Eating Out in Rome: Part 2

|

(See also Part 1, Eating Out in Rome:  A Primer for the Hungry American Traveler)

So, about all those courses. 

Technically, a multi-course Italian meal may include dishes from all of the following categories:  antipasto, primo piatto, secondo piatto, contorno, insalata, and dolce.  These are the section headings you will find on almost every a la carte menu in Italy.  Some restaurants will further divide the antipasto, primo, and secondo lists into two subsets:  pesce or del mare (fish/of the sea) and carne or della montagna (meat/of the mountain). 

Most people eating out in Rome these days will choose something from two or three of the categories rather than all six.  It's helpful to try to coordinate what will be ordered at your table, so that everyone is ordering from the same categories, but it isn't absolutely necessary.  If one person is ordering an antipasto and a secondo, and the other is ordering a primo and a contorno, the waiter will usually ask if you want the courses served in tandem.  Rarely, you get the server who doesn't offer and will actually bring each course at a different time, making an awkward meal for people who don't order from the same course lists.

Antipasto

Antipasto (literally, before-meal) is traditionally the first course and the first section on the menu.  Most restaurants will offer a sampler plate of their specialty salumi (cured meats of all kinds) and/or formaggi (cheeses).  Often there are fritti, deep-fried tidbits such as sliced veggies, seasoned rice balls, potato croquettes, sausage-stuffed olives, and in Rome, the famous fiori di zucca, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and a bit of anchovy.  Another Roman favorite is carciofi (artichokes), served either stuffed and oven-braised (alla romana) or pan-fried in olive oil (alla giudia).  Bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKET-ta), a thick slice of bread grilled and topped with olive oil, mozzarella, or tomatoes, often makes a simple, satisfying antipasto. 

Restaurants specializing in seafood will sometimes feature a raw fish carpaccio antipasto, a must-try for sushi lovers.  Other examples of seafood antipasti:  grilled scallops (capesante), smoked salmon (salmone affumicato), marinated seafood (insalata di mare, usually includes baby octopus, squid, and several kinds of shellfish), marinated fresh anchovies (alici, something completely different from the pitiful, salty little pizza toppers most Americans think of when they see the word anchovy), and mixed fried seafood (fritto misto).

Primo Piatto

The primo piatto (first plate) category includes all pasta and risotto dishes and soups.  There is so much more to Italian pasta than just spaghetti bolognese and ravioli!  Every region and even every town seem to have their favorite preparations.  Enumerating and describing popular pasta dishes would fill its own entry, so I'll save that for another time.

Secondo Piatto

The secondo piatto is what we Americans would call the main dish or entree.  Most of the time secondi are fish or meat based, though a very small minority of restaurants do try to offer the odd vegetarian option.  (Vegetarians usually find what they're after in the antipasto, primo, and contorno lists; or in the form of pizza.) 

Steak lovers should give tagliata di manzo a try:  a flavorful steak grilled to order, then sliced and fanned out on the plate, sometimes with a house specialty sauce, often with a green side salad and roasted potatoes, or with fresh arugula (rucola), sweet cherry tomatoes (pacchini), and shavings of parmigiano reggianoFiorentina is the nickname for Tuscan-style steak:  huge, thick cuts that we know as T-Bone and Porterhouse, grilled over wood or charcoal to rare (al sangue) or medium-rare (poco cotto).  Fiorentina is priced by the etto (100 grams, a little less than a quarter pound), and usually there is a minimum order, for example, six etti.  Most restaurants also serve filetto di manzo (beef filet), a better option if you prefer something smaller or cooked more.

Various lamb and veal preparations usually figure somewhat prominently among the secondi.  Saltimbocca (literally, jumps in the mouth) is a very rich combination of boneless veal, prosciutto, and fresh sage cooked in wine and butter.  Lombata di vitello is a wondefully juicy grilled veal loin chop.  Wild boar (cinghiale) dishes appear on many menus in central Italy, and from time to time you find preparations of rabbit (coniglio).  Pork is usually reserved for salumi, but maialino, roast suckling pig, sometimes makes an appearance among the secondi.  Apart from the occasional roast chicken (pollo arrosto), poultry dishes are relatively rare.

