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Eating in Italy

Hi all. As you may have read from previous posts we will be spending 11 nights in Italy next summer. I have a question regarding eating at restaurants.

By now I am familiar with the multiple courses. Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contorni and Dolce. The question has to do with serving size. Would a Primi, Secondi with Contorno and Dolce with be enough for two people? Thinking my husband and I can share dishes so we can try more things. Primi and Secondi with Contorno seems to be way too much food for me. Trying to have a ballpark idea of how much € we will need for meals. We plan on having hearty hotel breakfast, and light (think panini) lunches.

Thanks in advance,

Posted by
7050 posts

Primi and Secondi with Contorno seems to be way too much food for me.

It really depends what exactly you're ordering. The portions are much smaller, the sauces (if any) are much, much lighter and simpler. The meals are much less focused on quantity/huge portions and more on quality. I could easily handle a primi, secondi, plus a carafe of wine plus dessert (I would eat late in the eve after a lot of walking and skipping lunch most days). I ate mostly fish, which was quite light and low in calories and no fat. A side of vegetables would normally be a part of a balanced meal anyway, so I don't think of it as "additional food". If you skip a (typically pasta) primi and just get the main dish plus vegetables, you should be fine.

The main difference in Italy is they don't really do hearty breakfasts like in the US, but they do have long dinners with lots of options.

Posted by
23464 posts

For our perceptive the sharing of meals is not as common in Europe. Portion sizes are more moderate so there is not as much to share. Pure pasta dishes can be a somewhat larger. While we often split meals in the US, we don't in Europe but we try to be creative in our ordering. You are not required to order a first, second, and third. So -- one of us will order a first and the other a second and quietly share. And the other thing -- look around and see what the other tables are doing and you can see the size of the servings. When we are traveling we tend to eat only two meals a day -- a substantial breakfast and nice dinner.

Posted by
2064 posts

We typically share an antipasti, primi, secondi, conditori and dulci, but occasionally skip the secondi and have 2 primis. We tend to prefer trattorias. The average cost for such a meal with a liter of water and quarter liter of house wine runs 30-40€, unless at a fancier restaurant. The portions do tend to be smaller than in the US, but the food is filling and usually delicious.To share, we just trade dishes. We’ve never been made to feel bad for doing this.

Posted by
11476 posts

I found the best strategy was to ( discreetly) check out what other diners had as we went to our table to see what the portion sizes were.

It varied; at some places it was a 'shared' meal others not.

Usually the basket of bread a pasta and a meat course was all we did. Did not have room for anything else. All washed down with the house red!

Posted by
27405 posts

I usually stick with two courses. On the rare occasions I add a dessert, I am aware that I am eating more than I need to. I find it important to order a contorno; otherwise, my diet is seriously short of vegetables. That's a course I think you can easily share, because there's normally plenty for two people.

It has been my impression that--not just in Italy--servings of seafood (expensive) tend to be smaller than those based on less expensive ingredients. I wouldn't attempt to share a seafood secondo.

Posted by
3 posts

My wife and I recently returned from a 9 day trip and dined in Rome, Volterra, Lucca, Levanto, Florence, and Siena as well as a few Auto Grills along the highways. When multiple courses were available, we frequently ordered just one or two, occasionally sharing a course. We never felt pressured to order any more than we wanted. As others have suggested, it is a great idea to eyeball portions being served to other diners and order accordingly. Of course, you can start with a single course and order more afterward if you wish. Despite what we had heard regarding smallish serving sizes, we did not generally find that to be the case. If we were unsure about a particular course size, the waitstaff was usually happy to provide a description. We relied a great deal on recommendations from the RS guide books or locals and tried to avoid busy, touristy places. All our meals were enjoyable, from the simplest panino or pizza slice to multi-course feasts. Buon appetito!

Posted by
1465 posts

We essentially always order one or (more often) two antipasti, then a primi each, sometimes a dessert to share, just one coffee, and a digestivo or two. I am not a big meat eater and hate seafood, but sometimes my husband orders a secondi. It seems to us that, in general, the antipasti and the primi tend to have the most interesting food. Except in Puglia, we never order the contorni because we can't seem to get used to eating it as its own course without any other food to go with it.

Oh, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of sparkling water.

It is absolutely fine not to order everything you think you'll want for the entire meal all at once --- you can order your antipasti and then consider what you want to order next, and so on. It is fine to ask questions --- we are always enthralled to listen to (some, not all!) Italians at the next table grilling the server about every little detail of the food and ingredients, although we stop at just finding out what is in an unfamiliar dish. We have never, ever been made to feel odd no matter what we order or how much or whether we share a dish. We have seen Italians breaking every single "rule" we have ever read about how Italians eat, even the cappuccino rule.

