A Guide to Decrypting the Italian Menu

Fish Stew Abruzzo Italy

How to avoid debilitating post-Italian food syndrome

Understanding an Italian menu should be one of the great feats of modern life. It WILL serve you even when you darken the doorstop of your local Italian bistro. Once upon a time, I was a mess after leaving Italian restaurants. I would stagger away, bedazzled with my bad food choices and delve into a two hour siesta just to kickstart my digestive system.

In sum, this Italian menu guide will simplify life in Italy and beyond. 

The question is: how much Italian food can one fit in one’s belly? How big is a “Primi?” And can I really share my “Antipasto” with other competing hungry mouths?

To take it from the bottom, the Italian menu is there to give you a complete SELECTION (in other words choice) of each region’s specialities. An antipasto from Naples and Milan may look the same ON PAPER, but they are world’s apart.

Separated by 780 km, (for years) impassable mountainous terrain, differing political and religious beliefs and completely unique soils and growing conditions. They are like chalk and cheese, even separated by language (they speak NAPOLITANO – like the ice-cream). 

So, learning curve, Italian food is not just one homogenous conglomeration of pasta and pizza.

Therefore, here it is: My guide to decrypting the Italian menu: how to avoid debilitating post Italian food syndrome.  


Antipasto- decrypting the Italian Menu

Yes, it is a starter. It is there because

1. It is the number way one to get a feel for the region,

2. If you have by fluke or careful planning landed in a real Italian kitchen the dishes are fresh. No microwave Wetherspoons malarky here. So good food takes time, and the antipasto is a “keep calm don’t start eating the table option”. 

If I’m not really starving, I won’t have an Antipasto.

If I have rolled into a new region I will!

Especially a traditional restaurant, will serve up meats that are far better than the supermarket stocks. If you are on the verge of punching your family due to hanger, also get an antipasto. You can eat with the bread on the table… we’ll get to that later. 

Cold Meat’s Selection: Antipasto di Salami e Formaggio


Prosciutto Crudo: Ham that has been thinly sliced and salted then left to dry for at least 9 months.

Other special types of this prosciutto are Parma and Speck, the names you may see on the menu.

Prosciutto Cotto: Ham that has been cooked.


Salmi: Fermented sausage meet, which can be either pork or beef.

Formaggiopecorino (sheeps’ cheese), Parmesan, Provolone and many, many more…


Frutos do Mar Mixed Caldo (Hot Seafood Platter)

Abruzzo Italy's Secret Regions Sea Food

Expect a mixture of:

Fried squid

Steamed muscles

Fried fish in breadcrumbs


Frutos do Mar Mixed Fredo (Cold Seafood Platter)

Seafood Antipasto

Expect a mixture of:

Lemon marinated fish – sardines or salmon,

Octopus in vinegarette or olive oil

Cold, cooked muscles

Note: I could elaborate forever, because as I mentioned, the antipasto is a celebration of the region’s best morsels.


Decrypting the Italian Menu Primi

This is basically the pasta dishes.

The fact that it technically translates as “First Course,” doesn’t mean it will be a small dish by all means. In truth, I normally ONLY eat a primo. Sometimes we get two Primi and share a Secondo, but as a rule I will be absolutely stuffed on the pasta course. 

Soup is also in this Primi option – so imagine a light lunch. Sometimes there is a rice/ risotto. Usually though this can also appear in the Secondo, depending on the elaboration of ingredients included.

On every single menu there will be a name you will not recognise.

It’s a pasta.

Just a homemade pasta shape that years of Italian chefs have decided goes perfectly with a certain sauce. They all taste the same, so surprise yourself. Kind of like a kinder egg – you never know what you will get.

Note: Also, in some places you have the ‘Menu del Giorno’ which means you can have a Primo and Secondo for a set price. A fantastic option, but be ready to loosen your belt a couple of notches. 


How to decrypt an Italian Menu by Footloose Lemon Juice


It is certainly not a complete meal, despite the misleading price tag.

