Front entrance of All'Antico Vinaio sandwich shop in Florence, Italy, with line of people waiting.
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Traditional Italian Meal Structure – A Guide For Travelers

Last updated on June 22nd, 2024

Have you ever tried to sit down at an Italian restaurant or cafe and realized they aren’t open?

Are you confused about all the different meals and when Italians eat? 

Italians don’t eat at the same time as Americans and restaurants aren’t open 24/7. And, we have probably have a different meal structure here than what you’re used to at home.

Living here, I’ve had many friends and my family visit over the years. They always have the same questions about dining in Italy, so I’ve put together this guide to answer some of the most common questions. With my comprehensive guide to traditional Italian meals and structure in Italy, you will feel confident in eating in Italy, anytime!

Let’s go over:

  • The various meals in Italy and when they are enjoyed
  • What you can expect at each meal
  • At what times you can expect service in Italy
  • When and where you can eat at different times of the day in Italy

Traditional Italian Meals Quick Guide

MealEnglish TranslationTime Frame
Prima ColazioneBreakfastMorning, anytime before 11:30ish
ColazioneMid-morning snack*Mid-morning 
PranzoLunch1:00 pm-2:00 pm
MerendaMid-afternoon snack* 4:00-5:30 pm
AperitivoAperitivo/Cocktail hour6:00-8:00 pm
CenaDinner8:00 pm-10:00 pm

*Snacks are generally reserved for kids. Adults don’t usually eat snacks except for blue collar workers. This is a very general statement. Of course, Italians might have a snack if they need one but it will be small, maybe a small gelato in the afternoon or a cappuccino and/or small pastry at a bar

Traditional Meals And Structure in Italy

Prima Colazione 

top view of small green tray with a cappuccino and brioche and various decorated pottery on a wooden table with a small dish of sugar packets on the left hand corner

Time Frame: Anytime in the morning before 11:30. It all depends on when you start your day! 

Prima colazione is breakfast, referring to the first thing you eat in the morning. At the bar this means a coffee beverage (caffè, cappuccino, caffè latte, etc.) and a pastry, known as a cornetto or brioche. At home, this is usually a coffee and something small and sweet like a couple of cookies, a toasted piece of bread with jam or nutella.

Read More: For a full guide to breakfast in Italy read Italian Breakfast – A Traveler’s Guide.

Breakfast for kids usually means chocolate milk, regular milk, cookies, maybe some fruit and or/ yogurt. 

Good To Know: Usually after 11:00 am, the selection of pastries at bars is quite scarce. You will see around 12:00 the bar starting to set up for the lunch shift with the initial early birds eating around this time. 

Colazione

close up hand holding a schiacciata panino filled with prosciutto outdoors

Time frame: Mid Morning

Colazione is often interchangeable with the word prima colazione and basically means snack or breakfast, depending on the situation. If you are eating for the first time that morning, you are either having prima colazione, sometimes shortened to colazione. 

If, however, you are a child, your mid-morning snack will be called colazione as well. School snacks will be easy to pack, generally easy to clean up and no-fuss. It also refers to any mid-morning pit stop at a bar for adult Italians who need a little pick me up.

Popular mid-morning snack options in Italy:

  • pane marmellata – bread with jam
  • panino – sandwich (with cheese, prosciutto, etc).
  • yogurt – yogurt
  • frutta – fruit
  • baretta – granola bar (more recently popular in Italy among kids)
  • cornetto/brioche – pastry

Fact: Snacks are generally for kids in Italy. Italians typically like to build up their appetite between meals. At the most, they will, on occasion, indulge in a cappuccino or small pastry but no more than that.

Pranzo

Close up of plate of grilled meats, and vegetables at a table in a restaurant in Italy.
A piatto unico is a common lunch choice these days, including the side dish on the plate

Time Frame: Lunch in Italy is usually served between 1:00 pm and 2:30 pm, except during the weekdays for blue collar workers who typically eat on the earlier side, between 12:00-12:30. 

Pranzo or lunch has recently changed significantly in Italy over the years as the country has moved towards a modern business-model working day. In the past (and today still in southern regions and rural areas, Italians would come home for lunch and eat a large, multi-course meal with their family). Today, this just isn’t possible with normal 9:00-5:00 jobs. 

Today, lunch in Italy is just one course, either a primo (first course) or secondo (second course) with a glass of wine and a coffee. It may also be what Italians call a piatto unico or a dish with a side already included.

Good To Know: New, business-oriented joints have cropped up in cities offering large salads or insalatoni, quick all-inclusive lunch menus with fixed prices and even pizza by the slice.  

On the weekends, however, Italians do indulge in eating larger, more leisurely meals with friends and family no matter the location. 

