktails are for aperitivo or after dinner.
Kids Eat What You Eat
Usually there is no ‘kid’s menu’ or special prices for kids. If your child is picky, you can always order a pasta al pomodoro or in bianco (with tomato or butter and cheese), even if you don’t see it on the menu.
End Your Meal With Coffee
Italians always end their meal with an espresso – no cappuccino or any other milk-based drink.
Eat Breakfast Standing At A Bar
There is really nothing more Italian than having your breakfast standing at an Italian bar. Pay for what you want at the register and bring your receipt to the barista who will make you your coffee. Enjoy your small pastry and coffee beverage among Italians and I can assure you it will be one of the most authentic things you do while eating in Italy.
Don’t Feel Obligated To Tip In Italy
Tipping is optional in Italy. It’s not expected but welcomed. You should only be tipping for exceptional service. To know more about how, when and to whom you can tip in Italy, read Tipping In Italy – When & How Much From A Local (2023).
Eat Meals When Italians Do
It’s important to know that Italians eat at much different times than others, especially Americans. They typically eat later and you should too while eating in Italy. What fun is it to sit in an empty restaurant when it first opens. Wouldn’t you rather sit between two Italian families who will entertain you all night? I would any day of the week!
Learn More: Read What Time Do Italians Eat Dinner?
Don’t Order Tap Water
While you certainly can order tap water, it’s frowned upon. Italians always drink bottled water when eating out and that is what will be served to you as well. Some places might not even humor such a silly request for tap water. Don’t worry though, it’s very inexpensive.
Don’t Feel Obligated To Order Every Course
Restaurants expect you to order a minimum of two courses, not the entire menu. If you order every single course, you are going to be very full. I am not saying you can’t – you should if you really want to try everything but don’t feel like you have to at all.
Food Shop At Outdoor Open Air Markets
Italy is famous for their open-air markets, home to local vendors, regional specialties and some of the best food you will come across. If you plan on doing a lot of cooking at home, check out the outdoor market closest to you for the absolute best quality food. You can find meat, vegetables, fruit, cheese, fish, bread, homemade pasta, dried goods and more!
Remember: You shouldn’t be touching the produce at markets. Just tell the vendor what you would like and they will serve you.
Ask For House Wine
One of the best ways to eat on a budget is to ask for vino della casa or house wine. It will usually be decent and very inexpensive. It will come for one (¼ liter), ½ liter, or as 1 liter.
Don’t Eat Gelato Right After A Large Meal
Gelato is actually more of a mid-afternoon snack or treat enjoyed by Italians. Italians rarely have gelato right after a meal but rather, wait until they have digested their lunch first. Typically, gelato is enjoyed between 4:00 pm and 6:30 pm by Italians.
Bread Is Not Meant To Be Eaten With The First Course
The bread served at the table is reserved for the second course or to help you eat your appetizer, not your pasta or carb-heavy first course. The only exception is to fare la scarpetta – use a crust or corner of bread to mop up the leftover pasta sauce on your plate.
Don’t Ask for Salad Dressing
Italians eat their salad with olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. If you order salad, you will be brought a little caddy with these ingredients to dress your own salad. You won’t find Russian dressing, ranch or blue cheese dressing when eating in Italy.
Eating In Italy Meal Times
Eating in Italy takes place at slightly different times when compared to other cultures. It’s important to eat when Italians do or else you might find yourself starving when restaurants are closed!
|Morning, anytime before 11:30ish
|1:00 pm-2:00 pm
|8:00 pm-10:00 pm
*Snack is typically for kids. Adults don’t snack much except for a sweet treat like gelato from time to time.
Nice To Know: You can always find something to eat at bars, bakeries or grocery stores, which are generally always open for service. Keep in mind the service may be limited depending on the time (see hours below).
Eating in Italy Menu Structure And Guide
If you are eating in Italy then you are going to notice that the meal and menu structure is different from other countries. The menu and meal is divided into several courses, all of which will be organized on the menu according to the order of how dishes should be ordered.
Each meal is divided into antipasti, primi, secondi + contorno, dolce and caffè + digestivo. These five courses can further be subcategorized but for a general understanding, these are the main categories.
Learn More: Read my complete guide to Italian Dinner Courses.
The Antipasto is the equivalent of a starter or appetizer and you will usually be a selection of regional specialties.
Popular antipasti dishes:
- Tagliere di formaggio – cheese board
- Tagliere di salumi – cured meat board
- Crostini – toasted bread with various toppings
- Bruschetta – toasted bread with fresh tomatoes
- Insalata di pesce – fish salad
- Tartar di salmone – raw salmon tartar
A Primo (plural primi) is the first large, (usually hot) course to come to the table, made with a base of pasta, gnocchi, rice, polenta or in the form of a soup.
Basic Italian primi:
A secondo (plural secondi) is the second course made up of meat, fish or eggs. Typically, a secondo is not served with a side dish (if it is, it will be listed in the description and might have the term piatto unico in the dish) and you will need to choose and order your sides separately under the contorno section of the menu.
