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Antipasto to amaro: What to expect from every step of an Italian dinner

Whether you're going out to dinner in Italy or have been invited to over to a friend or extended family member's home, here's what to expect from an Italian meal.

Tourists sit at the terrace of a Venice restaurant.
Tourists enjoy a meal at a Venice restaurant. Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP.

More humble and less fussy than French cuisine, Italy’s cucina povera (literally, ‘kitchen of the poor’) tradition employs minimal ingredients, prioritising fresh local produce over complex techniques.

But while it might not be as elaborate and formal as its Gallic counterpart, an Italian dinner is still traditionally a multi-course affair, often stretching over several leisurely hours and involving various stages.

If you’re invited into an Italian home for lunch or dinner, you’re likely to find it a fairly relaxed occasion that may include all or just some of the courses listed below – though you can expect it to be lengthy and copious.

As in many other countries, it’s polite in Italy to bring a bottle of wine or dessert to dinner in someone’s house; if in doubt, ask what your hosts would like.

Without further ado, here’s what you can expect from a full Italian dinner.


The antipasto (‘before-meal’) is the starter course.

Its remit is pretty broad, and might include anything from bruschetta to salad to a cheese or meat platter. If you’re in someone’s home, you might be served olives or savoury snacks such as taralli.

While you’ve probably heard of the tradition of the pre-dinner aperitivo drink and snack, this is separate from the dinner itself, and usually takes place in bars or cafes rather than in restaurants or homes.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What time do people eat dinner in Italy?

Primo piatto

A primo is a carb-based dish: almost always pasta, though it could also be risotto, gnocchi or polenta.

In line with the cucina povera, which describes the make-do cooking of poverty-stricken rural Italy in decades gone by, this dish serves to fill the diner up before moving on to a smaller (more expensive) protein course.

Because of this, while you might find small amounts of meat or fish in Italian primi in the form of guanciale in your carbonara or minced beef in your ragù sauce, you won’t be served large quantities of meat with your primo.

Polpette, or meatballs, are a separate second course, and you’ll never come across a chicken-based pasta dish in Italy.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Secondo piatto

The secondo is, as its name suggests, your second main dish – usually meat or fish, though most restaurants will offer at least one vegetarian option in the form of something like an aubergine parmigiana.

If you want to round it out, you can order one or more contorni – side plates of salad or vegetables.

Italian restaurants will provide both primo and secondo options, but these days most places won’t expect you to order both, and it’s fine for one person to order a primo and the other a secondo to arrive at the same time.


Once the secondo is over, it’s time for dessert.

The type of dolce you’re offered will likely vary depending on region, but the list commonly includes cantucci biscuits to be dipped in vin santo dessert wine, panna cotta, a crostata tart, and, of course, tiramisù.

If you’ve got a hankering for gelato, you’re probably best off heading out to one of the many gelaterie that populate the piazzas and streets Italian towns, where you’ll have access to a wide range of flavours.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy


Next comes the caffè, which in Italy is an espresso – definitely not a cappuccino or caffè latte, which are strictly breakfast drinks, though you might get away with asking for a splash of milk and making yours a caffè macchiato.

It might seem unwise to consume caffeine at the end of the evening, but you can always order a caffè decaffeinato (usually shortened to deca), and its effects are at any rate tempered by what follows:


At the very end of the night, you’ll likely be offered a bitter amaro liqueur or some other spirit-based digestivo (some restaurants will bring these for free along with the bill).

This could also be a distilled liquor grappa, or if you’re further south, a sweet limoncello.

Taken straight after or along with your coffee, these after-dinner drinks are known in Italy as an ammazzacaffè – literally, a coffee-killer, for its dampening effect on the caffeine.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of an Italian meal! Now you just have to roll yourself off your chair or sofa and make your way home, where you’ll spend a good portion of the following day digesting your meal.

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For members


Reader question: What time do people eat dinner in Italy?

If you're planning to book a restaurant or want to invite your Italian friends or neighbours over for dinner, here's a look at what time the evening meal is normally eaten in different parts of the country.

Reader question: What time do people eat dinner in Italy?

If you’ve spent summer holidays in Italy you no doubt have memories of relaxed evenings spent eating and drinking all’aperto on restaurant terraces. Particularly if you’ve visited the south and islands, you’ll have seen that Italian families often arrive to begin their meals long after people from, for example, the US or Scandinavian countries have finished eating.

While this gives the impression that Italian habits are similar to those in Spain, with its famously late dinners, the time people have their evening meal in Italy depends on which part of the country they’re from, and often on the time of year.

Obviously every family will have varying habits, but as a general rule mealtimes are fixed in Italy – and this is especially important to know if you plan to eat at a restaurant.