I almost forgot the fish!  Italians eat a lot of fish.  Some of my favorite seafood dishes appear on the primo list, like spaghetti con vongole (with clams) and linguine ai frutti di mare.  Fish-based secondi often include grilled, braised or baked fish steaks and filets, such as pescespada alla griglia (grilled swordfish), pescespada alla siciliana (braised with tomatoes, garlic, olives, olive oil, and sometimes capers, pine nuts and sultanas), rombo al forno (turbot or flounder baked under a beautiful layer of thinly sliced potatoes), spigola al cartoccio (sea bass steamed in parchment paper), and branzino al sale (whole Mediterranean sea bream baked within a thick crust of sea salt).  BaccalĂ , salt cod, is prepared in many different ways, including batter-fried, braised alla siciliana, and pureed with potatoes.

Contorno

Contorni are akin to our side dishes...yet they are often served after the secondo, rather than alongside it.  Common options include roasted potatoes, sauteed greens such as spinach or cicoria greens, fagiolini (green beans), or whatever's in season.  (And by the way, if it's not in season, don't expect it to be served.)  And a warning so you won't be shocked or alarmed:  many vegetable side dishes are cooked, then chilled and served cold, sometimes with a squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of olive oil.

Insalata

Insalata...familiar yet different.  Where I come from in the U.S., a salad that is part of a multi-course meal is often the first course.  (I know this isn't true for all Americans.)  In Italy, if you order a salad course, you can expect it to come after the main course.  (Though servers who have encountered a lot of Americans will sometimes offer to bring it earlier, or even just assume that they should.)  Also, just to confuse you a little more, most salads are quite large and can certainly be ordered AS one's main course.  Be aware that the "small side salad" you ask for might turn out to be a huge bowl big enough to share with several people.  Oh, and you know that mixed-up stuff in a bottle (or worse, a little packet of powder) that we know as "Italian dressing?"  No such thing.  In central and southern Italy, salad dressing is simply vinegar (often balsamic) and high-quality olive oil brought to the table for you to add to taste.  It may sound boring at first, but trust me:  it's wonderful.  The quality of the vinegar and oil, not to mention the freshness of the produce, is typically so much better than what we're used to that you'll be delighted. 

Dolce 

Dolce--dessert--shouldn't require too much explanation.  There are lots of standards--tiramisu, creme caramel, creme brulee, millefoglie (flaky puff pastry layered with a cream filling), and various cakes and tarts involving fruit and/or chocolate.  In Rome you commonly find panna cotta (literally cooked cream), a sort of luscious, eggless custard.  For me, sometimes the most satisfying dessert is a bowl of fresh fruit in season, with or without sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, whipped cream or a bit of vanilla ice cream.  My favorites are frutti di bosco (forest fruits, a combination usually including blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and sometimes red currants) and fragoline (tiny wild strawberries).  As mentioned in Part 1 of this "series", coffee is served after dessert, not with it, as we tend to do in the U.S.

Pizza

Wait, you say--What about the pizza?  (Before I forget, let me mention that some restaurants only make pizza at dinnertime, presumably because it's often too damn hot to have the pizza oven fired up all afternoon.)  As for where it fits within the myriad other courses...it doesn't, really.  Often when you see a group of Italians at a restaurant, they appear to have somehow agreed on whether it is a pizza night or a courses night, because everyone at the table will either have pizza, or order a couple of courses.  It's OK to have a small antipasto before the pizza, or a salad or dessert after, but you never see people combining pizza with pasta or with meat or fish main dishes. 

As for the pizza itself, Americans tend to fall into one of two camps:  those who prefer a particular American style, such as "New York", "Chicago", or (heaven forbid) some hideous chain's version; and those who prefer an Italian style--Naples' version with a puffier, softer crust, or Roman style with a very thin, crispy crust.  Some restaurants will offer to make either style, referring to them by crust thickness as alta (high/Naples style) and bassa (low/Roman style). 

Toppings vary, but there are classic combinations seen on almost every menu in Rome:  Margherita (tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil), Napoletana (tomato, mozzarella, black olives and anchovies, and apparently called Romana down in Naples!), and Ercolano or salame piccante (tomato, mozzarella, and thinly sliced spicy salami, akin to what we call "pepperoni" in the U.S.).  In Italy you also find pizzas that are topped with fresh arugula (rucola) after coming out of the oven, a topping that I adore.  And don't assume that every pizza comes with tomato sauce:  if it's not listed in the ingredients, it's not going to be on the pizza. 

There are some pizza topping abominations commonly found in the U.S. that you will NEVER see in Italy, such as BBQ chicken (or any chicken, for that matter), sliced green olives, or anything with pineapple.  And if you remember nothing else, please remember this:  In Italy "pepperone" means bell peppers, often roasted and/or marinated, NOT that spicy salami-type stuff we call "pepperoni" in the U.S.!