You stroll around, and you start getting hungry. Around you, nobody else is. Typical, isn’t it? Italians start eating lunch around 1:30 PM, and you won’t find many restaurants that open much earlier than 12:30PM. And then you find one that is open, and the you’ll finally know why it’s called a waiter. You’ll wait.
Remember, nobody is in a hurry here. And if they were, they would eat at a fast-food joint (I forbid you from doing the same!). You’ll have to catch the waiter’s attention and start ordering. Remember, you are supposed to eat at least two courses, so choose wisely!
In virtually all restaurants you will be required to pay cover charges, coperto. These can be quite hefty, so check first – restaurants are required to post prices so that you can see them from outside. A mandatory service tax is included to all meals, but somehow you are still supposed to tip (much less than the here customary 15%, though).
Courses: You will start with antipasti, hors d’oeuvre. Don’t overdo them! They are quite wonderful on your starving stomach, but they are typically not the best the house has to offer. Rarely will you find antipasti prepared to order. Most likely your antipasti are going to be from a buffet.
After the antipasti, it’s time for the primo piatto, the first course. If you did as I told you, you will have made the antipasti indeed just an appetizer and not a full course, so that the Italian way of counting still holds.
Primi are rich in carbohydrates. That’s it. Not necessarily pasta, but usually so. Sometimes you’ll get a soup for primo, or a hearty bread pudding. Splurge. It’s an order. Primi are the best part of the meal, and if you are lucky, you’ll be in a restaurant that has teaser courses with four or five different types of pasta.
Pasta is as close to a religion as food can be. Barilla, the largest maker, has over four hundred varieties of egg-free pasta alone (that’s the one that stores forever). And a good Italian knows most of them, and knows what sauces go with what type of pasta. You will be allowed to ignore the finesse and just eat whatever suits your fancy. And if you get tempted to ask where pasta came from and where the ingredients originated: don’t – just eat.
Secondi are the second courses. This is a plural, because of the odd habit of Italians never to mix vegetables and proteins in one plate. You will have to order your protein plate (fish, meat, eggs) and pick your sides one by one. The quality of secondi varies greatly, from the wonderful fish restaurants on the coast to the dubious veal scallops you might get served at a cabin in the Alps. Try the steak in Florence, the boar in the rest of Tuscany (if it’s still legal), the pheasant in the Appennines, the liver in Venice and the famous, breaded bistecca alla milanese, the Milan steak. Actually, turns out secondi are really as elaborate and well thought-out as the primi, but somehow never made it to the States.
And you would think it’s time to stand up. Nope, you’ll have to try one of those wonderful dolci, the rich and startingly sweet desserts. Italians love ice cream and chocolate, as well as all types of rustic pies. The latter always manage to look much better than mom’s at home, but that must be in the air. If you are a real Italian, you would ask for a fruit, by now, and finish up the eternal meal with an espresso and maybe a slice of cheese. You won’t starve in Italy, I promise.