On menus in Italy, contorni, meaning side dishes in English, primarily include vegetables and salads. Are you hungry to know more about the world of Italian side dishes?
Explore our guide to contorni in Italy for information about authentic Italian meal structure. Including which course contorni are in! Answers to the most common question about contorni, including if you have to order them and when you should eat them.
Plus, lists to help you order contorni in Italy. Including Italian vegetable names in English and examples of popular contorni on menus in Italy. Finally, for a taste of Italy at home, a video playlist of popular contorni recipes in Italy.
Contorni Meaning in English
In English contorni meaning doesn’t translate directly to side dish. If you speak Italian or understand Latin, you’ll know the word contorni is closer to contour or outline. So why do Italians use the word contorni to mean side dishes?
Contorni Meaning Has Latin Roots
Italians use contorno (singular) or contorni (plural) to describe dishes accompanying the secondi or main course. As we mentioned before, contorni are typically vegetable-based dishes. Since typically secondi contain a protein such as beef, poultry, or fish, contorni add shape and structure to the meal.
Hence, contorni turn a main dish into a proper meal by flushing out the table. Get the picture?
What Course Are Contorni in Italian Meals?
The five main courses of authentic Italian meal structure sequentially are antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, and dolci. Because some restaurants in Italy list cheese, fruit, and digestives as separate courses, it can all get a bit confusing and overwhelming for first-time visitors to Italy.
So when it comes to contorni, what should you expect? Here are two straightforward scenarios.
First, the menu includes vegetables in the secondi or main course description. In this case, you do not have to order contorni separately unless you want to try more. Expect the contorni to be served on the same plate or at the same time as the secondi or main dish.
Second, the menu does not include vegetables in the secondi or main course description. In this case, look for a contorni or side dish section of the menu if you want vegetables or a salad. Dishes containing vegetables like potatoes, eggplant, fennel, and peppers come with the main dish.
The one exception is leafy green salads. In Italy, a side salad comes after the primi and secondi.
Do You Have to Order Contorni in Italy?
If you’re not big on vegetables, you do not have to order contorni just because they are on the menu in Italy. Again, you will see two main scenarios.
The first is alla carta menus. These will list individual prices for each dish. You can select which courses you want to take in this case.
However, the second scenario is an alla cart, degustazione or tasting menu in English. In this case, you can skip the contorni, but you won’t save any money because the menu is a fixed-price menu.
So, while eating veggies is not obligatory, you are encouraged with a fixed-price menu to choose one. Or, go with the alla cart menu instead.
Now it’s time for the fun part!
While traveling in Italy, you will face Italian menus without English translations. Here’s the good news. Menus exclusively in Italian are a good sign that you’re about to have an authentic Italian meal!
The bad news? Even though you now know the meaning of contorni, you still might not understand what’s on the menu. Hence, you risk ordering something you don’t like.
Here are two lists to help you get a handle on some of the more popular Italian contorni. The first is a list of Italian vegetable names in English. The second is a list of popular contorni in Italy with English explanations.
Italian Vegetable Names in English
Here’s a helpful tip for the list of Italian vegetable names below.
In Italian, single nouns are pluralized by changing the ending from one vowel to another. With -o, the ending changes to –i in the plural form. -a, the ending changes to –e in the plural form. -e, the ending changes to –i in the plural.
While that might be confusing, the vowels at the end of the words change quantity, not meaning.
In other words, barbabietola is a single beet, while barbabietole means beets.
|Bok choy / cavolo cinese||Bok choy||cah-voh-loh chee-neh-zeh|
|Cardo||Thistle or Cardoons (Related to artichokes)||càr-do|
|Cavoletti di Bruxelles||Brussel sprouts||cah-voh-let-tee dee broo-xell|
|Cavolo riccio||Kale||cah-voh-loh reech-choh|
|Fiore di zucca||Zucchini flower||fee-oh-reh dee dzuk-kah|
|Gobbi||Thistle (Hunchback) Cardoons common in Northern Italy||gòb·bee|
|Grumolo del finocchio||Fennel bulb||groo-moh-loh dell fee-noh-kyoh|
The vast majority of contorni across Italy are quick and simple preparations of fresh, seasonal, local, vegetables. There are however a few popular Italian side dishes you won’t want to miss in Italy.