My guess is that we spend 40 to 60 euro for the two of us, but could spend a lot less and still eat extremely well. We do tend to eat lunch rather than dinner. We rarely eat out in America --- the restaurant food here is just such a disappointment after what we are used to eating in Italy. You will enjoy yourselves, I promise!

Posted by
3812 posts

we never order the contorni because we can't seem to get used to eating it as its own course without any other food to go with it.

Ehm, the secondi goes with the contorni; contorni means side dishes.

Posted by
7707 posts

I think it depends on the type of restaurant, a more formal place is different than a trattoria or cafe, but still, I have never had an issue ordering "for the table"; basically plates to share, based on your appetite. We do tend to order somewhat generously due to portion size, I suppose a good long meal might include an Anti-pasti, maybe two if main courses are not of interest, always a pasta dish and a contorni, then sometimes a meat or fish dish. Dessert is maybe 50-50, but I find if I stretch the meal an hour or two, either coffee or a digestivo is a civilized thing to do, and really more expected than certain courses.

Posted by
1465 posts

That's interesting, Dario --- whenever we have ordered any contorni, it has come all on its own. Like, just a plate of cooked greens. So we kind of gave up on it. Different practices in different parts of Italy? Or is it because it wouldn't be served as a side dish with pasta?

Anyway, next time, we'll see if we can get it as an accompaniment!

Posted by
3812 posts

Sorry, but if you eat a contorni without ordering also a secondi it's obvious the contorno comes on its own.

Contorni means side-dish all over Italy, and there are no regional habits to be considered : Waiters bring at the table what customers order. If you order a side-dish without a main dish, the waiter will bring a side dish without a main dish . What else should the waiter do? Bring at the table a main dish of his choice that you did not order? And them make you pay for it?

Are you trying to be funny? The idea of eating a side dish with pasta is so disgusting that I hope you are joking!

Posted by
1465 posts

Not joking, not obvious --- actually, disgusting or not, in America it is quite normal to have a salad or vegetable (or both!) with pasta.

If I really wanted to torture you, Dario, I would tell you what Americans eat all on the same plate when we go to a "potluck"..........

But I don't want to torture you ---- I'm grateful to you for explaining something that was mysterious to us about ordering a meal in Italy.

Posted by
238 posts

I think so. We always ordered an Antipasti to share and each our own Primi/Secondi (which we shared with each other) and then shared a Dolce - pretty much what we do here at home in the US and found it to be more than sufficient. You don't have to order the whole shebang for yourself

Posted by
7050 posts

The idea of eating a side dish with pasta is so disgusting that I hope
you are joking!

The joke is on you since no one here would find eating pasta with vegetables or another side dish at all disgusting. Lighten up.

Posted by
1965 posts

It does vary trattoria to trattoria, but our rule of thumb at a place we haven't dined before is: one appetizer/insalata, two pasta, one entree, one dessert, half-carafe of house wine. Usually works out well, and clocks in at under 50 Euro. Or two insalata, one pizza, and dessert & vino. FYI, we're usually pretty hungry by 7:00-8:00 PM.

Or...and if you're going to Rome you have to try this, the puntarelle salad (to my knowledge only served in Rome), made from the stems & leaves of the chicory plant--scored, washed, dried, dressed with high-octane olive oil, black pepper and a couple of fresh anchovies on top. Really special.

Posted by
3812 posts

Lighten up

Nobody said that Olive Garden's "places" are empty, only that the big number of flies does not prove eating rubbish to be ok. Lighted.

the puntarelle salad (to my knowledge only served in Rome)

Puntarelle have finally reached northern innovative restaurants (not northerN Trattorias), unfortunately not as a salad. I had it yesterday with steamed pig cheeks. Not bad, but in the end a puntarelle salad would have been easier and better.

Posted by
5407 posts

I remember one of the first times eating in the US (actually, it caught me out a couple of times) and thaf was when I was served a bowl of salad after my starter. Having not specifically ordered a salad as a main dish I assumed it was a side dish and left it sat there for ages awaiting my main. Eventually I figured that it was a course on its own so ate it like that. I'm still not sure if I was correct in my assumption.

Anyway, in Italy I've run the whole gamut of courses right through to ordering just one. Never had any problems whatsover. I eat what I fancy from the menu according to how hungry I am and pay no heed to what is the norm (if there is a standard 'normal') just as I won't eat dinner at 22:00 in Spain.

Posted by
7737 posts

Dario, you crack me up. You're a wonderful reminder that Italians do indeed take their food very seriously. It's one of the many things I love about the Bel Paese.

