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An Italian Sunday dinner “il pranzo della domenica” is the occasion for family bonding and celebration. There is no need for a special occasion, it happens every Sunday. The family gets together for lunch right after Sunday Mass: 6 Italian meal courses and everyone is involved in the preparation, in one way or another.
Italian meal courses
Italian Sunday dinner is actually at lunchtime. The meal takes so long to eat that often it will last to dinner time.
Traditionally lunches were the most important meals of the day. After lunch people would go for a nap and have a light dinner at night.
With the modern office hours and the help of air-conditioning, the habits have changed. But the Sunday lunch still remains a tradition.
Italian meals have a completely different structure compared to other countries.
We love abundance!
For a family Sunday dinner, we have a minimum of 6 courses including:
- Primo piatto: first dish which is usually pasta, risotto, soup or gnocchi
- Secondo piatto: second dish: fish or meat
- Contorno: side dish: vegetables and/or potatoes
- Fruits and/or desserts
- Espresso and liqueur to close
If we decide to have only one main course (either primo piatto or secondo), the structure of our menu changes:
- The appetizer/antipasto becomes more elaborate,
- If we are serving a Primo Piatto only: it would have either meat, seafood or abundant cheese included in the sauce (like a ragu, lasagna or pasta with seafood)
- If we are serving a Secondo Piatto only: meat or seafood is served with a side dish made of vegetables and an important portion of carbohydrates like polenta, potatoes, pie (torta salata), or casserole.
- Fruits and/or desserts
- Espresso and liqueur to close
No sugary drinks, no cappuccino
For drinks, we only serve water or wine, no sugary drinks.
The drinks have to combine with the meal and enhance, not overwhelm, the flavors.
We end the meals with an espresso or/and a liqueur to help the digestion.
After all this food, I challenge anyone to drink a cappuccino!
Do Italians eat pasta every day?
Of course, on a day-to-day basis, we may either have a primo or a secondo, but each meal is always a mix of vegetables, carbohydrates, and proteins.
While ladies will try to reduce the pasta to keep their weight down, most Italian men have to have Pasta every day (like my boys).
If their Italian mom doesn’t have the energy to keep up with so much pasta (like me), Italian men learn to cook it themselves at a young age (my sons started at 13yrs).
Once they start college, they become very popular with their friends (and girls) as they have learned the skill of making delicious pasta in no time (motivational speech).
An Italian feast menu
For special occasions like weddings, special birthday parties, or exeptional occasions the number of courses can increase exponentially:
- Nibbles: stuzzichini. Served standing with an aperitif
- Warm antipasti
- Cold antipasti
- First primo piatto with a delicate flavor
- Second primo piatto with a stronger flavor
- Secondo piatto made with seafood
- Lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate
- Secondo piatto made with white meat (chicken, rabbit)
- Secondo piatto made with red meat (pork, beef or lamb)
- Contorni: side dishes served with each secondo piatto
- Formaggio: Cheese platter
- Frutta e dolci: Fruit and dessert
- Espresso and digestivo liqueur
That is why an Italian dinner lasts the entire day, a week to digest, and months to burn off.
A selection of homemade liqueurs is mandatory for a good digestion.
The advantage of having many courses
There are 2 main advantages on serving a long Italian meal:
- It gives your guests a wide choice of dishes in case they have some food allergy or intolerance or follow a special diet.
- By the time guests get to the secondo course, they will be quite full so you don’t need to prepare a large amount of meat or fish. As contorni and primi are usually less expensive, Italian meals can be abundant and lavish as they are more economic to make.
Don’t worry, everyone will help preparing, as those who don’t know how to cook are responsible for buying pastries or starters.
“Fare il bis” go back for seconds
Food is brought to the table in a serving dish. Everyone helps themselves with the portions they want to have.
Meals are never served directly on the dinner plate as they do in restaurants.
You would normally serve yourself a small amount and repeat for a second serving if you wish to…and everyone does!
The only dishes that are not served a second time are consommé, soup, cheese, and fruit.
Depending on the rest of the meal menu, the appetizers can be simple or elaborate.
Simple appetizers: stuzzichini
If your menu already has 4 to 5 courses, you just need to serve some nibbles as appetizers.
A simple appetizer includes some bites to eat with an aperitif before you sit at the table. Here are some ideas:
- nuts, olive, salami slices, selection of hams and cheese cubes
- bruschetta or crostini with a simple topping like caponata, tapenade or eggplant caviar
- Small fried nibbles like crespelle, zucchini flower, eggplant balls
As an aperitif you can serve:
- Spritz: ¼ cup – 6 cl Prosecco, 4 tablespoon – 4 cl Aperol, 1 tablespoon of tonic water
- Bellini: ⅓ cup – 10 cl Prosecco, 3 tablespoon – 5 cl of peach juice
If you want to serve only a Primo Piatto or a Secondo Piatto, you can do that by preparing a more elaborate appetizer.
