The most difficult thing about eating in Italy is that you can’t try everything. . Traditional Italian food is arguably the most popular and well known cuisine in Europe and indeed the entire world. Typical Italian ingredients, methods and dishes influence other palettes across the globe, and even spawn sub-cultures such as American-Italian food.
Generally Italian dishes are characterised by their simplicity, focusing heavily on fresh, quality, seasonal ingredients. Of course, Italian cuisine is mostly known worldwide for being the home of pizza, pasta and ragu. Authenticity lies at the heart of traditional Italian cooking with a significance placed on preserving original recipes that have been passed down generations.
Furthermore, Italian dishes are often defined by regionality with certain foods being traceable back to a very specific region of Italy and sometimes even being named after that part, bolognese from Bologna for example.
The diversity by region, especially between the north and the south, is what makes Italian food so incredibly rich and varied, with so much to uncover.
Italian delicacies and specialities are also defined by family traditions and regional styles, so each Italian food experience you have can differ from one place to the next.
Whenever I travel to Italy I am constantly amazed by the difference it makes to eat the most authentic versions of dishes straight from the source. If you only indulge in one thing on your Italian travels, make sure it is the food!
15 of the best Italian dishes that you absolutely must try
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.
2. Baked lasagna
At 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.
3. Spaghetti carbonara
Rome becomes the capital of spaghetti and “Carbonara” has great merit in this, becoming over the years one of the most famous dishes of our country.
It was born casually with bacon, powdered egg yolk, milk cream and cheese, all foods with which the allies who liberated Italy were equipped, and for the imagination of a young cook from Bologna who assembles them as a pasta dressing in preparing a lunch for American Officers.
The recipe has changed a little over the years and today includes guanciale (introduced in the sixties) instead of bacon, egg yolk, cheese. With the passage of fashion the cream disappeared in favor of the taste of the preparation
In a gastronomic tour of a Rome capital of pasta, the carbonara is accompanied by the mythical “amatriciana”, originally from Amatrice on the border with Abruzzo (bacon, pecorino cheese and tomato) or its ancestor the “gricia” (same ingredients but without tomato) or the “cacio e pepe” fusion of pecorino cheese, black pepper and pasta cooking water.
Spaghetti are not always the protagonists of these delicious dishes: amatriciana is almost always proposed with “bucatini” and cacio e pepe with “tonnarelli”.
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.
5. Ravioli, Tortellini and Agnolotti
The family of stuffed pasta in Italy is really varied. From the north to Sicily there is no region that does not have one or more recipes of stuffed pasta in its traditional cuisine. inside the pasta wrapping we find the most varied fillings but above all they stand out:
- “I Tortellini” have long been disputed between Modena and Bologna. they have a pork filling with raw ham and mortadella and are strictly consumed in meat broth;
- “Agnolotti del Plin”, from the Piedmont tradition, are stuffed with mixed meats and vegetables and are served seasoned with roast sauce, with butter and sage or even on their own on a napkin to fully savor the taste.
- “The Ravioli” of the Ligurian tradition: the filling is made up of meat cooked in tomato sauce, chard and borage. A curiosity: Liguria is the only Italian region where already at the end of the nineteenth century they can be found in the traditional recipe books for ravioli with fish filling.
6. 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.
Rice, one of the symbols of the best Italian food in the north, made its appearance in Italy instead in the deep south, brought by the Arabs it appeared in Sicily around the 13th century.
As the focaccia lends itself to be interpreted, risotto is a flexible ingredient in the hands of housewives, cooks for fun and great chefs.
But if we think of a risotto then the first reaction makes us immediately think of the “Milanese risotto”: yellow of its Saffron from L’Aquila, refined with the best butter, left to the wave after creaming.
But rice does not remain the prerogative of the Milanese alone:
- In Veneto we have the splendid rice with Risi and Bisi peas;
- In Venice, in the famous inn in Torcello, an invention by Arrigo Cipriani: the Risotto Primavera with the vegetables from the lagoon;
- The Roman Supplì: soft croquettes with minced meat, tomato and parmesan;
- The Baroque Neapolitan Sartù, royal timbale with a thousand ingredients;
- In Puglia the Tiella of rice, mussels and potatoes
- Panissa or Paniscia from high Piedmont enriched with many parts of the pig;
- And in southern Italy the mythical Sicilian Arancini originally the history.