Meaning of Popular Contorni in Italy
- Patate al forno are oven-roasted potatoes.
- Purè di patate means mashed potatoes in English.
- Verdure al forno is a side dish of mixed, oven-roasted vegetables that are typically seasons and regional.
- Insalata di patate. “Isalata di” means “salad of” in English. Combine that phrase with the vegetable list above, and you have a salad of potatoes. Or insalata di ceci. Chickpea salad. You might want to reference this list of Italian meat and fish in English as well because there are a lot of fun salads in Italy that mix vegetables and proteins. Paolo’s favorite is insalata di polpo e patate, is octopus and potato salad.
- Sformatini di verdure is a fan of vegetables. Similar to “Insalata di,” “Sformatini di” in English means “flan of.”
- Peperonata are sauteed red and yellow peppers. Each region has its own recipe with additional ingredients like eggplant, tomato, onion, zucchini, and even potatoes.
- Caponata is a sweet and sour Sicilian side or stand-alone dish of eggplant, tomatoes, and pine nuts.
- Cipolline in agrodolce is onions in a sweet and sour sauce popular across Italy for food conservation. From mushrooms to artichokes, there are many types of agrodolce in Italy.
- Zucchine trifolate are thin slices of zucchini sauteed with little more than garlic and parsley.
- Friggitelli are small, green peppers from southern Italy that are pan-fried.
- Vignarola is a Roman side dish of spring onions, guanciale, beans, peas, artichokes, lettuce, and white wine.
- Carciofi alla Giudía are deep-fried artichokes you cannot miss in Rome!
- Insalata Russa is a cold salad of potatoes, carrots, and sweet peas dressed in mayo. If you can find Isalata Russa con Tonno, meaning Insalata Russa with Tuna in English, you should try it! It is one of the most popular side dishes in Piedmont, Italy.
Contorni Recipe Video Playlist
While we try to curate as many videos as possible in English, there are times when only an Italian video will do. Still, food somehow always translates. However, if you want an actual translation, there is a YouTube trick you can use.
YouTube has closed captions in multiple languages. Here is how to get them working. Hit play. Then click the CC button to turn on the closed captions. Next, click the settings button (gear-looking wheel) and select Italian auto-generated. After the window automatically closes, click the settings button again. Then click auto-translate and your preferred language. Fair warning. You’re about to be very hungry!
Contorni Meaning Summary
While contorni or Italian side dishes have long been a part of Italian meal structure, they are rarely obligatory in Italy. Contorni are thankfully a solid option for vegetarians in Italy. However, if you’re not into vegetables, the only time you really need to consider ordering them is from a fixed-price menu.
Not many Italians think ill of each other for taking pasta over veggies. That said, don’t miss the chance in Italy to try some of the most classic contorni from the region.
If you are fortunate enough to be invited to an Italian family home in Italy, it is, however, a bit rude not to try what my Mom would call a no-thank-you-bite of vegetables. That is until you at least become a close friend or family member of the person doing the cooking!
In northern Italy, look for Insalata Russa. While in Rome, try Carciofi alla Giudía because deep-fried artichoke is a game changer. Finally, Caponata and the many versions of it are contorni not to miss in Sicily.
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We’re Brandy & Paolo, dual American, Italian citizens, artists, and introverts traveling in Italy together since 2012. After following our dreams of early retirement to Italy, we created ALOR Italy from our home in the Italian Alps. We’re passionate about sharing the Italy we know and love as locals. Our motto is Live Italian because the Italian lifestyle is life-changing.
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