In restaurants around the world, Italian food is forced into the menu straightjacket of Starter, Main Course, and Dessert, a holy trinity that doesn’t exist in Italy. The result is that dishes are found on the wrong part of the menu, leading the diner to fundamentally misunderstand how Italian food is, and is meant to be eaten, as well as missing out on the much vaunted benefits of an Italian diet.
Italian food in restaurants
Go to a restaurant in Italy and you will find the menu structured like this: Antipasti (before the meal), Primi (first courses), Secondi (second courses), Contorni (side dishes), and Dolci (desserts). What you will find on the menu will depend on where you are in Italy since Italian food is very regional. However, the broad categories are always the same.
Antipasti consist of small items to get your appetite working. Typically they will consist of cold meats, fish, cheese, or vegetables. In Tuscany, you will find crostini, in Campania, caprese. In some parts of Italy there will be fried food on the menu, such as olive ascolane, from Le Marche, or carciofi alla giudia from Rome. Portions will be small, since these are there to open the meal and not fill you up.
There are three main types of primo: pasta, rice, or soup. In the north, you are more likely to find risotti, in the centre and south, pasta. Again, the portions tend to be smaller. 80–125 grams (3–4 1/2 ounces) dry weight per person is considered ideal for pasta.
Simplicity is the key to a good secondo. Often they will consist of grilled or roast meat, or baked fish in which the quality of the ingredients is allowed to shine through. Occasionally, things get a bit more complicated, such as in the classic dishes saltimbocca alla Romana, or costolette alla Milanese. But with the exception of winter dishes—and Italians eat seasonly—secondi are rarely heavy and doused in sauce. Don’t expect vegetables with a secondo if you don’t order them. Many Italians will eat them without.
Some people will order vegetable side dishes to eat with their secondi which again are usually simple. The most common are roast potatoes or vegetables cooked and dressed with oil. One choice is enough: there are no meat-and-two-veg Italians.
The one thing you will seldom find on a restaurant menu in Italy is gelato. People will usually buy this directly from a gelateria and the good ones will have queues snaking around the corner at about eleven o’clock at night.
Italian food at home
It’s not uncommon for Italians to eat all the courses listed above in a restaurant, although many will go for an antipasto and a primo or an antipasto and secondo if it’s not a special occasion. But unless they have guests, they will never eat all of those courses at home. However, it’s not uncommon for them to eat all of the above in the course of one day.
Outside the big cities, many Italians still go home for lunch where they will eat an antipasto and a primo. In the evening, they will have a secondo and a dolce (which often consists of fresh, seasonal, fruit). This means that they eat the majority of their carbohydrates during the day and the majority of their proteins in the evening. I know many Italians who will refuse to eat pasta in the evening. Although there is disagreement about when you should eat carbs, it seems that eating them at the same time every day, with a long break between your next carb loaded meal, is good for weight control.
So the real secret of the Italian diet seems to be eating smaller portions but also regularising and isolating your carb intake. One way of doing this is to realise that pasta or risotti are not main courses for dinner, but are best eaten in moderation for lunch. The key to eating Italian food seems to be eat like an Italian.