I’m not breaking any news by saying Italy is a food-lover’s paradise. I often surprise people, however, when I say that there’s no such thing as “Italian food.”
That’s because Italy is composed of 20 regions, and though there are similarities between available ingredients and even dishes between neighboring geographical areas, there is a marked regional difference in the cuisine as you travel from one end of “the Boot” to the other.
Travelers who appreciate a good meal, then, would do well to not simply default to the familiar Italian-sounding things on the menu – yes, you can get pizza everywhere, but it won’t always be good pizza – and learn what the regional specialties are in each place they’re visiting.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the things you should try when you travel through Italy – far from it, in fact. Still, I hope that by offering a selection of dishes you might not already know about you’ll do a little more food-related research before your Italy trip than you might have otherwise. And, if you’re even remotely a foodie, I think you’ll find the research is almost as delicious as the eating.
Here are 20 delicious dishes you should seek out while traveling in Italy.
Aperitivo isn’t a dish so much as a dining experience. While it’s growing in popularity around the country, one of the best places to aperitivo is Milan, that fashionable northern city that knows its way around cocktails.
If you’re thinking aperitivo = happy hour, you’re on the right track, but it’s not a 1:1 comparison. The buffet offerings vary depending on the bar, so the ones to look for have a big food spread that you get to treat a little like an all-you-can-eat menu with the purchase of a drink or two.
The drinks are often a bit more expensive than they would be outside aperitivo hours, and Italians don’t gorge themselves with multiple trips through the buffet line – this is, after all, a precursor to dinner later – but there’s no reason you can’t do an aperitivo crawl through Milan for your dinner.
Osso Buco (Milan)
The name osso buco means “bone hole,” which is an accurate – if not-terribly-appetizing – description of the dish. This Milanese specialty is a slow-cooked veal shank, served with the rich sauce in which it’s braised and topped with gremolata, a mixture of lemon zest and finely-chopped garlic and parsley.
What makes osso buco special is the butter-like marrow that you’ll scoop out of the center of the veal shank’s bone and spread on a piece of bread. This is winter comfort food at its best.
Tuscan Bread (Tuscany)
Every region makes bread, but Tuscan bread is different – it’s salt-free, which means it might taste a little odd if you’re just eating it by itself. That salt-free palette, however, is the ideal canvas upon which many Tuscan recipes are based.
One of my favorites is ribollita, which literally means reboiled, and is a flavorful stew of white beans, dark kale, and bread topped with peppery olive oil. The bread is also used as the base for a thick tomato soup called pappa col pomodoro, and in the summer it’s a key ingredient of panzanella. The latter is a summery salad made with day-old Tuscan bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet onions, basil, olive oil, and vinegar.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Tuscany)
Picture the sort of dinosaur-sized slab of meat Fred Flintstone might have gotten at dinner and you’ll be in the vicinity of Florence’s famous bistecca alla fiorentina. It’s a T-bone weighing in at 2-3 pounds, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and (sometimes) olive oil, grilled, and served quite rare.
Traditionally, bistecca alla fiorentina should only come from two breeds of Tuscan cattle – Chianina or Maremmana. This enormous cut of meat can easily serve two or more people, depending on appetites and other dishes ordered, so grab some friends and embrace the sharing culture.
Tortellini in Brodo (Emilia-Romagna)
Tortellini pasta may not be anything new to you, but the traditional serving in Bologna and elsewhere in the Emilia-Romagna region will be. You’ll see it written as both tortellini in brodo and tortellini en brodo, but the dish is the same – perfect pillows of stuffed pasta in a bowl of rich, clear broth.
Bologna is the origin of what many of us call “baloney,” but the meat that started it all is nothing like the processed junk you might have had in your school lunches (thank heaven).
Mortadella is made from finely-ground pork mixed with spices and chunks of pork fat. Thin slices of mortadella are excellent in sandwiches, and often make up part of a plate of assorted cured meats and cheeses.
Pastry shop windows in Italy are often drool-worthy. In Naples and other parts of Campania, there’s a delicate-looking pastry that is much more than meets the eye. The sfogliatella dates from a 17th-century recipe created in a monastery in Salerno, south of Naples.
Sfogliatelle are shell-shaped pastries made from thin layers of dough that get crisp on the top as they fan out from the center. The dense filling is sweetened ricotta, which almost always makes the pastry much heavier than it looks like it should be. This is no light snack.
You don’t need to be told to eat pizza in Italy, but you might need to be told where to eat it. Naples is where pizza as we know it today was born. While you’ll certainly find pizza places all over the country, the Neapolitan variety is unique – and worth the trip.
Look for the phrase “vera pizza napoletana” on pizzeria signs to find the stuff that’s been approved by a local consortium as being the real deal. True Neapolitan pizza has to use a certain kind and quality of flour, tomatoes and other key ingredients, ensuring the finished product meets the consortium’s high standards.
Be aware that traditional Neapolitan pizza is served whole, each pie considered a single-serving for one, and eaten with a knife and fork. Perhaps surprisingly, given how famous pizza is as a culinary export, even top-notch pizza in Naples is an inexpensive meal.
Pesto is by no means unheard-of, but it’s one of the things that always seems to taste better in the region from which it comes. Fragrant basil grows in profusion in Liguria – so much so that the variety with which most of us are familiar is known as Genovese basil. Naturally, then, the locals put it to good use by grinding it up with garlic, toasted pine nuts, and lots of good olive oil.
The finished product might have the appearance of pond scum, but pesto genovese is the flavor of summer, full stop. The bright green goo pairs beautifully with certain pasta shapes popular around Genoa, clinging to the nooks and crannies, and is also used in preparations of some local seafood dishes.
