Building your menu may seem overwhelming, especially when you consider how many variations of Italian dishes are out there. How do you decide which ones to include?
Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a step-by-step process to design your Italian food menu.
Step 1: Decide who will create your Italian food menu – a designer, agency, or yourself.
Step 2: Design your Italian food menu based on the elements of good menu design.
Step 3: Become a connoisseur of traditional Italian cuisine by learning about the top Italian dishes.
Step 4: Find Italian food menu design inspiration with examples of beautifully designed menus.
Let’s get to it.
Step 1: Decide Who Will Create Your Italian Food Menu
You can use a design agency, hire a graphic designer, or create your own menu with menu design software. Your budget, level of technical skills, and unique needs will drive this decision.
Hiring an agency
You may choose to hire an agency to handle the entire process (design and printing), especially if you have a large restaurant chain and large budget. But if your budget is on the smaller size, you’ll want to consider one of the other two options.
Hiring a graphic designer
Your designer will work with you to ensure the design is aligned with your brand. When hiring someone, ensure they specialize in restaurant menu design and understand the psychology behind it. Also, bonus points if your designer appreciates Italian food culture.
The one downside of working with a designer is that you’re not completely in control of how and when the work gets done. And, you’ll likely have to re-hire them when making any changes to your menu, which for some restaurants happens quite regularly.
How to hire the right freelance designer
Ask your restaurant consultant, post a job posting, or reach out to another restaurant chain whose menu you like and ask who designed it. You can also ask your staff for references. If all else fails, consider using a design association:
If you’re looking for the most affordable option, consider using menu design software. You can easily create professional-looking menus by choosing a template from a library of designs, then customizing it for your restaurant with an easy-to-use editing tool.
This software can be the most cost effective solution.
You stay in control of your menu and your branding.
No back-and-forth with a designer. You can make updates and print whenever you need.
You don’t need previous experience or design skills. Layouts, matching fonts and colors, item sections have already been designed for you.
Some, like MustHaveMenus, also offer designs for restaurant marketing, including promotional materials for in-store and social media.
You will have to spend some time trying out the templates and finding the ones you like.
You’ll also be responsible for entering all your menu data, which can be time-intensive.
Here are the two best menu design software options:
Now that you’ve decided who will create your Italian food menu, it’s time to look at the how. Start with the basic elements of any good design. These are format, length, layout, branding, photos, color, fonts, background, and pricing.
The style of your restaurant and the number of menu items will dictate your format. There are four formats you can choose from.
Single page: Place your menu on one page, horizontally or vertically.
This is ideal for restaurants that change their menu often and rely on fresh, seasonal produce.
Pros: Smaller menus help diners choose meals faster.
Cons: Diners who appreciate a wide variety of choice may not enjoy the experience.
Two-panel, single-fold: The most common menu type.
This menu opens like a book and lets diners read across two pages.
Pros: These menus are easy to read and help you strategically place dishes with high profit margins.
Cons: These menus still aren’t suitable for restaurants with a broad range of dishes.
Three panel, two-fold menus: Ideal for pubs and family-style restaurants.
Pros: Allows for a wide variety of dishes.
Cons: Too many options may make choosing a dish difficult and lead to menu clutter.
Panel booklet: For restaurants that provide an extensive variety of dishes.
Pros: Variety is appealing for some.
Cons: This menu can make it harder to engineer for profit.
When designing your Italian food menu, it’s a good idea to start small and scale up. Create a limited menu, get feedback from customers, and then make changes, adding more categories or expanding categories as needed.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have an extensive menu. If your concept is an Italian family-style restaurant with a large variety of dishes, then you may choose to showcase that.
Pro tip: Create separate menus for wine and dessert if your menu exceeds the 12″ x 18″ page.
Number of items
According to menu engineers, seven is the magic number of menu items per category. When diners have too many options, not only will they struggle to choose but will likely revert to what they know. And if what they know is a dish with a low profit margin, you will lose money.
Other benefits of fewer items include:
Lower food costs
Reduced printing costs
Less time spent designing the menu
You can layout your menu in a few different ways:
Order: Arrange your menu based on how diners order: appetizers, mains, desserts.
Category: Organize dishes based on categories like pizza, pasta, and salads.
Columns and rows: Break your menu into columns and rows, and leave white space for easy reading.
Focal point: According to menu engineers, our eyes read a menu starting in the middle, then move to top right and then top left. This is known as the Golden Triangle, the place where your high-margin items should live.