Out of the chorus is the Risotto di Mare or “alla pescatora” which can be easily found in Liguria, interpreted in authentic masterpieces of taste.
But watch out for where you eat it!
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.
9. The Minestrone
Even with a thousand different versions, vegetable minestrone is a dish that unites the country from the far north to the deepest south; dish symbol of Italian dinner until the seventies, has suffered the oblivion of many other dishes of the regional home tradition.
Today, however, he raises his head, and the variety of soups that our country can offer tickles the papillae of foreign visitors, especially those, increasingly numerous, coming from Eastern European countries and from the north who have rooted the habit to include soup in their meals.
The base is a mixture of vegetables and the word “minestrone” has become synonymous, of great mix, of enormous confusion and in fact our minestrone is basically a very anarchic recipe, certainly codified but with wide margins of personal interpretations and regional differentiations:
- In Lombardy instead of pasta we find rice;
- In Veneto beans are the main ingredient;
- In Liguria we always find beans and green beans, together with basil and often the final touch of pesto;
- In Rome we find artichokes;
- wild herbs and legumes characterize the Abruzzo and Molise soups;
- In Naples the addition of tomatoes is inevitable;
- In Puglia turnip greens appear and pecorino is not missing.
The “poverty” of the minestrone is sometimes ennobled by additions of a protein element that may be present in the sauté such as lard or pancetta, in many areas the crusts of the Parmesan were added before burned and cleaned, rarely a few pieces of meat or perhaps a bone with some meat …
The Florentine evokes in the collective memory a large beef steak. Few outside Florence know exactly what it is and what to expect after ordering it.
Most of the time a piece of meat, even abundant, scorched, of irregular thickness and difficult to cut, reaches the table.
The traveler should know that there are two Florentine cuts and are known as steak in the fillet and steak in the rib; generally outside of Florence, when the good is good only the first is known.
The real Florentine is obtained from specimens of Chianina breed. The meat should be matured for about twenty days and when cut it looks like a classic Tbone steak.
The weight must vary between 750 gr and 1250 gr with a minimum thickness of three fingers. Before cooking, the piece of meat must be brought to room temperature.
The flame must bring to a very high cooking temperature and the times must not exceed 4-5 minutes on each side. No addition of cooking flavors. Only some coarse salt at the end.
It goes without saying that the Florentine steak only has one “blood” cooking and the inside must be slightly warm. Those who do not like cooking with blood are better than asking for another dish.
11. Fritto Misto
“Mixed fried seafood” has become in the last 50 years one of the iconic dishes of Italian food even if snubbed by the most refined kitchens, without real roots in traditional cuisine and without a codified recipe.
It is true that there are “Fritti Misti” in some regional kitchens such as in Piedmont where the most disparate and apparent contrast ingredients are fry in clarified butter such as sausage and apples or semolina and liver. Or in Rome where the traditional fried food is based on vegetables and cod.
But in none of these traditional kitchens are there recipes of mixed fried seafood. yet, from the sixties, starting from the French border and arriving at the Slovenian one, after having made the rounds of all Italian coasts including islands, you will not find a seaside resort where this specialty is not offered.
Fried is convivial, it makes you happy, it is eaten in company and more easily with your fingers.
What do you need for a good mixed fried food?
The variety is often given by what the sea offers: squid, anchovies, small sardines, sole, red mullet, prawns … but if those who offer it do it seriously you will always have a very appetizing course on the plate.
In more recent years, the habit of introducing seasonal vegetables into the composition of fried foods has taken over: it diversifies and perhaps slightly lightens (consciousness? ).
A curiosity: the best mixed fried fish in Italy is eaten in one of the most luxurious places on the peninsula and very far from the sea: from Vittorio, a three Michelin star near Bergamo, not exactly overlooking the sea …
12. White Truffle
The white truffle, a mushroom that arises and matures underground has become one of the status symbols of rich and elegant gastronomy.
You travel from the four corners of the world to arrive in the Mecca of white truffles: the Langa.
And the Langa has rightly made it one of its symbols in symbiosis with some of the largest and most famous wines in the world, above all Barolo.
Known since ancient times, but less so in France and, for this reason, it does not appear in the great nineteenth-century and classic recipes of the first half of the twentieth century.
It is not yet cultivable despite thousands of attempts, and related scams, and from here arises the justified myth of its rarity.
However, its price is far from affordable and depends on the vintage, quality and size from € 3000 to € 6000 per kg.
