Italian Mealtimes and Specialities

Understand how the Italian cuisine fits in to the rhythms of the day, and find out about the most famous dishes of the country...

Italians and their pasta

There are more than 350 varieties of Italian pasta and yet the basic ingredients number just two or three: flour and water plus the occasional egg. Eaten as a first course, before the meat or fish, pasta in Italy isn't heavily sauced (the sauce should stick to the pasta, not submerge it). By law, dried pasta can only be made from durum wheat, the hardest wheat containing the most gluten (durum means ‘hard' in Latin), ideal for producing firm, al dente (to the tooth) pasta. Fresh pasta, made with eggs for extra richness, is still considered a luxury foodstuff. Emilia-Romagna claims ownership of the original (and best) version of pasta all'uovo (pasta made with egg).

Italian mealtimes

Prima colazione: (taken between 07:00 and 10:00). Breakfast is a sweet affair, usually taken standing in a bar on the way to work. Coffee, often cappuccino, might accompany a cornetto (croissant) or brioche filled with jam (marmellata), confectioner's custard (crema) or chocolate (cioccolato). The old habit of taking a caffè corretto as a sharpener ('corrected' with a shot of liquor) is on the wane.

Pranzo (taken anytime from 12:30 to 14:30 in urban areas; at midday in the countryside). In towns and cities, lunch, traditionally eaten at home, is increasingly taken in the workplace, restaurant or snack bar, where a panino (sandwich) or tramezzino (triangular, crustless sandwich) is common. Rural Italians still rush home for lunch. When time allows, the typical Italian lunch has at least four instalments:

  • Antipasto – appetiser or hors d'oeuvre, typically of olives, cheese, vegetables or cold meat
  • Primo piatto minestra (soup), pasta asciutta (pasta, usually with a sauce) or risotto
  • Secondo piatto – meat and/or fish served with contorni (side dish) of vegetables
  • Formaggio o dolce – cheese or pudding (often simply fruit)

Cena: (taken between 20:00 and 22:00). Dinner, usually taken at home, follows a similar pattern of courses to lunch.

Feast foods

  • Christmas: The main meal, taken on Christmas Eve, is usually fish. Regional variations find the Romans favouring spaghetti with clams or tuna and the Modenese eating tortellini followed by bollito misto. Dessert is panettone or pandoro cake
  • Carnevale (the week before Lent): Sweet food, much of it deep-fried, is the norm. Sit down for fritters and cakes, including chiacchiere, sweetened pastry fried and then dusted with icing sugar
  • Easter: Tortellini in broth or lasagne are followed by lamb (often kid goat in the south) with artichokes or potatoes. The traditional pudding is shaped like a dove; the colomba cake symbolises peace and the Holy Spirit
  • New Year: After an evening of dancing (and drinking), on New Year's Day Italians eat zampone sausage with lentils; the more lentils you eat the happier and more successful you'll be in the coming year (lentils being representative of money)

Italian bread

  • Pane carasau: Sardinia's best-known bread (sometimes referred to as carta da musica) looks more like a tortilla; it's thin and crisp and lasts for weeks – ideal for the itinerant shepherd
  • Pane di Altamura: A large, heavy, brown-crusted, slow-cooked bread with straw-colored flesh and DOP status. Comes from the Puglian town of the same name
  • Panettone: The rich, dome-shaped sweetbread native to Milan is prepared with eggs, fruit and butter, and traditionally given as a gift to workers by employers at Christmas
  • Pane Toscano: Tuscany's flat, white loaf has been cooked without salt since the 13th century when local rulers imposed a salt tax
  • Coppia Ferrarese: Made from soft wheat flour, pork lard, olive oil and sourdough, rolled into two twisted lengths knotted together to form an X-shape, as per medieval statute. Native to Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna

The four grades of Italian rice

  • Superfino: Includes arborio, carnaroli, baldo and roma; all used for risotto
  • Fino: Also used for risotto
  • Semifino: For stuffing vegetables
  • Commune: For soups and puddings

Italy's favourite Risottos

  • Risotto alla Milanese: Italy's iconic risotto is bright yellow with saffron and flavoured with beef marrow. Often made to accompany osso bucco (veal shin stew)
  • Risotto al nero di seppia: A deep black dish from Veneto, coloured and flavoured with cuttlefish ink
  • Risotto al Barolo: A bright red risotto from the eponymous wine region in Piedmont
  • Risotto al funghi: Another Piedmont variety, this one made with wild mushrooms

Where to eat

  • Ristorante: Sophisticated eatery likely to be serving national or international (French-inspired) cuisine
  • Trattoria: Serving local dishes for a full meal of multiple courses
  • Osteria: A simple, informal restaurant serving local dishes that can be ordered individually
  • Enoteca: Wine shop or bar serving snacks like salumi (charcuterie) and cheese
  • Pizzeria: Pizza restaurant that will often serve pasta too
  • Spaghetteria: Simple bar-cum-restaurant serving pasta
  • Paninoteca: Sandwich bar
  • Rosticceria: Snack bar
  • Pizzerie al Taglio: The original fast food joint; pizza is made by the metre and cut to order
  • Gelateria: Ice-cream parlour
  • Bar/caffè: For breakfast or to grab a sandwich with a drink
  • Tavola calda: Bar serving ready-prepared food often displayed in a cabinet
Extract from Speak the Culture Italy, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing