Be a gracious, impressive, stress-free host with the Italian meal structure

Having a dinner party? Might I recommend allowing the traditional Italian formal meal structure be your guide. It hits all the right notes and makes it easy to accommodate a number of dietary preferences in a single meal that will absolutely leave your guests wowed.

Following this coursing structure provides some really wonderful opportunities to serve amazing food that will make sure everyone has something to enjoy.

So, without further ado, my take on the Italian meal structure.

Aperitivo

The aperitivo opens a meal, and it is similar to an appetizer. Most people gather around standing up and have alcoholic/non-alcoholic drinks such as wine, prosecco, spritz, vermouth, gingerino. Occasionally small amounts of food are consumed, such as olives, crisps, nuts, cheese, sauce dips, little quiches or similar snacks.

There’s nothing like welcoming your guests with a light round of drinks. Save the hard liquor for later, give everyone ample time to settle in, mingle, and work up a healthy appetite. A simple bar of a sparkling wine, vermouth, club soda, and a citrus or berry will provide a variety of options no matter how much alcohol they plan to consume.

A spread of cracker, crisps and chip allows creative variety. For example: sweet potato chips or rice crackers alongside standard cracker-basket fare for gluten and nut free snacking. Adding a plant-based dip is an easy way to surprise vegan or non-dairy guests.

Antipasto

The antipasto is a slightly heavier starter. It is usually cold and lighter than the first course. Examples of foods eaten are salumi (such as salame, mortadella, prosciutto, bresaola and other charcuterie products), cheeses, sandwich-like foods (panino, bruschetta, tramezzino, crostino), vegetables, cold salmon or prawn cocktails; more elaborate dishes are occasionally prepared.

Preference-conscious antipasto can be so easy:

Assemble a veggie bruschetta or crostini. Layer in cheese or meat, either by assembling multiple variations or by allowing guests to assemble for themselves. Gluten-free bread can be a nice touch, but I prefer to stick with things that hold up without the bread. Some of my go-tos:

  • balsamic eggplant, mozzarella, tomato, basil on toasted bread
  • fruit, herbs, and cauliflower spread on toast, with maple and vinegar
  • roasted vegetable bruschetta served with bread and a gluten free chip

Primo

A primo is the first course. It consists of hot food and is usually heavier than the antipasto, but lighter than the second course. Non-meat dishes are the staple of any primo piatto: examples are risotto, pasta, soup and broth, gnocchi, polenta, crespelle, casseroles, or lasagne.

The possibilities here are endless. There are so many flexible risotto, pilaf, polenta, and casserole recipes.

Risotto is my favorite when I’m entertaining a potentially gluten free crowd. Thanks to the starch in Arborio or Carnarol it’ll still be creamy without cheese and a good vegetable stock will completely supplant chicken broth. Even better: serve steaming hot with small chunks of cheese on the side and guests can choose their own adventure.

Secondo e contorno

[Sedondo] may include different meats and types of fish, including turkey, sausage, pork, steak, stew, beef, zampone, salt cod, stockfish, salmon, lobster, lamb, chicken, or a roast. The primo or the secondo piatto may be considered more important depending on the locality and the situation.
A contorno is a side dish and it’s commonly served alongside a secondo piatto. These usually consist of vegetables, raw or cooked, hot or cold. They are usually served in a separate dish, not on the same plate as the meat.

The pairing of secondo and contorno is where this format shines. You can easily serve a meat forward main dish alongside a robust pair of plant-based dishes that will delight every guest. My favorite strategy is to take inspiration from the translation of “contorno” and treat this course as a triad of contours, three dishes that balance each other perfectly. Typically: two vegan and one where anything goes, but you’d be surprised how excited meat-eaters can get about plants when done right.

Insalata

If the contorno contained many leafy vegetables, the salad might be omitted. Otherwise, a fresh garden salad would be served at this point.

Playing your cards right in the previous dishes means the insalata is free to be its leafy-green self. Seasonal greens can be dressed in something simple and accommodating for everyone, or served with a dressing and cruets of oil and vinegar. Salt an pepper, always.

Seasonal greens are interesting, often striking — and since this course is sometimes omitted anyway, feel free to take risks and turn tables on those “where’s the beef?” eaters. You’ll get major points with any non-carnivores.

Formaggi e frutta

An entire course is dedicated to local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruit. The cheeses will be whatever is typical of the region.

Fruit and cheese, something for everyone. You literally cannot go wrong here unless you really, really try.

Dolce

Next follows the dolce, or dessert. Frequent dishes include tiramisu, panna cotta, cake or pie, panettone or pandoro (the last two are mainly served at Christmas time) and the Colomba Pasquale (an Easter cake). A gelato or a sorbetto can be eaten too. Though there are nationwide desserts, popular across Italy, many regions and cities have local specialties.

Dessert might actually be the hardest to pull off in a contentious way. There’s gluten, egg, and dairy at every turn, not to mention the perennial nuts 🙈 — gelato, ice cream and puddings are all out. Galettes, cakes, and pies are typically crowd pleasers but baked goods are tricky if you’re trying to stay gluten free. Gels are hard to make vegan-friendly. Sorbetto or fresh fruits are great, but not always seasonally appropriate.

My solution is usually to have cover the bigger bases and have something as a fallback. A seasonal fruit galette is simple, easy and pairs with ice cream for a bit of pizazz. Just hold some of the fruit from the galette to pair with the ice cream for anyone avoiding gluten.

Digestivo con caffè

Coffee is often drunk at the end of a meal, even after the digestivo. Italians, unlike many countries, do not have milky coffees or drinks after meals (such as cappuccino or caffè macchiato), but strong coffee such as espresso, which is often drunk very quickly in small cups at very high temperatures.
The digestivo, also called ammazzacaffè if served after the coffee, is the drink to conclude the meal. Drinks such as grappa, amaro, limoncello or other fruit/herbal drinks are drunk.

I’ll typically squish the three final courses into one and serve a final round of drinks with dessert, ending the alcohol service and transitioning into coffee before guests start to pack up and head home.

Espresso stands up well against the herbal, low-alcohol drinks like campari, chartreuse, coffee liquors — all can be served over ice. Sparkling waters should still be available. For summer: iced coffees and lemonades are easy to prep in advance; in winter, spiced ciders. When served to overlap the end of dessert, the liquors, cordials, espresso and coffee of digestivo and caffè pair endlessly with left over ice cream and fruit. A final cup of coffee or espresso helps everyone make it home warm and safe.


Where did this come from? You’re a designer!

While a bit tangential to my normal work, I find entertaining and design to be deeply related. Just look at my Instagram. Understanding needs and cultivating an experience are central to my work as a designer and community organizer. More directly, as the Nashville UX planning group works on next year, we’ve found ourselves turning to the food and beverage options. There’s no better way to build relationships than over food, and these types of details are deeply important to makign sure everyone is feels comfortable, welcome, and safe.