It is difficult to try everything when eating in Italy. You only have one meal per day and you have limited space in your stomach. But there are so many Italian dishes you must try. You would need to try everything from regional delicacies to the most delicious seasonal delights. And that’s just desserts and drinks. We have compiled a list of Italian food favorites that you can try while on vacation. It’s not a complete list, and it’s definitely not the best. We’ve also avoided the topic cured meats and other cheeses, as they are amazing. But these are the dishes we believe everyone should try when visiting Italy. These dishes are a summary of the many cooking traditions found throughout the country. We’d love to hear about your favorite dish and we’re certain there are many.
Although a flatbread served with oil and spices existed long before the unification of Italy, the humble Pizza is perhaps the most common dish. Pizza has been a popular snack or meal for many years. It is cheap and easy to make, and it’s also filling. The bustling city was visited by Queen Margherita of Italy, who stopped in the city to sample the delicious dish she had seen so many of her subjects eat. Margherita pizza was created by a local entrepreneur who served it to her with the legendary combination of tomato sauce and mozzarella. The Margherita displays the colors of Italy’s flag, whether by accident or design.
There are two types of pizza in Italy today: Neopolitan-style or Roman-style pizza. However, many places offer a happy middle ground between them. Neapolitan pizza is thicker and more fluffy. Because the dough isn’t as long and has less filling, it tends to be smaller in diameter. Roman-style pizza has a thin crust and the slightest crunch (but not too soggy). It is larger in diameter, but lighter and has less gluten.
The city is considered the birthplace for modern pizza because of its association with Queen Margherita. However, this point is still debated across Italy. No matter what the case, ordering pizza in Italy means that you should choose pizza with fewer toppings. Be wary of pizzerias that pile toppings on their pizzas. This can be a way to hide poor ingredients. Because each topping must be exceptional, fewer toppings can indicate confidence in the product. Whatever pizza you prefer, the rule of thumb is to eat Roman-style pizza when in Rome. Naturally, you should follow the Neapolitans’ lead when in Naples.
Smoked eggs from a rat in the ocean Wait, what? This rough description of an Italian delicacy is not enough to put you off. The other way to describe bottarga would be “Sicilian Caviar”. The August and September months are when southern Italians harvest the roe from grey mulets and salt it. After pressing it, they let it dry in the sun for six months. It is a solid chunk of eggs with the colors of blood oranges and amber that when sliced or gratted over pasta turns into a deliciously smoky, briny bouquet. Although it was originally a poor man’s solution to conserving seafood in the days before refrigeration this food is now one of the most desired and expensive foodstuffs in Italy. It can be grated over pasta or sliced thinly with olive oil and lemon juice.
Lasagna is a flat, wide pasta noodle that’s baked in layers in the oven. Its origins are controversial like many Italian dishes. However, we can say that it is rooted in Emilia-Romagna where it became a rich, hearty meal with the ragu (or meat sauce).
Traditional lasagna didn’t contain tomatoes, as those were brought over from New World in 16 century. Instead, it was made with ragu, bechamel sauce and cheese (usually mozzarella or Parmigiano Reggiano, or a mixture of both). Traditional ragu uses only a little tomato sauce or tomato sauce, unlike many Italian-American dishes that are essentially covered in tomato sauce. While this concentrates the flavor, it can sometimes be a bit jarring for American taste buds.
Although lasagna can be found in all parts of Italy, it’s best to try Emilia Romagna’s hearty dish with homemade noodles, fresh pasta, and some regional pride.
4. Fiorentina Steak
Bistecca fiorentina (or Florentine Tbone Steak) covers all the best characteristics of Italy’s finest dishes. It is a cut of meat from a particular cow, prepared in a very precise way, and all within the specified region.
The enormous bistecca fiorentina is a thick T-bone steak, cut from the loin of a Chianina Tuscany cow. It should be cooked for between 5 and 7 minutes depending on its thickness until the outside is cooked, while the inside remains extremely rare. It’s not a good idea to ask for medium-well done steaks here. The meat is too thick!
There are variations to the Florentine steak, despite all the dogma. One, the meat doesn’t always come from a Chianina cattle these days. While Florentines may be open to the introduction of new breeds, others believe that the Chianina’s enormous size and muscle makes for the best t bones. Ask if you have any questions. Florentines prefer the thicker cuts near the rib cage. This contains the fillet known by bistecca costola. Beyond Florence, Tuscany, you will likely receive a bistecca nul filetto. A lower cut tends to be more smooth and melt-in-your mouth. However, it doesn’t always mean it’s better. According to the Florentines, bistecca nella priceola is made from a more commonly used muscle. This makes it more flavorful.
This dish can be enjoyed in Tuscany, in Florence, or in the country. This dish is meant to be shared. Remember that bistecca alla fiorentina prices are determined by weight. For two people, you will typically pay 1-2 kg (or almost 2-4 pounds) for your order.