Fresh anchovies (Liguria)
Whatever you’re thinking about oily and salty tinned fish when I say “anchovies,” put it out of your head right now. Along the Ligurian coast, we’re talking about fresh anchovies, which are a completely different thing altogether.
Fresh anchovies – called acciughe in Italian – are on menus in the Cinque Terre and other nearby fishing towns, and are often served as an appetizer. They’re filleted, cooked, and served with good olive oil (always good olive oil) and lemon. Sometimes, they’re even thrown – whole – into pasta dishes. Acciughe will change your mind about those tiny canned fish.
Carta da Musica (Sardinia)
The island of Sardinia is almost another country, judging by its language, and sometimes the cuisine follows suit. Just look for information on “Sardinia” and “cheese” to see what I mean. (Do so at your own risk, and definitely not while hungry.)
Most of Sardinia’s cuisine isn’t frightening, though.
The Italian name for a traditional Sardinian flatbread, carta da musica, translates as “sheet of music.” Poetic and appropriate, given how thin the bread is. The Sardinian name, which may be more common on the island, is, pane carasau. Eat it with perfectly normal cheese and you’ll be quite happy.
Cacio e Pepe (Rome)
If there’s one dish that personifies comfort food in Rome to me, it’s cacio e pepe. This exceptionally simple dish is hard to master, partly because of its simplicity. It’s long pasta with a sauce of cheese (Pecorino Romano, to be exact) and pepper – that’s what cacio e pepe means – that become, when properly done, creamy without the aid of cream or butter or oil.
Because it’s not easy to attain the perfect level of creaminess involved, there are inexperienced or lazy cooks in lesser restaurants in Rome that supplement the simple recipe with butter or cream. Seek out the real thing.
Spring in Rome means artichokes – carciofi – and artichoke-lovers can rejoice in the knowledge that there are two preparations to choose from.
Carciofi alla Romana, or Roman-style artichokes, are carefully cleaned and then braised in wine and water until they’re soft, often served at room temperature with good olive oil. Carciofi alla giudea, or Jewish-style artichokes, are cleaned and pummeled until the leaves fan out, then deep fried in olive oil until the leaves are a bit like artichoke-flavored chips. Both are typically served as appetizers.
Risotto al Nero di Seppia (Venice)
This is a dish that earns most of its wow points from its presentation. It’s not that it doesn’t taste good, it’s that when a bowl of black risotto arrives at the table it’s hard to not stare a little bit.
Risotto you know, but the al nero di seppia part you probably don’t. This is risotto is made with squid ink. The ink not only colors the rice but also imparts the salty flavor of the sea to the dish. And yes, pieces of the cooked squid are mixed into the risotto, too. Risotto al nero can be found in many coastal Italian cities, but it’s quite common in Venice where risotto is a staple.
Like Milan’s aperitivo, Venice’s cicchetti is a dining experience rather than a dish. There are cicchetti bars all over the city, where customers get a selection of bite-sized morsels and a small glass of wine. Locals often eat their goodies standing up, but many cicchetti bars have tables and chairs, too.
Check out the selection at any bar to see if it’s to your liking, but expect a variety of toppings on slices of bread, including vegetables, cured meats, cheeses, and seafood items pulled from the Venetian lagoon.
When you get your first panzerotto in Puglia, you’ll be tempted to think it’s just a little calzone. It’s more than that, though. With panzerotti, while the fillings are delicious, it’s mostly about the dough.
The exterior of a panzerotto is chewy like pizza dough, but it’s typically a little sweet, too. Not dessert-level sweet, but not 100% savory, either. The fillings are similar to pizza toppings – mozzarella and tomato, spinach and mushrooms – and some places also feature dessert panzerotti with sugary fillings, too. Each panzerotto is stuffed, sealed, and then deep fried, cooking or melting the innards while crisping up the dough.
Much of Sicilian cuisine is informed by its multi-cultural history, due to the varying countries or ethnic groups that invaded over the centuries. A combination of sweet and sour in one mouthful is a Sicilian signature, and one of the dishes that showcases this best is caponata.
Caponata isn’t much to look at. It’s made with cooked eggplant, and often includes cooked bell peppers, flavored with capers and sweet vinegar. Some recipes call for cooked carrots or raisins, some for olives or potatoes. The ingredient list varies around the island, but the sweet-and-sour-eggplant gist is the same.
The stew can be served as a side dish or an appetizer, eaten with a fork or scooped onto bread.
Sicilians know their sweets. Walk past any pastry shop to marvel at the realistic-looking marzipan fruits – they’re a feast for the eyes. But the quintessential Sicilian pastry is, of course, the cannoli.
The word means “little tube,” and that’s what it is – a small tube of pastry dough, made crisp by deep-frying and then (when cooled) filled with sweetened ricotta. Sometimes there are extra treats stuck on the cheesy ends, like crushed pistachios or pieces of candied fruit. In order to make sure the dough stays crisp, the best cannoli are only filled when a customer orders one.
Maybe you’ve never heard of gianduia (also spelled gianduja), but you’ve heard of the treat that it spawned: Nutella. Nutella’s predecessor dates from the 18th century, when chocolatiers in Piedmont began mixing hazelnut paste into their chocolates during a military blockade to make the chocolate supply last longer.
Today, Piedmont remains famous for the chocolate-hazelnut flavor combination. There’s even a shape associated with gianduia chocolate candies – a sort of elongated triangle – called gianduiotti.
Anyone who likes the idea of drinkable dessert for breakfast should head to Turin and order a bicerin. It’s a rich mixture of espresso, thick hot chocolate, and whole milk, served hot with the frothy milk at the top.
The classic drink dates from the early 18th century, and is believed to have been invented at the Caffè al Bicerin – which still exists in Turin today. The word “bicerin” is taken from the Italian word for the “small glass” in which the drink is served.
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