The Italian cuisine is one of the most famous around the world but, if you have had no direct experience of living in Italy, you may be wondering what Italians eat for dinner in everyday life.
The most popular everyday Italian dinner at home is soup, of different kinds, followed by lean protein, either meat or fish, and a side of vegetables. The most popular Italian dinner at the restaurant is pizza, or a starter of cold meats and cheese followed by grilled meat and possibly dessert. Italian dinner at home is incredibly healthy in terms of nutrients balance and calorie content.
In this article, I put together all the information you might want to know about the typical Italian dinner, both at home and at the restaurant, and highlighted its key features.
Keep reading to find out more
The typical Italian dinner at home
Italian dinner at home is a light meal consisting mainly of lean protein (meat and fish) and vegetables.
Meat is usually cooked in a very “clean” way, usually grilled, then sprinkled with olive oil or pan fried in a very small amount of olive oil or oven cooked. Fish is usually steamed or oven cooked.
Salad is a main vegetable dish eaten for dinner as a side. Italian dinner salads are very plain, and sometimes consist of only lettuce, or lettuce and tomatoes, or a mixture of different types of lettuce, and are flavoured with olive oil, lemon, apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar and salt.
Other vegetables are usually steamed, boiled, pan fried with a very small amount of olive oil or oven cooked, in the case of tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and similar vegetables.
Top three dinners that Italians eat at home
Here are the top three dinners that Italians eat at home:
- Soup of different kinds, second course of cheese and cold meats with a side of vegetables, possibly fresh fruit to close the meal
- Salad or cooked vegetables and meat cooked in a variety of ways, possibly accompanied by some carbohydrates, such as bread or potatoes, possibly fresh fruit to close the meal
- Salad or cooked vegetables and fish cooked in the oven or steamed, possibly accompanied by some carbohydrates, such as bread or potatoes, possibly fresh fruit to close the meal
The types of soups eaten for dinner in Italian homes
Soup is a fundamental food for Italians at dinner, and it comes in three main kinds:
- Pasta soup (or “minestra”)
In Italian, this is called “minestra” or the diminutive “minestrina” . It consists of small-sized past in stock which can be either home made or in cubes and animal (chicken or beef) or vegetarian.
This is a very simple, but filling, first course.
Minestrone is a vegetable soup which contains many different types of vegetables, as well as, sometimes, legumes. Minestrone can be eaten chunky or smooth, after blending it in a blender.
- Legume soup
Italian legumes soup uses mainly beans, lentils or chickpeas, or a mixture of all of them. Legume soup can be eaten as is or made smooth by blending it in a blender.
Legumes contain some protein, so, after legumes soup, Italians normally don’t have a second course, but just eat a small piece of cheese and vegetables.
There is also another, more substantial, type of soup, which is eaten for a more special dinner which is called “tortellini in brodo”. This is chicken, beef or vegetable stock with tortellini (meat parcels) instead of pasta.
Italians sprinkle all soups, regardless of type, with Parmesan cheese and extra-virgin olive oil.
The healthy features of Italian dinner at home
Italian dinner at home is incredibly healthy. Here are its key features:
- The Italian dinner focuses on plain foods which are eaten separately. For example one type of protein, such as meat, rather than more types of proteins mixed in all together. This makes the Italian dinner highly digestible.
- The Italian dinner at home contains a mixture of all types of macronutrients: lean protein, a small amount of carbohydrates and healthy fat (from olive oil). There are also vitamins and minerals as vegetables are always present.
The Italian dinner is slightly biased towards lean proteins in the knowledge that, because dinnertime is usually late, there won’t be an opportunity to burn off the sugars after dinner.
- The Italian dinner at home is light and low in calories
- Alcohol is reserved for special occasions only
- Dessert is reserved for special occasions only
The everyday eating of Italians is, in general, very healthy. This is what a lady I interviewed commented about her family’s eating habits:
“We do eat pasta, but not every day […], (but when we do) the sauces are always easy, for example tomato sauce and basil, tomato sauce and onions, tomato sauce and garlic or sauces made out of any vegetables you might find [….]“
Food is important in the Italian culture but Italians’ everyday eating is very healthy: there is a balance of macronutrients, foods are fresh, and alcohol and sugar are kept to a minimum.
Healthy eating is done consistently by Italians, not as an effort but as a habit. So, for example, Italians don’t try hard to eat fruit and vegetables at every meal, they just do it habitually, as if they didn’t know any different.
A healthy diet is followed naturally by Italians from all socio-cultural backgrounds because healthy eating is a pervasive habit that has been passed on and preserved from a generation to the next.
The typical Italian dinner at the restaurant
Italian dinner at the restaurant is different to Italian dinner at home, as it’s not a light meal.
Dining out for Italians is reserved for special occasions, for example:
- An evening out with friends
- Celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries
- Group gatherings such as work dinners, old-school-friends dinner, etc…
The top three Italian dinners eaten at the restaurant
Below are the top three Italian dinners that are typically eaten at the restaurant.
- Pizza (and possibly dessert) – pizza is very affordable so many people go for pizza when they go out, especially young people
- Starter consisting of platter of cold meats and cheeses and bruschetta. Variety of flamegrilled meats, or steak (with a side of vegetables and/ or chips), possibly dessert.
- Pasta and a lighter second course such as vegetables (fried or otherwise) or fish cooked in a variety of ways, if at a fish restaurant
The typical Italian dinner at the weekend
On Saturday evenings, because people don’t go to work or school the next day, families sit at the table for longer than usual, and so they might eat a more substantial dinner.
(At the weekend) we eat something a little more elaborate
On Saturday evening families often make pizza at home or go and collect take-away pizza, or eat something a little more special and less diet-friendly.
Friends are often round each others’ houses for dinner too on a Saturday evening, which is why dinners tend to be a little more elaborate.
Saturday evening dinner is also considered a good time to have dessert and, for people who have been given a slimming diet by a dietician, the diet often allows them to “cheat” on a Saturday evening.
Are there regional differences in the typical Italian dinner?
There are many regional differences in the Italian cuisine. When it comes to everyday dinner, however, these differences are not as wide, because Italian dinner is simple and healthy throughout the country.
Meats and fish might be cooked slightly differently between one region and another. For example, different herbs might be used for seasoning. However, in terms of condiments, sprinkling olive oil is done throughout Italy regardless of the specific region.
In southern Italy, families typically eat more fish for dinner, because there is more availability of it at fresh fish markets.
As a general rule, southern Italian foods tend to be richer and mix more flavours than central and northern Italian foods.
How do you ask what time dinner is in Italian?
There are a few ways to ask what time dinner is in Italian:
1) A che ora è la cena? – what time is dinner?
2) A che ora servite la cena? – what time do you serve dinner?
3) A che ora si serve la cena? – what time is dinner served?
4) A che ora ceniamo? – What time are we having dinner?