Do you know how to order at an Italian restaurant?
More than just a practical skill, it helps you make meaningful connections with the locals.
Like our student Adam, who eats in little neighbourhood restaurants where no one speaks English (the food is better, and cheaper!)
Or Louise, who went back to a restaurant looking for the amazing zucchine she had there last time. They weren’t on the menu, but the waiter had some made especially for her.
To have memorable experiences like these, it helps to order in Italian.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to do just that, and avoid those little language and cultural faux-pas that tourists often make. We’ll start with the most important thing, choosing what to mangiare – eat!
How to Read an Italian Menu
What’s the first thing you’ll see on an Italian menu? Probably the titles of the different courses:
Antipasti – starters
Primi – first courses
Secondi – second courses
Contorni – sides
Dolci – desserts
In the next section, you’ll learn some common vocabulary for each food course. There are a lot of words here, so don’t worry about learning them all at once! You can use this list as a reference and come back to them little by little as you need them.
Antipasti – starters
il tagliere – a food board with meat, cheese or veggies
i formaggi – cheeses
i salumi/gli affettati – cold cuts
la bruschetta – bruschetta (more on how to pronounce this later!)
Time for our next two courses: primi and secondi. People often wonder which one is the main dish, and the answer is… either, or both! Often Italians pick their main dish either from primi or secondi, unless it’s a special occasion, then they might have both.
Primi – first courses
These dishes tend to be based on carbohydrates, like pasta or rice. No need for translations here as they’re popular worldwide:
Keep in mind that there are many pasta types in Italy, and even Italians don’t know them all! If you see a word you don’t recognise on the primi menu, it’s likely to be pasta. You can always ask the waiter:
È un tipo di pasta? – Is it a type of pasta?
Ah, and if you want to blend in with the locals, remember that Italians usually have their primi without a side. Pasta must be the star of the show!
Secondi (second course dishes)
These dishes tend to be based on proteins, like meat, fish or cheese. Here’s some vocabulary you might find useful:
la carne – meat
il pollo – chicken
il manzo – beef
la bistecca – steak
la tagliata – sliced steak
il pesce – fish
i gamberi – prawns
il salmone – salmon
il formaggio – cheese
The menu will usually specify how these dishes are cooked, so you might see these terms:
arrosto – roasted
alla griglia – grilled
al forno – oven baked
saltato in padella – pan fried/sauteed
When Italians order something from the secondi menu, they usually order a side dish, too. Let’s check these out now.
Contorni – sides
In Italy, the sides are usually based on verdure – vegetables. Here are some examples:
gli spinaci al burro – buttered spinach
le verdure alla griglia – grilled vegetables
le patate al forno – oven baked potatoes
l’insalata verde – green salad
Then, if you have any room left, it’s time for the dolci!
Dolci – desserts
la torta – cake
il tiramisù – tiramisu (a dessert with coffee, cream and cocoa)
la pannacotta – pannacotta (lit. cooked cream)
la macedonia – fruit salad
la frutta di stagione – seasonal fruits
il tortino di cioccolato – chocolate fondant / petit gâteau
For an extra treat, look for dolci fatti in casa – homemade desserts.
Now you’ve read the menu and decided what to eat, it’s time to order! Let’s learn how.
How to Order in Italian
La tagliata, per favore/grazie – The sliced steak, please
Here are a few other handy words for ordering:
Prendo – I’ll have (lit. I take)
Vorrei – I’d like
Per me – For me
Prendo il pollo – I’ll have the chicken (lit. I take the chicken)
Vorrei il tiramisù – I’d like a tiramisù
Per me i ravioli – For me, the ravioli
Common mistake alert: Italians never use ‘have’ when ordering food. For example, they never say ‘I’ll have the chicken’. They literally say ‘I take’ – prendo.
If you’d like to learn more about how to manage your whole Italian restaurant experience, from getting a table to paying the bill, you might like this post: Italian Restaurant and Bar Phrases.
But for now, let’s keep honing your ordering skills!
Italian Food Words You Might be Pronouncing Wrong
To feel confident when ordering your meal in Italian, it helps to get the pronunciation right, too. Here are a few words that a lot of people make mistakes with.
Bruschetta – sounds like BRUS-KEH-TAH
Tagliatelle – sounds like TA-YAH-TEH-LEH
Spaghetti – sounds like SPA-GET-TEE
For more help pronouncing these words, listen to the podcast which accompanies this post.
Three Tips to Make Ordering Easier
If you’re finding the idea of ordering in Italian a bit intimidating, here are a few tips to make things easier.
First, have you ever noticed how Italian dishes often have long, fancy names on the menu? Italians usually just say the first part. For example, if the menu says:
Ravioli di mare con ragù di pesce – sea ravioli with fish ragù
Italians usually just say:
Prendo i ravioli – I’ll have the ravioli
And if you’d rather not attempt to pronounce the dish at all, you can point and say:
Prendo questo – I’ll have this
It’s cheating a little, but still much more satisfying than reverting to English!