Basic Italian secondi:
- Carne alla griglia/brace – grilled meat
- Spezzatino – beef stew
- Pesce del giorno – fish of the day
- Scampi – prawns
- Coniglio in umido – stewed rabbit
- Faraona – guinea fowl
- Bistecca – steak
- Polpo – octopus
- Pollo – chicken
- Maiale – pork
Good To Know: The secondo and contorno (side dish), while ordered separately, are considered one in the same. Italians won’t typically just order a contorno or just a secondo. This doesn’t mean you can’t though.
Contorni are side dishes that are served along the second course in Italy. Each contorno will be served on a small, separate plate on the side. They can either be shared or ordered for one.
Common Italian Contorni:
- Patate arroste – roasted potatoes
- Patate fritte – french fried
- Puree di patate – mashed potatoes
- Verdure saltate – sautéed vegetables, usually leafy greens.
- Fagioli – beans/legumes
- Verdure lesse steamed mixed vegetables
- Verdure alla griglia – grilled mixed vegetables
- Insalata verde – green salad served with olive oil and vinegar.
Note: Salads may also be listed under contorni but not always. You might find them in their own section on the menu entitled insalate.
Italian Desserts: If you love desserts, read Classic Italian Desserts to get the scoop on Italy’s most beloved desserts to try on your next trip to Italy.
Italians always finish their meal with a coffee, traditionally served without milk or sugar, as is. Cappuccino or other milky beverages are frowned upon after meals because they are said to prevent good digestion. At most, you might ask for a caffè con un po’ di latte da parte (with a bit of milk on the side).
Nice To Know: Coffee is never served with dessert. It’s always served between dessert and the digestivo.
The digestivo is essentially your last drink such as limoncello, amaro, or grappa, meant to aid in the digestion of your meal. It’s more common after dinner than after lunch.
Fun Fact: A digestivo is also known as an ammazzacaffè, meaning “kill the coffee”.
Popular digestivi in Italy:
- Amaro Del Capo (amaro)
- Montenegro (amaro)
- Braulio (a herbal liqueur from the Valtellina region in Italy).
- Grappa (made from grape skins. I like al miele, made with honey)
- Mirto (made from the myrtle plant)
- Limoncello (lemon infused)
Learn More: Read Italian Digestivo – Italy’s Top 5 Classic After-Dinner Drinks.
Do Italians Eat Every Meal Course?
The short answer is no, Italians typically order two items from the menu (antipasto, primo, secondo + contorno, dolce) plus coffee. For example, they may have a primo and a secondo + contorno. Dessert is sometimes ordered but not always, especially for everyday working lunches.
Two Course Exception: Many new place in cities offer single formula options with a fixed price, letting you choose either one first or second course meal + contorno, a coffee, water and a glass of wine.
How To Order Food In Italian
When the waiter first comes to the table they will ask if you would like still or sparkling water (naturale o gassata/frizzante). Water is not free in Italy. Expect to be charged for it.
They will then return and take your order. To order food in Italian, assuming you will have more than one course, you will order everything but dessert and coffee initially.
“Vorrei cominciare con gli gnocchi con la gorgonzola. Poi, prendo il filetto di maiale e le verdure lesse miste, per favore.”
(I would like to start with the gorgonzola gnocchi. Next, I will have the pork tenderloin and the steamed mixed vegetables, please.)
Good To Know: Dessert is ordered after everything else. When you have finished with the second course, the waiter will come back to ask if you want dessert.
Even if you and your dining partner are ordering different courses, order them all now at the beginning.
Note that customers don’t always know best when it comes to eating in Italy. When you sit down, you are trusting the restaurant to make the best decisions for you. The waiter might ask how you want your food brought to the table but they also might decide how best to sort things out based on their experience, what pairs well and how many courses you are eating.
Eating in Italy Etiquette: If there is one main rule to keep in mind, Italians always eat in company, they rarely eat alone.
If you have a certain order or request for how the food comes out, just ask the waiter kindly and while they may not approve, they will accommodate you.
“Vorrei l’antipasto quando mio marito mangia la pasta poi mangiamo i secondi insiemi, per favore.”
(I would like my appetizer when my husband has his pasta but then we will eat our second courses together, thank you).
If at any time during your meal you need help or would like to add something, grab the waiter’s attention by making eye contact and say:
Tips For Ordering Food In Italy
- Sometimes a side dish is served with the main secondo. If so, it will be listed under the description. In this case, you may just want one other contorno, if any.
- Italians only order one primo and one secondo. They will never order two of the same category, including appetizers. The only exception is for contorni where they might like more than one side dish such as roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach.
- It’s not good etiquette to make a meal out of appetizers without ordering anything else.
- Antipasti misto or mixed appetizers is a great way to sample and share various house and regional specialties on the menu.
- Generally speaking, restaurants expect you to order at least two categories on the menu unless you are eating a fixed price light lunch place where you are getting everything for one price (Example: 1 primo, 1 coffee, 1 water, 1 coperto for €12.00).
Paying For Food In Italy
After eating your meal you will be presented with the bill. You can either pay at the table or you can bring your bill to the hostess desk where you will typically find the owner manning the register. Most Italian restaurants have you pay at the table but if you see people getting up to pay then follow their lead.
Good To Know: Although obligated by Italian law, not all restaurants allow you to pay with a card (this is rare now but does happen in rural areas). Always keep a bit of cash on hand for emergencies.
On the menu, you will be charged for what you ordered plus water and coperto, which is not the same as the service charge. It’s a charge added to the bill covering the cost of your place setting and bread. For more information about coperto, read What is a Coperto? All About Italy’s Cover Charge.
In Italy, you are not expected to tip unless you really enjoyed the service. If you want, you can leave some coins or small bills with the waiter but no tips on cards. Read all about Tipping In Italy – When & How Much From A Local (2023) for details on tipping expectations and amounts in Italy.
Eating In Italy Hours
Italy has strict rules as to what you can eat when. Lucky for any busy travelers out there who don’t always have time to sit down to a multiple-course meal, you can always hit up a bar or bakery for on the go snacks and quick lunches.
|Breakfast, snacks, aperitivo
|6:00 am-12:00 am (very general hours, some may close earlier)
|Baked goods all day
|7:00 am – 7:00 pm
|Restaurant/Typical Italian-style restaurant
|12:00-3:30 pm7:00 pm – 12:00 am
|12:00-3:00 pm6:00 pm-12:00 am
|Ice cream shop
|11:00 am – 11:00 pm (sometimes earlier)
|8:00 am – 8:00 pm (Sunday hours differ)
|12:00-3:30 pm7:00 pm – 12:00 am
Learn More: Read about the Different Types of Italian Eateries – From Trattorie to Osterie and more!
Traditional Bar Hours In Italy
Luckily, you can always get something to eat at a bar in Italy, no matter the time of day.
Keep this schedule in mind at a bar:
- Opening-12:00: colazione or breakfast
- 12:00-2:00: pranzo or lunch
- 2:00-3:30: caffè or post lunch coffee rush
- 4:00-5:30: merenda or afternoon snack
- 6:00-9:00: aperitivo or cocktails
- 8:00-10:00: cena or dinner
- 9:00-closing: dopo cena after dinner drinks
Traditional Restaurant Hours In Italy
Restaurants are open for lunch and dinner but they will close for a rest period between the two, generally four hours or so. You can sit down for lunch around 12:30 and the kitchen will close around 2:30/3:00 pm. The restaurant will open again for dinner around 7:30 pm.
Rest Hour Exception: Restaurants in densely packed tourist hours will serve all day. This usually means they are catering to mass tourism and not focused on authentic, quality Italian food.
Good To Know: Many restaurants stay open on Sundays but choose another closing day during the weekday. Always check beforehand if you are aiming to eat at a certain restaurant.
Traditional Enoteca Hours In Italy
An enoteca or wine bar typically follows the same schedule as a restaurant, with a rest in the middle of the day after they serve light lunch fare and taglieri or cheese and charcuterie boards.
Traditional Gelateria Hours in Italy
Gelaterias open in the later part of the morning, towards noon and stay open until after dinner. After dinner means anywhere from 9:30 at less popular places to even midnight at very well-known gelaterias.
Traditional Grocery Store Hours In Italy
Although grocery stores are not venues where you will sit and eat a meal, it’s important to know when they are open if you plan on doing a lot of cooking or buying pre-prepared meals on your next trip to italy.
Generally, supermercati, as we call them in Italian, are open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm with reduced or modified hours on Sunday, if they are even open. In the city center, most stores will stay open on Sundays, at least in the mornings. If you need help deciphering grocery shopping in Italy, read about Grocery Stores in Italy.
Traditional Pizzeria Hours In Italy
Pizzeria hours will generally be the same as a restaurant with an afternoon pause.
Good To Know: Some pizzerias may open about ½ hour to 1 hour early solely for take-away options.
Eating In Italy FAQ
Cappuccino is a breakfast beverage, not for after meals.
Bread is for eating with the second course, not for your pasta.
Italians don’t eat pasta with a spoon or knife.
Italians start eating their pizza with a knife and fork
Italians typically eat lunch between 1:00 pm and 2:30 pm with the exception of blue collar workers who eat between noon and 1:00 pm.
Italians typically eat dinner between 8:00 pm and 10:00 but this will depend on the climate, region and time of year.
Generally they only eat one or two courses at a restaurant while at home they might only eat one and a side dish. Other families, especially in the south or in rural areas, still eat a first and second course at every meal.
Historically, lunch has always been the most important meal of the day in Italy but as the country has become more industrialized to follow a typical business-oriented workday, dinner has become the larger and family-oriented meal.