Looking to try the freshest, most authentic food on your holiday to Italy? Step out of your comfort zone and eat where the locals eat!
The cosy, unassuming restaurants tucked away from the main streets and Piazzas are the best places to try local specialities and hearty Italian home cooking. They’re less likely to have familiar dishes or an English menu to fall back on, so bookmark this page for help working out the menu and ordering like a local.
Posso vedere il menu, per favore?
A good meal usually starts with a look at the menu. And to ask for one, say ‘Posso vedere il menu, per favore’. Your server will bring one to you, or they’ll tell you what’s on offer based on what’s fresh in that day. Yes, some restaurants don’t even have a menu – just daily specials featuring the very best local and seasonal produce.
Let’s begin with antipasti
A typical Italian meal starts with a selection of cured meats, cheeses, bread, and olives known as antipasti. Antipasti literally translates as ‘before the meal’, and it is often served on a platter for the whole table to share.
The exact items you’ll be served for antipasti will change depending on the region and the season, but here’s some of the most common ones you’ll see:
- Prosciutto – dry cured ham readily available in UK supermarkets, sometimes referred to as proscuitto crudo which means raw.
- Bresaola – Salted beef from Lombardy, thinly sliced, dark red in colour, and firmer than prosciutto.
- Mortadella – A large pork sausage from Bologna, served cold and sliced with large pieces of pork fat throughout the pale pink meat.
- Salame – a cured sausage with a marbled appearance, usually made from pork, although there are many variations featuring different meats and seasonings.
- Coppa – made from pork shoulder and neck with a balance of white fat to meat.
Other items you might see listed as individual dishes are:
- Carpaccio di manzo which is very finely sliced raw beef usually served with olive oil, lemon and parmesan shavings.
- Melanzane Parmigiana, a baked dish of layered aubergine slices, mozzarella and tomato sauce
- Arancini – a deep-fried risotto ball.
Pasta for starters
Following antipasti is the primo piatto (first plate), typically a pasta dish. And in Italy pasta comes in all shapes and sizes, with each one designed to be served with a different type of sauce. Here are some less-familiar pasta names you might come across:
- Orecchiette – Ear shaped pasta, often served with creamy sauces
- Bucatini – Long strands of pasta which look similar to spaghetti, but have a hole running through the centre. Often served with tomato sauces
- Trofie – short, loose pasta twists, traditionally served with pesto and green beans
- Rotelli – wheel shapes, often seen in soups
- Casarecce – short pasta with curved edges and a groove down the middle, which appears rolled up on itself.
The pasta varieties on offer vary between regions too. In mountainous Central Italy, rich dishes like wild boar ragu (cinghiale) will feature on many menus, while in the north locals prefer butter, cheese, or pesto on their pasta.
You’ll also see stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini.
Two non-pasta dishes you might see on the starter menu are gnocchi and gnudi. Gnocchi are little soft potato dumplings and can be served topped with a sauce or as a baked dish. But don’t confuse it with gnochetti – they look like mini gnocchi, but they’re actually a type of pasta!
Gnudi looks like gnocchi but is made from ricotta cheese, rolled into balls and coated in semolina. It’s popular in Tuscany, and is often served with simple sauces like sage butter.
Bring on the main course!
Now it’s time for Secondi! Main courses in Italy tend to be based around the meats and fish available locally – so you’ll get a totally different offering depending on which region you’re in.
In Milan you’ll be sure to see Ossobuco on the menu, which uses cross-cut veal shanks braised in white wine, broth and vegetables, often served with polenta (cornmeal).
Saltimbocca is a popular dish using veal topped or rolled with prosciutto and sage and cooked in wine and butter.
Where you see see ‘alla Milanese’ on the menu, this means a cut of meat will be thinly sliced, coated in breadcrumbs and served with a lemon wedge to squeeze over the top. Many meats can be served ‘alla Milanese’, but the most common ones you’ll see are pollo (chicken) or vitello (veal).
Some words to keep an eye out for are:
- Fritti – fried
- Ripieno/Ripieni – stuffed/filled
- Al forno – oven baked
- Arrosto – roasted
- Affumicato – smoked
If you fancy something sweet after your previous three courses, prepare to be tempted by one of these delightful desserts…
- Panna Cotta, literally meaning ‘cooked cream’ is cream set with gelatine and often served with a fruit coulis.
- Semifreddo means half cold and is often made up of half ice-cream, half cream with other ingredients to add flavour like fruits or coffee. It’s often made as a bar and then sliced for each individual serving.
- Tiramisu is perhaps the most famous Italian dessert and is made predominantly from coffee soaked lady fingers and mascarpone cheese. I
- Zuppa Inglese means English soup and reminds me of a classic English trifle because it’s made up of custard and sponge layers.
Feeling pretty stuffed, you’ll probably wind up your meal with an Espresso, or a grappa – a spirit drink made from grape skins left over from winemaking. Buon appetito!
Why not put our menu buster to the test and try it out on a holiday to Italy?