You are basically ordering a deliciously, seasoned dish of fish, meat or chicken and you are expected to order the sides separately. If it comes with something else it will be explicitly written in the description, like “with roasted potatoes.”

Anything that is included was usually cooked in the same pan. So it logically gets piled onto the plate with the accompanying meat.

Maiale = Pork

Manzo = Beef

Pollo = Chicken

Agnello = Lamb

Pesce = Fish

Coniglio = Rabbit (very common, so thought I’d warn you)

So, how to get your 5 a day? 

Read on for the Contorno my friends … 


Contorno - Decrypting the Italian Menu

On the last page of the food menu you will find the vegetables or side dishes. The waiter will usually prompt you,  “And for the contorno?” 

The choices are pretty standard. 

Baked potatoes – (potatoes less likely to be drenched in olive oil)

Roasted potatoes – (who knew potatoes could taste so sweet?)

Grilled vegetables – (a healthy dose of veg blackened on the edges)

Seasonal Vegetables – (this is either green beans, spinach or chicory, which is a kind of bitter spinach.

We prefer to choose the last option, since that will be a local produce and definitely differs from region to region.

For instance the second vegetable in the pictures above is a speciality from the Marché region.



Here’s a shocking fact.

In the six months I’ve lived in Italy I have NEVER asked for a dessert in a restaurant. Yep, and I have a sweet tooth. 

They have great desserts like tiramisu and usually seasonal fruit with gelato (ice-cream).


But what do I prefer to do?

Pay the bill, then wander into the town and pick up a gelato from one of the trillions of ice-cream counters in town. You have a wider variety of choice of which you can see and point to through the glass counter.

On top of this, you can soak up the town’s atmosphere. After all, Italy has one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. 

Don’t believe it? Check out my guides to Italy’s Secret Regions: Abruzzo and Umbria.


How to decrypt an Italian Menu by Footloose Lemon Juice

Most people think they know their coffees. But Starbucks please, STEP ASIDE.

In my opinion Italian coffee is the best in the world.

The problem? It comes in a a teeny tiny weeny cup.

There’s no solving this problem, so you just have to embrace it.

Italian coffee is like a shot of caffeine. Syrupy, bitter and gulpable. 

By the way, Italians almost always end their meals with a coffee. Want to blend in then give it a try. 

Caffè – an expresso the size of your thumbnail

Caffè lungo – an expresso the size of half your thumb. (the best compromise)

Caffè Americano – a weak black coffee that, in my opinion, doesn’t shine a spoon to the Italian treasure. 

Cappuccino – a delicious creamy, full cup of sweet coffee. (delicious as long as you are not lactose intolerant)

That is the list and that is what you get.

After Dinner Delights

Amaro: What is this?

A shot of alcohol to finish your meal. 

Always local, always something the waiter is proud of. Sometimes, included as a freebie, but don’t count on it. 

Limoncello: Where and Why to try it

A sweet lemon flavored liquor shot for the end of the meal. Maybe thankfully, just a little too sweet to shot more than a couple …


A Less tangy version of limoncello made with melon. This is my preferred version because I believe it has a better after taste.




OOOO you have just had an incredible meal filled with educated choices crafted around your Italian menu knowledge. Satisfied, not bursting at the seams, able to walk head held high from the restaurant and BAM the bill. 

The coperto WILL be there and you SHOULD pay.

The charge covers all the bread, the olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, parmesan, the salt and pepper that you used during the meal. It even covers the balsamic vinegar you spilt on the table.


It is a like mini service charge and in the grand scheme of things it is pretty cheap.

So it isn’t just the basket of bread, though you should eat and enjoy that because usually it is delicious. Go on savor those breadsticks too, I know you want to.  

Now, maybe the controversial part.

If there is a coperto you don’t have to pay a service charge. At least, it isn’t expected. Maybe you had a huge bill and the waitress was working overtime. In this case, hand over a little more. However, don’t feel obliged if you think the coperto cost covers the faff of the meal. 


Read my interview on moving from Brazil to Pescara here, Crossing Borders Hand in Hand

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