Italian food is the stuff of legend, and a big part of the reason many people choose to travel to Italy. (Yes, Italy’s got Roman ruins, priceless museum treasures, and great scenery but let’s face it—we come for the food!) Italy’s cuisine tastes so good in large part to the high quality of ingredients that go into it—extra virgin olive oil, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, free-range eggs and meat, usually sourced as close to home as possible.
While a list of the best dishes in Italy could and does fill volumes, there are a few staples of the Italian pantheon of food that you simply must try while you’re here. Read on for the top 10 foods to try in Italy, plus some suggestions for the best regions or cities to eat them.
- Spaghetti all Carbonara (Rome)
Rome lays claim to several different pasta dishes, but perhaps its most revered is spaghetti alla carbonara, made from pancetta (bacon) or guanciale (pork cheek), Pecorino cheese, pepper, and a raw egg added at the last minute. It’s most commonly served over spaghetti, but hollow, long bucatini pasta is a favorite version in Rome. Other Romanesque kinds of pasta include cacio e pepe and amatriciana. Trattoria da Oio in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood is one of the best places to try these classics.
2. Pizza (Naples, Rome or Anywhere!
Your first bite of a real Italian pizza might be transformative—you’ll certainly never look at cardboard-tasting American delivery pizza the same way again. In Naples, where the pizza Margherita (cheese pizza) was invented, pizza comes with a thicker crust but still manages to be light and chewy at the same time. Elsewhere in Italy and especially in Rome, pizza crust is paper-thin and foldable. Tasting that perfect balance of yeasty crust, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella cheese, plus any other ingredients you may opt for, is life-changing indeed. Check out this round-up that includes some of the best pizzerias in Naples.
3. Fresh Cannoli (Sicily)
You don’t have to travel to Sicily to find decent cannoli, but at least make sure to buy it from an authentic Sicilian pasticerria (pastry shop). This festive-looking pastry consists of a tube of fried dough, filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese and mascarpone mixture. Variations may have candied fruit, pistachios, or chocolate filling or toppings. You’ll probably need to shop around and sample cannoli at several different pasticerrie, to decide which one is the best
4. Lasagna alla Bolognese (Bologna)
While there are many, many reasons Bologna should be on your Italian vacation itinerary, food is near the top of the list. The city famous for its cuisine lies in the heart of Emilia-Romagna, the region famous for its high-quality ingredients. Lasagna Alla Bolognese is the city’s hallmark dish—consisting of hearty, slow-cooked meat sauce (ragu, or bolognese) and béchamel (white sauce) layered between sheets of egg pasta. This is classic Italian comfort food that will make you miss your Italian nonna, even if you never had one.
5. Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florence and Tuscany)
With apologies to vegetarian readers, if you like your steak so rare it could almost “moo,” bistecca alla Fiorentina is the cut for you. This thick T-bone steak is a specialty of Florence, made with Chianina beef raised in the surrounding Tuscan countryside. It’s seared over an open flame on all sides but served blood-rare on the inside. It’s garnished with salt and olive oil and usually little else. Even if you don’t normally eat your steak rare—or don’t usually eat steak—this is the way to try it. Osteria Tos
Pizza was born in Naples, the city that claims its paternity and where tomato sauce is certainly added to the thin layer of dough.
It soon became one of the symbols of national unity and the gastronomic flag of our country in every corner of the world.
Pizza Margherita was certainly born in Naples: the most famous and the simplest of pizzas that with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil also brings the colors of our flag to the plate.
It is said that Queen Margherita of Savoy, during one of her stays in the city at Villa Rosebery, wanted to try that popular, simple and delicious food that many of her fellow citizens loved.
Brandi’s pizza chef in Chiaia made her try the pizza and called it by her name: Margherita.
You cannot take a tour of Italy without tasting a real Neapolitan pizza, perhaps tasted in Spaccanapoli and without the enrichment of too many useless ingredients.
Of course nowadays there are good and also excellent pizzerias all over the country and often this humble dish becomes an excuse to be a base of excellent dough with ingredients put on it, but the basic consumer pizza, whether Italian or foreign, is basically a choice between soft Neapolitan style pizza or the crispest Roman style pizza.
Other regions offer similar recipes, the best known of which are the Palermo “Sfinciuni” or the recipes of the Italian Riviera where we find Sardenaira in Sanremo or Pisciarà in Bordighera or Pisciadella in Ventimiglia.
But if you want to taste a great and true pizza, it is in Italy that you will have to do it: where we find pizza and similar preparations Italy, Naples, Rome, Palermo, and Italian Riviera.
7. Baked lasagna
t the base of all a cornerstone of best Italian food: fresh pasta accompanied by one of the best known condiments in the world, Bolognese sauce, more often known simply as Bolognese.
Bologna, the cradle of one of the richest and most attractive regional kitchens in the country, is the capital of ragù: a sauce made from a sauce of celery, onion and carrot, to which are then added finely chopped beef and often small additions of pork and tomato concentrated, long and slow cooking to obtain a thick and fragrant sauce that goes to season fresh pasta such as tagliatelle or stuffed like classic tortellini or even, in our case it becomes the protagonist of the baked lasagna.
Generations of “sfogline”, women involved in the preparation of fresh pasta, have spread millions of km of pasta cutting it into the most varied formats, one of these is the classic rectangular lasagna which, briefly boiled, drained and dried, alternated with layers of ragù and bechamel sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese. Repeating the operation several times leads us to the creation of the lasagna which will finish cooking in the oven.
The other most famous lasagna are those of the Marche region known as “vincisgrassi” or in Venice where the lasagna becomes “Pasticcio” or in Calabria and Sicily where ragù between the layers is added with hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, salami.
Or even in the more vegetarian Liguria where everyone loves a very light and tasty version of lasagna baked with pesto.
From the French Riviera to the Cinque Terre, our basil sauce is the true gastronomic flag of the Italian Riviera.
Like almost every recipe, even famous, the origins of pesto are uncertain and confused, only towards the end of the nineteenth century is there any written evidence, but certainly the sauce is much older.
Today the recipe is composed of a few ingredients: Ligurian basil (outside of Liguria this plant tends to have a menthol flavor), Vessalico garlic which is a Slowfood presidium, Italian pine nuts, grated Parmesan cheese and Sardinian pecorino cheese, extra virgin olive oil and coarse salt.
True pesto should not know about “heating” from blenders or other gadgets of our times. The good old mortar and pestle remain irreplaceable to get the best.
Chefs from all over the world are using pesto in the most varied ways, but here pesto is the main condiment of pasta, whether fresh.
In Genoa you can easily find fresh dough preparations: lasagne called “mandilli de sea”, “trofiette” or “gnocchi”.
The recipe with dry pasta are the “trenette” which are also often accompanied by chopped green beans and diced potatoes.
9. The Focaccia
A humble mixture of flour, water, yeast and salt, with the final touch of EVO oil; starting from Liguria it has conquered Italy and the world with its infinite variety.
The quality of the gluten-rich flour, the quality of the extra virgin olive oil and the manual skills of those who prepare it, are the basis of the success of this preparation.
Infinite are the classic variants in Italy, among the best known:
The Genoese focaccia, the mother of all focaccias, the simple dough enriched with coarse salt and EVO oil on the surface;
The focaccia di Recco, Invented by the mythical Manuelina: two layers of dough to enclose Ligurian cheese, today replaced by crescenza or stracchino, which melt during cooking and give rise to a masterpiece of taste;
Focaccia with onions: on the surface slowly stewed onions is also a Ligurian specialty;
The Florentine Schiacciata, thinner and brittle than the Ligurian one;
Bari focaccia, sprinkled with fresh cherry tomatoes and black olives;
The Messina focaccia, with escarole, chopped tomato, olives and fresh tuma.
The humble focaccia is ductile and this simplicity has determined its success which, unaltered, has always lasted, indeed it has grown.
Water, cornmeal and salt. Stop.
A little patience in constantly stirring the mixture on the fire in its cauldron and after a short hour you can pour a splendid dense but still fluid, gold-colored preparation onto the plate.
A poor preparation and therefore flexible and ready to accept the pairing with meats or fish, with cheeses or vegetables, and in some cases also to become a dessert.
After a period of refusal and abandonment, let’s not forget that polenta was often the only food available to entire and vast levels of the population and therefore synonymous with need and poverty, today it lives a new youth.
In restaurants in Northern Italy it is easy to find especially in the winter, at home it has become synonymous with conviviality and leaves a thousand possibilities of use for cooks.
If you want to try polenta with traditional combinations, here are some suggestions:
In Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta we find Polenta Concia, seasoned with soft cheeses that change according to the preparation area: fontina, tome and much more …
Another recipe with cheese is the inevitable Polenta and Gorgonzola, a cheese that seems created on purpose to melt with the heat;
Polenta and Baccalà are very classic in Veneto;
In Trentino Polenta with salami sausage;
Just for the record we report Polenta and “Osei”, birds whose hunting has been banned for many years now.
… and then the polenta that advances as a way to unleash the imagination of every cook.