There’s nothing a big bowl of pasta can’t fix – for me, it’s rigatoni alla vodka with chicken fried steak: it’s simply delicious. But Italian cuisine goes far beyond traditional pasta and pizza – it’s full of many of the complexities that make it unique, from the way it’s prepared to the flavor combinations for which it’s famous. If you’re going to an Italian restaurant for the first time – or taking family and friends – it’s best to have some background knowledge about the cuisine …… More important is what to order.
With the right knowledge, it’s easy to know what to order and how to make the most of your Italian restaurant visit, says Sandro Olivero, owner and chef at Amarone Kitchen and Wine in Los Angeles, Calif.
At first glance, the Italian restaurant menu can be overwhelming – with everything from pasta and pizza to meat and fish. “The premise of Italian food is fresh, local and seasonal,” Oliviero tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Italian food incorporates meat, vegetables and grains from the land, as well as fish and seafood from the waters around the peninsula.”
When ordering at an Italian restaurant, Italians usually have three courses: antipasto (appetizer), primo (first course) and secondo (second course). While you don’t have to order this way, it is recommended if you want to get the full experience.
“If you’re hungry, the combination of primo (usually pasta) and secondo (usually a fish or meat-based dish) will fill you up,” Olivero says. “Or, if you want to eat lighter, a combination of antipasti and primo or secondo will leave room for dolce (dessert).”
You also need to know the key words on Italian menus related to the way dishes are prepared: al forno (baked), fritto (fried) and alla griglia (grilled).
For antipasti, called appetizers, you’ll usually find dishes like arancini (fried rice balls), bastoncini di mozzarella (fried mozzarella sticks) and bruschetta (slices of toasted bread, usually rubbed with garlic and topped with extra -virgin olive oil, tomatoes and salt).
The first course, primo, usually consists of heavier, hot dishes, with pasta being the most popular. Some common pasta dishes include cacio e pepe (a sauce made with cheese and peppers), puttanesca (a sauce made with olives, anchovies, oil and tomatoes), vodka (a sauce usually served over macaroni and made with heavy cream and crushed tomatoes) and sourdough (Italian potato dumplings).
The second course, secondo, involves meat and fish dishes. Some popular items you may see are pollo alla cacciatora (chicken cacciatore with tomatoes, onions, herbs and bell peppers), fritto misto (a fried mixture of seafood and vegetables) and parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan).
You can also add a side dish to your meal, called contorni, which may include sautéed vegetables, potatoes and a side salad.
Last but not least, you need to save space for desserts. Olivero’s favorite is the panna cotta – a custard-like dessert made of cream, sugar and gelatin.
Other common desserts in Italian restaurants include canoli (fried pastry dough filled with a slightly sweet and creamy ricotta filling) and tiramisu (a coffee-flavored dessert that includes muffins, mascarpone cheese and sugar).
Don’t be afraid to experiment
While you may be inclined to opt for the familiar pizza slice or traditional pasta and meatballs, consider trying different food groups and combinations.
“Don’t be afraid to order items that contain ingredients you like,” says Olivero. “For example, if you like tomatoes, order a Caprese salad made with fresh raw tomatoes and fresh mozzarella (a softer, moister American cheese) with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.”
The same idea applies to pasta: you can always order pasta with a classic tomato sauce, but if you’re looking for a more complex flavor, you might want to opt for pesto, a sauce made with garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil and cheese.
The history of Italian cuisine
Because Italy has been an official country for less than 100 years, its food varies from region to region, Olivero said. “Italian food changed dramatically with the introduction of pasta from China and the addition of American tomatoes in the 13th century,” Olivero said.
In addition to the availability of ingredients, external factors played a role in the dishes created in each region. As different cultures introduced new ingredients and spices to Italy, Italians began to add more variety and diversity to their cuisine, making it what it is today. However, in general, Italian cuisine is simpler and tends to focus on two to four main ingredients.
“Many Italian dishes can be prepared quickly and with few added ingredients,” Olivello said. “Italians want the ingredients they use to shine and want their flavors to stand out in the dishes they create.”
5 best items to order as a beginner:
Still not sure what to order off the menu? Chef Olivero recommends going with the following items that should be found on any menu, for the best first time-experience.
Spaghetti Carbonara: A Roman-inspired dish consisting of either guanciale (cured pork jowl) or pancetta, egg yolks and pecorino Romano cheese, Olivero recommends this dish for those with more simple taste buds who may not be ready to dive instantly into the world of extreme flavors.
Asparagus Salad: Made from charred asparagus with radicchio and grated parmigiano cheese, Olivero says it’s a simple and healthy antipasti for those looking to add some vegetables to their meal.
Meatballs: A combination of veal, pork and beef mixed with chopped parsley, bread crumbs and parmigiano cheese, Olivero says meatballs are a great way add protein to a dish and pair well with nearly any type of sauce.
Bottarga: This dish is cured tuna roe squeezed together like sausage, chopped finely, added to garlic, spicy chili flakes and olive oil, sautéed in a pan and served over spaghetti. Olivero says its great for those who like fishy dishes and are in the mood for something quick and easy.
Gnocchi al Pesto: Tiny potato dumplings topped with pesto: Olivero recommends this for people looking to try something new and expand their flavor profile at an Italian restaurant.