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Italian Language Lessons: Going Out for Dinner

Steve Cohen

Italian eating establishments which correspond to what Americans think of as restaurants (i.e. with table service) range from the elegant to the very casual. While the categories overlap, restaurants are typically one of the following:

  • ristorante (usually at the more elegant and expensive end of the scale)
  • trattoria (usually more casual, often more boisterous, possibly with a more specialized type of menu)
  • osteria (similar to trattoria but, theoretically, associated with a hotel)
  • locanda (country restaurant)

While the surroundings, extent of selections on the menu and price may vary substantially, the quality of the food mostly varies within a relatively narrow range from very good to unbelievably good.

The overall procedure for arriving, being seated, ordering drinks, ordering the main meal possibly followed by dessert, coffee and maybe "digestive" liqueurs corresponds closely to the pattern of American restaurants (although usually at a little slower pace, especially in the country). There is some difference in the process of paying: you will almost never be given the check for your meal until you ask for it. Simply indicating you are finished with your meal will not do it; you must actually request the check. Restaurants very commonly have only one set of diners per table for each meal they serve, so they don't have any inclination to rush you to pay. While we haven't tested this, it seems possible that if you don't ask for the check you could be there until closing time.

One other difference is that dishes on the menu generally arrive unaccompanied. The vegetable accompaniments must be ordered separately; they are found on the menu under the heading "contorni" (the "surroundings" for the central item).

Arriving and Being Seated

On arrival, you will either claim a table you have reserved earlier or ask for a free table. Reserving in advance is often a good idea, though not always possible; the basic language of making restaurant reservations is covered in its own section.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

a table

un tavolo

oon TAH-voh-loh

for

per

pehr

one*

una

OO-nah

two

due

DOO-eh

three

tré

treh

four**

quattro

KWAHT-troh

*In this context the feminine una, rather than uno, is used to imply one person - una persona.

**For bigger numbers than four, you probably need to reserve in advance. Numbers in Italian, useful in a variety of situations, are covered in Italian Counts.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

outside*

all'aperto

ahl-lah-PEHR-toh

outside

fuori

FWOH-ree

inside

dentro

DEHN-troh

on the terrace

sulla terrazza

SOOL-lah tehr-RAHT-tsah

*The term "al fresco" is often used in the U.S. to refer to outside dining. It is less commonly used with this meaning in Italy - it is a colloquial expression meaning "in prison"!

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

I do not have a reservation (I have not reserved)

non ho prenotato

nohn oh preh-noh-TAH-toh

I have a reservation (I have reserved)

ho prenotato

oh preh-noh-TAH-toh

for Smith

per Smith

pehr Smith

May I have

posso avere

POHS-soh ah-VEH-reh

May we see

possiamo vedere

pohs-SYAH-moh veh-DEH-reh

the menu

il menu

eel meh-NOO

wine list

lista dei vini

LEE-stah DAY VEE-nee

Ordering Drinks

The waiter may offer to start you with drinks while you review the menu. The usual accompaniments are mineral water (either sparkling or still) and wine. We always order local wines (which are often VERY local, sometimes actually produced by the restaurant owners themselves). Most restaurants have a house wine, often a house red and a house white. In our experience, the house wines are not only very enjoyable but a choice which wins the waiter's approval. If you are a true wine connoisseur you won't need our advice; review the wine list and use your knowledge to choose. If you enjoy wine but, like us, do not have special expertise, the local selection offers an opportunity for a pleasant experience which is unique to the region you are traveling in.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

to drink

da bere

dah BEH-reh

a (half) bottle of

una (mezza) bottiglia di

OO-nah (MEHT-tzah) boht-TEE-lyah dee

a carafe of

una caraffa di

OO-nah kah-RAHF-fah dee

a glass of

un bicchiere di

oon beek-KYEH-reh dee

mineral water

acqua minerale

AHK-kwah mee-neh-RAH-leh

sparkling (with gas)

con gas

kohn gahs

sparkling (with gas)

gassata

gahs-SAH-tah

non-sparkling (still)

senza gas

SEHN-tsah gahs

non-sparkling (still)

naturale

nah-too-RAH-leh

white (red) house wine

vino bianco (rosso) della casa

VEE-noh BYAHN-koh (ROHS-soh) DEHL-lah KAH-sah

a beer (two beers)*

una birra (due birre)

OO-nah BEER-rah (DOO-eh BEER-reh)

*Beer is usually drunk with a meal only if it is pizza or a very casual meal such as a sandwich, not with home-style cooking.

