Italian Food is not the same thing (and what to eat instead)

It may surprise you to discover that true Italian cuisine is not available. It is true that Italian food is still very much a regional cuisine. Each region of Italy has its own distinct cuisine, based on its history and people. Each region, then each province, and city adds to the national Italian cuisine identity. However, it is best to try the local dishes from every region. Here are some of our favorites.

It’s not possible to call Italian food “Italian food”. You’ll eat different foods depending on where you live, the tradition and the local production.


Lazio (including Rome)


Rome’s “coda alla vacinara” is a rich dish that features ox tail. Photo by emanuele75 at Flickr

The origin of the empire and the region of Rome, Lazio’s foodhistory is a delight. There are many delicious local options, including the thin-crust Roman Pizza and the abundance of pastas and slow-cooked meats. You can start with pasta. Try authentic macaroni, cheese, cacio and pepe or carbonara. We suggest Bucatini all’amatriciana. Bucatini, a pasta that looks like spaghetti, has a hole in the middle. Then, it’s mixed with olive oil, peperoncino and guanciale. Guanciale, which is often mistaken for bacon and used to cook amatriciana, is actually pork cheek. These rich dishes can be complemented by a recipe from Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood. This is the tail of a cow, bue, or ox that’s sauteed in oil, garlic cloves, wine, and tomato sauce. Although the cut may seem intimidating, you should not be afraid to give it a try. The Romans are skilled at cooking their meat.

Our Rome Food Tour will take you deeper into Roman cuisine, culture, and traditions. We’ll be visiting one of Rome’s most popular food markets and then tasting and making our own pizzas. See the tour page for more information.


Toscana (Tuscany, including Florence)


Pecorino cheese was once hidden in hay bales for landowners who were trying to collect rent. It has since become a regional favorite.

Tuscany’s history is long as a place of farmers and cultivators. Tuscany’s food continues this tradition with simple and inexpensive flavors that are still robust today. The feudal system required farmers to pay taxes to their landlords based on the amount of their produce. When it came time to count the food, farmers began hiding their cheese in stacks made of hay. We recommend pecorino as a cheese to purchase. You might still find the hay wrapped around it if you go to buy it. Another example of poor cooking is the Ribollita. This soup uses any vegetable, and can be made from leftovers or stale bread. Let’s not forget about the wines. Tuscany is home to some of the most prized wines in the world, including light Chiantis and the more meaty Brunello di Montalcino. It should be the first stop for wine-lovers visiting Italy.

You can find more delicious, traditional Tuscan recipes in our post on traditional Tuscan food .

Our gourmet Tuscany Day Trip departs from Rome and visits vineyards and organic farms. You can also take a Florence Food Tour that includes tastings at various bars, enotecas, restaurants, and a local specialty.


Veneto (including Venice).


Traditional cicchetti from Veneto, as seen during the Walks of Italy Venice Food Tour.

It is difficult to describe the true Veneto cuisine, which includes everything from the seafood of Venice to Verona’s inland cuisine to the Austrian-influenced cuisine of northern Veneto. There is also the bustling Venetian port where spices and other foods arrive before any other regions, which adds new flavor and recipes to the Veneto staple fare. It just means we have more options. The Cichetti is a small slice of toasted bread with fish or meat on the top. It can be ordered with a glass or hot wine. If you order enough, these can be served as a lunch, which is what the Venetians do. It also allows you to taste multiple flavors. But for dinner, order le vongole. Vongole (or clams) can be eaten on pasta, pizza, or as a whole meal. Order polenta, uccelli or polenta with birds in the alpine region. These are made from small migratory birds that frequent the area. The birds give polenta a special touch. Although polenta is a staple starch in the mountains, it has been an ever-popular dish. Finish your meal with a tiramisu. Literally translated, it is a “pick-me up”. A cafe corretto is a coffee with a little grappa.

Our Venice Food Tour is a great option for those who are interested in food and Venice. You’ll be accompanied by a local guide as you explore the Rialto Fish market, which is one of the oldest spice shops on the planet. After that, you can enjoy cicchetti and wine, coffee, and grappa. See our tour page for more information.

Watch our Venice Food Tour with Walks of Italy. Warning: This video can cause hunger, thirst, and wanderlust.


Valle d’Aosta


After a day of touring the beautiful Val d’Aosta Alps, a warm and gooey cotoletta ala valdostana is the perfect meal. It’s veal with fresh fontina cheese. Photo by Jonathan Lin on flickr

It’s not hard to see that high in the mountains, such as Val d’Aosta, you will need more calories and warmth. A hearty bowl of Valpelline soup, zuppa dilla valpelline, will provide you with all the culinary treasures of alpine cooking. The only ingredient considered a luxury is the cinnamon. It’s a bread-based soup that will be topped with cinnamon. Valle d’Aosta is all about mixed cheeses such as Fontina and Fonduta. You can either slice them or use them in a dish such as the costoletta ala valdostana (veal cutlet). This secondo was probably created after WWII. It is a mixture of the traditional Milanese cutlet (baked and fried) with the Cordon bleu. Fresh Fontina cheese is added to the breaded Veal to create a warm, gooey tradition.


Trentino-Alto Adige


Trentino-Alto Adige’s famous Canederli is a comforting Alpine dish. Photo by energyhotel @Flickr

Trentino is a small town located near the Austrian Alps. Its cuisine reflects its location. Canederli di Faggotto, the Italianized name of “knodeln”, is a classic dish. It will consist of three to four rolls of pasta with a chicken broth or butter sauce. The vegetables are prepared according to season. You can finish your meal by finishing it with a slice strudel. This is another proof that Italian cuisine is regional and difficult to generalize.


Lombardia (including Milan)


Osso Buco on Risotto Milanese. Photo by stijn @Flickr

Pianura Piadana, the large area of Lombardy that encompasses the south of the country, has made risotto a signature dish. There are many risotto options, but the best is the risotto Milanese. This “yellow rice”, made with saffron, is a result of the Spanish influence in 16th and 17th century. They borrowed the precious spice from the Arabs. Follow the recipe for risotto alo zafferano by adding a classic ossobuco. This hearty dish features a perfectly cut piece of beef, the Shin, which leaves a hole (buco), in the bone (osso). It is well-loved for its bone marrow. This dish is likely to be found in Lombardy with a surprising lemon accent. The lemons are from Lake Garda.


Emilia Romagna, including Bologna


Ragu alla Bolognese: Always with tagliatelle and never with spaghetti Foto by [email protected]

Emilia Romagna is the region most famous for its food. Bologna, its capital, is known as “The Fat One!”. Emilia Romagna is also well-known for its homemade egg pasta. Le tagliatelle avec ragu alla Bolognese, a dish you cannot miss when visiting Emilia Romagna. Make sure the pasta you choose is tagliatelle. There’s no spaghetti al ragu. Alla Bolognese is synonymous with rich flavors. You can rest assured that your meal will include plenty of sauces and seasonings. You can also add cotechino and lenticchie to your pasta. This is boiled sausage and lentils. It has been around since the 16th Century. It is likely that the farmer knew how to use every part of the pork, and in this instance, the pork rinds. This hearty dish is best paired with a sparkling red wine such as Lambrusco from Modena, or Grasparossa of Castelvetro. Other regional delicacies include Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto and handmade stuffed pasta (tortellini).


Marche


Vincigrassi is an important part of Marche’s history. Royalchill @Flickr.

Vincisgrassi is a Marche specialty. It’s a type or lasagna made with layers of pasta and sauce. The meat sauce can be made with different meats and then topped with cheese. The recipe is said to have been created in memory of Alfred von Windisch-Graetz (an Austrian general who fought against Napoleon in order to save Ancona in Marche). Although the recipe is actually found in cookbooks much earlier than this event, its significance is preserved in Marche history.


Abruzzo


Abruzzo was the first region in Italy to use pepperoncino (a.k.a. Abruzzo was the first region to use pepperoncino (a.k.a. chilli pepper) in its food. Photo by jafsegal at Flickr.

The central and southern Adriatic sides of the Apennines have seen livestock migrate from the mountain pastures during the summer to the wintering areas. This has been happening for centuries, from Abruzzo to Puglia to Puglia. The agnello cacio and uova, a roasted lamb dish made with prosciutto and onion, white wine, and bread with egg, salt, and grated cheese, is a tribute to this shepherding tradition. Abruzzo was also the first region to introduce pepperoncino to its cuisine. The added spice can be found in Abruzzo’s fish soups, but it’s especially prominent in the maiale “ndocca” (“pig piece by piece”), which is served over bread with a spicy chili pepper sauce. This allows the sweetness of the meat to mingle with the heat of the peperoncini.


