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Italian Restaurant Menu Cheat Sheet: Arrabiata, Vitello And More

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As Mario Batali has said (probably hundreds of times) before, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are Italian, and those who wish they were Italian.” When considering the cuisine Italian kids usually grow up with on their dinner tables, we have a hard time disagreeing with him.

If you've ever had the experience of plunking yourself down in a trattoria or osteria, perusing a menu and promptly realizing you have no idea what you're doing: we're here to help. For example, do you know what Vitello Tonnato is? You probably should before you order it (it's cold, sliced veal in tuna mayonnaise sauce -- SEE, aren't you glad you know that??). We are all for experimentation, throwing caution to the wind and seeing where a guess can take us -- but sometimes it's nice to know what you're talking about, so we created a little Italian menu cheat sheet for you. If nothing else, you may impress a few friends.

We might not all speak Italian, but we can all fake it.

  • The Breakdown
    Flickr: pravin.premkumar
    Your menu will usually be broken down into courses something like these: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolci. DON'T PANIC -- those just mean: before the meal, first course, second/main course, sides, dessert. Photo via Flickr user pravin.premkumar
  • Antipasti
    Flickr: star5112
    We know this list can be dizzying sometimes. By now, you probably know that bruschetta is toast with stuff on top and a caprese involves thick slices of tomato and mozzarella, dotted with basil. But how about these: Involtini - usually eggplant or zucchini wrapped around ricotta Burrata - fresh mozzarella that's been stuffed with soft curds from the cheese making process - DO NOT MISS Mozzarella en Carozza - these are fried mozzarella grilled cheeses - EAT THEM Fritto Misto - all the fried stuff! Antipasto Caldo - don't be fooled by how this sampler plate sounds -- 'caldo' means 'hot' in Italian Photo via Flickr user star5112
  • Zuppa/Minestre
    Flickr: kawanet
    Italians make a mean soup. Don't be afraid of the ones with the funny names! Minestrone - brothy soup with lots of seasonal vegetables, sometimes pasta Pasta e Fagiole - thick, hearty stew of pasta, beans and tomatoes Pappa al Pomodoro - tomato and bread soup Tortellini en Brodo - broth-based soup, with tortellini floating around (ultimate cure for a cold) Photo via Flickr user kawanet
  • Let's Talk Sauce
    Flickr: marikoiv
    Most Italian restaurants in America will top just about any kind of pasta with any kind of sauce. Here are some you may have overlooked: Amatriciana - tomato sauce with bacon -- YEAH Alla Norma - tomato sauce with eggplant Arrabiata - 'arrabiata' means 'angry' in Italian, which is why this tomato sauce is always spicy (also 'fra diavolo' some places) Carbonara - creamy egg-based sauce with (again!) bacon Puttanesca - literally translates to 'whore' in Italian (we don't make this stuff up, guys), the legend says the name originates from its salty and spicy nature -- olives, capers, anchovies Photo via Flickr user marikoiv
  • Mystery Meat
    Flickr: thepinkpeppercorn
    Having a basic grasp on the Italian words for meat can really help guide you in the Secondi portion of the meal. Pollo - chicken (in Italian, you pronounce the 'L's! Maiale - pork Bistecca - beef Vitello - veal Fegato - liver Polpette - little meatballs Pesce Intero - whole fish (okay, it's not technically meat, but still really good to know) Photo via Flickr user thepinkpeppercorn
  • Contorni/Verdure
    Flickr: Maggie Hoffman
    Vegetables tend to come as a la carte sides in Italian restaurants. They are frequently our most favorite parts of the meal. Don't skip the weird ones: Scarola - escarole, bitter leaf in chicory (think radicchio) family, can be raw, sautéed, braised Broccoli Rabe (or Rape/Rapini) - broccoli's slightly bitter cousin, best friends with garlic and crushed chilis Funghi - you probably guess this one -- mushrooms Scaffata - all the bright greenest stuff -- peas (piselli), fava beans, zucchini, romaine, braised together Photo via Flickr user Maggie Hoffman
  • Dolci
    Flickr: Ewan-M
    We wouldn't leave you without dessert! We hope you've had tiramisu and cannoli by now, so here are some of the sweets you may have been skipping: Affogato - means 'drowned' in Italian -- for the less sweet-inclined, a scoop of ice cream or gelato topped with a hot espresso Zabaglione - pronounced za-ball-YO-nay, fresh Italian custard usually made with brandy Spuma - mousse, you've had mousse before, right? Torta di Ricotta - Italian cheesecake, made with ricotta Photo via Flickr user Ewan-M

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