How to Make a Full-Course Italian Meal

Where can we go to enjoy an entire evening dedicated to hours upon hours of eating, drinking, and being merry?

Ciao, Italia!

Vertical top-down image of a dinner with multiple plates and drinks on the table, with text in the middle and on the bottom.

The Italians really know how to throw fun and casual dinner parties, with generous servings of delicious food and refreshing drinks.

While many of us won’t be able to immediately hop on the next flight to Europe, we can recreate a joyous and generous full-course Italian meal in our own home kitchens.

A structured Italian dinner can consist of several courses, leisurely progressing through a bountiful display of tasty dishes as the evening continues.

Depending on the event or gathering, there are often deviations in the number of courses and what exactly is served.

Once you have decided on the structure of the meal and how many courses you want to have, now you can enjoy cooking your dishes, serving your guests, and savoring both the food and the company.

Do as the Romans do – open up a bottle of vino or your favorite non-alcoholic wine, and take your time eating through each course.

And remember… don’t take hosting too seriously! This is supposed to be fun for both the guests and the host!

Let’s review a typical 4-course Italian dinner. We’ll explain the basics of each course, and suggest our own easy and homemade recipes and ideas for each one.

1. Antipasto – Before the Meal

Do you typically like to serve an appetizer before your main course, something small for guests to nibble on as others arrive to satiate the first pangs of hunger?

Then you’ll love Italian antipasto!

Antipasto loosely translates to “before the meal,” and it serves as an ideal bite prior to all other courses.

It includes a fun range of light finger foods that won’t overwhelm the palate or prematurely fill up your guests’ stomachs.

Vertical image of a white plate with bruschetta topped with chopped tomatoes and herbs.
Photo credit: Meghan Yager

The Best Homemade Tomato Basil Bruschetta – Get the Recipe Now

Popular antipasti are often served in the form of assorted olives, simply prepared and cooked vegetables, salad, or bruschetta.

You really can’t go wrong with a classic tomato bruschetta – especially when you try our recipe featuring juicy tomatoes, fresh basil, and a final drizzle of balsamic vinegar on top of gently toasted bread slices spread with a thin layer of garlic paste.

A modest meat and cheese board featuring favorites like soppressata, prosciutto, fontina, asiago, provolone, and other accompaniments alongside fresh fruit and crusty bread would also beautifully fit right into this course.

If you are choosing to make a small charcuterie plate, our roasted olives with garlic and fresh herbs is a perfectly briny, savory accompaniment.

They can be served warm or at room temperature, and offer a welcoming start to a gathering.

Vertical image of a bowl of olives next to bread, cheese, and sliced meats.
Photo credit: Nikki Cervone

Garlic and Fresh Herb Roasted Olives – Get the Recipe Now

Decide on any assortment of your preferred olives and fresh herbs, and roast them until warm and aromatic directly before company arrives – they’ll be greeted by the amazing aromas as soon as you open the front door.

And now that all of your guests have arrived, enjoyed a few bites of your elegantly prepared antipasti, sipped on their wine or cocktail, and had a chance to mingle and settle in, you are ready to move on to the next course!

2. Primo Piatto – First Plate

In Italian, the first course is called primo piatto, which translates to “first plate.”

The primo piatto is heavier than the antipasto course, but it will still be served in small portions as a comfortable transition to the upcoming main course.

This is when you can serve your tried-and-true Italian soup favorites, like beans and greens soup or Italian wedding soup.

Our pappa al pomodoro is another soup option that would be ideal to serve as a first course.

Vertical image of two white bowls filled with a hearty stew topped with shaved cheese and fresh herbs.
Photo credit: Nikki Cervone

Italian Tomato and Bread Soup (Pappa al Pomodoro) – Get the Recipe Now

This Italian tomato and bread soup is the perfect way to use up super ripe tomatoes and stale bread. And because this particular soup doesn’t contain any meat, you’ll have plenty of room left to enjoy a hearty meat-based main dish.

This would also be the best time of the evening to serve a carb-based plate such as pizza, pasta, risotto, or gnocchi.

Our creamy and savory saffron-infused chicken risotto is an unforgettable first course idea that can follow your antipasti.

Vertical image of a spoon lifting a thick and creamy yellow-tinted stew in a small white bowl next to shredded parmesan.
Photo credit: Nikki Cervone

Chicken Risotto with Saffron – Get the Recipe Now

Mixed with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and smaller pieces of perfectly seared chicken breast, you can still have a meatier dish for this course without too much heaviness.

Again, this is a gentle reminder to keep the portions small – you aren’t trying to stuff anyone with obscenely large portions.

Because the main course is coming up next!

3. Secondo Piatto – Second Plate

The second course, or secondo piatto, is often the heaviest part of the meal that usually consists of meat and fish.

