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Italian Full Course Meal: 10 Courses from Aperitif to Digestive

Fifteen years ago, I stepped off a plane in Italy as an 18-year-old art student, my head filled with dreams and my heart bursting with a passion for Italian culture and Italian meals . One of my most vivid memories from that time is my first authentic Italian dinner.

I remember thinking that dinner seemed like a never-ending affair that started at 8 p.m. and stretched late into the night. The reason? The fascinating structure of an Italian meal features course after course of delectable dishes.

Fresh Homemade Pasta, Italy
Homemade Italian Pasta

Since then, I’ve realized that traditional Italian meal structure is an experience in itself, an experience that many foreigners are eager to absorb. While you don’t have to partake in every course outlined in this article, the tradition usually involves enjoying at least two of them.

As we delve deeper, you’ll discover that each course is more than just Italian food; it’s a blend of history, culture, and of course, la dolce vita, the sweet life that Italy is famous for.

“I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size zero.”

Sophia Loren 1965.

1. Aperitif

Aperitif (Italian: Aperitivo) in Italian culture, is a cherished pre-dinner ritual designed to stimulate the appetite. It typically takes place in the early evening, usually from 6 pm to 8 pm, in relaxed settings like bars or outdoor tables. Popular drinks such as Aperol Spritz and Prosecco are paired with light snacks like olives and nuts.

The occasion is also a social gathering, allowing friends and family to catch up before dinner. Beyond just being a course, Aperitivo embodies the Italian ethos of “La Dolce Vita,” making it a tradition that transcends food and drink.

Italian Aperitif
Aperitif (Italian: Aperitivo)

Negroni

The most famous Italian aperitif is undoubtedly the “Negroni”. This classic cocktail is made with equal parts gin, vermouth rosso (red vermouth), and Campari, an iconic Italian bitter liqueur. Garnished with an orange peel, the Negroni has become a symbol of Italian mixology and is enjoyed as a pre-dinner drink to stimulate the appetite.

Negroni photo by Geoff Peters

Italian food is a Culture, not just a cuisine.

2. Starter

Starter ( antipasto ) in Italy literally means “before the meal” and is typically served as small, cold bites. The concept is akin to Spanish Tapas and French hors d’oeuvres, designed to whet the appetite for the courses to follow. Examples of antipasti, or Italian starters, include :

  • Salumi: Cured meats, often salted and preserved
  • Caprese: Tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad
  • Panino: Italian sandwiches
  • Bruschetta: Grilled bread topped with various ingredients
  • Crostino: Smaller, toasted bread with toppings
  • Marinated vegetables

How to make Bruschetta

3. The First Course  

The Primo, or “first course,” is a cornerstone of Italian meals, often featuring pasta, risotto, or soup. Rooted in the tradition of using local, seasonal ingredients, this course embodies the Italian value of “fatto in casa,” or homemade. Beyond the food, the Primo course is also a symbol of community and family, capturing the essence of Italian social values and communal eating.

It’s not just a dish; it’s a celebration of Italian culture. Now let’s talk about the most popular Italian dishes for the First Courses :

“In heaven, after antipasti, the first course will be pasta.”
Steve Albini, Italian-American musician

Risotto

For a basic Risotto, you’ll need Arborio rice, chicken or vegetable broth, white wine, Parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, olive oil, butter, and seasoning like salt and pepper.

Risotto, Italy
Risotto is a rice dish cooked with broth until it reaches a creamy consistency.

Garlic Shrimp Pasta

This seafood pasta is really fantastic. For Garlic Shrimp Pasta, you’ll require linguine or spaghetti, shrimp, garlic cloves, olive oil, white wine or chicken broth, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and fresh parsley for garnish.

Creamy Garlic Shrimp Pasta
Creamy Garlic Shrimp Pasta

Lasagna

A traditional Lasagna needs lasagna sheets, ground meat (beef or pork), tomato sauce, béchamel sauce, garlic, onion, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, olive oil, and seasonings like salt and pepper.

lasagne
Lasagne is the plural word for one sheet of lasagna and is used regionally throughout Italy.

