Decoding Italy’s menu mysteries

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The search for common ground between food lovers and weight-watchers, bargain-seekers and luxury-lovers ends in the most unlikely place: Italy. The country has reached the end of the reign of culinary extremists like chef Elena Fabrizi, whose restaurant sign on Rome's Isola Tiberina commanded non solo primi (no first courses only) as mercilessly as any emperor's edict at an ancient Roman bacchanal. Tourist menus may still try to convince novices that pasta, mains and dessert are essential to the Italian restaurant experience, but Italians are no longer buying the three-course mandate.

Italy's modern meal plan

Never fear, Italy has not gone on a diet - che orrore! the horror! - only become a bit more practical over the past decade. In Italy's urban centres, tighter budgets have made ordering ample first courses such as pasta or risotto a decadent yet sensible choice. Many modern Italian workplaces are following Milan's trend-setting example of reducing the traditional three-hour pausa (break) between noon and three to a more literal lunch hour (well… hour and a half). This abbreviated lunchtime is good for shopping, and bad for sobriety. Beware Milan's stylish Quadrilatero d'Oro, where Franciacorta and espresso imbibed in rapid succession with a light pasta can induce a woozy, giddy state that make psychedelic Pucci-print halters seem like must-haves with Missoni zig-zag tuxedo pants.

Timing is everything

Before you obey the Italian rumble in your stomach at noon, consult your calendar. Seasonality is the key to Italy's sun-drenched, vine-ripened, flavour-bursting cuisine. Even if you rightly crave prosciutto e melone (thinly sliced ham with cantaloupe) as a summer treat, think twice before entering a restaurant that offers a wan, tasteless version mid-winter. When you look over the menu posted in the front window, also count the number of asterisks indicating dishes featuring frozen ingredients, as required by law. This is one case where five stars is actually a bad omen for your meal.

The most authentic Italian menus change not only seasonally, but daily. Fridays are traditionally dedicated to fish, while gnocchi is a Thursday speciality - and you'll want a month of Thursdays to sample the superb dumpling variations across Italy. Glide down the Italian Alps' ski slopes fuelled by rustic, hearty breadcrumb gnocchi, and time your Thursday arrival in Florence's Renaissance restaurants for gnocchi made with ricotta and spinach. These pillows of dough are so heavenly yet sinful, they're known as strozzapreti (priest-stranglers).

Get to know your local primi

As you review your primi (first-course) menu options, consider where you're sitting. ‘Never order pasta in a pizzeria’ is Italian folk wisdom that this sceptical restaurant reviewer has diligently tested across the country. Sadly, the adage has held true everywhere except Naples, where wonders performed with extra-fluffy, super-elastic ‘zero-zero’ milled flour never cease. Starches double as geolocation devices in Italy: if polenta, gnocchi and risotto are on the menu, you're probably in the north, while rustic bread, pizza, and farro place you squarely in the south.

Secondi specialities

Menu focus shifts to secondi (mains) in Tuscany, where you'll find thick, tender steaks of chianina, the rare white cattle breed of Maremma, and in Sicily, where the local tuna is a true delicacy grilled with a squeeze of Sicilian blood orange and brushed with a sprig of thyme. When confronted with such obvious delicacies, why be conservative or contrarian and stick to pasta? Instead of going with what you know, go with the local flow.

Dinner bargains

If dinner seems too ambitious after an abundant lunch, do as Milan supermodels and savvy students across Italy now do: enjoy aperitivi, happy-hour drinks served with lavish free buffets of salumi, cheeses, pasta salads and savoury pastries. Venetians organise their daily, weekly and lifelong schedules around cicheti, or Venetian tapas - small, perfect bites of lagoon seafood and speciality cured meats and cheeses that line bar counters from noon-2pm and 6.30-8.30pm daily.

Italian table manners

Your surest bets are local, seasonal, and daily specialities, but any menu item you choose is perfectly acceptable in Italy - with a few noteworthy exceptions on the drink menu. If you'd prefer soda instead of wine with your pizza without a complementary side-order of scorn, go for takeout pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice). But no matter where you go, don't feel obliged to commit to a bottle: even high-end ristoranti offer high-end DOC wines by the glass, and osterie (pubs) serve house wine by the 250ml-500ml carafe. Acqua al rubinetto (tap water) is increasingly encouraged by many Italians, who are balking at ‘designer water’ price tags and the environmental costs of recycling millions of bottles annually.

Just don't chase your espresso with water in Naples, where the world's strictest baristas consider it an insult to the robust, lingering flavour of their finely crafted coffee. There's no shame in a macchiato (espresso lightly stained with milk foam), but sipping cappuccino after a hearty lunch or supper is considered both bad for your health and unsightly to fellow diners, akin to swilling grappa (high-proof spirits) straight from the bottle. But at the modern Italian table, one ancient Roman caveat still applies: audacity is forgiven and even applauded, as long as you do it with gusto.

Alison Bing is a food writer and the author of Lonely Planet's Discover Italy 2. Between bites and flights from California to her home in Proceno, Italy, she shares discoveries at www.twitter.com/AlisonBing.