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Italian Restaurants - Question about ordering

This is probably a silly question, but it is an honest one.

I will be visiting Boston's North End and I am looking forward to an Italian meal. - Here is my question:

Do people order both a pasta course AND a meat course? On all the menus I am looking at they list the antipasta, then pasta (primi), and then meat (secondi)

It could get very expensive to order all 3 - and I may feel like a little piggy ... but is this how it is done?

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  1. No need to order both pasta and meat, unless of course you want to. Many restaurants offer their pasta in smaller appetizier portions so you could then enjoy a meat entree. I sometimes like to stop in one restaurant for a glass of wine and an appetizer and then move on to another restaurant for the meal. I've also been known to then go for a nice walk, straight to Paradiso for an expresso and dessert!

    1. My feling about any restaurantis - if this is a new or special experience for you, one you may not be able to repeat soon, do what makes you happy. If you'd like to order more than one dish, by all means order it. The restaurant is there to please you, not the other way around.

      My best food memories involve traveling as a teenager with my father who had an interesting way of learning about new cuisines. He'd find one of the best restaurants around (Veeraswami in London, Gumbo Shop in New Orleans, etc.) and order at least half the menu for just the two of us. It was more food than any sane person could eat but by the end of the meal we had a great overview of a previously unfamiliar cuisine.

      Yes, waiters looked at us as if we were crazy but no one ever said a word or acted as if we were doing anything unusual. And I have some terrific memories to hold onto.

      1. Your father sounds like my type of guy. I don't know how many times we've been told by waitstaff that we're ordering way too much. One of these times was at Babbo in New York a few years ago. We wanted to order 4 main courses for three of us. The waiter went into the kitchen to ask Mario (Batali)'s advice. Mario gave us his "permission" and blessing. The food was great, and on the way out Mario was sitting at the bar. We thanked him for a great meal, and he asked us if we'd enjoyed the (whatever that 4th dish was). He somehow knew who we were.

        So, yes, we tend to order too much, referring to the extra dishes as "for the table." Our table always eats very well.

        As for the Italian restaurant question, in Italy pasta is rarely eaten as the main course. If you want to give the pastas and the mains a try, order a half-portion of pasta as an appetizer, plus a main course. In Italy, the sides are usually extra, as well.

        1. When I was a kid, my dad organized a summer seminar in Naples, and we spent many summers there. Back then people would indeed order a pasta (full portion), an entree, and then dessert. Whenever they would let me, I substituted a second pasta for dessert! But I've been to lots of old-school Brooklyn Italian restaurants and I've never seen anyone order both pasta and an entree (though if you wanted to, they would be very happy to accommodate).

          1. In most of the North End restaurants you would order either a pasta dish (some comtain meat, some don't) or you would order a meat/seafood dish (entree). Most of the entree (meat/seafood dishes) come with pasta. If you were ordering something like a veal piccata it may come with a side of pasta with red (marinara) sauce but you could ask to have it served with the veal piccata sauce not red sauce. You can order an antipasto salad or house salad but I would not recommend ordering all 3. They are really not meant to be ordered that way for each person- it would be an enormous amount of food. I go to the N. End for dinner at least once a month and have never heard or seen anyone ordering all 3. I really even stopped ordering salad appetizers because all the meals are usually really good size portions.

            1. Not in the US. In Italy it's customary to order at least 2 courses (between app, pasta, meat, or dessert), but even that's not a hard set rule.

              Plus the portion sizes in US are out of control, comparing to Italy, so there's no way to eat that many courses.

              1. One food memory of Rome - Ristorante Nino near the Spanish Steps - we reserved a table and it turned out to our American surprise, that it was OUR table for the night. So it came quite naturally to order antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci over the course of a three hour meal. Did not end up feeling overly full.

                My advice - If you want the full slate, you should go for it. If you want three pastas, or three apps, or whatever combination makes you happy, go for it. There is no "how it is done." Like my Italian grandpa used to say, "It's a free country..."

                If you go for the full slate, you might make the point to the server that you REALLY want to take your time between courses - as long as you keep drinking the wine, they should be happy with the non-turnover of the seating.

                I would also echo the suggestion that you stroll to one of the many cafes for coffee and dessert, which will help you digest.

                Half-portions on the pasta will also definitely help out if you are feeling slightly less ambitious.

                p.s. - I hope you view the Boston board for suggestions - the general opinion here is that the North End is loaded with tourist traps...so good luck in choosing wisely.

                1. Many Boston Italian restaurants divide their menu into Antipasti (appetizers), Pastas, and Secondi (second/main courses). There's no reason not to order all three, and no reason to do it either. Just order what you feel like.

                  In most of the more authentic restaurants, the portions are also of a reasonable size. It really is possible to go through all three courses without bursting.

                  Personally, I usually skip the pasta course when I eat in the North End. That way I can get a pastry at the Modern on Hanover Street for dessert.

                  1. i usually go for a half-order of pasta and a meat dish. I want to taste them both and ordering full-sized is too much food and you will be too full to enjoy the meat after a full plate of pasta.

                    1. Interesting question-this would be one of the (many) differences between a restaurant in Italy and an Italian-American restaurant here. You could always ask about portion sizes in the hopes that you found a very authentic Italian restaurant where you could order 3 reasonably-sized courses and make an evening out of it, but good authentic Italian places are few and far between in the US.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: christy319

                        I wish there are more authentic ones here. But I suspect that if the portion size are small as in Italy most Americans will complain that it's skimpy and overpriced. We are bought up with the bottomless bowl of salad, the gigantic servings at Cheesecake Factory, Claim Jumper and the like.

                        I can eat 2 courses in Italy, and can't even finish one here in the US.

                        I am beginning to weed out the Italian-American restaurants here just by seeing if there are spaghetti and meatballs on the menu...

                      2. I can't speak for Italy, but nearly all of the italian restaurants in the North End (with the possible of exception of Mamma Maria) have primi portions way too large for a normal person to also have a Secondi. Pretty much seems to be one or the other for most diners there.

                        1. Depends on the restaurant. Some restaurants serve pastas that are meant to be eaten as a primi with a secondi, which means that it is pretty small. other restaurants the serving size of the pasta is that of an entree. The best bet would be to ask the waiter the serving size and how to order. Also, you can see if they do half portions or just split a pasta.

                          I've also eaten at restaurants that typically make larger pasta servings and have eaten the pasta as a primi and also ordered a secondi but skipped the appetizer/antipasti.