Nobody really needs a guide to help them decide whether to order pizza or pasta when they’re eating out, but if you been to Italy and enjoyed eating long and leisurely meals in an excellent trattoria or restaurant, you’ll know that there is more to an authentic Italian meal than just pizza and pasta.
Italians take their food seriously and a meal out will usually be composed of at least three courses: a primo (first course) of pasta, soup or risotto, a meat or fish secondo (main dish) with a contorno (vegetable side dish) or salad, and a dessert. An antipasto is often added at the beginning as a starter for a leisurely weekend meal. On real feast days like New Year’s Eve and Easter you could expect to sit down to a meal that will last several hours going from an antipasto, through two different pastas and a risotto, a fish dish then a meat course, only then reaching dessert and coffee. But somehow even at a huge meal like this, eaten at a leisurely pace with moderate portions, Italian food is still digestible and isn’t heavy.
Eating out at an Italian restaurant in Britain you might not want to go for the full four courses from antipasto right through to dessert, as portions tend to be larger than in Italy and the menu often seems to be chosen to be slightly richer to suit local tastes. However you can still enjoy a balanced and interesting selection of flavours.
Antipasti offer a range of great choices that we often overlook in favor of pasta. A typical antipasto misto of various sliced salamis and hams is full of flavour, a mixed seafood antipasto or, in summer, prosciutto e melone, with salty sweet parma ham contrasting with the sweetness of melon, all these are simple but satisfying.
You could then skip straight to your meat course if you are looking for a lighter meal, but the primi are often too tempting to resist. Fresh stuffed pasta in a creamy sauce, delicately flavoured risotto with wild mushrooms or asparagus or even a simple spaghetti aglio olio, for some these dishes are better than the meat dishes and not to be missed. For a group a good option would be to ask for two or three different pastas to be served as assaggi (tastes) so that you each get to have a small taster portion of a few dishes
In Britain you can often order pasta and risottos as a main course instead of the meat, and this is a good option for vegetarians, but if you are looking for authentic Italian dining then the meat course is a must! If you have ordered a creamy and filling pasta dish, then choose a simple meat dish without a sauce; grilled sword fish or vitello al limone are good suggestions. Try to vary your courses, avoid a tomato pasta dish followed by a meat dish with a tomato sauce and the same applies to creamy sauces.
And to finish a dessert: tiramisu is an Italian classic that has taken the world by storm and many Italian desserts are similarly rich and creamy, like panna cotta which is delicious served with berries.
Of course you can still enjoy Italian cuisine without eating it in the traditional Italian way – many UK restaurants serve Italian cuisine in a modern European format that has moved away from the three course meal you’ll find in Italy still, encouraging you to enjoy the tastes of Italy, fresh local produce and wonderful fresh pasta in more informal style. The choice is yours. Buon Appetito!
view the Italian restaurants guide with Go dine: