What is the typical meal schedule in Rome?
Lunch never much before 1pm, dinner, 7.30-but better 8, but most places are open and welcoming at slightly earlier times. If you want a largely Roman or Italian crowd around you, 1-1.30 for lunch and hardly never before 8 for dinner.
Portions are smaller than they are at comparable US tables, but for me perfectly fine. Italians usually avoid sweet/rich desserts, saving it for a gelato during the passeggiata.
Main meal is when you want it, really. Except for Sunday or a lazy day, for us it's dinner. Lunch is still, for many Italians, the meal, with a light pranzo of soup or pasta or a pizza in the evening, but eat when you wish. And I've never had any real push to order a primo and a secondo--we typically split a primo of pasta, then have a secondo each. Pasta as a main course is increasingly common, too.
Rare = al sangue; well-done = ben cotto; medium = medio, though I've never had any reason to use these terms, since fish is always grilled ben cotto, and the roasts are usually on the medium/medium well side, as I (sorry) prefer.
re: bob oppedisano
The later you eat dinner, the more Italian the crowd will be. I've adjusted to living in Italy, but the mealtimes are definitely later, even for a NYer like myself. 7:30-9:00 are strictly for tourists, although sometimes in winter this shades a bit earlier. The same restaurant that seems like a graveyard or a tourist trap at 8:00 may be totally Italian at 10:00. Even families eat out late, as "bedtime" is a foreign term for a lot of bambini. On a warm weekend night, things can get quite late indeed.
A funny story: When American (older) friends came to visit last year, I made a reservation at a favorite osteria for 7:30. When we got there, they seated us, gave us some wine, and then went about their set-up business for another 1/2 hour, finally bringing menus over a little after 8. When I asked them what was up, they confirmed that they didn't open until 8:00 (and no one else arrived until 8:30), but since they knew I was American they had humored me by taking the reservation for 7:30...
On the other hand, don't want too long to eat lunch. In Roma, you'll be fine at any hour - there's always someone serving something, but in smaller towns, trying to get a meal between 2:30/3 and 7:30, can be virtually impossible.
The big lunch is waning as a tradition, but is still there if you want it. Pizza is really only an evening thing (the places that advertise pizza at lunch are doing it for the tourists).
As Bob said, portions are smaller than the average American obscenity, but generally quite satisfying. Any combination of app., primo, secondo or a single dish is absolutely fine, as is ordering a glass or a carafe of vino locale instead of a more expensive bottle.
Bob's analysis is correct. I've spent ages arguing with restaurants, family and friends to try to get my fish "non troppo cotto" but it just doesn't work. As a result, I wait til I visit the States to eat tuna, salmon and other fish that I just can't stand too well done. You may have better luck with bistecca or lamb...
Of course, if you like your food well done, you're in luck!
re: bob oppedisano
"Rare = al sangue; well-done = ben cotto; medium = medio, though I've never had any reason to use these terms, since fish is always grilled ben cotto, and the roasts are usually on the medium/medium well side, as I (sorry) prefer."
I concur. Raro means rare in the sense of seldom found; ben fatto means well done in the sense of a job well done; and mezzo really means half, part, or in the middle of. If you use these, the waiter won't really understand what you mean--and asking the chef to do a good job on your steak may not be well received. You can also use poco cotto, or non troppo cotto as the other poster suggests, especially if it's not beef (al sangue literally means with blood). Crudo means raw and may be used for pasta sauces, vegetables, or fruit.
However, like Bob, we seldom use any of these terms, preferring to take the food the way the chef or proprietor prepares it. The one exception may be when paying a hefty price for a fiorentina, but they naturally cook it the way I like it, anyway (al sangue).
Eating times will vary depending on where you are in Italy. As a rule, as you go south on the peninsula, the meal times get later, both mid-day and evening. They also tend to be a bit later in cities than in the country. Where in Tuscany, Umbria, and northern Lazio, we generally plan to have pranzo (mid-day meal) around 1:00/1:30 and cena (evening meal) at about 8:00/8:30, this is early for Rome. And, my southern friends tell me, Romans eat earlier than they do. As someone mentioned, the earlier crowd will tend to be tourists either from northern Europe or the U.S., judging by overheard table conversations.
Having the big meal in the middle of the day is waning in the cities and in some workplaces, but it is still alive and well in the small towns, and particularly in the small trattorias. We usually have our big meal in the middle of the day. It makes a nice break, whether you are working or sightseeing. An exception would be a meal in an expensive restaurant, although even this we try to do on Sunday afternoon.
That said, there is a lot of leeway in what you order. You can, in fact, order any of the combination of antipasto, primo (pasta, soup, risotto, etc.), secondo (meat), and contourno (vegetable side) for either pranzo or cena. While meat portions are typically small, I find pasta portions overwhelming, particularly in trattorias. We frequently will share an antipasto or secondo and/or order a "mezzo porzione" (half portion) of pasta to the total volume down. Sometimes I order a plate of grilled vegetables instead of a secondo, and give over a few bits of veg to my other half, receiving a few bites of meat in return. As many Italians are now eating less, this is perfectly acceptable. I see many locals doing this all over. What I do try to do is still have several courses for each meal, even if it is just half an antipasto, grilled vegetables, fruit for dessert, and, of course, a cafe afterward. Italians understand eating less. What they find strange is eating a large portion of only one thing. Or having a sandwich for lunch, although even this is changing in the cities.
There is plenty of great food to be had. Enjoy your trip and mangi bene.
I can't answer the questions about meal times with any certainty, but we ate at normal, American times on our visit to Italy last fall. As far as the largest meal of the day, I think that's a personal call - we usually make it dinner, out of habit. I believe the same was true in Rome.
Rare, medium, well-done: raro, il mezzo, bene-fatto. Those are literal translations - I'm guessing they are the correct terms in culinary speak, too.