Ordering Food

With or without first ordering drinks to accompany the meal, you will get to the point of ordering the meal. The menu is invariably organized to suggest that you will have a full Italian banquet:

  • appetizers
  • first course
  • second course
  • vegetable accompaniments
  • dessert
  • coffee and digestive liqueurs

At one time, restaurants really did pressure patrons to select an item for each available course, at least for food items. Some still do, but most are now pretty flexible; they are happy to accommodate any selection, especially if it includes at least two courses. Since practically all second course selections are meat items, true vegetarians (like Pauline) skip this course except on the very rare occasions when a vegetarian entree is included. Steve sometimes eats fish (Pauline most emphatically does not), especially near the sea coast, so is able to order the second course more often.

You should be aware that dishes tend to come in the order you request them when ordering and follow the standard appetizer, first course, second course structure. On occasion, one of us has ordered a first but no second course while the other has ordered a second but no first course with the result that we alternated watching each other eat. To avoid this, we now make sure in this situation to mention that we would like Pauline's tagliatelle (a first course) and Steve's grilled swordfish (a second course) to come at the same time.

We will not try to cover the huge range of Italian cuisine within the confines of this web site. Whole books are devoted to this subject. Instead we will stick with a few common menu terms, restaurant customs and some hints for vegetarians. Most restaurants can accommodate vegetarians very well, especially if you go prepared. Even the non-vegetarian might like the option of ordering a vegetarian meal or, perhaps, just ensuring that a course within a meal is vegetarian if only to rest the digestive system. Also, if you think you might point randomly at menu items and take "pot luck", you may encounter a few surprise ingredients: are you fond of horse?

If you are a vegetarian and want to confirm with the waiter that you are ordering appropriately:

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

I am vegetarian

sono vegetariano (m)/vegetariana (f)

SOH-noh veh-jeh-tahr-YAH-no/veh-jeh-tahr-YAH-nah

Is this dish meatless?

È questo piatto senza carne?

eh KWEH-stoh pee-AHT-toh SEHN-tsah KAHR-neh?

You will need to recognize the major sections of the menu. Here they are along with a few items to watch for within each category.

Antipasti (Appetizers)

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

appetizers, hors d'ouvres

antipasti

ahn-tee-PAH-stee

Here are some different antipasti that you might find on a menu.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta (broo-SKET-tah) is grilled bread with olive oil, garlic and salt. It comes with a variety of toppings.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

tomato

bruschetta con pomodoro

broo-SKET-tah kohn poh-moh-DOH-roh

mushrooms

bruschetta con funghi (porcini)

broo-SKET-tah kohn FOON-ghee (pohr-CHEE-nee)

truffle

bruschetta con tartufo

broo-SKET-tah kohn tahr-TOO-foh

mixed*

bruschetta mista

broo-SKET-tah MEE-stah

plain**

bruschetta semplice

broo-SKET-tah SEHM-plee-cheh

*This may have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian toppings on different pieces. You can usually request that it be prepared with only the vegetarian toppings.

**Even if the menu mentions only non-vegetarian toppings, they can usually prepare bruschetta with just olive oil and garlic. This still makes a tasty appetizer and allows you to feel proud of your ability to order "off the menu".

Crostini

Crostini (kroh-STEE-nee) means little toasts. These are somewhat like bruschette (plural of bruschetta). These come with toppings as with bruschette. You may also come across crostoni, "big crostini".

