A traditional meal in Italy consists of a legitimate five courses. When people in America go out to eat they usually order an appetizer which may consist of nachos or buffalo wings; then you order your main dish and then if there is room you may order a dessert. In Italy it is very different. I went to Italy three years ago and the first time I ate I almost was full after the appetizer (or as they call it in Italy antipasti) because I ate so much and did not know how many other courses were following the antipasti. After the antipasti I was swarmed with all these different courses and could not finish. As the week went on I began to pace myself and finally was able to make it to dessert.
After the Italian appetizer, or antipasti, comes the first course or primo. The first course is pasta, soup, or risotto. Usually there are several pasta choices. Italian pasta dishes may have less sauce than Americans are usually used to. After the first course comes the second course, also called the main course or secondo. This meal usually consists of meat, poultry, or fish. It doesn't usually include any potato or vegetable. Usually you will want to order a side dish with your main course. That side dish could be a type of vegetable or a salad. Contorni is the Italian word for side dishes. The last part of your meal will be dessert, or dolce. You are usually offered fruit or cheese. Then you may also be offered café or an after dessert drink. A full meal usually consists of an appetizer, first course, and a second course with a side dish. It's not necessary to order from every course, but usually people order at least two courses. Italian meals may last one or two hours or even longer.
Some fun facts that I read while doing this research is that, in Italy, the type of pasta is often more important than the sauce. This is different than America because I know people who smother their pasta in sauce and can barely taste the pasta. In Italy they want to put less sauce and really get the full taste of the pasta. Also in the main course, there are very little if any vegetarian dishes. Although they may not be on the menu you can always ask for a vegetarian dish. Going to Italy really made me start to appreciate good fresh food because everything I ate over there was fresh and sometimes the vegetables were grown in a garden behind the restaurant. That trip really did expand my taste buds.
Sources: http://goitaly.about.com/od/foodandwineofitaly/p/eatingout.htm and Google Images