What do Italians eat? And when?

What do Italians eat, and when? How does a typical meal look like? Learn more about Italian eating habits and learn useful vocabulary.

When do Italians eat?

The time vary depending on the region and a bit also on the age: In the south you usually eat later than in the north and older people eat generally a bit earlier than younger people.

la colazionebreakfastfare colazionela mattina7:00-9:00
il pranzolunchpranzarenel primo pomeriggio12:00-14:30
la merendasmall afternoon meal (children)fare merendaa metà pomeriggio16:00-17:00
la cenadinnercenarela sera19:00-21:00

La merenda is a small afternoon meal that is typically eaten by children. It consists of a snack, a piece of cake or bread with a sweet spread. Adults do not make a merenda, but they do like to eat or drink something in the middle of the afternoon: a coffee, a piece of cake, hot chocolate or a cup of tea with cookies in winter, an ice cream in summer.

What do Italians eat?

Italian eat

An Italian meal, that is lunch and dinner, is normally divided in courses: l’antipasto, il primo, il secondo con il contorno, il dolce. However, on a normal day Italian, Italian don’t have all these courses, but only the main course, that is primo, secondo and contorno.


L’antipasto is a starter, i.e. some finger food. You may have starter in the restaurant or if you have guests at home, but usually not at home on a normal day.

Usual antipasti are:

  • salumi e formaggi cold cuts and cheese
  • caprese caprese salad (fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese)
  • bruschetta (toasted bread topped with oil and chopped tomatoes)
  • olive olives

The main course

The main course is build up of il primo (first course) and il secondo (second course) with il contorno (side dish), that is what Italians usually eat at home. You can have both first and second course, or just one of them.

Il primo

Il primo consists of some kind of pasta, rice or soup. Here some usual primi:

  • pasta
  • riso rice or risotto
  • tortellini o ravioli (two kind of filled pasta)
  • gnocchi
  • minestra / minestrone soup / vegetable soup

Il secondo e il contorno

Il secondo consists of meat or fish together with il contorno: vegetables. In a restaurant you’ll usually have meat or fish, at home you could eat something easier like eggs, cheese or cold cuts, too. Here some usual secondi you’ll eat together with vegetables:

  • carne meat
  • pesce fish
  • uova o frittata eggs or omelet
  • formaggio cheese
  • salumi cold cuts

Complete dishes

Pizza, sandwiches, hamburgers and similar are complete dishes and represent alone the whole main course (primo and secondo together). That means that if you eat pizza you may also have an antipasto and/or a dolce, but not a primo or a secondo.

Il dolce

At the end there is il dolce, especially in restaurant or with guests, that consists of something sweet like a cake, tiramisù or panna cotta. Usually at home you don’t have a real dolce, but rather some fruit.

E poi… il caffè!

This is not the end! After the meal you’ll have:

  • Il caffè. That is, an espresso.
  • L’ammazzacaffè. The after coffee drink. Usually an amaro (bitter) or a liquore (liquor). In the popular culture it’s said that helps the digestion… 🙂 The ammazzacaffè is usually drank in the restaurant or with guests.

Importante: il pane

Don’t forget the brad: bread rolls or pieces are always on the table during the whole meal to be eaten together with the other food. If you have a sauce you’ll do the scarpetta (fare la scarpetta), i.e. you’ll mop up your plate with bread!

Picture credits: Freepik

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