There's nothing a giant bowl of pasta can't fix — for me, it's rigatoni alla vodka topped with a chicken cutlet: It's simply delicious. But Italian cuisine stems far beyond traditional pasta and pizza — it's filled with many intricacies that make it unique, from how it's prepared to the flavor combinations it's known for. If you're visiting an Italian restaurant — or taking family and friends — for the first time, it's good to have some background knowledge on the cuisine ... and more importantly what to order.
Chef Sandro Olivero, owner and chef of Amarone Kitchen and Wine in Los Angeles, Calif., says with the right knowledge it's easy to know what to order and how to make the most out of a visit to an Italian restaurant.
Italian restaurant menus 101
At first glance, a menu at an Italian restaurant may look overwhelming — full of different options from pasta and pizza to meat and fish. "The premise of Italian food is fresh, local and seasonal," Olivero tells Yahoo Life. "Italian food incorporates meats, vegetables and grains from the land and fish and seafood from the waters that surround the peninsula."
When it comes to ordering food at an Italian restaurant, Italians typically eat three courses: antipasto (appetizer), primo (first course) and secondo (second course). While you don't have to order this way, it's recommended if you're looking to get the full experience.
"If you're hungry, a combination of a primo ( typically a pasta dish) and a secondo (typically a fish or meat-based dish) will fill you up," says Olivero. "Or, if you want to eat lighter, a combination of antipasto and primo or secondo will leave room for dolce (dessert)."
You'll also want an understanding of key words you'll find on an Italian menu that pertain to how a dish is prepared: al forno (baked), fritto (fried) and alla griglia (grilled).
For appetizers, referred to as antipasto, you'll typically find dishes like arancini (deep-fried rice balls), bastoncini di mozzarella (deep-fried mozzarella sticks) and bruschetta (slices of toasted bread, often rubbed with garlic and topped with extra-virgin olive oil, tomatoes and salt).
The first course, primo, typically consists of heavier hot dishes, pasta being the most popular. Some common pasta dishes include cacio e pepe (a sauce made from cheese and pepper), puttanesca (a sauce made from olives, anchovies, oil and tomatoes), vodka (a sauce typically served over penne, made from heavy cream and crushed tomatoes) and gnocchi (Italian potato dumplings).
The second course, secondo, involves meat and fish dishes. Some popular ones you'll probably see are pollo alla cacciatora (chicken cacciatore, served with tomatoes, onions, herbs and bell peppers), fritto misto (a deep-fried medley of seafood and vegetables) and parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan).
You can also add a side dish to your meal, known as contorni, which may include sautéed vegetables, potatoes and side salads.
Last but not least, you'll want to save room for dessert. Olivero's favorite is panna cotta – a custard-like dessert made with cream, sugar and gelatin.
Other common desserts at an Italian restaurant include cannoli (deep-fried pastry dough filled with a slightly sweet and creamy ricotta cheese filling) and tiramisu (coffee-flavored dessert involving ladyfinger spongecake, mascarpone cheese and sugar).
Don't be afraid to experiment
While you may be inclined to opt for the familiar slice of pizza or traditional spaghetti and meatballs, consider experimenting with different food groups and combinations.
"Do not be intimidated to order items that have ingredients that you like in them," says Olivero. "For example, if you like tomatoes, order a caprese salad, made with fresh raw tomatoes and fresh mozzarella — a softer, moister version of the American one — and add balsamic dressing and extra virgin olive oil."
The same idea applies to pasta: You can always order spaghetti with a classic tomato sauce, but if you're looking for a more intricate flavor profile, you may want to opt for something like pesto, a sauce made from garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil and cheese.
The history of Italian cuisine
Olivero says since Italy has been an official country for less than 100 years, it's food is quite different from region to region. "With the introduction of noodles from China in the 13th Century and the addition of tomatoes from the Americas, the food in Italy changed immensely," says Olivero.
External factors played a role in the dishes created by each region, in addition to the availability of ingredients. As different cultures introduced new ingredients and spices to Italy, Italians began to add more variety and diversity to their dishes making it what it is today. However, in general, Italian dishes are more on the simple side and tend to focus on two to four primary ingredients.
"Many Italian dishes are quick to prepare and few ingredients are added," says Olivero. "Italians want the ingredients they use to shine and for their flavors to be prominent 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.
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