When it comes to dining, there’s a classic saying in Italy that reads as the following: “At dinner, the appetite comes while you are eating.”

With that in mind, traditional Italian dining typically follows a carefully cultivated formation that encourages the diner to both enjoy their food, while also taking the opportunity to revel at the moment and enjoy the time spent with the company around them.

With that in mind, whether you’re planning on serving a classic Italian dinner for friends and family, or you’re simply learning a little more about the rich culture and customs of Italy – we’re going to be talking you through how to go about serving dinner – the Italian way. Read on.

Course One: Aperitivo

When it comes to traditional Italian dining, the evening will typically begin with the Aperitivo, which is the very start of the dinner. During the Aperitivo course, diners are offered a drink to begin, and this drink will usually be either wine, prosecco, or wine.

Of course, if desired diners can also opt for a non-alcoholic beverage during Apervito. The idea of providing a bubbly drink at the start of the evening is to help relax guests while also encouraging them to engage in conversation with the rest of the diners.

In addition to this, the bubbly drink is also designed to help whet the palette and increase appetite in preparation for the main courses.

Sometimes, but not always, a small course of food might also be provided during the Aperitivo to help tide diners over while they wait for their main course.

If you would like to provide your guests with a small appetizer and want to follow the Italian way, then we recommend serving your guests a small portion of cheeses, olives, or even dipping bread accompanied by oil. `

Course Two: Antipasti

Like we mentioned above, the Aperitivo course will usually only consist of an alcoholic beverage in order to whet the palette and encourage conversation, as the Antipasti is actually considered to be the “appetizer” course.

For this reason, during Antipasti, diners will be offered a light yet delicious platter of food that will help to increase appetite and merriment.

Due to this, it’s not uncommon for sharing foods to be offered during Antipasti, including charcuterie boards, bruschetta, and bread baskets to help prepare dinners for the main course without becoming too full.

Course Three: Primi

In accordance with traditional Italian fine dining, Primi might be the third course – but it’s the first course that offers diners their first plate of hot food.

However, even though there aren’t any set rules when it comes to Primi dishes, it is generally accepted that meats are not served during this course, as they are reserved for later courses as the night goes on.

Despite the lack of meat, that doesn’t mean that Primi dishes aren’t delicious and indulgent, as the most common types of dishes that are served during the Primi course are risottos, pasta, broth, and even gnocchi.

Course Four: Secondi

After your guests have been given their starter during the Primi course, you will then need to serve them a variety of seafood and meat dishes during the Secondi course.

At least, that’s what traditionally happens during Secondi, and the type of food that is served during Secondi will typically be in accordance with the region of Italy that the dinner is being served in.

However, if you’re not currently in Italy, to give you an idea of what type of food is served during Secondi, you can expect to be served the following:

  • Lobster
  • Shrimp
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Lamb

After the main “meat” dish has been served, it is customary to then offer guests a palette-cleansing dish, and this dish is typically sorbet – as it is not too heavy or filling.

Course Five: Contorni

The next type of course that is offered during a traditional Italian dinner evening is Contorni, which is often served alongside the Secondi dishes.

Deemed as being “side dishes” it’s important to keep in mind that all Contorni dishes are traditionally vegetable dishes, and they are often served on a separate plate from the meat dishes.

The main reason for this is to encourage guests to share their side dishes and mingle, as well as to help prevent any flavors from becoming mixed up.

During the Secondi and Contorni courses, a glass of wine is typically served that complements the main meat dishes that are being served and is designed to help cleanse the palette and enhance the flavor of the individual dishes.

Course Six: Insalata

Course Six: Insalata

Insalata is an optional course that is occasionally offered if there are no salads or leafy dishes served during the Contorni course. If there are no leafy salads presented during the Contorni course, then an Insalata course will soon follow after the Contorni course has been finished. So technically, it IS a type of Contorno.

Course Seven: Formaggio e Frutta

After all of the main hot dishes have been served, in accordance with traditional Italian dining, the Formaggi e Frutta course will then be served. During this pre-dessert course, a variety of delicious cheeses will be served, and fresh fruits to help enhance the flavor of the cheese that is presented.

Alongside this spread of cheeses and fruits, another glass of wine will be offered to help cleanse the palette and enhance the flavor of the cheese and fruits.

Course Eight: Dolce

Now, it will be finally time to indulge in some delicious dessert dishes! After your guests have finished eating their cheese and fruit board, you will then need to move on to the Dolce course, where you can offer your guests a range of different desserts, including sorbet, gelato, cake, pie, and more.

When it comes to Dolce, there are no set rules on what type of desserts can be served and enjoyed, although on occasion regional desserts will sometimes be offered – although this is most commonly seen while dining in Italy. As a side note, if you come from a certain region of Italy or want to pay homage to your roots, why not serve your guests a dessert specific to your home region?

Course Nine: Caffe

After your guests have finished enjoying their delicious selection of desserts, it will then be time for you to move the dinner on to the ninth course, which is known as Caffe. Just like its name suggests, the Caffe course will typically consist of a strong espresso that is served at drinking temperature without any additional sugar or milk.

The espresso is offered in order to help wash down the dessert courses, while also providing guests with the opportunity to engage in a relaxed conversation with the other guests who are dining as the dinner winds down.

Of course, if you do not wish to offer an espresso or a guest would prefer something else, then other warm drinks can be served to guests, including standard coffee or even black tea.

Course Ten: Digestivo

At the very end of a traditional Italian dining experience, the final course will typically consist of an alcoholic beverage that will help to assist with the digestive process – including drinks such as an amaro or limoncello.

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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