Finally, if you want to order the same thing someone else is having, try one of these handy phrases:
Lo stesso – The same
Due! – Two! (say it immediately after the other person orders)
If you’re still feeling nervous about giving it a go, try following the advice in this lesson: Nervous to Speak Italian? Here’s what to do.
How to Order in Italian for Pros
Once you’ve got the hang of the basics, you can get more out of your dining experience with these advanced phrases. They’ll help you get advice from the waiter or make special requests.
Cosa consiglia? – What do you suggest?
Quale vino consiglia? – Which wine do you suggest?
Avete – Do you have…?
Sono allergica/o a… – I’m allergic to…
Sono vegetariana/o – I’m vegetarian
Sono vegana/o – I’m vegan
In the last three phrases, the -A ending is for females, so Katie would say sono vegetariana. The -O ending is for males, so Matteo would say sono vegetariano.
If you’re a wine lover, and you want to know how to order the perfect glass (or bottle!) check out this episode: How to Order Wine in Italy
Cultural Tips To Feel Local At Italian Restaurants
Now you’ve got the phrases and pronunciation right, there might still be a few cultural differences that can leave you feeling a bit lost. Knowing them will help you relax and blend in with the locals.
1. How to eat bread like an Italian: Did you know that Italians don’t dip bread in oil and balsamic vinegar before the meal arrives? This is one of those false exports that doesn’t actually exist in Italy! They usually eat it dry from the basket while they eat their secondo, and some love using it to mop up that delicious sauce left on the plate. Speaking of bread…
2. Pane e coperto explained: This literally means ‘bread and cover’, and it’s a small service charge of around 1-3 euros per person on your bill. It’s not sneaky, that’s just how Italians do it. Actually it might save you money, because…
3. It’s not customary to tip. There’s no need to leave la mancia (tip), but of course, if you’re happy with the service and do leave one, the waiter will be pleased.
Did you know that Italians have quite a lot of little etiquette rules around the drinks, too? You can learn more about these in the podcast that accompanies this lesson.
Now you’re ready to order in Italian restaurants! These skills will help you get away from the beaten tourist path and enjoy eating like the locals.
Remember, speaking Italian takes a lot of practice, so don’t worry if it feels a bit awkward at first, that’s normal. And it’s worth it. When you try to communicate in Italian (even if it doesn’t always go as planned!) waiters will warm to you and include you in a way they don’t with other tourists.
So go forth and enjoy eating in Italy… Buon appetito!
Now, can you remember what you just learned? Check out our quiz.
Vocabulary: Italian Food Words for Restaurants
Cosa consiglia? = What would you suggest?
Avete… = Do you have…?
Vorrei il tiramisù = I’d like the tiramisù
Per me, i ravioli = For me, the ravioli
Prendo il pollo = I’ll have the chicken (lit. ‘I take the chicken’)
Prendo questo = I’ll have this (lit. ‘I take this’)
Gli antipasti = The starters
I primi = The first course (lit. ‘the firsts’)
I secondi = The first course (lit. ‘the seconds’)
La mancia = The tip
Un digestivo = A liquor that Italians drink after dinner
Un amaro = An Italian herbal liquor
Quiz: Italian Food Words for Restaurants
How much did you learn? Find out in the quiz!
Click here to take the quiz for this episode: Italian Food Words for Restaurants
Flashcards: Italian Food Words for Restaurants
Remember the vocabulary from this lesson by downloading the digital flashcards
Not sure how it works? Click here to watch the tutorial
Transcript: Italian Food Words for Restaurants: How to Order Like a Local
Please note, this is not a word for word transcript.
K: Whenever we’re travelling to a new place, we want to know all about the food – aside from being buonissimo, delicious, it helps us feel local.
M: Sììì. It’s like when your friends and family come to Italy. They always ask me lots of questions because they want to try the lovely local food, avoid little touristy missteps and feel part of everything.
K: What do they want to know about?
M: I’ll tell you in Italian:
Vogliono sapere come ordinare e vogliono seguire le tradizioni e i costumi.
K: First Matteo said:
M: Vogliono sapere come ordinare – They want to know how to order.
Vogliono – they want
Sapere – to know
Come – how
Ordinare – to order
M: e vogliono seguire le tradizioni e i costumi – And they want to follow the traditions and customs.
E – and
Vogliono – They want
Seguire – To follow
Le tradizioni – The traditions
E i costumi – And customs
K: In this episode, you’ll learn how to do both: you’ll get tips on how to order your food like an Italian and follow local food customs. Before we get into them, we wanted to let you know that our Online Italian Food and Wine festival is happening this Friday!
M: It’s open to our Italian school students, and you can learn more about it at the end.