For these and other tips on how to engineer your menu for maximum profit, read Menu Engineering:
The names and descriptions of your dishes should reinforce your brand. For example, if your brand is synonymous with freshness, use words that convey that idea in your menu (e.g. fresh, seasonal, locally produced, etc.).
Naming your Italian dishes
What you name your dishes will shape the overall dining experience. Experiment with these naming conventions (Italian examples included):
How it’s cooked: slow-cooked, cured meat, Italian style, smoked, braised, poached
Combination: traditional Italian cuisine, authentic Italian cuisine, classic Italian cuisine, traditional Sardinian cuisine
Keep your descriptions as short as possible. Most people want to know what’s in the dish – the main ingredients and accompanying ingredients – and how it’s cooked.
Also, boost profits by focusing on the description of your highest margin dishes. These should be immediately appealing. But be careful of over-selling and under-delivering. Nothing is more disappointing than reading a mouthwatering description only to get a sub-par dish.
Photos on menus are a highly debated topic. They can cause a menu to look cluttered, detracting from the dining experience. As a result, they’re often associated with lower-end restaurants. But, when used sparingly, photos are a powerful tool for menus because:
Quality photos capture a diner’s attention.
They can increase profits by 30% – as long as you use one photo per page.
Colors trigger our brains in different ways and can be used on menus to drives sales:
Orange stimulates the appetite
Yellow captures attention
Red encourages action
Green conveys freshness – a good option for your menu because Italian food is known for freshness
Pro Tip: Align color with your brand and target market. If you’re unsure, do market research.
Fonts guide readers to different dishes and tell diners about the style of your restaurant. Here are key points to consider:
Readability. Fonts need to be easy on the eye and the right size. Consider using at least 20 to 30 point font.
Brand. Align the font with your brand. For example, if you’re a formal restaurant, consider using a more formal cursive font.
Print vs. digital. Use Serif fonts for print and Sans-serif for digital.
Consistency is key. Limit the number of fonts to a maximum of three and use them consistently. You don’t want to alternate between different fonts in one section – it looks unprofessional.
Bold items. Draw the diner’s attention to high-margin items with bolded titles.
Create a simple background that doesn’t detract from the look of the menu, create clutter, or impair readability. If you’re unsure, opt for using white space.
There’s a growing trend to exclude dollar signs on menus – especially since a 2009 study from Cornell University showed that sales were higher for menus without the dollar sign than those with them. Regardless, here are four pricing formats to choose from:
They all convey the same price to customers, but do so with a different look and feel. Choose the format that corresponds to your restaurant concept.
Menu nutritional information
The US and some parts of Canada have introduced calorie labeling laws to curb obesity and promote transparency in the restaurant industry. If you belong to a restaurant chain of 20+ restaurants, you’ll have to add calories counts to your menus. If you don’t, you can ignore these laws – for now.
Step 3: Become a Connoisseur of Italian Cuisine
Italian food is known for its simplicity, with many dishes only having between two and four ingredients. Indeed, it’s all about the quality of the ingredients and less about elaborate preparation.
While lasagna, pasta, pizza, risotto, and polenta are typical dishes found on Italian food menus, the cuisine is, in fact, incredibly diverse.
For example, there are about 350 different types of pasta, and pizza can be made using two different styles: Neapolitan and Roman. Roman pizza is characterized by a thin to medium crust, and the inclusion of oil makes it different from Neapolitan pizza. The oil makes the crust heavier, more flavorful and crispier.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, since Italian food differs widely by region. For instance, in Southern Italy, tomatoes, oranges, ricotta cheese, anchovies, sardines, and capers are essential elements in the local cuisine, while in the North, potatoes, rice, different cheeses, pork, and corn feature prominently – not to mention the stuffed pasta.
This may all seem incredibly overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. To help prepare your menu, here are top Italian dishes across 20 different regions:
1. Abruzzo and Molise
Pasta, meat and vegetable dishes are a staple in Abruzzo and Molise. In Abruzzo, arrosticini is the most famous dish. This dish consists of small pieces of castrated mutton or lamb on a wooden skewer, cooked on the coals.
In Molise, cavatelli is common. Cavatelli is a handmade macaroni-type pasta, commonly served with meat sauce, broccoli, or mushrooms.
The cuisine here is deeply rooted in local tradition, with pork as an essential ingredient. A common traditional Italian dish is làgane, pasta prepared with chickpeas and peeled tomatoes.
Macaroni with goat, beef, or pork and salted ricotta is a classic Italian dish in this area.
