Primi, Secondi, Contorni: How to Order Food in Rome Like a Local
With long menus and busy waiters, ordering food in Rome can be daunting, but as any Roman will tell you, it’s all about knowing what you want and sometimes just asking for help. We’ve created a cheat sheet to take out the guesswork and have you ordering—and eating—like an Italian.
Antipasti, primi, secondi, oh my!
Think of Italian menus a little bit like mathematics, an additive process of different courses that make up a delicious and delectable eating equation. In order to know the best equation, it’s important to understand the variables. Antipasti are appetizers—the “before dish” that is often innovative, lighter, and very tempting. Main courses are separated into primi (firsts) and secondi (seconds). Primi are soups, pastas, and rice dishes. Secondi are fish- (pesce) and meat- (carne) based dishes, and are often heartier. Finally cortorni, usually appearing at the end of the menu, are seasonal vegetable side dishes.
That’s a lot on your plate, right? It doesn’t have to be. Italians usually order two dishes—an antipasto and a primo or secondo, since the full equation of antipasto, primo, and secondo can be troppo abbondante (too much). If you are not super hungry, Milanese food writer Sara Porro advises ordering “two antipasti, since the antipasto is generally a small portion. Or ask for a mezzo porzione (half portion), which normally costs anywhere from 50% to 75% of a regular serving.”
Ristorante vs. trattoria vs. osteria
Don’t get caught up in the nomenclature. While there are three different kinds of restaurant options in Rome—ristorante, trattoria, and osteria—they all come from the same concept, a sit-down restaurant with table service. But what’s the difference? A ristorante is almost always upscale with a design focus, formal service, innovative cuisine (even a Michelin star or two), and higher prices. Trattorias are less formal and less expensive, though no longer the charming and checkered table cloth–clad eateries from yesteryear postcards. Nowadays, you can expect stylish design and a reinterpretation of traditional Roman cuisine. Finally the osteria is the cheap and cheerful budget option—expect no frills.
Dinner time in Rome
What’s the best time to eat dinner? Any time that you want. While Romans tend to get together for dinner around 8pm (at the earliest), restaurants are usually open from 7 or 7:30pm. However, there are several that serve as early as 6:30pm. And remember, no one cares if you are an early eater.
Dinner, whether at home or a restaurant, is often the evening’s entertainment so it’s quite normal for Romans to stay at the table through midnight, because unless otherwise specified, the table is yours until you are completely finished.
But it’s important to play fair and not overstay. Porro says that “keeping a table occupied while eating very little means you're actually costing the restaurant money. So if you're planning to just have a single dish, say so when booking and add you won't keep the table for longer than it takes to finish your meal. It's a simple thing but it'll probably get you in the restaurant's good graces.”
Dining out with kids
Forget about asking for a kids’ menu—Roman restaurant staff, like any proud parent, believe that children are always welcome at the table, so staff are therefore very accommodating to young guests. If size matters, ask for a mezzo porzione (half portion). Parents of kids with particular preferences need to simply ask for pasta bianca (plain pasta).
Related: Top Things to Do in Rome with Kids
Tipping in Rome
When in Rome, the great debate is about whether or not you really have to leave a tip on the table. In Roman restaurant culture, the general rule is that you don’t have to tip. Waiters are salaried and don’t rely on tips to supplement their income, like their US counterparts. But that doesn’t mean you can’t.
The question remains: do you go local and leave not even a centesimo or do you double down with a solid 20% of the overall check? Porro explains, “As a rule of thumb, you can add a few euros to a trattoria check, some more in a nice restaurant. But, don't be guilt-tripped into leaving a tip as high as you would in the US just because people seem to expect that from American tourists.” In general, Romans leave a few coins on the table, never an exaggerated amount. If the service and experience were pleasurable, leave no more than 10% of the total tab.
Wait, you just noticed that in addition to your primi, secondi, and dolci that there is a per-person fee included. Isn’t that the tip? Despite common urban lore, the coperto, or cover charge, you find on the check that jumps the price up (listed as pane or servizio) is not a built-in tip, but a per-person service charge that includes bread, place settings, table service, and other unquantifiable aspects of the hospitality. Even if you don’t eat the bread, the charge will still be included.