Italy Cooking Class: How to Read An Italian Menu

January 25, 2013  |  By Liz SanFilippo Hall
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Italy Cooking Class: How to Read An Italian Menu

Traditional Italian food often features fresh, seasonal ingredients straight from the market. But when it comes to reading the menu, whether you’re dining in an osteria, trattoria, or snack bar, how do you know what you’re ordering?

Many Italian dishes, which you’ll learn more about in a cooking class — such as the market visit and class with Chef Jacopo in Florence, include ingredients that most Americans are familiar with, like mozzarella and various kinds of pastas. What is less familiar is how Italians arrange their menu.

Start with l’antipasto or antipasti (appetizers). As in America, Italians love to start their meal with a small plate of food such as bruscetta or insalata caprese (buffalo mozzarella salad). If you’d like to split your appetizer with whomever you’re dining with, just let your waiter know, and they’ll bring you a second plate.

Next up is the primo piatto, or the pasta course. Unlike in the U.S., the serving size of the pasta is almost always a small portion, as this course is followed by the main course. Other dishes that may be listed under primo include gnocchi and risotto.

The secondo piatto features the main course or entree. While many of our cookery courses include making multiple course meals, you’ll most often learn how to make traditional main entrees that can be either fish, meat, poultry, or game.

Contorno means side dish; these are ordered a la carte and served with your secondo course. Often, contorno options are either vegetables or salad.

Formaggio, or cheese, is also typically listed as a separate menu section in Italy. While mozzarella is popular in many regions throughout Italy, formaggio often highlights local, artisan cheeses that are seasonal. This is served as its own course.

Lastly, dolce is the sweetest part of the menu: dessert. These sweet treats often vary from region to region in Italy. During our culinary vacation in Norcia, delight your tastebuds with housemade ricotta dipped in honey. During “Cook Under the Tuscan Sun,” enjoy such desserts as cream soffiata al limone, or lemon cream, which is often paired with fresh fruit.

Italian menus feature many courses, but don’t feel pressured to order from every part of the menu. While serving sizes are more reasonable in Italy compared to the U.S., they still are very filling. But with the delicious flavor combinations, it may be difficult to order just one or two courses!

Buon appetito!

By Liz SanFilippo Hall
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