Pizza

Another Italian first course is pizza. The traditional ingredients of a classic Italian pizza, specifically the Neapolitan style, are dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and basil.

Of course, regional variations may introduce additional toppings ( such as turkey, meatball, veggies, prosciutto, mortadella, olives ) or variations in the crust, but these core components remain consistent in many traditional Italian pizza recipes.

Pizza is a great choice for special occasions such as dinner party, friends and family gathering at restaurants or even delicious lunch at home.

Neapolitan Margarita Pizza photo by Valerio Capello

4. The Main Course  

Secondo, the main course in an Italian meal, focuses on protein-rich dishes that can range from fish and chicken to various meats like pork, beef, and lamb. Some popular Italian main dishes include:

  • Osso Buco: A Milanese specialty featuring braised veal shanks
  • Saltimbocca: A dish made with veal, prosciutto, and sage
  • Frutti di Mare: A seafood medley often served over pasta
  • Bistecca alla Fiorentina: A Tuscan-style T-bone steak
  • Chicken Marsala: Chicken cooked in a Marsala wine sauce
  • Braciole: Rolled-up meat filled with breadcrumbs, cheese, and herbs

Italian Main Dishes
Italian Main Dishes

Wondering how Italians manage a protein-heavy course after pasta or risotto? It’s all about portion control. Secondo dishes are generally served in smaller quantities compared to the Primo, and it’s not uncommon for these plates to be shared among diners, allowing everyone to enjoy a balanced, multi-course meal.

Chicken Parmesan
Crispy Chicken Parmesan

How to make Chicken Marsala

5. Side Dish  

Contorno, the Italian term for a side dish, traditionally accompanies the Secondo or main course. These sides are usually comprised of seasonal vegetables that add color, texture, and additional flavors to the meal. Some popular Italian side dishes (Contorni) include:

  • Chicory: Often sautéed with garlic and olive oil
  • Courgettes (Zucchini): Grilled, fried, or sautéed, sometimes with herbs or Parmesan
  • Artichokes: Prepared in various ways, such as grilled, steamed, or in a Roman-style sauté
  • Broccoli Romano: Sometimes served with garlic and red pepper flakes for extra flavor
  • Salad: Often a simple mix of fresh greens, perhaps with a light vinaigrette
  • Potatoes: Prepared as roasted, mashed, or even as potato croquettes

Roasted barbecue potatoes
Roasted barbecue potatoes with parsley and garlic sauce

How to make Italian Potatoes

6. Salad  

In Italian dining, the Insalata, or salad course, intriguingly follows the Secondo and Contorno courses. While this sequence might seem unusual to those unfamiliar with Italian meal structure, the post-main course salad serves as a palate cleanser and a refreshing transition to the meal’s concluding courses. Often featuring fresh garden greens and a simple vinaigrette, the Insalata is a light and revitalizing dish you won’t want to skip in an authentic Italian dining experience.

Insalata
Insalata – Salad, Italian Style

Caprese Salad

The traditional Italian Caprese Salad consists of slices of fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil, arranged in layers and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. Seasoned with a pinch of salt and sometimes balsamic glaze, the Caprese Salad beautifully captures the colors of the Italian flag with its red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil.

Caprese Salad photo from Wikimedia commons

7. Cheese and fruit

Cheese and fruit course(The Formaggio e Frutta) is a delightful part of the Italian dining experience, dedicated to showcasing local cheeses and fresh, seasonal fruits. This course provides a harmonious blend of savory and sweet, serving as both a palate cleanser and a transition into the meal’s concluding dishes.

Whether it’s a sharp Pecorino, a creamy Gorgonzola, or a delicate mozzarella, the cheeses are carefully selected to complement an array of fruits like grapes, figs, and apples. This course is not just a treat for the taste buds but also a celebration of regional produce and culinary craftsmanship.

