How to Eat Like an Italian: A Guide to the Traditional Italian Meal Structure

If you get invited to an Italian’s home for a meal on a Sunday, first count your blessings, then clear your schedule. In Italy, Sunday is a day for all the generations of a family to come together and enjoy each other’s company, and the food that is so important to our culture. If you’ve never been lucky enough to find yourself at Nonna’s home in the Italian countryside, let me take you through just how special an Italian Sunday meal can be. The first thing you need to know is that this meal is an all-day affair. The family spends hours cooking together before sitting down to a multicourse meal. What makes this style of eating so special is that it’s designed to force you to slow down to enjoy the moment, which allows you to really savor the food and improve digestion. Come along with me as we journey through a beautiful traditional Italian meal together:


Depending on where you are in Italy, antipasto can look very different from region to region, but the commonality of this course is a beautiful spread of cured meats and cheeses.  My family loves serving a beautiful board of locally produced mozzarella; truly *just gorgeous*. Like all things in life, moderation is key here. A true Italian knows just to nosh on this course as the best is still yet to come! Suggested Recipes : Crostino with Prosciutto & Mozzarella, Caprese Salad, Prosciutto & Melone


Primo means “first” in Italian, as this serves as the first formal plated course of the meal.  This is where you let your favorite carbs shine. Think pasta, polenta, risotto, oh my! Picking my favorite course in a true Italian meal would be like picking a favorite child, but let’s just say Primo holds a special place in my heart. It’s common for this course to be vegetarian to build up your hunger for Secondo, which usually is some sort of meat or fish. Another important purpose of this course is to prime your body for the protein-rich portion of your meal, which helps you to digest everything well and make use of the protein as efficiently as possible. When it comes to recipes for this course, the options are truly endless but here are some of my favorites: Lemon Temptress, Rebellious Carbonara, and Cacio e Pepe


The second course of the meal is where the protein steals the show. This is probably most similar to what Americans may consider an entree.  Usually consisting of meat, seafood, or chicken, this course is prepared simply to show off the quality of the protein. Here are a few Secondo options I love: Italian Rack of Lamb, Chicken Piccata, Chicken Cotoletta Primavera, Meatballs, Calamari


In Italian “contorno” means “on the side”, but this course is a little different than what you might consider a typical “side dish”.  The contorno is meant to harmonize with the secondo; it never competes with the main dish but rather highlights the beautiful simplicity.  This course is often salad greens dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil, roast potatoes, or perfectly prepared green vegetables.  This course is meant to further aid in digestion by offering a hefty dose of fiber after the heaviest part of the meal. Suggested recipes: Nonna’s Roasted Potatoes, Sicilian Potato Salad, Eggplant and Ricotta


Quite simply, fruit!  One of the things I love most about Italy is how respectful the culture is of seasonality.  Frutta is a platter of whatever fruit is in season locally, which ensures it will be absolutely delicious.


Dolce is sweet, just like you are. This is the traditional dessert course of the meal and depending on the occasion or region you are in, can vary greatly.  I’m of the mind that you can never go wrong with Tiramisu or Pannacotta, both of which are the perfect make-ahead recipes for entertaining!


Are you sleepy yet? Fear not, we save the best for (nearly) last.  The caffé course is an opportunity for everyone to have a little pick me up in the form of espresso. Keeping with the theme of the entire meal, this course is meant to aid in digestion which is why you’ll never see an Italian have coffee with milk after a meal.


You made it to the end so you deserve a drink! The digestivo course is the boozy icing on the cake of your beautiful journey through a traditional Italian meal.  This final sip usually comes in a shot or short glass and is either sweet or bitter in flavor, but the goal is the same; (are you sensing a theme here?) to aid in digestion!


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