This would equate to a main course, the pinnacle of any Italian meal that’s meant to be appreciated slowly.

From chicken cacciatore to stuffed steak pinwheels to lemon garlic shrimp, the second course has the potential to be an amazing, showstopping creation of a meaty main!

If you are looking for an elevated chicken dish that can be made quickly, chicken piccata has everything you want for an easy and elegant Italian main course.

Vertical image of cooked poultry pieces covered in a citrus and caper sauce and served with lemon slices on a white plate.
Photo credit: Fanny Slater

Chicken Piccata – Get the Recipe Now

In thirty minutes, you’ll be able to proudly serve a large platter of tender chicken breasts coated in a lemony and buttery white wine pan sauce mixed with capers and fresh parsley.

Are you planning on hosting a holiday party during the coldest months of the year? You might prefer heartier preparations of large cuts of meat, like roasting or braising.

Vertical image of a white bowl filled with stewed meat garnished with a thyme leaf.
Photo credit: Nikki Cervone

Red Wine Braised Beef – Get the Recipe Now

Try this recipe for our comforting red wine braised beef with succulent pieces of slowly cooked chuck roast.

During the multi-hour braising time, the large chunks of beef will become juicy and fork-tender, and the liquid will thicken as it’s infused with all the flavors from the white onions, garlic, tomato paste, red wine, beef stock, and fresh thyme.

Use your favorite dry red wine you enjoy drinking, like merlot or pinot noir.

You’ll all be fairly full after this course – but there’s always room for just a little more!

Contorni – Side Dishes

A notable mention with any full-course Italian meal are the accompaniments to the secondo piatto, called the contorni.

Literally translated as “outline” or “border,” contorno refers to food served directly next to the main course on the plate – what is commonly known as the side dish!

You can choose to serve one side dish, or multiple options if you want more variety – as long as you have enough room on the table!

We have an entire collection of side dishes for you to enjoy, but we’ve gathered a couple of our favorite Italian-inspired options here to stay on theme!

If you know you will be serving a main dish with a lot of sauce, choose a side dish that doubles as a base to capture all those lovely liquids – garlic mashed potatoes or creamy polenta will be a saucy dinner’s reliable companions.

Our Italian-style green beans dish is a simple savory side, made with fresh green beans simmered until tender with tomatoes that have been lightly sauteed in olive oil and garlic.

Vertical image of a white plate filled with green beans and tomatoes.
Photo credit: Meghan Yager

Italian-Style Green Beans – Get the Recipe Now

For a cheesier alternative, try our homemade roasted parmesan green beans, another flavorful and vibrant option featuring crunchy produce and bold Italian flavors.

Prefer to host your party in the summer, when the Prosecco is bubbly and chilled, the weather is sunny and hot, and the grill is even hotter?

You’ll love making our grilled mixed vegetables brushed with garlic, herbs, and balsamic vinegar. It’s the ultimate Italian summer side dish!

Vertical close-up image of a variety of cooked summer produce on a platter.
Photo credit: Meghan Yager

Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Garlic Mixed Vegetables – Get the Recipe Now

Use the best and freshest seasonal summer produce in your area – veggies like eggplant, summer squash, bell peppers, and mushrooms will all hold up beautifully on the grill.

4. Dolce – Dessert

Italian dessert or dolce, which translates to “sweet” in English, is usually very simple, often a fresh bowl of seasonal fruit with freshly whipped cream and crisp cookies like anise biscotti.

If you prefer to end the night with a rich and luscious sweet treat, you can make bowls of budino al cioccolato, Italian chocolate pudding, or make fun cannoli cupcakes for a playful touch.

You can also impress your guests with more intricately prepared desserts following an equally elegant dinner by assembling these ricotta pear stacks.

Vertical image of a pear and ricotta stack covered in chopped pistachios on a plate on a blue napkin.
Photo credit: Meghan Yager

Ricotta Pear Stacks – Get the Recipe Now

This breathtaking dish involves slicing and layering whole ripe pears with a spiced ricotta filling. We top them with chopped pistachios for a subtle salty crunch.

And there’s no cooking required, a relief after an entire evening of cooking your other dishes!

You can also try this make-ahead tiramisu dessert, if you want to get the dessert prep completely out of the way so you can fully focus on making all the other courses.

Vertical image of individual desserts topped with cocoa powder on a marble slab next to a spoon and coffee beans.
Photo credit: Nikki Cervone

Individual Tiramisu – Get the Recipe Now

And you can serve it directly in the bowls you assemble them in, so the presentation is beautiful with minimal effort.

The end of the night is a smart opportunity to serve your guests one final drink to conclude the eating extravaganza.

This can be in the form of hot and comforting tea, a creamy affogato, or a refreshingly bitter shot of digestivo such as limoncello or amaro.

