Italians enjoy some of the finest food in the world, but any visitor to Italy soon notices that Italians have a very different way of eating than Americans.
Almost every real meal in Italy has three courses or more, but they're not organized like ours. Instead of a salad, main course with side dishes, then dessert, Italians have a small appetizer or "antipasto," then a course they call pasta (primo), though it's not necessarily pasta, a main course (secondo), often accompanied by vegetables, possibly a salad. They often enjoy a piece of fruit or cheese but rarely pastries or other sweets.
I always like to try different foods when I travel, but have found a full Italian meal excessive, especially if I wanted to try the wonderful appetizers or antipasti served before the pasta. I simply couldn't eat that much comfortably even if I wasn't aware that I was outgrowing my clothes.
I finally broke the code, however.
The Italians may eat a lot of courses, but not necessarily much of each. And their main courses might seem less than "main" to us.
Here are some hints to help you survive a week or two of Italian meals, particularly if you seek out the authentic trattorias Italians and their families patronize. Most Italians are very accommodating and are happy to try to please.
These hints don't necessarily apply to tourist-oriented restaurants (the ones with menus in English and German out front) or elegant special-occasion restaurants.
First, Italians are social people and rarely eat alone. Most antipasti are designed for more than one person to share family style. Pizza, for example, is considered an appetizer, not a main course.
The pasta, or primo, course is equal in value to the secondo in their minds. Though it can be pasta as we think of it, it's traditionally a thick soup in Tuscany, and may well be risotto or polenta up north.
This is the heart of the meal, and Italians eat more than we would as they expect a small course to follow, not a gargantuan one. However, Italian restaurants have learned that many Americans make this the whole meal, and they often serve large potions since the ingredients are generally inexpensive.
A warning: They also often overcook the pasta for Americans and pour on too much sauce, knowing Americans use the starch as a vehicle for eating the sauce, while the Italians appreciate the pasta and see the sauce as a flavoring touch.
To deal with all this food, I've learned that you can split the course or request a half portion (mezzoporzione) of pasta and sometimes other courses. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate you. It won't be only half the cost, but certainly less than a full portion and less intimidating.
By the way, they don't eat bread with the pasta course or dip bread in olive oil. Those are American inventions. They eat bread without oil or butter, though it's often served as bruschetta grilled with a rubbing of garlic and oil as an appetizer. And outside Tuscany, most people prefer rich oil from ripe grapes, not the peppery green stuff so fashionable here.
That still leaves the main course.
You can order pork or veal or chicken, but some foods we consider side dishes are respectable main courses in Italy: a Caprese salad of tomatoes and mozzarella, eggplant parmesan, grilled asparagus or fennel, or fried artichokes.
No one looks askance in Italian restaurants if you order one of these dishes after the pasta, although note that a serving of perfect asparagus may cost as much as chicken or veal.
Remember, too, that Italians regard the "side" dishes as important as the meat, hence you normally have to order them separately. It's OK to share.
The vegetables or "cortorni," may be salads, which accompanies many grilled or fried foods. Potatoes or dried beans, which we consider alternatives to pasta or rice, are regarded as vegetables to be eaten on the side. They don't like to mix them on one plate, but serve them separately.
A salad may be served with or after the "main" course, but it's only a few leaves of lettuce or similar greens with a bit of oil and vinegar, not half a head of lettuce drowned in fattening dairy-based dressing.
Patrons usually order bottled water, which is generally inexpensive, but restaurants will serve tap water and it's perfectly safe. Of course, they generally have wine with meals, and house wines are usually fine. There's little reason to order a bottle unless you want to try something special.
Finally, a sweet dessert is usually a celebratory ending for a special occasion, not routine. Of course, for them, that celebration may be going out to eat with friends and family, but they don't go out every night, as you do when you're visiting Italy. Stick to the fruit or suffer the consequences.
And don't forget that they don't bring the check until you ask for it; it's considered rude otherwise, suggesting they're kicking you out.