Eating Out in Southern Italy

Cherrye Moore
  • By Cherrye Moore
  • October 19th, 2010

It’s no secret Italy is famous for its food. The local pasta dishes, fresh, seasonal produce, robust red wines, exotic seafood, sinful desserts, homemade liquors … need I go on … are some of the best in the world and I’m lucky to live in a region that is exalted even more so for its delectable cuisine.

antipasto calabrese

See what I mean?

Even though the food is simple and straightforward, deciphering menus and choosing courses can make eating out in southern Italy a challenge. Here are a few tips to help with that.

Courses (in chronological order):

1. Antipasto
Antipasto is the Italian equivalent of the appetizer and in many cases, contains both hot and cold dishes. Cold plates are typically lean cold cuts, such as prosciutto or salami, assorted cheese, particularly Pecorino and olives or bruschetta. Hot dishes are typically prepared in-house and can include anything from potato and peppers, eggplant, grilled vegetables or other chef specialties.

In traditional Calabrese trattorie, the antipasto is typically overly generous and diners can easily fill up on the first course. However, you wouldn’t want to do that, because then you’d miss the primi.

Primi Piatti at Mercato Centrale

2. Primi
Primi, or first plates as we’d say in English, are usually either pasta or risotto dishes in southern Italy. Some restaurants allow diners to choose a sampling of their first plates so they can try more than one dish. I *love* this tradition! :-)

3. Secondi
Secondi, or second plates are typically meat or fish entrees. Vegetarians might choose a secondo platter of mixed grilled vegetables, but otherwise, vegetables or other side items are rarely served on your secondo plate. If you’d like a side item, be sure to order it separately when you place your order.

4. Contorni
Speaking of side items, contorni is the side item heading you’ll see on a southern Italian menu for side items. While side items vary by restaurant and region, you’ll usually find salads, potatoes, vegetables and local specialties listed here. Notice that salads are never served before the meal like they are in the US. If you order a salad, it will be served alongside your secondo dish, in a separate plate.

5. Frutta
Most .. make that all … southern Italians I know finish their meals at home with a serving of fruit, however they rarely order it in restaurants. Still, it is on the menu and if you’d like to order fruit to finish your meal, you’d do so after your second and side dish course.


6. Dolci
Oooh, desserts! If you made it through the rest of the meal without pasta coming out of your eyeballs, you might want to order dolci. To be sure you are getting the best bang for your, uhm, euro, ask your server which desserts are homemade and order one of those.

7. Caffè o Liquori
Most restaurant meals are completed with either a caffè (shot of espresso, not a cappuccino) or a shot of digestive liquor. In Calabria, Amaro del Capo is a popular choice, as is the old southern Italian favorite-limoncello.

1. You do not have to order something for each course. Many Italians do … but you don’t have to and you won’t be the only people in the restaurant who don’t. I never do.

2. Diners are typically charged a cover charge, called coperto, in southern Italian restaurants, so if you see an extra €1-€3 charge, per person, added to your bill, you’ll know why.

3. You do not tip in southern Italian restaurants. Let me repeat that … Do Not Tip in southern Italian restaurants. I can always tell when a restaurant I’m in is accustomed to serving American tourists … one word comes out of my mouth and they are hanging around expecting a tip. Servers are often either the restaurant owners or one of their children and unlike America, staff servers are paid the minimum wage. If you tip, you are making it harder for those of us who live here to, well, live here.

4. Doggie bags are frowned upon … so, don’t ask. Arrive hungry and plan to spend as long as you like savoring your meal.

Cherrye Moore is an American freelance writer and Calabria group tour consultant living in southern Italy. You can read more about living and traveling in Calabria at her site, My Bella Vita or visit her in person at her B&B in Catanzaro, Italy.

Photo: Sara’s Kitchen, BrianandJaclyn and Premshree Pillai via Flickr

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Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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