To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some basic guidelines.

Dinnertime in Italy

Mealtimes in Italy are dictated by restaurant opening hours, and generally the evening meal period starts from around 8pm. That’s when the tables are ready and the kitchen is open, and restaurants in most towns and cities won’t accept bookings before 8pm or even 8.30pm – although tourist resorts often have more places that are open all day.

If you’re from a country where restaurants stop taking orders and close the kitchen at around 10pm, things are a lot more relaxed here with most open until at least 11pm or midnight, depending on how busy they are. 

In smaller towns, you may find that restaurants don’t open every night – shutting on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday is common – and some shut their doors earlier in the colder months. 

In the summer, most restaurants stay open late and it’s not unusual for people to arrive for dinner closer to 9 or 10pm and for customers young and old to linger on terraces until past 1am.

If you’re eating at an Italian home, the evening meal in Italy is considered a family affair – around a table, lots of chatter, and an all-round convivial experience that rolls along merrily for an hour or so. Food is often lighter than at lunch, but still plentiful.

READ ALSO: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

Mealtimes are set in Italy and this is reflected in restaurant opening hours. Photo by Stefano Vigorelli on Unsplash</a

This meal usually starts at around 8pm, when the evening news begins. If you consider it poor form to have the television blaring out during mealtimes, you may have to adjust to the fact that many families in TV-obsessed Italy find it perfectly normal to watch, discuss and argue about the news while eating at the table and even time their meals around it.

In those households where mealtimes don’t revolve around the TV schedule, dinner may begin slightly earlier in the north at around 7.30pm, and as late as 9pm in the south.

This map offers an idea of how this compares to typical evening mealtimes in other countries around Europe:

Of course, there are no rules about the timing of evening meals, beyond having to wait for the restaurants to open if you want to eat out, so the above map should be taken as a rough guide only.

What about lunchtime?

If you’re looking for an early or late lunch in Italy you may be out of luck. Lunchtime is between roughly 12.30 and 2.30 pm – that’s when restaurants operate their lunchtime service, so that’s when it’s time to eat. Casual places open slightly earlier or later, but if you arrive at 12 you may well find a restaurant won’t be ready to serve you for another half an hour. 

If you want to eat outside of these core eating times you’ll need to find a restaurant that offers ‘service non-stop‘: these are quite common in tourist areas and big cities, but generally don’t serve the best food. While Italians tend to balk at the idea of eating lunch on the run, if you don’t mind something smaller your options include panino trucks or the local bakery, and some daytime fast food options can be very good in Italy: think fried arancini in Sicily or pizza al taglio in Rome.

If an Italian family invites you over for lunch, it’s always wise to double-check what time lunch actually is, because this is one Italian occasion you do not want to be late for. As a general rule, people eat at around 1-1.30pm in the north and will find eating after 2pm a little odd. In the south, 2pm is considered a perfectly normal time to start eating. Again, this really depends on the family, but they will likely eat at the same time every day.

READ ALSO: Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

At Italian offices meanwhile, colleagues often tend to eat lunch together at an agreed time rather than staggering their lunch breaks or simply opening up a packed lunch whenever they get hungry. In some workplaces, employees will have basic kitchen facilities used to cook shared meals. If this sounds time-consuming, remember that working through or cutting short your lunch break is not seen as remotely normal in Italy, and Italians simply do not eat at their desks – ‘al desko’ is not a thing here and frankly, life is better for it.

Sunday lunch meanwhile can be very special, and abundant to a fault. Sunday is famously family day in Italy. In some – less touristy – parts of the country, most shops don’t open at all (with the important exception of the bar-pasticceria where you can get your morning coffee and also buy a dessert to bring to your family meal). 

This meal usually involves at least five courses – antipasti, primo, secondo, frutti, e dolce (starters, first course, second course, fruit, and dessert) accompanied by various contorni (side dishes) and followed by coffee and digestivo. Wine will no doubt be involved, as it’s seen as almost essential to the enjoyment of food, almost like a condiment. Salad may be served following the main course, too – it’s considered something of a palate cleanser.

All of this can easily last two or three hours, and may stretch out even longer if you’re in, say, the rural south.

Restaurants are open on Sundays from around 12.30 to 3pm if you prefer to eat out – and you’ll find that many Italian families do, making traditional restaurants lively, noisy places to be.

Your Italian neighbours may be a little surprised if you tell them you eat lunch at 12 noon and dinner at 6pm, but it’s a personal thing. And if you live here you’re likely to find that your mealtimes shift to fit in with your increasingly Italian way of life.

Have your eating habits changed since moving to Italy? How do Italian mealtimes compare to those in your home country? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.