Merenda

hand holding a cone of gelato in front of a gelateria with signs on either side and cantina del gelato written above doorway

Time Frame: Mid-afternoon, typically after school between 4:00-5:30 pm

Merenda refers to an afternoon snack. It’s a time usually reserved for kids after school and is generally something small to keep kids tied over until dinner. Many of the afternoon snack options are the same as the mid-morning, including both savory and sweet options.

Tip: Avoid going to gelaterias or bakeries between 4:30-5:30 pm when school lets out during the weekdays. They will be flooded with hungry kids and it will be hard to push past them! 

Popular merenda for kids in Italy:

  • Panino – sandwich (with cheese, prosciutto, ham, etc.)
  • Gelato – ice cream
  • Pane nutella – bread with nutella
  • Biscotti – cookies
  • Pane olio – bread with oil
  • Pane pomodoro – bread with tomato 

Read More: To learn more about how merenda works in Italy, read Merenda – Italy’s Snack Time!

Aperitivo

Glasses of wine and platter of cured meats and cheese at an Italian aperitivo.

Time Frame: 6:00-8:00 pm

Aperitivo is more of a casual meeting time to unwind after work and ease into your evening rather than a meal time in Italy. Because Italians don’t typically snack, the aperitivo is a way to get them to dinner without ripping someone’s hair out out of pure hunger and frustration. 

Learn More: For a full run-down about how aperitivo works in Italy, where to enjoy them and what to expect, read Aperitivo In Italy – How Italians Do Pre-dinner Drinks + How To Recreate It At Home.

The aperitivo hour is enjoyed in many different ways, from a simple glass of prosecco with a small bowl or chips or nuts to a more elaborate light drink such as an Aperol spritz with something small to nibble on like chips and peanuts or even a cheese or charcuterie board.

Fact: An aperitivo can also be non-alcoholic.  Check out Non-Alcoholic Italian Drinks – That We Actually Drink in Italy.

Traditional aperitivo drinks:

Note: Cocktails such as a negroni is not quite as common in Italy for aperitivo as the drinks listed above. The concept of an aperitivo is to open your stomach to the meal, not to get blasted with a strong cocktail on an empty stomach. Italians do order cocktails but not as often as lighter alternatives such as an Aperol spritz. 

Cena

Hand holding dish with rice, peas, and white chicken cacciatore.

Time Frame: 8:00-10:00 pm

Cena or dinner in Italy depends a lot on the time of year and region. In southern Italy they eat later because it’s hotter while in the north, dinner is often on the earlier side. Usually on the weekends, Italians also eat on the later side. 

top view of pasta al forno on a red and blue tablecloth in a rectangle white casserole dish with a silver spoon

Dinner is a time of relaxation and comfort for Italians in which they may eat several courses and take their time. A dinner meal can last anywhere from one hour to upward of three. Italian dinners are also long because of the multiple courses served. You can read our full guide to Italian dinner structure in our Traveler’s Guide to Italian Dinner Courses.

Learn More: Read What Time Do Italians Eat Dinner?

Bonus: Dopo Cena

Italian bartender mixing up aperitivo drinks, including the spritz.

Time Frame: Anytime after dinner

The after dinner hour is simply a time frame referring to when Italians gather together to hang out and maybe have a cocktail after eating rather than a moment when you consume food. 

This is the moment when Italians are more likely to order cocktails. You will see piazze or squares filling up with all ages of Italians from 11:00 pm onwards as they look to extend their evening in company. 

Good To Know: After Italians finish their dinner, they most likely won’t eat again until the next morning at breakfast. You won’t see snack bars and gelaterias open into the wee-hours of the night. The only exception to this are ‘midnight bakeries’ in which some forni will sell the pastries they are making for the next day to late-nighters between 3:00-6:00 am. 

Italian Restaurant Industry Hours

Close up of sign with times for lunch, aperitif, and dinner in Italian.

You have probably noticed that you can’t always eat whenever you want in Italy. Restaurants hold specific hours in which the kitchen is open and they will serve meals.

Italian VenueEnglish TranslationServiceHours served/open
BarBar/Cafe Breakfast, snacks, aperitivo6:00 am-12:00 am (very general hours, some may close earlier)
RistoranteRestaurantLunch/Dinner12:00-3:30 pm/7:00 pm – 12:00 am
TrattoriaTypical Italian restaurantLunch/Dinner12:00-3:30 pm/7:00 pm – 12:00 am
EnotecaWine barAperitivo/Light lunch12:00-3:00 pm/6:00 pm-12:00 am
GelateriaIce cream shopGelato snack11:00 am – 11:00 pm (sometimes earlier)
SupermercatoGrocery storegrocery shopping8:00 am – 8:00 pm (Sunday hours differ)
PizzeriaPizzeriaLunch/Dinner12:00-3:30 pm/7:00 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

rivoire bar florence from street view

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: breakfast
  • 12:00-2:00: lunch
  • 2:00-3:30: post lunch coffee rush
  • 4:00-5:30: afternoon snack
  • 6:00-9:00: aperitivo
  • 8:00-10:00: dinner
  • 9:00-closing: after dinner drinks

Breakfast items and savory sandwiches are available from opening time, around 7:00 am but sometimes even earlier, to noonish. At that point, the bar starts to set up for its casual lunch rush, serving simple first and second course meals at a reasonable price. You will often see waiters setting out paper placemats and silverware at this time. You should not expect to sit down and order breakfast at this time because they are transitioning into lunch and won’t like you taking up an entire table to have a cappuccino. 