Now is your time to savor the precious remaining time you have with your friends – sit back, digest, and relax a little before you worry about cleaning up anything!

The Power of Planning

With this guide, complete with recommended recipes we love to make, you now know the basic structure of a multi-course Italian meal.

Horizontal image of a family having dinner with multiple plates and drinks on the table.

You can substitute any of these ideas with others that would be appropriate for every course, and you can easily craft and customize your courses based on specific diet plans.

It would be simple to formulate an entirely vegetarian meal, or a completely gluten-free dinner, using a little creativity with alternative ingredients.

No matter what you decide to make for your meal, always have a thorough time management plan ready that starts well before heating up that first frying pan!

Before you start any meal, you are responsible for researching all of the recipes, focusing on the ingredients and cooking times.

If you want to make homemade bread, making sourdough from scratch can take weeks in advance. And slowly braising beef until it’s tender and succulent can take over three hours!

As long as you take the time to review everything you plan to make, and set aside the appropriate amount of time required for every cooking process, you are bound for a successful, relaxing, and delicious Italian dinner party.

What will your food lineup look like for your dream full-course Italian meal? How do you like to plan ahead when preparing for a dinner party? Leave a comment below, please – can’t wait to chat with you!

If you’ve caught the hosting bug but need a little guidance on how to plan a party, let us coach you toward entertainment success! We have many more helpful articles dedicated to throwing an amazing event. Start with these first:

Photos by Meghan Yager, Nikki Cervone, and Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock. Originally published on November 17, 2014. Last updated on May 14, 2023.

About Nikki Cervone

Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

30 thoughts on “How to Make a Full-Course Italian Meal”

  1. Oh I am absolutely dying to try these recipes. I just got back a few weeks ago from 4 months in Italy and I am missing their meals so much!! This is going to be perfect for me to turn to when I am missing the food of my favorite country!

  2. I would like to make one suggestion. Try to par cook the chicken before hand and give it a nice browning for the millard reactions and then then add the chicken later during the last addition of stock to finish cooking it.

    The tiramisu recipe is quite interesting! I never thought of adding yogurt to it or grated chocolate instead of coco powder.

  3. These all look absolutely delicious! The beef braised in red wine looks fantastic. Even though the listed serving size is for six people, I would love to serve this as a romantic dinner for two. I’ve never made tiramisu before so I am a little nervous to try it out, but the directions seem easy enough to understand and follow. This is definitely a menu made to impress!

  4. Thanks for sharing so many comprehensive recipes! Personally I don’t think I would have the patience, time or willpower to prepare a full course meal, but I’ll definitely be trying some of your recipes. The tiramisu in particular looks heavenly!

  5. That beef dish looks delicious – I’ll have to remember it for next winter.

    This description of Italian meals reminds me a wedding I went to some years ago. We had the antipasti and then were served some lasagne. To be honest, we thought the serves were a bit small and ate every crumb. We didn’t realise that the main meat dish was to follow, along with a desert and then seafood platters piled with prawns! The small lasagne serves made more sense with hindsight!

  6. I can never eat a full Italian course, but would have the antipasti and bread and then a primo with a contorni (side order) and leave room for dessert.

    Tomato and basil soup is a classic, made well and with good bread it is a meal in itself and importantly, it’s low in fat and freshly made and vegetarian. It does take some patience, but is worth it. I skip a second course so I have room for dessert, always!

  7. All of these dishes sound so amazing. I have been looking for a really good sounding homemade tomato soup and this one is it. I will be making this for my family this weekend. I don’t know that I would be able to eat a seven course meal however, since I always have to save room for desert. There is nothing better than ending a great meal with a delectable desert. Thanks for the recipes, I can’t wait to try them.

  8. You make it look so easy to serve a four course meal, wow! Braised beef and tiramisu have to be my favorite Italian dishes; my nonna makes them for me every time I visit…Thanks for the post, I’d love to see you post full course meals for other cuisines too!

  9. Italian cooking is often simple yet appetizing. The tiramisu looks divine. I’ve tried several recipes, but most of them can’t bring out any authentic flavor. Your recipe looks promising. I love how every bite melts in my mouth with a rich flavors.

    Even though it isn’t listed here, I’d probably serve pasta with these dishes. It’s just because I don’t feel my table would be complete without it. Still this full course meal is mouthwatering.

  10. I have began planning and executing how to make my trip to Italy instead of sitting in the kitchen and make epic fails!…i don’t debate, the recipes look awesome and simple to do, but my heart is stirred within…that trip will be made, i have heard and read so much about Italy….Italy must be heaven then 😉

    • How can i forget, the tiramisu looks heavenly…the first time i indulged, i became hooked, i never knew rum is used in the whole set up…a combination of rum, strong black coffee, sugar, chocolate!…hence the addiction!…you don’t want to experience withdrawal symptoms afterwards! regrets! ;).