Molise


“Guitar spaghetti” is the name of the cutting tool that gave it its name. Photo by @Flickr liminialists

Molise, the second-smallest region of Italy, was once considered to be part of Abruzzo up until the 1960s. The two regions are actually very similar in many ways. They share the transhumance tradition which involves moving livestock from the mountains into the pastures. They also share a love for pork and the use red peperoncini chili peppers. A simple plate of pasta, e fagioli is a white bean and pasta soup made with broth and pork rind. If you like chili peppers, try the spaghetti diavolillo. This is spaghetti with strong chili pepper sauce. The local spaghetti alla Chitarra (literally, guitar spaghetti) is square and not round. It’s a must-try dish for pasta lovers. You can choose from a range of lamb options for your main course or a coniglio ala molisana with grilled rabbit pieces, skewered with sausages and herbs.


Puglia


For pasta lovers, the must-have ingredient is the orchiette. Photo by brightlifephotographydotcom @Flickr

Puglia is blessed with ample areas to grow olive oil and vineyards, which are all essential ingredients for great pasta. This region is still a leader in artisanal pasta production. It even has a few farms that make pasta by hand. Orecchiette are a must-have! This fresh pasta can be made into simple shapes and is great when paired with cime d’rapa or broccoli rabe. It is a beautiful representation of Puglia’s countryside. Watch our video of Bari making pasta. Then, get the tiella and clams. Or, skip the rice altogether and just go for the cozze, which are clams and rice in a tomato and vegetable sauce.


Calabria


Raw Involtini di pesce spada, don’t worry, it comes cooked. Photo by carmelita Cookitaly @Flickr

Although spicy is not something you associate with Italian food, you will find plenty of options for those who are looking for something a little more fiery. Try the Morzello in Calabria. This is a cold cut made from head of pork, prosciutto, shoulder, and filet. It’s seasoned with lard, peppers, and, most importantly, spicy peppers. Calabria is more than just salami and prosciutto. For a full taste, add the Morzello! Involtini di Pesce Spada is another popular option if you prefer fish. These breaded swordfish rolls are always prepared with tomato sauce and capperi, olives and raisins, as well as onion, parsley, and perhaps oil, lemon, oregano, and parsley. Simple, flavorful and delicious!


Sardegna (Sardinia)


Pane Sardo, as seen on the top, is a thin Sardinian bread, also known locally “music bread”. Photo by [email protected]

Enjoy your meal with some Sardinian bread, or pane Sardo, as a starter. This bread is unique to Sardinia and is rolled thinly and baked twice until crispy, giving it the romantic nickname “music paper”. Farmers and shepherds still raise sheep and pigs in this hinterland country. The malloreddus Al sugo Di Salsiccia is a pasta-like dish with sausage sauce and saffron. A lot of Sardinia’s cuisine is a result of the Catalans’ long-held control over it. The best example of this is the aragosta al catalana, which is Catalan lobster. This fresh seafood dish can be served with Valencian paella. It is often prepared Italian-style with classic Risotto.


Piemonte


Piedmont’s famous tuna-sauced veal, “Vitello tonnato”, is a testimony to its trading past. Photo by SaleCaramello @Flickr

Vitello tonnato, a Piemonte recipe, is well-known. It’s worth trying the dish in the area that it originated. It is veal with tuna sauce. This dish combines Piemonte’s cattle with tuna, capperi, and anchovies from Liguria. This is a testimony to the long history of trade between neighboring regions. Don’t forget to have brasato. Even better, if it is al Barolo. This beef cut is cooked in Barolo red wine for hours, sometimes all day, until it melts. Serve it with some cooked vegetables, such as carrots or peas, and a glass red wine.


Friuli Venezia Giulia


This northern region’s hearty bollito misto, or boiled meats, is a warm dish. Photo by LexnGer @Flickr.

Austria once controlled another region, and its cuisine is a continuation of Austria’s. The bollito missto, a mixed platter of boiled meats and vegetables, is very popular throughout northern Italy. However, the bollito missto is an institution in Friuli. You can enjoy it at any time of the day, and most likely with a large glass of beer. You can also try the frittata con erbe, or herb omelet, if you prefer something lighter. Depending on the season, made with fresh eggs and wild herbs. Wild asparagus might be used in an omelet. It may also include bruscandoli, hop shoots and other herbs. Although beer and caffe Viennese can be delicious byproducts of Austrian influence, we prefer to stick closer to Italy when it comes to our drinks. We recommend a glass of Italian wine. A majority of Friuli’s wine production comes from white wines, so make sure to try some Riesling, Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc straight from the vineyard!


