A Guide to Decrypting the Italian Menu

Fish Stew Abruzzo Italy

How to avoid overeating at an Italian restaurant

Understanding an Italian menu should be one of the great feats of modern life. This guide will serve you in Italy and at your local Italian bistro.

Once upon a time, I left Italian restaurants ghastly full. I’d stagger home, bedazzled with my misguided food choices. Then sink into a two hour siesta attempting to kick-start my digestive system.

This Italian menu guide will simplify your stomach’s Italian dates. 

Valid queries:

  • How much Italian food can one fit in one’s belly?
  • How big is a “Primo?”
  • Can I really share my “Antipasto” with other competing hungry mouths?

The Italian menu gives you a complete selection of each region’s specialties. An antipasto from Naples and Milan may look the same on paper, but they are worlds 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.

In Naples they speak Napolitano – like the ice-cream, in Rome, Romano. Where I live in Pescara, they speak abruzzese from the region of Abruzzo.  

Learning curve, Italian food is not just one homogeneous conglomeration of pasta and pizza.

Queue, my guide to decrypting the Italian menu. Let’s eat.

Antipasto- decrypting the Italian Menu

Antipasto – The Starters on the Italian Menu 

The warmup act. Antipasto is an Italian starter.

  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. 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 Italian region, I will! Especially a traditional restaurant, will serve up cured meats. At the coast they will serve muscles, fresh anchovies and calamari.
  3. Often there is an Antipasto named after the restaurant. It is a pricier option and comes with both warm (caldo) and cold (freddo) plates. Share this special antipasto with one or two other people. The cold dishes arrive first, then the hot dishes surprise you a wink later.

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 and Hard Cheese Selection: 
Antipasto di Salami e Formaggio

  • Prosciutto Crudo: Cured ham that has been thinly sliced and salted then left to dry for at least 9 months. Some Italian types of this prosciutto are parma, speck, culatello. A Spanish version is Parma Serrano, that will be available in the Italian supermarkets.
  • Prosciutto Cotto: Ham that has been cooked.
  • Salami: Fermented sausage meet, which can be either pork or beef. Perhaps what we would call pepperoni.
  • Formaggiohard cheeses that are served on these charcuterie boards can include pecorino (sheeps’ cheese, typical of Abruzzo), Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italian), Provolone, Taleggio.
Abruzzo Italy's Secret Regions Sea Food

Frutos do Mar (Hot and Cold Seafood Platter)

The seafood starters can come as a platter. As mentioned above, the cold dishes will be served initially, following by more warm seafood after.

Cold seafood starter dishes:

  • Marinated fresh anchovies. These are not salty like preserved jarred anchovies. They happen to be my favourite Italian starter.
  • Often raw seafood will appear. This can include shrimp, oysters, small fish in a marinade.
  • Octopus in vinegar or olive oil

Warm seafood starter dishes:

  • Fried squid (calamari)
  • Steamed muscles (cozze)
  • Steamed clams (vongole), often mixed in with the muscles
  • Fried fish in breadcrumbs or fried cuttlefish (seppia)

Primi is the pasta section in Italy

The pasta selection.

It technically translates as “First Course,” but it doesn’t mean it will be a small dish. I normally only eat a primo. Sometimes we get two Primi and share a Secondo, but as a rule of thumb, I will be stuffed on a pasta course alone. 

Soup is also in this Primi option. Sometimes there is a rice/ risotto. Though this can also appear in the Secondo, depending on the elaboration of ingredients included.

On every single menu there will be a pasta name you will not recognise. Pasta shapes are region specific. In Abruzzo chitarrina, a square spaghetti, is the regional pasta shape.

They all taste the similar, so surprise yourself. Kind of like a kinder egg – you never know what you will get.

Note: Many placed 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. 

Secondo is the meat on an Italian menu

A Secondo is a plate of protein.

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

You are ordering a deliciously seasoned dish of fish, meat or chicken. You are then 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.

Italian meat names are as follows:

  • Maiale = Pork
  • Manzo = Beef
  • Pollo = Chicken
  • Agnello = Lamb
  • Pesce = Fish
  • Coniglio = Rabbit (very common, so thought I’d warn you)

Contorno is your side dishes on an 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.

The last option will be a local produce and differs from region to region.

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


Dolce | The Italian Dessert

In the six months I’ve lived in Italy I have never asked for a dessert in a restaurant. 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. 

Learn more in our guides to Italy’s Secret Regions: Abruzzo and Umbria.

How to decrypt an Italian Menu by Footloose Lemon Juice

Coffee to end your Italian Meal

Most people think they know their coffees. But Starbucks step aside.

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. 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)

After Dinner Delights | Italian Liquors or Amaros

You’re not done yet. The Amaro is a shot of Italian liquor.

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.


A Less tangy version of limoncello made with melon.

Vino al sfuso:

This is a house wine served in a glass decanter. You can order 250ml, 1/2 Litre, 1 Litre.

  • Vino Bianco is white wine
  • Vino Rosso is red wine
  • Vino Rosato is rose wine




Why is there a coperto on my bill?

You end an incredible meal filled with educated choices crafted around your Italian menu knowledge. Satisfied, not bursting at the seams, able to walk home. Then the bill arrives. 

The coperto will be there and you should pay it.

The charge covers all the bread, the olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, parmesan, the salt and pepper that you used during the meal. It’s also the waiter’s tip.

A mini service charge and much lower than 10%.

It isn’t just the basket of bread, though you should eat and enjoy that because, yum.

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.

Want to know more about living in Italy? Read my interview on moving from Brazil to Pescara here, Crossing Borders Hand in Hand

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