A menu is a menu in Italian as well as in English and French (and perhaps many other tongues). But this doesn’t mean that one country's menu is like any other's.
Here is what you can expect to find on il menu at an Italian ristorante:
*L'antipasto (before the meal), small dishes that accompany an aperitivo and stimulate the appetite. Hot (caldo) items might include crostini, bruschetta and mozzarella in carrozza. Among popular cold (freddo) items are funghi ripieni (stuffed mushrooms) and olive (olives).
A good starter if you want to taste a little bit of everything is the antipasto misto di terra (prosciutto, pancetta, bresaola, etc.) or antipasto misto di mare (a mix of seafood).
*Il primo (first course), usually consisting of pasta (cooked al dente, literally to the tooth, or firm), minestrone, risotto, or zuppa (soup). Unless we’re extremely hungry, Bob and I usually split a pasta course. “Uno per due” (One for two), I say.
*Il secondo (second or main course), which can be di pesce (of fish) or di carne (of meat). If you are ordering beef, you can specify if you want it al sangue (rare), medio (medium), or ben cotto (well done). However, there is only one way that the famous bistecca fiorentina is prepared: very rare.
*Il contorno (side dish or vegetables) such as melanzane (eggplant), spinaci (spinach), or insalata mista (mixed salad).
*Il formaggio (cheese), usually featuring a selection of local specialties
*Il dolce (dessert), which might include tiramisù, zabaglione or zabaione (custard of egg yolks with wine and brandy), or dolci della casa (special homemade sweets) such as panna cotta or torta al cioccolato.
*Caffè (espresso). If you want an extra charge of caffeine, you can order un doppio (a double). If you like just a “stain” of milk, ask for a macchiato. But remember: cappuccino isn’t an Italian after-meal option. However, a digestivo, such as limoncello or grappa, is, particularly after a long and satisfying dinner.
After giving you a chance to review the menù and la carta dei vini (wine list), a waiter may ask what you want in several ways: “Che cosa desidera?” (What do you desire?) “Posso prendere l’ordinazione?”” (May I take your order?) "Cosa prendete?” (What are you taking?) "Avete deciso?" (Have you decided?) The simplest way to answer is “Vorrei… (I would like).
Once you are served, be sure to eat the true Italian way: piano piano (slowly). There's no need to rush through a meal. Remember the old Italian saying, “A tavola non si invecchia mai.” (One never gets old at the table.)
Words and Expressions
Che cosa consiglia? -- What do you recommend?
Quali sono le specialità di questa regione? -- What are the specialties of this region?
Qual è il piatto del giorno? --What is the dish of the day?
Abbiamo mangiato molto bene -- We have eaten very well
Complimenti al cuoco! -- Compliments to the cook!
pagare alla romana -- to go dutchDianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on her "writer's studio" in Capri this fall.