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Italian Meal Planning 101

When planning an Italian meal, whether it be a casual, family dinner, or a formal party for twenty, one needs to understand the individual courses that may be involved. Many people have the impression that an Italian meal is a very complicated, multi-course affair that takes hours to prepare. Though formal meals like this are enjoyed in restaurants, or eaten in the home at holidays or when entertaining, this is not typical of everyday home cooking. Italian meals today are very flexible, consisting of one or two courses that are meant to compliment each other. Formal meals, can consist of a multitude of courses, combining many of the following:

Antipasti: Appetizers
Antipasti literally means “before the meal”. Though generally not part of a typical family meal, these dishes play a very important part in a formal dinner, or a celebration.

Primi Piatti: First Courses
This course, or primi piatti, often consists of either a soup, a pasta or a rice dish. Pasta, considered the Italian staple, can be prepared in numerous ways. One can combine a dried pasta with a simple fresh sauce cooked in minutes, or take a little more time to prepare a fresh pasta, and either layer it, roll it, or stuff it with the ingredients of choice. Risotto, or rice, is also used as a first course. Another dish often eaten at this point in a meal is gnocchi, or dumpling, which can be made from anything as simple as the common potato, or something more exotic as ricotta mixed with herbs or spinach.

Secondi Piatti: Entrees
The secondi piatti, or second course, usually consists of a meat or fish dish. Because an Italian meal is usually started with a pasta dish, this serving is usually small. Italians eat a wide range of meats, particularly veal, rabbit, and poultry, and find many ways to prepare them, to bring out the natural flavor and taste. Seafood of all types are also eaten, though only the freshest of each season are used.

Contorni: Vegetables or Side Dishes
Contorni, or side dishes, generally consist of the vegetables that will compliment the meat or fish course. Italians excel at cooking vegetables, and find endless combinations that meld together into an amazing final dish. In Italy, most vegetables are served at room temperature, which enhances the taste considerably.

Insalata: Salad
Salads in Italy are usually served after the final course, which seems both to refresh the diner after a heavy course, as well as clean the palate before the desert course.

Frutta: Fruit
Usually, fresh fruit kept ice cold in a bowl of ice water is served, however a selection of dried fruits and nuts may be available as well.

Dolci: Desserts
Deserts or dolci, are an indulgence after a full meal. Often a typical meal at home will be followed by a fresh bowl of fruit, but on a special occasion, after the fruit dish, a little sweet is offered. The meal is completed with a coffee, usually an espresso. Cappuccino, typically thought to follow a meal, is actually considered a morning drink, rarely seen afternoon.

Hopefully this brief discussion of the various courses that may be used in planning your next Italian meal has been helpful, and will inspire you to develop your skills in Italian cuisine.

Buon Appetito!
By Deborah Mele 2002