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Decoding the Secrets of a 10-Course Italian Meal: From Aperitivo to Digestivo

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. 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 understanding 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 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.

The 10 Courses of an Authentic Italian Meal

1. Aperitif (Italian: Aperitivo)

In Italian culture, Aperitivo 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)

Italian food is a Culture, not just a cuisine.

2. Starter (Italian: Antipasto)  

How to Make a Simple Italian Cold Antipasto Appetizer

What are the most popular Italian dishes for starters (Antipasto)?

In Italy, “antipasto” 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.

How to Make BRUSCHETTA Like an Italian

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
Salumi is the craft of preserving and salting cured meat.
Bruschetta, Starter
Bruschetta, Starter (Italian: Antipasto)

3. The First Course (Italian: Primo)  

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

What are the most popular Italian dishes for the First Course (Primo)? 

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.


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.

How to Make CREAMY MUSHROOM RISOTTO Like an Italian

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


Classic Gnocchi calls for potatoes, all-purpose flour, an egg, and a pinch of salt to bring the dough together.

How to Make GNOCCHI CACIO E PEPE Like an Italian

Gnocchi , Italy
Gnocchi is a family of dumplings in Italian cuisine.


To make Polenta, gather coarse cornmeal, water or broth, salt, and optionally, butter or olive oil and Parmesan cheese for added flavor.

Polenta, First Course
Polenta is a dish of boiled cornmeal made from grains.

Garlic Shrimp Pasta

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


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

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

4. The Main Course (Italian: Secondo)  

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

5. Side Dish (Italian: Contorno)  

What are the most popular Italian side dishes (contorno)?

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

6. Salad (Italian: Insalata)  

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 – Salad, Italian Style

7. Cheese and fruit (Italian: Formaggio e frutta)  

The Formaggio e Frutta course 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 (Italian: Dolce) 

The Dolce course is a dream come true for anyone with a sweet tooth, marking the finale of the Italian dining experience. Some of the most popular Italian desserts (Dolce) include:

  • Tiramisu: A decadent layering of coffee-soaked ladyfingers and a creamy mascarpone mixture, often dusted with cocoa
  • Lemon Ricotta: A refreshing cake or cheesecake variant made with tangy lemon and smooth ricotta cheese
  • Panna Cotta: A silky, gelatin-based dessert that comes in various flavors, often served with a fruit compote
  • Tartufo: A truffle-like dessert, often made with hazelnut and chocolate ice creams, sometimes containing a cherry or liqueur center
  • Millefoglie: Known as “a thousand leaves,” this dessert features layers of puff pastry and cream, akin to a Napoleon

How to Make Tiramisu Like an Italian

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

9. Coffee (Italian: Caffè)  

In Italy, the Caffè course 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 espresso served in a small cup to round out the dining experience. This strong coffee not only offers a final, invigorating kick but also encapsulates the Italian approach to food and drink—rich, deliberate, and full of tradition.

Espresso Caffè
Coffee espresso

10. Digestive (Italian: Digestivo)  

Concluding the Italian dining experience is the Digestivo, a course featuring beverages specifically intended to aid in digestion. Some of the most popular Italian digestives include:

  • 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 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 approach to dining: a comprehensive, thoughtful experience right down to the last sip.

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

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

Elisha Cuthbert