Also, a brief Italian lesson for others on singular forms and plural forms:
One contorno, two (or more) contorni
One primo, two (or more) primi
One secondo, two (or more) secondi
One insalata, two (or more) insalate
One antipasto, two (or more) antipasti
One dolce, two (or more) dolci
One panino, two (or more) panini

Posted by
5697 posts

@Michael -- yes, please! Sounds like a great meal !!

Posted by
3812 posts

Italians do indeed take their food very seriously

The day romans will get that "no more winter frost" means "no more puntatelle" they'll elect Miss Greta for mayor.

Posted by
15471 posts

Contorno (side dish, generally vegetables of some sort) is ordered with a secondo (second or main dish, which is generally meat or fish) however in most restaurants, at least in Tuscany, it is served in a separate dish (unlike at home where Italians would put secondo and contorno in the same dish).

Splitting dishes is nowadays very common. My wife and I often split dishes meaning that I eat my full dishes and half of my wife’s dishes (that’s why I’m so huge).

Half primo and half secondo with a contorno is probably enough for most women. Men my size need at least a full primo, a full secondo, a full contorno, plus whatever half of whatever my wife gives me. I rarely order a full antipasto. At most we split one with my wife or others. I’m not big on dessert, so I rarely order it. I’ll let my wife have that. My desert is usually a drink like vinsanto or amaro, or a sgroppino. Occasionally I might taste my wife’s dessert.

My wife and I generally spend on average about 35€ per person in Florence for something like I described above. In the countryside it’s probably €10 less. Of course it varies also depending on what you order (fish dishes are more) and in which restaurant.

Posted by
616 posts

If you want your co torno with the pasta, just ask and it will be served aside the pasta. It is up to you to mix it up.
In Italy, we do not like to mix different flavors together. Even when we take antipasti we will be careful not to mix certain antipasti with others. Meat antipasti will not be mixed with fish antipasti for instance. We will also often serve cold antipasti first and then hot antipasti. Therefore we eat on a lot of different little plates.

Posted by
1626 posts

We’ve lived in Italy for over a year and done a fair amount of traveling. Since we often have drinks and aperitif late afternoon or early evening, we rarely order more than a pasta (primo) OR main (secondi) dish. Never both. Sometimes we do share and just say “uno per due” - 1 order for two. They may split the dish on two plates or bring an extra plate. We almost always share a pizza, but might order salad as an appetizer.

We never order the “menu” as three courses are just too much food.

Posted by
70 posts

Somewhat off post but I just wanted to throw in a plug and stand up in defense of the state of dining in the US and object strenuously to @nancyscherer8's comment that she can not bear to eat out in the US as compared to Italy. I am an ex chef, trained in Paris and have lived for twenty years in Minneapolis MN and currently in Madison Wisconsin. I have traveled/dined extensively in France and to a much lesser degree in Italy. The dining scene in the Twin Cities as well as Madison has exploded over the past 20 years. And Madison is a small college town of 300,000. From what I gather this advance in the dining scene has been occurring nationwide. Many James Beard award winning restaurants in both towns and many handfuls of excellent, reasonably priced restaurants to choose from. Nancy is in St Paul and has dozens of tremendous restaurants on her doorstep. Not really sure what she is lacking or looking for?

To say that dining in the US is unbearable is as indefensible as saying dated tropes like "no one in Europe wears baseball caps, tennis shoes, shorts etc." I have enjoyed many of Nancy's post but feel she is seriously off base with this comment.

Posted by
1465 posts

Hey, I never said "unbearable."

I guess part of our problem is that my husband is such a great cook that we like to eat at home. So we are kind of lazy about going out. And what we want when eating out is really cheap (not just reasonable) and casual and completely unpretentious. Anything that seems "fancy" to me makes me nervous. Perhaps scarred for life by too many fancy restaurants I was taken to as a child.

Also we'd prefer no music, no feeling of being rushed, no servers asking how we are doing every 15 minutes, and just simple, basic, good food made from high quality, fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and not covered up with sauces and flavorings and wacky extras, and not arranged in an excessively artistic manner on the plate.

This all sounds so picky, but we can find it easily within walking distance of any apartment we've rented in Italy, usually at a family-run osteria. Inexpensive wine would be good, too.

Perhaps strangely or perhaps not, every restaurant I can think of that we have thoroughly enjoyed in America has been an ethnic restaurant.

I'm sorry I generalized about American restaurants without explaining that we are cheap, lazy, picky, and spoiled --- I am positive that you are correct and that if we tried more places here in Saint Paul (also New York and Washington, D.C. where we spend time visiting family) we would find some great places to eat. I am doubly sorry that I fell into the trap of making "what I happen to like" into "what's true." That's always a danger in these forums.