K: But first, let’s learn how to order! We use prendo, which literally means ‘I take’. So to order the chicken, we say ‘I take the chicken’:
M: Prendo il pollo (x3)
K: You know how Italian dishes have long, fancy names? Italians just say the first part. So the menu might say something like:
M: Ravioli di mare con ragù di pesce – sea ravioli with fish ragù
K: You can just say, ‘I take the ravioli’
M: Prendo i ravioli (x3)
K: Or you can point, and say ‘I take this’.
M: Prendo questo (x3)
K: It’s cheating a little bit, but much more satisfying than using English!
M: When ordering, it also helps to know the pronunciation.
K: There are a few common mistakes, like ‘bruSHetta’.
M: Oh yes! In Italian, we say bruschetta. With a K: Bruschetta (x3)
K: And tagliatelle. There’s no ‘g’ sound in this. It sounds like TA-YAH-TEH-LEH
M: Tagliatelle (x3)
K: Then risotto. In American English, it sounds something like ‘risodo’. In Italian, we pause on the double tt: Risotto.
M: Risotto (x3)
K: The same with spaghetti. Not ‘spaghedi’, but spaghetti. Pause on the double tt.
M: Spaghetti (x3).
K: And an important part of Italian dining etiquette is how to eat it! It took me a while, but I found my spaghetti groove. Pick a couple of strands with your fork, bring them to the side of your plate and twist them completely around your fork. That’s just the right amount to fit in your mouth without getting sauce everywhere.
M: Good tip!
K: The Italian course system can also be confusing. After the starters, antipasti, we have primi, literally ‘firsts’.
M: Primi (x3)
K: These are pasta, risotto or other carbohydrate-y things.
M: Ah, and there are looooooooads of types of pasta. Even Italians don’t know them all!
K: If you don’t recognise a word on the primi menu, it’s probably pasta. You can ask – is it a type of pasta?
M: È un tipo di pasta? (x3)
K: The next course, secondi, literally means ‘seconds’. These are usually protein-based, like meat or fish.
M: Secondi (x3).
K: Here’s where things get confusing: which is the main course? Primi or secondi?
M: The answer is either, or both! Italians pick their main dish from either, unless it’s a special occasion when we eat a lot, then we might have both.
K: Next, let’s learn about Italian customs for eating and drinking in restaurants. There are many unexpected ones! For example, when waiters bring over bread, sometimes my friends wonder ‘where’s the oil and balsamic vinegar?’
M: I think dipping bread in oil and balsamic vinegar is one of those false exports that Italians don’t actually do! We sometimes eat a little straight from the basket while we’re waiting, but we mostly eat it with the secondi course. And I love to use it to mop up my sauce at the end! Some say it’s not polite, but others say it’s a sign that you enjoyed the food. I’m in the second camp.
K: Speaking of bread, what about pane e coperto. This literally means ‘bread and cover’.
M: It’s a small service charge of around 1-3 euros per person. It’s not sneaky, that’s just how Italians do it. Pane e coperto (x3).
K: Actually it might save you money, because in Italy, you don’t need to leave la mancia (the tip).
M: La mancia (x3). But of course, if you do leave one, waiters will be pleased.
K: There are loads of little rules around drinking, too. Italians usually have still wine or beer with their meal. No Prosecco or cocktails.
M: They distract from the flavour of the food.
K: After dinner, Italians never order cappuccinos or long coffees.
M: All that liquid is too filling after a meal. We usually just order un caffè, which is an espresso, or un macchiato, an espresso with a dash of milk. That’s un macchiato (x3)
K: Then, I love the tradition of having un digestivo. Literally ‘digestive’, it’s any liquor that Italians drink after dinner.
M: Un digestivo (x3).
K: Instead of ordering a bright yellow limoncello, which can be a bit touristy, try un amaro, an Italian herbal liquor.
M: Un amaro (x3). Or una grappa, but careful, it’s strong!
K: A great way to bond with the locals, as long as they don’t have to carry you home!
M: Ha! But seriously, I love hearing about people’s cool food experiences in Italy. I remember our student Louise, talking about going back to a restaurant she liked. She was looking for the amazing zucchine she had there last time, but they weren’t on the menu. When she mentioned it to the waiter, they made some especially for her. Italians have a very generous spirited approach to life in general, but even more so when it comes to food!
K: And Adam, her classmate, who always looks for those little, tucked away restaurants where no one speaks English – the food is better and cheaper! And he enjoys being around the locals.
M: This is why we’d love to invite you to our Italian food and wine festival this Friday, which is open to members of our Online Italian School.
K: We’ll help you build a deeper connection to Italy, and Italians, through food. Instead of the usual pizza, pasta or limoncello, you’ll learn about regional dishes, local food festivals, wine pairings…
M: …and most importantly, how to do everything in Italian.
K: If you’d like to join our school and come along to the festival, you’ll need to be quick because doors close this Thursday, 14th September.
M: The link is in the description. We’d love to see you there!
M – See you soon.
K – Or as we say in Italian.
Join our Italian club
To get mini lessons delivered to your inbox, access to the private Facebook group and invites to speaking workshops, click here to become a member.