Italy food guide: Eating in Italy like a local

Italians take their food very seriously and you’ll need to keep up with them. Read this guide to find out how to eat in Italy like a local.


5 minute read
Updated on 20 Dec 2023

If you're thinking of moving to Italy, one of the most important things that the Italian culture calls for is to learn how to eat like a local.

Italian food is world-famous for a reason and there's no better way to experience it than by sitting down at a sidewalk cafe and enjoying a plate of pasta or some delicious pizza. But there’s much more to it than that!

In this guide, we’ll tell you about:

  • What a full Italian meal looks like
  • What the traditions of eating in Italy are
  • How to pay at a restaurant
  • Where to shop for the best locally sourced food

What does a full Italian meal look like?

A traditional Italian meal can be split into 3 stages:

  1. Starters
  2. Main course
  3. The winddown

What are the starters during an Italian meal?

To eat in Italy like a local, you should start your meal with an aperativo and antipasti. These are the traditional pre-meal snacks that Italians enjoy before their main course. Both aperativo and antipasti are meant to whet your appetite for the meal to come.

Aperitivo usually refers to a drink, such as an aperitif wine or cocktail. There is no hard rule about what constitutes a traditional aperativo, but the most common choices are:

  • Aperol spritz
  • Prosecco
  • Negroni

Antipasti, on the other hand, are small dishes that’re served as appetizers. Similarly to the aperativo, there’re no hard rules as to what constitutes the Antipasti, but the most popular orders for this part of the meal are:

  • Bruschetta
  • Olives
  • Cured meats
  • Roasted vegetables

What does the main course consist of in Italy?

With starters off the table, it’s time to move on to the main course which is made up of:

  • The Primi
  • The Secondi
  • The Insalata

The Primi, or first course, is an important part of any Italian meal. Primi are typically dishes like soups, pasta and risotto.

If you’re looking for something a little lighter, then ordering a soup may be the perfect choice. There’s a wide variety of amazing soups in Italy and the most popular ones are:

  • Minestrone — a soup with pasta and veggies
  • Ribollita — a variation of the minestrone soup that also contains croutons
  • The Italian pumpkin soup

The Secondi, or second course, typically consists of meat-based dishes and there’re many different options to choose from. Some of the most popular Secondi dishes in Italy include:

  • Pollo alla cacciatore — chicken cooked in a tomato and herb sauce
  • Pollo al forno — roasted chicken
  • Vitello tonnato —veal cooked in tune sauce
  • Costolette d'agnello — roman-Style lamb chops
  • Spezzatino di manzo — slow-cooked stewed beef

The Insalata is a salad course that comes as a side to the Secondi. It usually consists of greens like lettuce or arugula, with a vinegar-based dressing.

The wind down part of the meal

The last part of a full Italian meal cosnsits of:

  • Dolce
  • Caffe
  • Digestivo

The Dolce course is usually just one or two small sweet dishes, such as cookies or biscotti with coffee, gelato, or fruit.

The Caffe, as the name suggests, is coffee. Make sure to not make the tourist mistake of ordering anything other than espresso — Italians take their Caffe seriously.

The Digestivo is an after-dinner drink that helps with digestion, such as amaro (a bitter herbal liqueur) or grappa (a type of brandy).


If you’re a fan of cheese, you shouldn’t miss out on ordering the Formaggi E Frutta. This is a cheese board with an assortment of local cheeses accompanied by fruits.

Italians love taking a walk after dinner. This ritual is called La Passeggiata and calls for strolling through the streets and chatting with friends. Talking about living the La Dolce Vita!

Don’t be surprised by the additional charges on top of your bill

When eating out in Italy, don't be surprised if you're charged a "pane e coperto" fee — this is simply a charge for bread and table covers and is quite common in restaurants. You can also expect to be charged a "servizio" fee — this is a service charge and is also quite common. These fees are usually listed on the menu and don’t exceed €5.

Besides that, asking for the bill ("il conto") can be a bit of a minefield in Italy. You can try to catch the waiter's attention and say "Mi scusi, il conto per favore" (Excuse me, the bill please). However, in some places it's considered bad manners to ask for the bill — instead, you should just wait until it arrives.

When it comes to paying, it's usually best to pay in cash ; although some restaurants will accept credit and debit cards, there may be a surcharge for doing so. Also, be aware that in some cases the tip is included in the bill, while in others it's not, so check first before leaving anything extra. If you're happy with the service, a 10% tip is usually appreciated, but not compulsory.

Keep in line with the traditions for eating

Regardless of whether you’re having a meal in a restaurant or at a friend’s place, always keep in mind that there’re some important rules to stick to when eating in Italy:

  • Don't spread butter on your bread because the bread is meant to be used to soak up the leftover sauce from your pasta.
  • Don't ask for salad dressing and make do with the provided oil and vinegar
  • Don’t put cheese on seafood pasta because the flavors don’t mix well
  • Don’t ask to have your leftovers packed for takeaway
  • Always fill your neighbor's glass first before your own

Try to eat as much local produce as possible

If you want to experience the true flavor of Italy, then you’ve to make sure to buy local produce.

You won’t find much local produce while shopping in the big grocery stores in your area, so you’ve to make sure that you know where to find it.

Where to buy fresh local produce in Italy

For starters, head to one of the many farmers' markets that can be found throughout the best cities in Italy. Here, you'll find everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to handmade pasta and artisan cheeses.

Another great option for finding local produce is visiting a Agriturismo farm, which is a place that offers overnight stays and meals made with ingredients from their own farm. This is a great way to get a true taste of the local food scene and bring back some of it home.

Finally, don't forget to stop by one of the many roadside stands that sell fresh produce. These are often run by small family farms and are a great way to get your hands on some delicious and cheap local produce.

Shopping in supermarkets will always be more expensive than the farmer’s markets, so make sure that you find out what the schedule for the markets in your city is.

Try the regional specialties

Whichever region of Italy you’re in, try to order the local specialties and don’t be afraid to try new things.

Here’s a breakdown of the most popular dishes from the best regions in Italy:

  1. The Piedmont region

The Agnolotti al Plin is a must-have when in this region. These little ravioli-like pockets of pasta are typically filled with meat (usually beef or veal) and served in butter and sage sauce.

  1. The Lombardy region

You can never go wrong with ordering Veal Shanks ossobuco alla milanese in Lombardy. This dish of slow-cooked veal shanks in a rich tomato sauce is a true classic from the Lombardy region.

  1. The Sicily region - Arancini

You won’t find Arancini prepared so well anywhere in Italy. Arancini are fried rice balls that are typically filled with meat ragù or tomato sauce and mozzarella.

  1. The Tuscany region

Although Ribollita is served all over Italy, the cooks in Tuscany are popular for making it in the most traditional way. This hearty soup is made with vegetables, beans, and leftover bread, making it the perfect dish to warm you up on a cold day.

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