Italian local cheese and fruit
Italian local cheese and fruit

8. Dessert  

The Dolce course is a dream come true for anyone with a sweet tooth, marking the finale of the Italian dining experience. Tiramisu is one of the best options for dessert and the best way to finish a meal. Some of the most popular Italian desserts (Dolce) are Tarufo, panna cotta, lemon Ricotta.

Tiramisu

If you love coffee don’t forget to taste this amazing Italian dessert. The traditional recipe involves layering coffee-soaked ladyfingers with a creamy mixture of mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar, and sometimes a touch of cocoa powder.

The dessert is often finished with a dusting of cocoa on top. The combination of coffee, creamy mascarpone, and the slight bitterness of cocoa creates a delightful symphony of flavors. if you love coffee don’t forget to taste this amazing Italian dessert.

Tiramisu
Tiramisu quite literally means, “a pick me up.”

Whether you prefer the classic richness of a Tiramisu or the light, fruity notes of a Panna Cotta, the Dolce course offers a sweet finale that perfectly rounds off the multi-course Italian feast.

Panna cotta
Classic panna cotta has a silky, creamy texture and a milky, sweet taste.

How to make Panna Cotta

“Life is too short. If we’re in Italy, have pizza and pasta.”
Harley Pasternak

9. Coffee   

In Italy, coffee ( Caffè ) serves as the closing act of a sumptuous meal, often following even a digestive liqueur. Unlike the milky cappuccinos or macchiatos that many are familiar with, Italians prefer a robust, hot coffee served in a small cup to round out the dining experience.

Espresso

The most famous Italian coffee is undoubtedly the “Espresso”. Italians often enjoy their strong and flavorful espresso in a quick and efficient manner, standing at a bar counter with a amazing layer of crema on top.

Espresso Caffè
Coffee espresso

10. Digestive  

Digestive ( Digestivo ) is a course featuring beverages specifically intended to aid in digestion. Some of the most popular Italian digestives are :

  • Grappa: A grape-based brandy
  • Amaro: A bitter herbal liqueur
  • Limoncello: A lemon-flavored liqueur
  • Wine: Often a dessert wine like Vin Santo
  • Prosecco: A sparkling wine primarily from the Veneto region
  • Aperol Spritz: A cocktail of Aperol, Prosecco, and soda
  • Negroni: A cocktail of gin, vermouth, and Campari
  • Bellini: A mix of Prosecco and peach purée
  • Spumante: Italian sparkling wine

Prosecco
Prosecco is a sparkling wine mostly made in the Veneto region, Italy.

Prosecco, for instance, is a well-loved sparkling wine mostly produced in Italy’s Veneto region. These digestives, served in shot glasses, can range from bitter to sweet but are all designed to help with digestion after a leisurely, multi-course meal. This final touch embodies the Italian meal through thoughtful experience right down to the last sip.

Limoncello
Italian lemon liqueur made with lemon zest, sugar, and vodka

“There’s nothing more romantic than Italian food.” 

Elisha Cuthbert

10 Courses of Italian Meal: A Recap

These days international hot food such as Japanese, Chinese and German food are so popular among people but Italian food is number one for most of them.

The traditional Italian meal structure is a culinary masterpiece, consisting of 10 several courses that showcase the richness of Italian gastronomy which is famous in Europe and all the world . This time-honored practice involves several courses, each meticulously crafted to highlight the diverse flavors, textures and idea . From antipasti to dolci, the traditional Italian meal takes diners on a delightful journey through the country’s culinary heritage.

Whether enjoyed at a local trattoria or during festive holidays, the menu reflects a harmonious blend of ingredients and techniques. Beyond the commonly considered main courses, the inclusion of other courses adds depth to the dining experience, making every meal a celebration of tradition and taste in the heart of Italy’s vibrant food culture and Italian cuisine .