Expect a peak in activity after lunch as the post-lunch coffee customers arrive. There will then be another after school rush around 4:30 and then aperitivo hour starts up at 6:00 pm. You can also hang out at bars for post-dinner drinks and digestifs

Traditional Restaurant Hours In Italy

Inside a restaurant in Italy. You can see tables set with silverware, dishes, and wine glasses.

Restaurants are open for lunch and dinner but they will close for several hours in the late afternoon before dinner starts. You can sit down for lunch around 12:30 and the kitchen will close around 2:30/3:00 pm. The restaurant will then re-open around 7:30 pm for dinner. You should expect them to want to close around midnight or so. If you want to continue hanging out, move to a square and enjoy an after-dinner cocktail at one of the many bars.

Exception: Restaurants in densely packed tourist hours will serve food all day. This usually isn’t a good sign of quality but rather, marking their dedication to quick, fast turnarounds of mass tourist crowds. 

Good To Know: Many restaurants close on one day that isn’t Sunday, often Monday but not necessarily. 

Traditional Trattoria Hours In Italy

Outside entrance of a trattoria in Italy.

Hours at a trattoria, a typical Italian-style restaurant, usually family-run, are going to be very similar to those of a restaurant. They might be slightly more traditional, holding hours from 12:30-3:30 and 8:00-11:00, especially in rural areas but you can count on a closing time in the middle without exception. 

Traditional Enoteca Hours In Italy

Entrance to enoteca in Florence, Italy.

An enoteca or wine bar is usually going to be open for light lunches, serving a selection of wines and taglieri or cheese and charcuterie boards, crostini and substantial aperitivo options and also during dinner hours. 

Usually enoteche follow the same schedule as restaurants, closing in the afternoons. Not always though – some stay open all day and later into the night, catering to the after dinner crowds. 

Learn More: Read more about Where to Drink Wine in Italy and Where to Buy Wine in Italy.

Traditional Gelateria Hours in Italy

Boy standing in front of entrance to Edoardo Gelateria in Florence, Italy. He's wearing a blue jacket and smiling and holding his cone of gelato out toward the camera.

Gelaterias open around 11:00 am and stay open until closing, anywhere from 9:00 pm to midnight. Closing times vary significantly depending on the location. Popular gelaterias in city centers will be open late while secondary options on the outskirts might close earlier. 

Traditional Grocery Store Hours In Italy

View of outside entrance to Eataly in Florence, Italy. Woman in purple coat sitting at table outside on right.

Grocery stores are not restaurants but they might have a small seating section with a microwave where you can warm up your pre-prepared food. 

If you are traveling in Italy and doing a lot of cooking at your apartment, it’s important to note that they are generally open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm with varying hours on Sunday. 

For more details on how to grocery shop in Italy, read Grocery Stores In Italy – Tips From A Local on How To Grocery Shop On Vacation.

Traditional Pizzeria Hours In Italy

street view of gusta pizza with open doors and a green sign with gold writing on top

Hours at a pizzeria are the same as at a restaurant. Note that they may be open for take-away options earlier than when the actual seating opens to dine-in customers.

Order Like a Pro in Italy: Be sure to read How to Order Food in Italian.

Traditional Italian Meals And Structure FAQ

What is the most important meal in Italy?

Historically lunch has always been the most important meal in Italy but as the country moves to a more fast-paced working environment, dinner has become the larger of the two. However, weekends are still reserved for long, relaxing lunches with friends and family 

What time do Italians eat dinner?

Italians eat dinner anywhere from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm, depending on how hot it is, the time of year and the region. 

What is a full Italian dinner?

Most typically an Italian meal will have four main courses, a starter, first course, second course and dessert although Italians will not always order all of these courses at one time. For large celebrations and parties, even more courses are included such as multiple first courses, fruit, cheese and salad. 

What do Italians eat for the first course?

The first course is usually carb heavy, consisting of pasta, rice, gnocchi, soup or polenta. 

What do Italians eat for the second course?

The second course in Italy is a protein, usually from white meat, red meat, fish or eggs. Popular examples are chicken, steak, wild game, sausages, Italian omelets, grilled fish of the day, prawns, or octopus.