When most people think of Italian food, pizza and pasta come to mind. We’re here to expand your palette and explore some of the best dishes to try on your next night out for dinner.
With dozens of different cheeses, hundreds of different pasta types and an endless supply of more delicious ingredients used, it’s hard to narrow down what to order from an Italian menu. To help you out, we’ve selected a few of our favourites as well as the most popular Italian dishes to try from entree to mains and desserts.
Plus, we help you find the top-rated Italian restaurants near you, so you have your next date night sorted.
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Top Italian Restaurant Dishes to Try.
You’ll often see Italian menus list their entrées, salads and appetisers under the Italian word Antipasti, which literally translates to ‘before the meal’. Antipasti dishes are perfect for sharing with small groups, including these following favourites.
This entrée ticks off every box. A creamy and cheesy risotto filling? Tick. A crispy outside? Tick.
Finish it off with a house-made aioli and you have the perfect start to any Italian meal.
Often found under the name Insalata Caprese, the caprese salad is made from slices of fresh red tomatoes, green basil and white mozzarella to resemble the Italian flag. This dish is finished off with a drizzle of good-quality olive oil and balsamic dressing, and is a perfect, fresh way to start your meal.
You’ll hear some pronounce this dish as bru-shet-a while others say bru-sket-a. Either way, it’s one of the most popular items at any Italian restaurant. Traditional bruschetta combines finely-diced red onion, tomatoes and basil, which is served on top of crispy toast.
Some menus will also offer more non-traditional spins on this classic dish, such as pumpkin and roasted capsicum or feta and beetroot toppings.
If you love a good cheese board, make sure to order this dish. A salumi board is a combination of thinly sliced and cured Italian meats such as salami or prosciutto, a variety of cheeses and additional items to graze on like olives and bread. Italian Restaurants will often charge for this dish per person, so everyone at the table will get to taste a bit of everything.
Fiori de zucca.
Fiori de zucca are stuffed zucchini flowers that are lightly battered and fried. Like the arancini ball, you’ll get a deliciously cheesy centre with a crispy outside. The most common fillings include cheeses such as ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan.
Primi (pasta, risotto and pizza).
Translating to ‘first dish’, the primi section on a menu will usually cover pastas, pizzas, risottos and soups. For those with allergies, intolerances or dietary requirements, many restaurants will now offer gluten-free pastas or pizza bases as well as vegan cheeses so you don’t have to miss out on your favourite dish from this section. These substitutions may cost a few extra dollars.
Our favourite primi dishes to try include:
Burnt butter ravioli.
Who knew such a simple recipe could be so full of flavour. Ravioli is often filled with a creamy mixture of cheese — sometimes with vegetables like pumpkin and spinach — and finished off with the sauce. Burnt butter sauce has a nutty flavour and silky texture.
Other pastas we love include spaghetti alla carbonara, olio e aglio (a classic Italian sauce made from sautéed garlic in olive oil) and penne alla vodka (a creamy tomato sauce that pairs perfectly with penne pasta tubes).
The ultimate comfort food for this writer, gnocchi are perfect little pillows of potato-based dough, which are cooked in boiling water. Like pasta, you’ll find plenty of options for sauces but some of the tastiest include creamy tomato or pumpkin and spinach.
This is nothing like your middle of the week quick pasta dinners. Italian ragu uses beef, veal, pork or a combination of them all to create the ultimate dish. You’ll find many Italian restaurants will use their own family recipe, which often involves cooking the meat sauce on a low heat for hours until it becomes tender and melt-in-your-mouth good. Served on top of housemade pasta, it’s a winner on any menu.
Secondi (main dishes).
The secondi section of the menu will cover main dishes and often includes meat and fish. You’ll often find the protein under its italian name, such as:
- Pollo (Chicken).
- Manzo (Beef).
- Salmone (Salmon).
- Frutti di mare (Shellfish).
- Gamberi (Prawns).
- Vitello (Veal).
If you still have room after the entrées and pasta, why not try one of these four classic dishes:
Saltimbocca is classically made with thin cuts of veal, wrapped in layers of prosciutto and sage and cooked in a pan. This dish is normally accompanied by seasonal vegetables.
Scaloppine uses thinly sliced cuts of meat, usually veal, which has been dredged in flour, cooked and finished with a delicious sauce. Sauce options can include lemon and capers, tomato-based or a creamy wine and mushroom sauce.
A speciality from the Lombard region in Northern Italy, ossobuco is a must try. Veal shanks are braised for hours over a low heat with vegetables, broth and wine. The result is tender meat and deep layers of flavour. Most menus will pair this with polenta, mashed potatoes or bread to mop up the sauce.
Melanzane alla parmigiana.
Australians love their chicken parmi (or parma for you Victorians). This dish is equally delicious, but uses thinly sliced layers of roasted eggplant in place of the chicken. Topped with layers of melted cheese and sauce, you won’t regret giving this dish a try.
No matter how much you fill up on pasta or main dishes, the golden rule is to always leave some room for dessert. Italian restaurants are famous for their sweet desserts and a cup of coffee (usually an espresso) to finish off a big meal. If you have never tried an Italian dessert before, you can’t go wrong with choosing any of the following:
While it might seem strange for a dessert, you’ll see this dish coming out of the kitchen often at any Italian restaurant. An affogato is simple; a scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato is placed into a small glass and a shot of hot espresso is poured on top. Some variations will swap the coffee for a strong liquor such as amaretto.
Affogatto should be eaten quickly with a spoon before the ice cream completely melts.
Italy’s answer to the doughnut is the zeppole — a fried dough ball with a sweet filling. You’ll often find these dusted with icing sugar and come with a variety of fillings such as lemon curd, nutella, jam or custard.
Not to be confused with cannelloni, another famous Italian stuffed pasta, the cannoli is heaven in dessert form. Originating from Sicily, this is a tube of fried pastry dough, which is filled with a sweet and creamy filling. You can often find the ends dipped in chocolate or decorated with crushed pistachios.
This is one of the most popular Italian desserts around the world and it’s easy to see why. This dish has layers of coffee-soaked Ladyfinger biscuits and creamy mascarpone, then finished with a dusting of cocoa powder.
While the coffee flavour is traditionally the hero of the dish, many restaurants will take a more modern spin on the classic. Different flavours such as matcha, citrus, fruits and various liquors are often substituted for the coffee or cocoa and are worth trying.
Find the BEST Italian restaurants near you.
Read reviews, look at menus and call to book a table on localsearch.com.au