An informal elaborate starter is called “rustici” assortment which can include:
Not everybody would make them fresh, you can easily buy them in any rosticceria which is open on a Sunday and is strategically located close to the church, next to a pasticceria (pastry shop).
More refined and elaborate seafood starters are:
- Seafood Fritto Misto or fried calamari
- Octopus salad
Or vegetables like:
Primi piatti are pasta, risotti, gnocchi or soups like minestra. All are eaten in a pasta bowl and are not served with other food at the same time.
Depending on the recipe, grated Parmesan, Pecorino, or Ricotta Salata cheese (to name a few) is offered in a serving bowl with a spoon for everyone to add to their plate.
Cheese is never served with seafood dishes, it can be substituted with toasted breadcrumbs or grated almonds.
You can find some Primi Piatti ideas in the categories:
Il Secondo is usually meat or seafood and in luscious meals you will have both.
If there is more than one secondo piatto, seafood is served first, then a lemon or lime sorbet to rinse the palate. After the sorbet the meat is served, first the white meat (poultry or rabbit), then the red (beef, lamb or pork).
Usually, meat and seafood are served as they are cooked, meaning the sauce and the vegetables they are cooked with as from the recipe.
Any other vegetables or side dishes are served at the same time but on different serving dishes.
Side dishes Contorni
Side dishes are served at the same time as the secondo, they are usually cooked vegetables or salads and/or potatoes.
If you are serving more than one secondo seafood and meat, each secondo will have their own side dishes.
If you are serving two types of the same course (two types of meat or two types of seafood) you can find side dishes that will go well with both dishes.
Usually, one of the side dishes is a potato dish, either warm like roasted potatoes or cold like a potato salad.
Cheese, desserts and liqueurs
To end the perfect Italian Sunday dinner you can serve some cheese, but it is not necessary.
You can find a selection of Italian and French cheese in these articles.
For dessert, you can either have someone buying a pastry assortment Pasticcini della domenica, or make your own cake. Here you will find a list of desserts to choose from.
For special holiday celebrations, there are some traditional Italian desserts that are a must-have. You can find some of those recipes in the category: cookies and festivities desserts
To finish any important Italian dinner, you must have a selection of liqueurs to serve so guests can digest your lavish meal.
Sure, you can buy them, and that is okay.
But if you have your own homemade selections, you will be a hero, everyone will praise and admire you and you will be remembered for generations to come.
If you want to give it a try you can find a collection of recipes in the category: homemade liqueurs.
Surprise your friends and family with an unusual edible gift.
Sunday dinners to build up memories
Celebrating a special Sunday dinner is the best family bonding, it builds up memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
When family members will eventually leave us, those meals are the perfect opportunity to remember them through their recipes and cooking skills.
For me and my boys, Sunday dinners are a way to remember my late husband Robert and his barbecue skills.
Ideas for Sunday menus
Italian Sunday lunches are not preplanned, they are based on what is in season, fresh on the market, or at the fishmonger’s stalls.
On Saturday, take a stroll to the local farmer market. See what looks fresh and inspiring and build your menu around that.
If you see a new ingredient, try and experiment with it. After all, what are families for?
Cook for them and ask their opinions on how a recipe can be improved or what can be combined with.
Italian Sunday dinners are the perfect time to practice and improve your cooking skills.
Next time you have unexpected guests, you will be able to get a perfect dinner with no stress and in no time.
If you want to find out more about the way Italians plan their meals based on what is fresh and looks good at the market you can read my article:
A Family Meal Planner Based On Fresh Vegetables
Planning an Italian party
If you are planning an Italian party, besides the menu and the meals you are preparing, it is important also to follow the Italian table setting and etiquette.
I always use my nice dishes for a Sunday dinner, what better occasion to treat yourself and your family to a fancy table set?
Children should be involved in the table setting, so they can learn from an early age how to set a table and how to eat properly.
You can read more about it in the article coming up next: Italian Table Setting And Etiquette.
Did you know you are not supposed to say: “Buon appetito” before dinner starts?
For more recipes and menu ideas you can find my recommendations of authentic Italian cooking books translated into English in my Amazon shop section: Cooking Books
Hope you find this article about Italian Sunday dinner helpful, please if you have any questions, write them in the comments below and I will be happy to respond and help. For more information, you can visit the category: Italian food traditions. You can find delicious ideas if you FOLLOW ME on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram or sign up to my newsletter.