We would be remiss to not mention the hearty Tuscany soup. Campbells has a (not great) version. This vegetable soup has its roots in the traditional peasant cooking style of the region. It is thickened with bread rather than meat because it was cheaper and easier to find in the poor Italian countryside for hundreds of years. The dish is a special treat in Tuscany’s autumn when the harvest vegetables are at their peak and the soup is bursting with flavor despite not having any meat. This hearty stew is often served as a first course in a Florence trattoria.
While pasta is often associated with Italy, the truth of the matter is that pasta was not the main starch consumed in the northern regions of the country until very recently. Corn mush is almost identical to the grits you can find in the south. Variations are due to how the kernels are ground. It was made originally from any starches available, such as buckwheat and acorns. Corn became the main ingredient in polenta after its introduction to Europe in 16th century. Although it doesn’t have the same variety of textures and shapes as pasta, polenta can be paired with a wide range meats and stews. It is also a great comfort food when temperatures drop in cities such as Milan, Turin and Venice. It can be found as a mush or packed into fritters and fried. It should be included in every dish.
Ossobuco alla milanese, a world-famous veal shank made from bone, is slow-cooked until it becomes tender. It is cooked in a broth with meat stock, white wine and vegetables. It is traditionally served with a gremolata (lemon juice, garlic and parsley), but this can be substituted. The Milanese love to claim this meaty delight, but there are many variations. Lombardy is well-known for its hearty, rustic dishes that can coat the ribs and keep them from getting chilled. Ossobuco, which literally means ‘hollow bones’, is not a very common dish to find on restaurant menus. It takes about three hours to cook. You should grab the chance to try it at a restaurant, home, or even in your own kitchen. It is usually served with polenta, or another item from our menu.
The holy trinity is made up of rice and pasta, which are often paired with the rich, creamy risotto. Ironically, the biggest European rice producers are Italians. They don’t eat a lot of rice, despite all the pasta and polenta. Although southern Italy is known as the country’s bread basket and Piedmont and Lombardy are its rice bowl, Northern Italy (especially Piedmont) is more commonly called the country’s rice bowl. The Carneroli and Arborio varieties, which are grown in vast rice paddies in these regions, are transformed into a semi-soup by adding stock to the mixture and stirring until it forms. This perfectly reflects the flavor of any dish made with it. Most famous risotto recipe is the saffron-infused one alla milanese. This was created by workers who built the Milan Cathedral. They used saffron to color stained glass windows, and decided to add it to their rice. The dish is also available in risotto alla nero di sepia (with cuttlefish, ink and pancetta) and risi-e bisi (with peas and pancetta). Both of these dishes hail from Venice.
It’s possible to travel to Italy without eating anything other than pasta. We’ve been there. Carbonara is our choice for the best bucket list pasta. We know it is controversial, so please leave your favorite desert island pasta recipe in the comments. It is simple, but it can be difficult to master. This dish requires pasta, eggs, pecorino, cured Guanciale, black pepper, and spaghetti. There are many imitations, such as those who thicken their sauces with cream and use bacon instead of the guanciale. But you should not accept substitutes for this dish. The difference in taste is immense. Although this is a Roman specialty, there are many restaurants that do it wrong. A recommendation from a local is the best way to make sure you get an excellent version. It is not enough to find a good restaurant. You want a place that serves great carbonara.
Ah, truffles. This elusive, pungent fungus is one the most sought-after foods in the world. It is only found in Italy. This tuber can only be found in nature. It is hunted underground by dogs and pigs that are trained to detect it.
There are two types of truffles from Italy: the more rare, more aromatic white truffle and the less common, but equally aromatic black truffle. Although the aroma is extraordinary, it may not be for everyone. Some people compare the taste to gasoline. Their popularity is high and Italian tartufi remain one of the most loved fall foods in Italy.
You might want to take them with you on your next vacation. Start with where you are located. You will find truffles naturally in Umbria, Tuscany, and Piedmont. However, this is only true if you visit in autumn. The truffles you will get at any other time in the year will either be frozen or imported and won’t taste as good. You can visit a sagra festival if you are able to make it into truffle country in the fall, such as the International White Truffle Festival of Alba (Piedmont) held every October or November.
We recommend starting with fresh pasta coated in thin truffle shavings if you’re new to truffles. But there are many other options! Truffles can be used to sprinkle over pasta, risotto and omelets or in sauces for meats such as steaks or other dishes.
11. Focaccia (and all other bread)
There are many types of bread in Italy. The best is the one that has been made locally. You shouldn’t leave Italy without sampling at least one of the many breads that Italy’s rich baking culture has created over the years.
You might notice that Tuscan bread has a distinct taste. It’s not salty, and that’s why it tastes so different. This tradition is a result of feuds that developed between Tuscany’s coastal regions and those who controlled salt trade. They had no problem cutting off an agricultural region’s supply of this once-valuable commodity. Tuscan bread can still be enjoyed with olive oil, herbs and salt.
The world-famous focaccia flat bread is made in Liguria. Classic focaccia, which is reminiscent of thick pizza dough, is salty and drizzled with olive oils. It’s also delicious as a sandwich or by itself. You can add toppings such as cheese, olives, zucchini and rosemary to the open-faced focaccia.
