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The Italian Dinner

Mangia! Mangia! | Eat! Eat!

The Italian Dinner

'Cena' - Dinner

In Italy, 'cena' - dinner, is the second most important meal of the day, second of course to lunch. It usually begins by going to an Aperitivo (like a happy hour) with colleagues or friends. At an aperitivo you order a drink, then included in the price of the drink is an open buffet of different types of small finger foods. An aperitivo is something that is supposed to spark your appetite, as they say, "l'appetito vien mangiando." (The appetite comes while you are eating.).

Aperitivo usually takes place between about 6:00p and 8:00p, followed by going to dinner, either in a restaurant or by going home to eat.

After Aperitivo, the typical dinner consists of 'il antipasti' (appetizer) 'il primo' (the first course) and 'il second' (the second course) which is served with 'il contorno' (the side dish), 'insalata' (salad), 'formaggi e frutta' (cheese and fruit) then finally 'dolce' (dessert), 'caffe' (coffee), and a 'digestivo' (digestive drink).

This all may sound like a lot of food BECAUSE IT IS! Now, a small disclaimer - depending on where you are from in Italy, this may not be an every night dinner, but instead, it will look a lot like the normal Italian lunch. Italians who are from the south typical eat a large dinner, whereas many Italians from the North eat a large dinner, like this, only occasionally and instead eat dinner much like the structure of the Italian lunch.

When I first moved to Italy I was SHOCKED by the amount of food that people eat for dinner. In addition, the fact that salad comes after the meal (?) followed by cheese and fruit... all things that would usually be a first course or appetizer in the United States. But, as I got more into the routine of trying to eat "the Italian dinner" I have started to get accustomed to eating a variety of different courses, although I just eat a little of each course, I can now finish an entire ' Italian dinner.'

Il Antipasti - The Appetizer / Starter

Unlike aperitivo, the antipasti is usually a little heavier. You will usually find meat platers filled with salami and prosciutto served with bread and different cheeses. Some other typical starters you may find are bruschetta, olives, artichoke hearts, tomato and mozzarella, and smoked salmon. ​

Il Primo - The First Course

The first is always something served hot. You'll usually never find any dishes with meat in them unless there is some meat mixed into a sauce used over pasta.

First courses usually consist of dishes like rice, risotto, pasta, gnocchi, polenta, lasagna, risotto, and soups.

Il Secondo - The Second Course

This second usually is the "heart" of the meal, consisting of meat or fish.

If there is more than one-second dish being served, usually a sorbet is served in between to help to cleanse your pallet.

Il Contorno - The Side Dish

The side is usually always a vegetable or salad. This is served at the same time that the second is brought to the table.

Side dishes can be served hot or cold, depending on what it is you ordered and the season.

The side dish usually consists of different raw or cooked vegetables always, always served in a different dish than the second course to make sure the flavors do not mix.

Insalata - Salad

A salad is only served if the contorno (side dish) is not already salad. But, salad in Italy is usually just green leafy lettuce without any toppings, eating with a pinch of salt and olive oil.

Formaggi e Frutta - Cheese and Fruit

This is usually a mix of one or two fruits and regional cheeses that everyone eats with or without bread. Sometimes served with different flavors of jam or honey.

Dolce - Dessert

There are so many different Italian desserts! But, the most common, when eating at a restaurant are tiramisu, cake, torta della nonna (grandma's cake), canoli, panna cotta, sorbetto, or gelato.

Caffe - Coffee

This is usually an expresso that is served after dessert without milk or sugar.

Digestivo - Digestive Drink

The digestive drink is one that is believed to be the perfect closing to the Italian dinner. This drink is one that can also be drank after lunch, it is always an alcoholic drink - like limoncello, grappa, or amaro, which is believed to aid in the digestion process.