Although even with truffles, unlikely combinations are likely, almost all consumers remain on the classic: the scratch with is the best on a beef “battuta”, on the traditional Piedmontese “tajarin”, on the “Aosta Valley fondue” and on a few other classics .
Autumn, from late September to early December, is the great truffle season.
Alba, the heart of the Langa, where the “Truffle Fair” is held every year, is the center of the world for this highly prized mushroom, around which a high-level tourism has developed which has given rise to some of the best structures in our country. .
13. Anchovy (or Alice)
The most famous of the so-called blue fish is one of the flags of the poor Italian cuisine of regional tradition, we find it almost every season of the year and in Italy, as well as throughout the Mediterranean, it is fished along all the coasts.
Unlike other blue fish, often looked at with suspicion because of too many bones or the meats that tend to dry up during cooking, anchovy triumphs on the tables of every seaside restaurant and is appreciated by all types of customers, which makes it also a product of great commercial interest.
On the Italian coasts, especially in Liguria and Campania, the tradition of salting anchovies is alive, to be added to a thousand preparations or to be the basis.
The desalted anchovy is then also preserved and marketed in oil.
The triumph of this fish is still on the table and in front of a plate of fried anchovies there is no local consumer or tourist who can resist.
If we have to take a region at random and identify it with anchovy, without denying Liguria: it is the one in which the home cooks have managed to decline it in the most imaginative and diverse recipes.
Meanwhile raw, when Italy was far from the trend of fish served raw, anchovies in the western Liguria were served freshly marinated in lemon juice, drained and served with good Evo oil.
Then we find them stuffed, with green vegetables or potatoes. Or still open in breaded and fried cutlets. Or even in tartlet.
14. Stoccafisso e Baccalà
A non-Mediterranean fish, has become, for historical reasons, the basis of an infinity of Italian regional dishes and one of the most consumed fish products until a few years ago.
At the base the northern cod in its most noble variety (gadus morhua), one of the most commercially important fish worldwide, which in our country finds the most important market.
There are two versions: the “Stoccafisso”, the fish first salted and then dried in the air of the Norwegian fjords. And the “Baccalà”, salted in layers in barrels are also widespread in Italy. Diffused in the North the first, Diffused in the South the second.
Venice and Genoa, the two major Italian ports of the time, became the capitals of cod and it was precisely around these ports that the culinary tradition developed especially linked to stockfish and so that in Genoa we find:
- l’insalata di stoccafisso e favette (i bacilli);
- stewed stockfish with black olives, peppers, potatoes;
- stockfish “friscioei” pancakes;
- the particular “brandacujun” typical of the far western Liguria and which has similarities with the Provencal “brandade”.
In Venice, a little confusion is created with the fact of calling the “stockfish” “cod”, having overcome this rock we find above all:
The “Baccalà mantecato alla Veneziana”;
While the most famous cod dish in the Veneto region remains based on stockfish:
The “Baccalà alla Vicentina”.
Never has a dessert conquered the whole world with the speed of the very Italian Tiramisu.
The ingredients that are the basis of Tiramisù certainly suggest some restorative function as well as delicious: “ladyfingers” soaked in coffee, egg and mascarpone cream, cocoa and so far the classic base then enriched by an alcoholic touch, marsala and with a little bit of diluted rum.
This dessert is one of the few truly widespread throughout the Italian territory.
At the beginning of the eighties the popularity of Tiramisu infected the whole world and already in the eighties it became the cult dessert in the restaurants of the Big Apple. New York becomes for our dessert, like for a thousand other fashions, the launching pad towards world fame.
In Italy we find Tiramisu a bit in all restaurant segments, it is loved by young and old and everyone has their own recipe.
Even the great chefs and the best pastry chefs have dealt with Tiramisu creating curious and interesting interpretations, but basically even in the most humble pizzeria you can find a more than good version
If you think yours is the best you can always go to the Tiramisù World Cup which has been held in Treviso for a few years.
Here we are at the end of this journey through the most iconic foods of Italian cuisine.
Thanks to this list you will know perfectly which dishes to taste first immediately after your arrival in Italy. Ofcourse you can avoid strictly following this list as long as you choose non-touristy restaurants. To do this, my advice is always to ask the locals.
Once you have found the restaurant with real traditional Italian cuisine, you can also trust and be guided by the owner of the restaurant if he offers you some local specialties or some dishes made with seasonal ingredients.