Caprese

Caprese (kah-PREH-seh) is basil and tomato slices on fresh mozzarella cheese.

Primi (First Course)

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

first courses

primi (piatti)

PREE-mee (pee-AHT-tee)

This section of the menu is where soup and pasta entries are usually included. A hungry vegetarian can often select two different dishes from this section to be served as a first and second course.

Soups

Some soups which, if you come across them, are both delightful regional specialties and likely to be vegetarian are:

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

thick vegetable soup

ribollita

ree-bohl-LEE-tah

NOTE: Means "twice boiled". This Tuscan specialty is a hardy and satisfying dish.

vegetable soup

acqua cotta*

AHK-kwah KOHT-tah

NOTE: Means "cooked water". As the name suggests, the base for this substantial soup dish is plain water rather than a stock. It is typically made with seasonal vegetables and topped with a poached egg.

thick tomato soup

pappa al pomodoro

PAH-pah ahl poh-moh-DOH-roh

NOTE: A mushy tomato soup.

*You can get an excellent Acqua Cotta at I Due Cippi da Michele in Saturnia (southern Tuscany) or at Malborghetto in Lecchi (near Gaiole in Chianti). See Restaurant Reviews.

Pasta

Menus almost always include at least a few pasta dishes. Except for varieties with meat stuffings, the basic pasta in any of the huge variety of pasta dishes is likely to be vegetarian. If in doubt, indicate the pasta item on the menu and ask if the dish is vegetarian. Combinations of pasta and sauces are endless; a few examples of combinations which include vegetarian sauces (which makes them vegetarian dishes) are listed below.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

spaghetti with tomato sauce

spaghetti al pomodoro

spah-GEHT-tee ahl poh-moh-DOH-roh

tagliatelle with truffle

tagliatelle con tartufo

tah-lyah-TEHL-leh kohn tahr-TOO-foh

NOTE: A very distinctive taste.

(potato) dumplings

gnocchi (di patate)

NYOH-kee (dee pah-TAH-teh)

spaghetti with porcini mushrooms

spaghetti ai funghi porcini

spah-GEHT-tee AH-ee FOON-ghee pohr-CHEE-nee

NOTE: Fresh porcini mushrooms are available in spring and fall.

macaroni with garlic and (olive) oil

maccheroni con aglio e olio

mahk-keh-ROH-nee kohn AH-lyoh eh OH-lyoh

Secondi (Second Course)

ENGLISH ITALIAN

SAY IT LIKE THIS

second courses

secondi (piatti)

seh-KOHN-dee (pee-AHT-tee)

The offerings in this category are almost exclusively meat, fowl and fish dishes. Very occasionally, a vegetarian choice will appear. Here are some to watch for.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

grilled porcini mushroom

funghi porcini alla griglia

FOON-ghee pohr-CHEE-nee AHL-lah GREE-lyah

NOTE: Vegetarian steak! You may be invited to select your mushroom(s) from a basket.

vegetable tart

sformato di verdure

sfohr-MAH-toh dee vehr-DOO-reh

Contorni (Vegetable Accompaniments)

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

side courses

contorni

kohn-TOHR-nee

Here are some examples.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

mixed salad

insalata mista

een-sah-LAH-tah MEE-stah

tomato salad

insalata pomodoro

een-sah-LAH-tah poh-moh-DOH-roh

french fried potatoes (pommes frites)

patate fritte

pah-TAH-teh FREET-teh

NOTE: Italy has the best of all french fries, according to Steve.

roasted potatoes

patate arrosto

pah-TAH-teh ahr-ROH-stoh

sauteed spinach

spinaci saltati

spee-NAH-chee sahl-TAH-tee

Dolce (Desserts)

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

desserts

dolce

DOHL-cheh or dessert dehs-SEHR (pronounced as in French)

Here are some examples.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

custard

panna cotta

PAHN-nah KOHT-tah

NOTE: A custard roughly comparable to flan or creme caramel, made from thick cream as the name, literally "cooked (heavy) cream" suggests.

sherbet

sorbetto

sor-BEHT-toh

NOTE: A lighter sweet course which may be welcome after a substantial meal. Usually a choice of fruit flavors is offered.

dessert wine with cookies

vin santo con cantucci

veen SAHN-toh kohn kahn-TOOT-chee

NOTE: A fairly strong, sweet wine with almond cookies which are customarily dipped in the wine. This choice allows you to combine a dessert and digestive with a single selection as well as enjoy an excellent Italian experience.

