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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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