Same spelling, same meaning, a slightly different pronunciation. The real difference is in the way it is organized. The typical Italian ristorante (restaurant) menu lists dishes divided into sections that include:
- antipasti (appetizers)
- primi (first courses)
- secondi (second courses)
- contorni (side dishes)
- dolci (desserts)
The middle three items describe the way we approach the main part of a meal. Primi are pasta or rice dishes, or soups (minestre). Polenta and gnocchi are also primi. Secondi are meat or fish dishes. Nowadays, vegetarian options are also usually available. Side dishes (contorni) are listed separately. As a customer, you may order an item from each section of the menu: antipasto (literally, before the meal), primo, secondo, contorno, dolce (these words are all the singular version of the ones given above in the plural). You may also choose to skip one or more items. Primo, secondo and contorno make up the basic meal. I grew up eating this triad at the main meal, pranzo (lunch).
At home now, I prefer a more egalitarian approach to the traditional organization based on courses. I like to put all offerings on the table, except for dessert, and let the guests decide the order and/or combination. I like seeing several serving plates being passed back and forth, while the conversation flows. (Note that the photo on the left was taken before I put a portion of secondo on my plate, which therefore only holds, from left to right, some antipasto, contorno and primo. Hopefully my friend Christine of Christine Cooks will post about her delicious contorno portrayed here and I will write about the primo.)
After the main part of the meal is over, I like to pause for a short time, then serve il dolce (dessert). At home in Italy, we ended up il pranzo with some frutta (fruit), except on Sunday (domenica), when we would have dessert, most often paste (pastries) from the pasticceria that happened to be the current family favorite. I am planning to talk more about paste in a future post. In the meantime, you can read about one type of them, bignè con la crema (cream puffs).