Where can we go to enjoy an entire evening dedicated to hours upon hours of eating, drinking, and being merry?
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.
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.
How to Make a Full-Course Italian Meal
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.
The Best Homemade Tomato Basil Bruschetta – Get the Recipe Now
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.
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.
Our pappa al pomodoro is another soup option that would be ideal to serve as a first course.
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.
Our creamy and savory saffron-infused chicken risotto is an unforgettable first course idea that can follow your antipasti.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Garlic Mixed Vegetables – Get the Recipe Now
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.
You can also impress your guests with more intricately prepared desserts following an equally elegant dinner by assembling these ricotta pear stacks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 9 Tips for Cooking in Bulk for a Large Dinner Party
- How to Buy and Prepare Brie for a Holiday Party
- 14 BBQ Grilling Safety Tips You Need to Know
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.