The meal officially begins with an apertivo, usually a beverage such as proseco, a dry Italian sparkling wine. Then, an array of antipasti (starters, literally "before the meal") appears. Zuppa (soup) is served next; followed by the primo piatto course (the first plate). Primo piatto is almost always a pasta course – pasta served with a simple sauce (usually cream, tomato, oil, or butter based).
The main course, or secondo piatto (literally second plate), typically involves meat, seafood, or fish, or some combination of the three. Next up: contorno. Although the contorno (or side dish) is considered a separate course, it is normally served with the secondo piatto, but always on a separate plate. A vegetable is most often selected as the contorno. The salad, or insalata, unlike in many cultures, follows the main course and side dish. After the salad comes the formagi e frutta (cheese and fruit). Dolci (sweets), the dessert course, follows the fruit and cheese, and caffè (coffee) comes last. Well, almost last! Following everything, it is not uncommon for someone to suggest and order (or serve) a digestivo – often grappa or limoncello to facilitate better digestion.
I remember these huge meals as a child, particularly those on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. We didn't have names for each course, we just knew more good food was always yet to come. As a young boy, my favorite part of the feast was what I now know as the digestivo. My father always ensured I had a half-shot of Anisette to end the day and to put me quickly to sleep! Wonderful memories, to be sure.
Even today, my wife and I prefer to entertain with multiple-course meals, although we've yet to serve eleven courses as my ancestors did. We serve each course separately, and allow time between courses to clear the table, relax a bit, and prepare for the next offering. It makes for great dining, great conversation, and great fun!
P.S. The new recipes listed here include two of my favorite vegetables (contorni), one of my favorite veal dishes (secondi piatti), and a simple, delicious fritatta. I created the Strawberry Soup (zuppa) for my grandchildren at their request. I know it's good because they asked for a second helping!