Food is a key part of the Italian culture.
If you come to Italy, you’ll immediately realize that food is really important for us Italians. Eating is some sort of ritual, not just a way to fill your stomach when you are hungry. The time you spend eating is not considered a waste of time, but an essential part of the day. The quality of food is a serious matter and food traditions are taken as principles of a religion.
This is why, if you spend some time in Italy, you’ll find yourself having to speak of food or food-related matters. Be it ordering your aperitivo at the bar or buying some panini to eat during your day trip to Florence or Venice or having to purchase some groceries at a market, you’ll end up needing some basic Italian food vocabulary.
During this past year, I have written quite a few posts about Italian vocabulary and some of them are obviously about food. I have started with a post about words and phrases to be used at aperitivo, because it is my favorite Italian habit, hands down. But you will also find a post about Italian vocabulary for breakfast, which can be useful if you need to order your morning dose of caffeine at a local bar.
Then there are other two posts: one is about common Italian words for lunch and the other one is focused on a peculiar Italian habit, which is merenda. In that post, you’ll find some vocabulary for this Italian afternoon-snack moment. But there’s something which is still missing: la cena (dinner), which is a super important time of the day!
This is why this post is focused on the Italian food vocabulary for dinner.
Il pranzo e la cena (lunch and dinner) can be quite different from each other depending on the days of the week. During the week, people usually eat un pranzo veloce (a fast lunch), be it al lavoro o a casa (at work or at home), because they probably have little time, while dinner is always more relaxed and gives the opportunity of eating better food with a slower pace.
On Sunday, instead, things can change quite dramatically: il pranzo della domenica, as I have written in a post regarding this peculiar Italian habit, can become something quite serious. If you have a proper Sunday lunch, you end up spending hours at the table and eating way more than you probably can handle. This means that dinner, in most cases, will be quite light.
When it comes to dinner hours, things change a lot depending on the area of Italy you find yourself in. If you live in the north of the country, it is quite common to say “è ora di cena!” (it’s dinner time!) around 7 or 7.30 pm, especially during winter, while the more you go south the later you eat. I had friends in Apulia that, during summer, were used to cenare o mangiare cena (to eat dinner) around 11 pm – the time I usually go to bed. However, even if you are up north, it is uncommon to andare a cena al ristorante (to have dinner at the restaurant) before 8 pm.
If you go want to have dinner at the restaurant, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, it is better to prenotare un tavolo (book a table). If you need to book a table, you may say “vorrei prenotare un tavolo” (I’d like to book a table) and the restaurant manager will surely ask you “per quante persone?” (For how many people?) and “a che ora?” (At what time?). If you arrive at the restaurant and have your table booked, just say: “ho un tavolo prenotato” (I have a table booked) and the waiter will ask you: “a che nome?” (under what name?). If you haven’t booked a table, you can go to the restaurant and say: “avete un tavolo?” (do you have a free table?) or maybe “siamo in…” (we are…) saying the number of people in the party, and then the waiter might ask you: “avete prenotato?” (Have you booked a table?).
Once you are at the restaurant, you can sit down and enjoy your dinner. When the waiter arrives and asks you “volete ordinare?” (do you want to order?) or “siete pronti a ordinare?” (are you ready to order?), you can just say: “io prendo…” (I’ll have) or “per me...” (for me…). The menu includes antipasti (starters), primi (first courses), secondi (second courses), contorni (side dishes) and dolci (desserts). If you want to share something, let the waiter know by saying: “da dividere” (to share). If you are in a pizzeria, just keep in mind that it is not common to share a pizza, their size is for one person only!
Speaking of dinner and pizzeria, let me just tell you that it is quite common to andare in pizzeria (to go to a pizzeria) on a Sunday night. La pizza della domenica sera (Sunday night pizza), either in a pizzeria or at home, is quite a tradition, here in Italy. Maybe it is a way to end the weekend nicely? I have no clue. What I know is that it is common to andare in pizzeria (to go to a pizzeria), ordinare una pizza da asporto (to order a takeaway pizza) or cucinare la pizza (to cook pizza) on Sunday night – unless you had a crazy, traditional Sunday lunch, of course!
If you feel like mangiare fuori (to eat out), your options are: ristorante (restaurant), pizzeria, agriturismo (a restaurant where they cook the meat and vegetables they produce), fast food, maybe una birreria (a pub), if they serve food, or un’enoteca (wine bar), which is supposed to serve wine only but some of them offer food as well. No matter where you decide to go, if you are hungry but it isn’t time for dinner yet, don’t forget that we have the great habit of un aperitivo prima di cena (an aperitif before dinner), a chance to bere qualcosa (to drink something) and mangiare stuzzichini (to eat little snacks) while waiting for dinner time.
But it’s not always Saturday night and you may need to mangiare cena a casa (to have dinner at home). If you arrive home early, you may have time to cucinare (to cook) or maybe someone has cooked for you – if you are lucky. If you are late, you can scongelare la cena (to defrost dinner) or ordinare qualcosa (to order something), if you are really tired. Before eating you need to apparecchiare la tavola (to set the table) but you can always mangiare sul divano (to eat on the couch) – if you feel like to.
After eating dinner, you need to sparecchiare la tavola (to clear the table), lavare i piatti (to wash the dishes) or caricare la lavastoviglie (to load the dishwasher). Maybe, if you have a busy day ahead, you may also need to cucinare qualcosa per il giorno dopo (to cook something for the day after) or maybe you just want to relax on the couch watching some tv, which is much deserved after a long day at work.
Now tell me, what is your typical dinner? I am curious to know!
I hope you’ll find this post useful for your Italian vocabulary building purposes. If you like this kind of vocabulary posts, here below you’ll find the other ones.
If you have specific requests for topics and themes, just leave a comment here below or send me an email at cinzia@instantlyitaly.
I have prepared a pdf file with all the words and phrases we learned in this post. You can find it in Your Italian Toolbox, a section of Instantly Italy where you’ll find Italian learning materials. You can get access to it by subscribing here.
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