Pasta, pizza, and all the carbs: if you make it your mission in Italy to do just one thing, make it your goal to sample the local food. Here’s a complete guide to food in Italy you MUST eat while travelling in Southern Europe (and where to find the best of authentic and locally produced Italian dishes)!
- Panna Cotta
- Margherita Pizza
- Pasta Carbonara
- Olive oil
- Focaccia (and pesto)
- Italian Cheese
- Espresso & Coffee Culture in Italy
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First things first, let’s start with the best. Creamy, dreamy and perfect for the summer months when the temperatures soar and the daylight lasts for hours, no trip to Italy would be complete without at least one or two gelatos (or one each day of your trip if you want to make the most of this sweet dish!)
When it comes to food in Italy, the boot-shaped country’s most famous export is, without a doubt, this sweet ice-cream style dessert! And, if you’re looking for the very best gelato in Italy, then you should visit Gelato San Lorenzo in Rome or Alberto Marchetti in Turin.
If you love coffee, chocolate, and mascarpone, then this dessert is for you! Typically made from ladyfinger biscuits dipped in coffee and served with cream, whipped eggs, and mascarpone cheese, ‘Tiramisu’ is quite literally translated as a ‘cheer me up’. And while this Italian sweet originated in the 1960s in Veneto, Italy, it can now be found in various forms all over the world!
Lasagne is a dish created from layered pasta sheets, a style of pasta which is often thought of as one of the oldest pasta varieties in the world. While some sources claim that this dish originated in Naples, no one is quite sure- though it’s probable that lasagne dates all the way back to the middle ages. Today, the best lasagne dishes can be found in the regions of Campania and Emilia-Romagna.
A blend of sweet and savoury, Panna Cotta was first attested during the 1960s and is listed as a traditional food of the Piedmont Region of Italy (an area which counts Turin as its capital and even has its own language, Piedmontese).
Traditional Panna Cotta is eaten as a dessert and is made by dissolving sugar into warm cream, which is then solidified using gelatine. The sweet is served post main meal and can also be flavoured with spices, coffee, rum, and topped with fruits or caramel.
When it comes to Italian foods, chocolate may well not be the first thing which springs to mind. However, should you opt to visit the highly underrated Northern Italian city of Turin, then you’ll find a thriving trade in the sweet stuff there (today the city is home to many a master chocolatier and sweet shop).
The history of chocolate in Italy dates back to the end of the 16th-century when cacao was first imported into the country by Florentine born Francesco Carletti who saw great commercial value in cocoa powder. By the 1800s, Turin and its surrounds were well-known across Europe as being a European capital of chocolate.
For the very best pizza in Italy, you need to visit Naples, home of the traditional Neapolitan pizza. The Margherita dates back hundreds of years and is made from several simple ingredients; San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, oil, and a pizza base. Today, while this authentic Italian dish can be found all over the world, there’s no better place to eat this savoury dish than in Italy itself!
A traditional Tuscan dish from the Tuscany region of Italy, this hearty soup style savoury platter is best enjoyed in the cooler months of the year when the days are short and the nights are cold. Created using leftover bread, cannelini beans, kale, cabbage, and a whole host of other vegetables, it’s similar to a minestrone soup.
With origins in Sicily, this aubergine dish is the perfect savoury platter. Created from aubergine (also known as eggplant), celery, sweetened vinegar, and capers, other variations of the dish include various vegetables and seafood. Though Caponata is often served as a side dish, it can also be eaten as a main course.
Created from cornmeal, Polenta can be served in a variety of ways; as a porridge, cooled down into a loaf, or even fried. Originating in Northern and Central Italy, Polenta is often served as a dessert and can quite literally take hours to produce.
This Italian dish is typically produced utilising pasta, egg, pancetta (or guanciale), and a kind of hard cheese. While pasta carbonara is often served as a first course in Italy, outside of the boot-shaped country it’s become a popular main meal where the pancetta is usually replaced with lardons or bacon bits.
One of my all-time favourite Italian dishes is that of ravioli, a dish comprising of filled pasta parcels. No one quite knows where Ravioli first originated, with both Venice and Tuscany vying for the title. However, what is known is that this incredible dish can be found all over Italy, especially anywhere where authentic home-style cooking is present.