Sardinia is off the coast of Italy. The classic bread looks more like a pita than bread. Pane carasau was named after the Italian word carasare which means toast. This bread is paper thin and was toasted right after baking. It gives it that wonderful crunch!
While we cannot tell you what type of bread you will enjoy, we can tell that you shouldn’t turn down an opportunity to try a different style. You can find Italian bakeries everywhere, from the largest cities to the smallest. So stop by whenever you get the chance and grab a few loaves.
12. Arancini & Suppli
Our Sicilian friends are going to be scolding us for mixing their beloved Arancino and its Roman cousins, the suppli, but it is a fact that you must try at least one type freshly-fried rice ball when you’re in Italy. You will find these starch bombs in restaurants and bars all over Italy. However, it is a good idea to be able to tell the difference if you plan to order one. The Sicilian arancino can be larger and more circularly or conical in shape. The name actually means “small orange.” It’s usually filled with ragu, some kind of cheese, and optional vegetables like peas, mushrooms or eggplant. Specialty arancini such as carbonara are also available, but purists often shun these innovative creations. The Roman specialty of the SUPPL is found in pizzerias as well as as antipasti. They are oval in shape and contain rice, tomato sauce and a large chunk of mozzarella in their middle. The nickname “telephones” comes from the fact that they are cut in half and a thin chord made of molten cheese connects the ends. Fried rice balls are a common sight in America and Italy. However, they are usually prepared ahead of time and heated under heat lamps. You want one that is exceptional. Make sure you get it fried right before you order.
There is nothing better for coffee drinkers than a cup of coffee from Italy.
Keep in mind that Italian coffee is not the same as coffee at your local Starbucks. Although some of the options might seem similar (latte…anything that ends in -puccino), they are not all the same. They are not always what you think they are. You would get a glass of milk if you ordered a “latte” in Italy.
To learn more about how to enjoy coffee in Italy, read our complete guide. Although coffee is widely available in Italy, there are many regional differences. For example, in Trieste you can get a caffe trytino which is an espresso with whipped cream. In Naples, however, coffee is strong, creamy, and fast. To show off your culinary skills, avoid drinking water after you have had your shot (and that is a big shot). A caffe corretto is an espresso with a shot liquor after a meal. It is an Italian way to settle your stomach.
Trieste is the most coffee-crazy city in Italy. We believe it has the best coffee and cafe culture of all. The city’s tax-free status has been a long tradition. It was the port that brought the first coffee beans to Trieste during Europe’s first coffee craze of the middle ages. Illy, the Italian coffee king, has its headquarters here today. The city also imports many other brands.
Gelato is a must-have on any trip to Italy! Don’t be afraid if you feel the urge to indulge in a few scoops of gelato every day, especially during summer.
Gelato is ice cream. Gelato is legal because it has less butterfat than icecream. It’s about 4-8 percent, compared to the 14 percent in the United States. Gelato melts faster and is warmer because of the low fat content.
Gelato is also much denser than regular ice cream. To increase its volume and weight, regular ice cream contains air and water. These additions make it less flavorful. This is illegal in Italy. Gelato, at least traditional artisan gelato, remains super sweet and flavorful. Good gelato cannot be stored for too long.
How can you tell if it is good quality? There are some things you should look for when looking for fresh, artisanal gelato. Check the color before you buy. Is it natural? Check the color, whether the fruit flavors are in season (they should), and if an ingredient list is displayed. It is also important to check how the product has been stored. Artisanal gelato can be slow-churned, but it is now stored in sealed, circular containers. The wavy-topped, stacked gelato trays might be pretty but have been whipped to add more air.
Tiramisu is the most popular after-dinner dessert in Italy and should be your first stop if you are looking to expand beyond gelato. This parfait is no-bake and features layers of soft, sweetened mascarpone with coffee-soaked ladyfingers. Tiramisu, despite its elemental taste (coffee cream cheese, cookies, old cookies), is the youngest of the dishes on the list. Most estimates place its creation in the 1960s. Although it is easy to make, not all tiramisu recipes are created equally. Only the best coffee and mascarpone are used to make a good tiramisu. To give the mascarpone a lighter texture, cream and egg whites can sometimes be added. You can also substitute traditional lady fingers with a variety cookies or cakes. If you don’t speak Italian well, it will be difficult to ask about these items in a restaurant. So the best option is to order one and then see if you like it.
Digestivo or “digestive”, is not a single drink. It refers to a group of drinks that are sipped after a large meal. They aim to settle the stomach and make you feel fuller. They were popular in Europe’s Middle Ages when people believed in the healing properties of alcohol with sugar and herbs. While doctors still have not proven the benefits of medium- to strong liquors following a meal however, it is a fact that you can’t say you had an authentic Italian meal if you don’t add a shot of the bitter stuff. Some of the most popular digestives are limoncello and grappa, cynar and amaretto. If you feel brave, sambuca, which contains enough alcohol to make a horse happy, is also available. You will find many delicious post-dinner tipples that are made from Italian fruits and herbs if you venture off the beaten path. They are worth a try, so don’t be afraid to have a glass.