“Italian for beginners”
We’ve all heard of those “Italian for beginners” courses. They teach you how to introduce yourself, book a hotel room, and order a taxi.
But what about a crash course in the everyday Italian you use without even leaving town—Italian for menus? Sure, you can sift through the beginner-level language tutorial of your choice. That’s a lot of information to get through just so you can decide what you’re having for dinner tonight!
We’ve come up with a brief introduction to Italian as you encounter it most, on restaurant menus.
• Aperitivo: “Aperitif.” A light drink you consume before starting to eat. This is often an alcoholic beverage, such as wine, prosecco, or spumante, but it can also be non-alcoholic.
• Antipasto: “Before the meal.” Essentially, this is your appetizer. It is often a cold food and should be lighter than the first course.
• Primo: “First.” The first course of a multiple-course meal. The primo corso should be a hot food that is heavier than the antipasto, but lighter than the secondo corso. The primo is also typically a meatless dish.
• Secondo: “Second.” The second course, which often includes different meats and fishes. Think of it as the main course.
• Contorno: “Side dish.” The side dish that accompanies the secondo corso. The contorno typically is a vegetable dish that can be either hot or cold. It is served on a separate plate from the secondo.
• Insalata: “Salad.” Even though you see this at the beginning of the menu in American Italian restaurants, the Insalata in Italy is served after the main course.
• Dolce: “Sweet.” The dessert course, which is the final food served during the meal. It should, of course, be followed by a caffè—and if you’re really doing things right, with a digestivo.
• Digestivo: “Digestif.” Not as common on American menus, the digestive bookends the meal along with the aperitivo. It is an alcoholic beverage, usually an herbal or fruit liquor, that you drink at the end of the meal to soothe your stomach after eating all that heavy food.
• Cioppino: “Cioppino.” A fish stew. Commonly found in Italian American restaurants, this dish actually originated in San Francisco. Because of its popularity, it’s a true Italian-American food.
• Pasta alla or alle (anything): “Pasta with” or “Pasta in the style of.” This is a pasta that has been prepared with certain ingredients, such as spaghetti alle vongole (pasta with mussels), or according to tradition in a certain place or by a group of people pasta alla Norcina (pasta as it is traditionally made in the city of Norcia, Italy).
• Marinara: Another Neapolitan tradition, marinara sauce is made from tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and onions. There are many possible variations, but it is always a meatless, tomato-based sauce. Marinara, as in pasta alla marinara, is pasta that has been prepared in the style that mariners supposedly used to make it.
• Carbonara: A sauce hailing from the Italian capitol, Rome, carbonara is traditionally made from eggs, cheese, bacon, and black pepper. It is a heavier sauce than a marinara, and is typically served with spaghetti.
• Puttanesca: Literally, “in the style of garbage.” This name probably comes from the variety of ingredients that go into making this sauce: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, olives, capers, and anchovies. But there are regional differences; for example, the Neapolitan version leaves out the anchovies.
• Tartufo: “Truffle.” Any dish containing tartufo derives its flavor from the truffle mushroom.
• Polpette: “Meatballs.” ‘Nuff said.
• Osso buco: Popular in Italian American restaurants, this dish of veal shanks braised in a white-wine broth with vegetables originated in Milan.
• (Anything) al forno: Any dish that is al forno has been baked in the oven.
• Formaggi: “Cheese.” This can be a course during the meal, following the insalata. It is also the Italian word for cheese.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it will give you an edge on the other diners at your table—and maybe give you a chance to impress them. For everything else, there’s always Rosetta Stone.