The Italian Courses

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Italians like structure in the way they eat. To them, the balance between the different courses of the meal is as important as the balance between the ingredients of each dish. In Italy, eating is far more than nutrition, it’s a moment of aggregation where families, friends, colleagues get together, relax and participate in the dining ritual. This article describes a typical everyday meal (at home or in an informal restaurant) and compares it with the bigger and fancier meal reserved for special occasions (a wedding, for instance).

In Italy, even the most informal meals commonly include multiple courses. This doesn’t mean that people eat more food – the various courses are a way to break down the meal into different sections, add variety and create a progression. Appetizers and first courses come first because of their delicate flavors (and textures); second courses follow with their stronger elements; desserts, coffee and liquors are reserved to end the meal. The subdivision into courses also introduces pauses, which in some cases are intentionally extended to give the diners the necessary time to rest their palate, and socialize.

In this article we will be referring to both lunch (“pranzo”) and supper (“cena”), as the mid-day meal and the evening meal. As for the early-day meal, please see the post on breakfast (“colazione”).

Everyday meals generally only include a first course (“primo piatto” or simply “primo”) and a second course (“secondo piatto” or “secondo”), plus possibly some fruit (“frutta”) and coffee (“caffé”).

  • The first course is usually based on dry pasta, gnocchi, ravioli, or rice (“risotto”). First courses don’t need any sides and they are not accompanied by bread. Mostly during winter, and especially for dinner, the first course can take the form of a soup, which may contain pasta or rice or may be served with croutons (“crostini”).
  • The second course is centered on a protein – typically meat or fish, but also cheese or eggs. Second courses are normally served with one or more side dishes (“contorni”), such as salads or roasted vegetables. They are usually eaten with bread, “polenta” (boiled cornmeal), or boiled rice.

The structure of everyday meals may seem somewhat similar to North America, where it’s common to have soup or salad as a first course, a main course and dessert. The difference is that the Italians put a lot more emphasis in the first course, so much so that the second course loses the title of ‘main’.

Italian formal meals always begin with a starter course (“antipasto”), and continue with one or more first courses, one or more second courses (meat or fish, sometimes interleaved with a lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser), a cheese course (“formaggio”), desserts, a fruit course, coffee, and liquors. One or more second courses may be replaced by a “piatto di mezzo” (a soufflé or a “torta salata”, similar to a quiche).

  • For starters, a selection of appetizers is a must. They may be in the form of pre-assembled platters, or, more informally, they can be brought to the table in serving dishes, or even presented in a self-service buffet (see the article on antipasto).
  • First courses have elaborate preparations and sometimes make use of expensive ingredients (e.g.: truffles, seafood). When more than one first course is served, the portions of each become smaller. In some cases, a sampler of primi containing 2 or 3 dishes on the same plate may be offered; this, however, is becoming more and more uncommon.
  • Second courses also have a refined presentation and sophisticated ingredients. With respect to North America, the meat portions are smaller to compensate for a filling first course. In restaurants, for some meat or fish dishes, a chef may plate each portion in front of the diners by working in a carving or plating station set up next to the dining table. If both a fish secondo and a meat secondo are served in the same meal, it’s customary to serve them in that order and to interleave a sorbet (usually lemon) as a palate-cleanser. If all second courses are based on meat, or if there is only one second course, then a sorbet may be served between first courses and second courses.
  • Formal meals often have an entire course dedicated to cheese, either in the form of pre-assembled samplers, or where a selection of cheeses is presented on serving trays. In some cases, aged cheeses are paired up with jams (especially figs and pears jams), aromatic honey (e.g.: chestnut tree honey), or mostarda.
  • Desserts are also a must in formal dining. In restaurants, a daily selection of cakes, pastries or tarts is often presented on a serving cart for each diner to choose from.
  • The fruit course may be prepared in a salad (called “macedonia”), and optionally served with ‘gelato’. In winter, a combination of dried fruit and fresh fruit might be offered.
  • Coffee is always served. In restaurants, it’s in the form of espresso; at home it may be from a home-espresso machine or a ‘Moka’ (see the article on espresso).
  • Liquors often conclude the meal because, like sweets, they quench the appetite. They are normally digestive bitters (“amari”). However, grappa, Sambuca, amaretto, nocino, and especially limoncello are also common.

Note that the aperitif (“aperitivo“) – an appetizer drink generally accompanied by a light snack – is not part of the courses as it’s usually had some time before the meal, possibly even in a different venue.

In both informal and formal setups, bread is very important to the Italians (so important that any food that comes with bread is generically called “companatico”). Individual buns and sliced loaves may be served in a basket, or set directly on the table. Butter is not part of the tradition, though in some cases unsalted butter curls may still be served. Bread may be had as a snack before the primo – sometimes in the form of bread sticks (“grissini”) – and it always accompanies the second course. In informal setups, it’s acceptable, after the primo, to use a few bread chunks to wipe up any pasta sauce that may be left on the plate. This practice, called “scarpetta” (little-shoe) is however never used after eating risotto, as its cream (made of starch) is not technically a sauce.

Wine, somewhat common in everyday meals (especially for dinner), becomes mandatory in formal dining – and it must be of high quality. First courses, “piatti di mezzo” and fish courses are paired up with white wines or light reds. Meat-based second courses, instead, require stronger red wines. See the article on wine for more information.

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6 thoughts on “The Italian Courses”

  1. I love Italian multi-course meals! They can take all evening and give you the chance to have good conversation and get to know people in a way you don't in North America.

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