Spaghetti and Neapolitan style pizza is eaten frequently in this region. An authentic and favorite dish in Campania is spaghetti alla puttanesca, which consists of tomatoes, garlic, olives, capers, and anchovies.
Well-known for pasta filled with egg and ricotta cheese, Emilia-Romagna has a wide variety of classic Italian pasta dishes you’ve likely heard of. These include tortellini, lasagne, and tagliatelle – synonymous with the cities of Bologna and Modena.
6. Friuli Venezia Giulia
Popular dishes include Montasio cheese, Frico cheese, game, Friuli cured ham, gnocchi, and polenta.
Pasta dishes are featured prominently in Lazio, especially those that use guanciale (unsmoked bacon prepared with pig cheeks) and dishes you likely know – such as carbonara. Traditional carbonara is made with egg, hard cheese, guanciale, and pepper.
On the coast of Marche, seafood is a core ingredient in many dishes. But, as you move inland, you’ll more ham and pork sausages. Brodetto all’Anconetana (or soup of Ancona) is spicy, made with the local catch of the day, and immensely popular.
Herbs, vegetables, and seafood are often used in Liguria. Farinata (flatbread served with chickpea flour) is a local favorite and often served as a side.
Risotto is a key dish in this area, with risotto alla Milanese as the most famous. Made with the usual rice and stock as a base, this risotto uses beef marrow and is flavored with saffron.
The main focus in this region is lamb, which is used to make allulur (tripe dumplings).
Out of all coastal areas, Piedmont has the most diverse Italian cuisine. Two familiar dishes in this area include:
Agnolotti, a folded over pasta containing beef and vegetable stuffing
Panissa, a type of risotto with maratelli rice, beans, onions, wine, lard, salami, salt, and pepper
13. Puglia (Apulia)
Oysters, mussels, and fish are often used in Puglia’s regional cuisine, and authentic pasta dishes made from durum wheat are customary. The regional dessert, zeppola, is also a favorite. These are doughnuts filled with custard, jelly, and pastry cream, then topped with powdered sugar.
Small balls of pasta (fregola) are the main component in Sardinian Cuisine. It’s also the main ingredient in the dish, pilau. Pilau is made in a similar way to risotto where you cook the grains in fresh stock. Various versions of Pilau exist including goat or shellfish in a tomato sauce.
Sicilian cuisine usually uses fresh vegetables (e.g. eggplant and tomatoes) and fish (tuna, sea bass, swordfish). There are many classic specialties including arancini (deep-fried rice croquettes) and pasta con le sarde. The latter dish is prepared with hollow pasta tubes and served al dente with sardines, raisins, pine nuts, wild fennel, and saffron.
16. Trentino-Alto Adige
This is Italy’s northernmost region and has strong Austrian influences. While you can find many types of dishes such as goulash, apple strudel, and rosti di patate, the area is most famous for its speck juniper-flavored ham.
Tuscan cuisine is simple, with bread, cheese, mushrooms, and fruit all featured prominently. Classic Tuscan dishes include:
Ribollita: reboiled bread and vegetable soup
Gnudi: a type of gnocchi, prepared with ricotta cheese (instead of potato) and flour
Black truffle and game such as wild boar are two common ingredients. Tagliatelle with truffles is a favorite and simple to make: toss handmade pasta with a small amount of butter, grate Parmigiano, and add truffle.
19. Valle d’Aosta
Soups and cheese fondues are the norm in this region. Polenta, rye bread, smoked bacon, cured meat, and game are all staples. The famous hearty stews and roasted and braised dishes use lots of cream and butter.
Venetian cuisine is well-known for risotto – though the ingredients will differ within the region itself. Expect fish and seafood in your risotto in coastal areas, and pumpkins and asparagus as you move away from the Adriatic sea.
Step 4: Find Design Inspiration from Other Italian Food Menus
Because design inspiration can come from any menu – not just an Italian one – we’ve thrown in a mix for these 10 examples of excellent menu design.
Ava Gene’s menu is also clean, but instead of a white background, they use a light brown one. The menu works because it triggers various words in your mind – such as “natural” and “rustic” – that you’d typically associate with Italian restaurants and food.
Creating your Italian food menu doesn’t have to be difficult. Just follow the four simple steps we outlined in this post and you can rest peacefully knowing that you’re designing your menu the right way.
Silvia is the former Digital Marketing Manager for TouchBistro. During her time with TouchBistro, she managed and coordinated content for the RestoHub blog.