The term ‘cannoli’ is the plural of the singular Italian word ‘cannolo,’ which quite literally means ‘little tube’. Well, this sweet baked pastry can now be found all over Italy (though the cannoli finds its origins in Sicily) and is rolled into little tubes which are then filled with a creamy ricotta. While traditional cannolis are filled simply with sweetened ricotta, more modern dishes include a whole variety of fruit flavours.
If sweet dishes are your thing, then you have to sample Torrone, a kind of nougat made from honey, toasted almonds, sugar, and egg white. This sweet can be found all over Southern Europe and is known as ‘Turrón’ in Spanish. Traditionally eaten as a treat at Christmas, the very best Torrone can be found in the Cremona and Lombardy regions.
Another popular pasta dish is that of tortellini, a ring-shaped pasta parcel which is often filled with locally sourced and traditional ingredients (cheese, meat, or a mixture of the two). Similar to ravioli, this Italian cuisine derives from Emilia. And so, if you’re looking for the very best pasta, then go to Bologna for the very best Tortellini in the country.
If you’ve ever eaten at an Italian restaurant, then you’ve likely sampled bruschetta, a baked bread smothered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and some basil. In some cases, bruschetta is also served with a salsa style topping, cheese, cured meats, or some kind of olive tapenade.
If you’re a vegetarian, then minestrone is a great option for lunch or dinner when travelling through Southern Europe (particularly during the colder months of the year). This vegetable soup typically contains pasta and a whole load of vegetables with a tomato base- delicious!
One of the best places to enjoy risotto in Italy is in Milan, where the local dish on the menu is Risotto alla Milanese (a simple risotto dish comprising of rice flavoured with saffron). Elsewhere in Italy, this creamy broth dish is popular in bars, taverns, and restaurants. One of the best places in Italy I enjoyed risotto in was Il Circolino, Dining in an old prison in the heart of Bergamo.
While not technically a dish in of itself, olive oil has been used as an essential ingredient in Italian cooking since antiquity. In fact, the Romans even used olive oil as a way of lighting their cookers! Drizzled over pasta, used in salad dressings, and as a base ingredient for pizza, you can’t easily eat food in Italy and avoid olive oil!
If you want more of a snack dish than a risotto, then opt for the rice dish’s cousin, arancini. A deep-fried rice ball which is filled with various savoury ingredients and covered in breadcrumbs, I was first introduced to this rice dish earlier this year while spending a week in Northern Italy (and have been dreaming of it ever since!)
Focaccia (and pesto)
Cinque Terre, a beautiful group of clifftop villages literally known as ‘the five lands’ are the traditional heartland of Focaccia, a flatbread similar in texture to pizza dough. If you’re wanting a quick snack while at home and dreaming of food in Italy, then eat your focaccia with some pesto (you can thank me later!)
Though not an Italian dish as of itself, truffles deserve their place on this article about food in Italy because they’re often considered one of the most luxurious ingredients in Italian cooking. After all, truffles are one of the most expensive ingredients in the world! The truffle is the body of the Ascomycete fungus and shavings of it are used to flavour a whole host of dishes; pizza, pasta, and even some speciality cheeses.
Made from a rich blend of potatoes and pasta, these soft dough dumplings are best eaten when served piping hot in a rich and creamy sauce. Created using ordinary wheat flour, semolina, or cornmeal, gnocchi is sometimes served as a first course/ starter alternative to a soup.
When it comes to food in Italy, and specifically the cheese varieties, there are quite literally too many Italian cheeses to list and name within a single article! However, there are still some types which spring to mind when thinking of the best Italian cheeses.
Mozzarella (the key ingredient of Margherita pizza), parmesan (full name Parmigiano-Reggiano), gorgonzola (a veined blue cheese) and ricotta (a whey cheese used in both savoury and sweet Italian dishes). Other highlights of Italian cheese include Pecorino Toscano and Burrata.
Espresso & Coffee Culture in Italy
While not technically an ‘Italian food’ you should try, I can’t end this list about food in Italy without mentioning the art of the espresso. You see, the coffee in Italy is truly an art form and if you want to experience coffee culture just like an Italian, then there are a few simple rules to abide by.
For example, don’t make the Italian food mistake I made and order a latte thinking that you’ll get anything other than a warm glass of milk! Never order a cappuccino post-breakfast time and when ordering coffee at dinner time, place your order post main meal.
Read more: The art of ordering coffee in Italy
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