  11. Those plates all look very appealing to me,especially the Beef Braised in Red Wine. What a fantastic dish to look at. I can only imagine the sensational smell coming from it. All of the ingredients that go into making it are just right up my alley. I’m going to borrow this recipe. Thanks for the post!

  12. I love this menu plan! Everything looks so good. Italian food is always a favorite around here. I’ve never made tiramisu before so I’m kind of intimidated but will try it out. Thank you for the recipes.

  13. I’d argue that a nice contorno of roasted vegetables would be the last touch to an Italian meal! Eggplant and zucchinis would go great along the second dish, I think. Your recipes look amazing! Do you think it’s possible to have curcuma (tercuma?) instead of saffron in the risotto? I just cannot find this at my local market.

  14. Such wonderful recipes. I don’t know which I want to try first. As tempting as it is to try it all in one go, I know it will be very complicated for me. I have always loved Italian cooking!

  15. Tiramisu is probably one of my favorite Italian desserts ever. I always had trouble with it being kind of wet though. This looks like a good recipe to try.

  16. Fot the first time in my life, I have come across an Italian dinner plan that does not include pasta! Thanks for showing that there’s a great deal more to Italian cuisine than pasta and pizza!

  17. Italian cuisine is great to eat, but from a cooking perspective, it’s one of my favorites! I don’t know what it is about it, but although I may enjoy eating, say, Indian cuisine more, there’s something about cooking Italian that puts it ahead of the rest. If you want a really nice primo, try Spaghetti alla Carbonara (or any pasta alla carbonara for that matter). It’s a really light but flavorful way to do your pasta, but it’s a bit tricky, because it involves mixing your freshly cooked pasta with a sauce based in raw egg, and using the residual heat to cook the egg. That may make some people nervous, but I seemed to hit it out of the park the first time. You can’t over-mix, however, as you’ll end up with Spaghetti alla Scrambled Eggs if you do. I find it’s a bit easier if you add the pasta to the sauce, as opposed to adding the sauce to the pasta.

  18. I’ve been wanting to make tomato soup from scratch, and this looks like a great recipe to try. I also like that your tiramisu is made in individual dishes, since that helps with portion control. I haven’t made a full Italian meal in a while, and this sounds like a nice change for Sunday family dinner.

  19. I love recipes like these that don’t require too many ingredients. Quick and simple. This looks great, almost like Chinese. I love meat and vegetable combinations. This would be great with steamed broccoli and carrots I bet too.

  20. This is REALLY a full course Italian meal. Thank you so much for these amazing recipes. In my household we sometimes hold Mexican night, pizza night, or Chinese food night, and these dishes are perfect to have the perfect Saturday Italian night. The Tiramisu looks decadent, and the best part is that its so easy to make. I can’t wait to give all these recipes a try. Thanks again!

  21. These options all sound like the makings of an incredibly delicious meal. I’ve never had an authentic Italian meal before. The information about the original meanings of the words for the official courses are also very interesting.

  22. Just looking at the pictures is making me hungry! I love Italian food. The fusion of their traditional flavors just cannot be compared for taste. These are some real tasty and simple recipes that I can use. Thanks.

  23. The meal plan is amazing. As I live alone, and don’t do much entertaining – I think I can’t afford to do a full course meal. The antipasti and the first course will more than suit me. As to the braised beef, it truly looked delicious but I have not eaten beef in a long while. I’ve decided to cut it out of my diet for health reasons. The tiramisu is a must try for a pastry lover like me.

  24. This is a fantastic, thorough description of the Italian meal. My uncle, whom I was very close with, just passed away. He was Italian and loved cook Italian cuisine and entertain. Ever since he passed, I’ve been interested in the culture and carrying on his traditions. I’m Pinning this now!!

  25. Italian is my favourite food and I would eat all of the suggestions you have offered up. It all looks and sounds absolutely mouth-watering. I wouldn’t cook this for myself, of course, but it would definitely have the wow factor for a dinner party and it would definitely be at the top of my menu choices!

  26. I’m italian and I have to compliment you on doing such a great job with the recipes, they are spot on. Those are some of my favorite dishes, I love risotto with saffron and Tiramisù is one of my favorite desserts ever. I have never tried out the version with yogurt but I was curious about it and by looking at your picture I’m sure it’s delicious!
    You managed to introduce a full italian meal and you picked very good recipes, it’s good to read about italian recipes that don’t involve the usual pasta or pizza based dishes. If I may suggest it, most of the italians love to have a digestive drink after their meal, like amaro, grappa or limoncello.

  27. These look amazing. I have foodie friends coming to visit and I may give it a try. Please tell me if the beef is served with veg??


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