Caffe (Coffee and Digestive Liqueurs)

And a few concluding items.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

I would like

vorrei

vohr-RAY

NOTE: (optional, as in English)

we would like

vorremmo

vohr-REHM-moh

a (one)

un (m)/ una (f)

oon/OO-nah

coffee

caffè

KAHF-feh

NOTE: a shot of espresso coffee

(hot) tea

tè (caldo)

teh (KAHL-doh)

grappa

grappa

GRAHP-pah

NOTE: A strongly alcoholic after dinner "digestive" (digestivo) made by continuing the winemaking process with a subsequent distillation step - best to have if you are not going to drive soon after.

Paying

Remember, you must ask for the check when you are ready to pay and leave.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS

the check, please

il conto, per favore

eel KOHN-toh, pehr fah-VOHR-eh

Sample Dialog

A husband and wife enter a trattoria in early evening.

  • waiter (upon noticing the couple's arrival): Buona sera. Ha prenotato?
  • husband: No, non ho prenotato. Ha un tavolo libero per due?
  • waiter (indicating the way to an available table): Si, signore. Prego.

After a brief wait, a waiter arrives and leaves menus. Soon after, he returns to offer the couple a chance to order something to drink while contemplating the dinner orders.

  • waiter: Cosa da bere?
  • husband: Vorremo una bottiglia di acqua minerale naturale e del vino. C'e un vino bianco della casa?
  • waiter: Si. Una bottiglia?
  • husband: Potremmo avere un mezzo litro del vino?
  • waiter: Si - acqua minerale naturale e mezzo litro di vino bianco.

A member of the restaurant staff comes and puts some bread on the table. After a short while, the waiter returns with bottle of water and a beaker of wine. He leaves and returns again to take the dinner order.

  • waiter (readying order pad): Allora...
  • husband: Per cominciare, vorremo due bruschette, una bruschetta al tartufo ed una bruschetta semplice.
  • waiter (makes a quick note, then looks up again): Si.
  • husband: Per primi, un tagliatelle al tartufo e un linguini pomodoro.
  • waiter (again makes a quick note and looks up expectantly): Si.
  • husband: Per secondo, prendiamo due piatti di funghi porcini alla griglia.
  • husband: E dei contorni: patate fritte e spinaci saltati.

Waiter once again writes quickly to his pad, then looks up expectantly.

  • husband: È tutto.
  • waiter (with a certain approving air): Va bene.

Waiter walks off to deliver order and some time goes by during which the couple enjoys the water, the wine, the bread and the general ambience. In due course, the antipasti courses - two orders of bruschetta - arrive. The couple enjoys each course in turn, eventually finishing all the items so far ordered. Restaurant staff clear the empty dishes and other debris. The waiter returns.

  • waiter: Allora, altro? - dessert, caffè, digestivi?
  • husband: Una panna cotta et due caffè - anche il conto, per favore.

In a short while, the panna cotta arrives. The couple shares it and drinks the two espressos which arrive separately. A little time goes by and the check does not arrive.

  • husband (catching the waiter's eye): Scusi - il conto, per favore.

Soon after the check arrives. The couple pays the amount indicated, adding a 10 percent tip since no service charge has been included and the meal was very enjoyable. They then stand up and walk to the exit.

  • waiter (seeing the couple on their way out): Buona sera.
  • couple: Grazie, buona sera.

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