Liguria


Liguria is a master of pesto. It’s all about “magnificent seven”. Photo by [email protected]

You can find so many delicious food from Liguria. But you must not leave without trying the pesto and focaccia, two of the most popular ingredients in the region. The region was located along the coast, so the people had plenty of salt to work with. This abundance can be found in the focaccia bread that they produced later. Focaccia can be eaten in Liguria for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as an aperitivo. Recco’s focaccia is a thinner version of the thicker bread, which is covered with fresh cheese and baked in a wood oven. Pesto is not a sauce made from a jar. You first need to combine the basil leaves with the grated cheese. This mixture includes parmeggiano reggiano, goat cheese from Sardinia, sea salt, and a sweetened Ligurian olive oils. These ingredients are called the “Magnificent Seven” by the Genovesi. However, a marble mortar and wooden pestle are the only ways to combine these ingredients. Their main advantage is the Ligurian Basil, which is protected in the Liguria Riviera. Your Ligurian pesto can be served with fresh trofie pasta. These little gnocchi-shaped gnocchi were popularized as early as 13 century, when Liguria traveled to Ukraine in order to obtain the finest wheat. Each pasta is hand-rolled and ready to be used in a pesto sauce.


Umbria


Umbria is well-known for its truffles (of the mushroom variety, not chocolate), a real love-them-or-hate-them ingredient. Fontecese photo via Flickr

The landlocked region was once overlooked by its more well-known neighbors Lazio, Tuscany. But that is no longer the case. The area is known for its lush green hills and tiny fortified villages. And of course, the delicious food! Strangozzi alla Spitina is a popular Umbrian long pasta. You can serve them with oil and garlic, or with black truffle sauce. Umbria’s hills are home to rare truffles. You can try black truffle omelet, frittata al tartufo or the black truffle frittata al tartufo if you love truffles. Or, go for porchetta, roast pork. This rich dish is made with almost any cut of pork or whole. You can’t leave Umbria and not indulge in Umbrian chocolate. Perugina, Italy’s most famous chocolate company, hails from Perugia. There’s even an annual chocolate festival that celebrates everyone’s favorite sweet!


Campania (including Naples)


Are you looking for the best pizza in Italy, then look no further! For the perfect thin-crust Neopolitan pizza, head to Naples. Photo by itpassionates @Flickr

Naples, Campania is home to a famous food history. There’s more to the region than you might think. Each region in Italy has its own version, but Campania’s is the best. Polpette, or polettone, is a type of meatball that can be mixed with other ingredients to create different flavors. Meatballs made with beef, prosciutto and cheese from Campania are made with the highest quality ingredients. It also contains prociutto, pepper, cheese, and, strangely enough pine nuts and raisins which give it an Eastern Mediterranean or Arabic flavour. Make sure to end your meal with a Neapolitan cup of coffee. In Naples, coffee was a common daily habit by the late 1700s. They even had a Neapolitan-style coffee pot. You can be sure to get strong, dark espresso in Campania!


Basilicata


Basilicata’s must-try dish is ‘Baccala con itperoni cruschi’, or salted cod with red bell peppers. Photo by Rocco Lucia @Flickr.

Basilicata is located between Campania and Calabria and has approximately 20 miles of coastline. There are six marine fractions that offer a delicious zuppa alla marita, which is a soup made up of fish representing the rocky coastline. You can also try the baccala with i peperoni cruschi, or salted cod with dried peppers. Basilicata’s recipe for Baccala is unique to each region. The region boasts many red bell pepper fields and balconies that are covered with the red vegetable.


Sicilia (Sicily)


Sicilians love to teasingly talk about their love for ‘pasta con la sarde’ (sardine pasta). You wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t? It’s delicious! Photo by stijn @Flickr.

Sicily is home to a wealth of culture and history. Some of these are completely unknown to the Italian peninsula. Sicily offers a variety of new dishes, including a mixture of seafood and inland. Arancine di Riso is a delicious appetizer that celebrates the Arab countries’ rice-growing traditions. These balls of rice are often mixed with goat cheese and egg, met, and olive oil. The caponata is a simple combination of grilled vegetables and eggplant, with capers, olive oil, balsamic vinaigr and salt. You can also try the pasta con le Sarde, or sardine pasta. This dish is so beloved that Italian comedians use it in skits about Sicilians. This dish is not as easy to compare with traditional pasta dishes, due to the addition of sardines and fennel, raisins and pine nuts, and sometimes saffron. You should finish the meal with a large glass of Italian ice or sorbetto. Italian ice can be found all over Italy, but it was the land of lemons that created it. Legend has it that they made it using the Etna snow!

Although there may not be Italian food, you will find plenty of Italian food that will make your mouth water. Which region will suit your tastebuds the best?

For more information about Italy’s regional cuisines sign up for our Rome Food Tour and Rome Pasta-Making Class.

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