There’s no greater expression of a culture than the food people eat. Food defines a culture. It reflects the people, economy, history, climate... even its politics. And it's a huge part of the local travel experience. From haute cuisine to street vendors, local food is the first thing we look for in our travels. And since Italy is in our blood, we especially love eating the foods of Italy and finding the famous Italian dishes each region is known for. Because when it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as traditional Italian food, but there are distinct regional variations. Tell us you had Italian food in, say, Campania or Bologna, and we’ll know just what you’re talking about, Paesan!
Italy's Food Culture
Eating local food when you travel - or at least trying it - helps you experience the local culture and all it has to offer. Going one step further and eating local food with the local people can become an even richer experience. It's the essence of slow travel. In Italy, as in many cultures, the simple act of cooking and eating is enhanced when it’s shared with others, becoming a food experience that’s more about sharing ones family, traditions, and regional pride. Don't believe me? Have you seen Big Night? :-) I know it sounds lofty, but it’s not really. And that's the beauty of it. In Italy, food is life. Food is love. It's inextricably tied to the culture, nationally and even more so regionally. Every region takes great pride in their local specialties and delicacies, and they will insist that theirs is the best in the country.
Here’s an example: we traveled from Bologna to Florence by train (108 km/67 miles) in just over half an hour. That night in a small restaurant in Florence, we asked if they served a dish we’d enjoyed in Bologna. Our waiter’s body language changed and he asked, “Why would you want that? We don’t make that in Florence, that’s what they eat up in Bologna.” Okay, enough said, we’ll order something Florentine from the menu. It's like futbol. Italians take that, and their food, very seriously! :-)
Regional Italian Cuisine: If it's Pici, I must be in Tuscany!
It’s always fun to taste the most popular food in Italy and find the best examples of regional specialties. The food flavors of a region tell you so much about its history - like who conquered the area before you arrived and what ingredients and influences they brought with them. Another distinctive regional food feature is the pasta. If you want to know where you are in Italy, look at the pasta shape. If you're eating Pici, you're likely in Tuscany. Orecchiette (pasta ears)? Probably in Puglia down south in the heel of the boot. And other factors like seasonal local produce, livestock and local game, and proximity to the sea among others lend to regional variations. Here are just a few food questions you may find yourself wondering:
- Why are the sauces heavier in northern Italy? Take a look at the Germanic food influences and climate in the north. Sauces become more tomato-based the farther south you go.
- Why do many Italians eat horse meat? Economics (inexpensive) and history. Iron-rich horse meat was widely consumed in the late 1800s until more recent times to help combat anemia.
- There's so much seafood, why can't I just get a burger? If you're saying this, you're probably in southern Italy where fresh frutti de mare (food from the sea) is plentiful and good for you too. Food changes as you travel the regions of Italy. What you thought was typically Italian in Venice may not resemble what you'll find in Sicily.
We've savored some of the most popular Italian dishes and had a peek at what Italians are eating in their corner of the country. If you love food and traveling, this Italy food guide includes 25 of the regional foods of Italy you should try when you visit. You won't find sweets or espresso here (though we're always searching for the best gelato!) because they're practically a given in the Italian diet. We hope you try these regional foods at least once, and find la buona forchetta (the good fork) on your perfect culinary tour of bella Italia!
What to Eat in Italy, and Where
Like any good food tour of Italy, it's only right to start with pizza, right? Naples, Italy has many excellent dishes but they're known amongst Italians to have the best pizza in the country! Neapolitan style pizza, or pizza Napoletana, is like no other pizza on the planet. Traditional pizza Margherita, a luscious flatbread-like crust from a blazing hot brick oven is simply topped with tomato sauce, whole basil leaves and mozzarella di bufala. Pizza in Naples really is the gold-standard of pizza!
Where to Eat it? Campania (Naples)
2. Lasagne al Forno
Lasagna is singular, and al forno just means oven baked. A broad flat pasta alternately layered with different fillings depending on the region. In Campania, noodles made from semolina and water are layed with sausage, ricotta, mozzarella and Neapolitan style ragù sauce. We had our favorite version on our first trip to Bologna. In Emilia-Romagna, the flat pasta is traditionally made from flour, eggs, and spinach (Bolognese-style), and layered with ragù and creamy Bechamel sauce. It’s rich and oh so yummy.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna (Bologna)
A cornmeal porridge that originated in northern Italy but can now be found throughout the different regions. Usually it’s topped with a ragù style sauce and some grated cheese but it can also be had as a side. It’s not unusual to find it topped with sauteed peppers and onions with sausage or just gorganzola cheese. It’s sometimes left to cool then sliced and fried.
Where to Eat it? Trentino
A small ring-shaped pasta from Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region stuffed with either cheese or a meat mixture, they are served in chicken or sometimes beef broth. Their bigger sibling Tortelloni are shaped the same and stuffed with ricotta and spinach. Tortellacci, the largest, is filled with cheese or a prosciutto meat mix. We had some filled with wild boar and they were incredible.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna
The Tuscans know how to keep warm - they're famous for their rustic, peasant soups. This traditional thick soup is made with seasonal veggies, cannellini beans and leftover crusty bread. Served as a midday meal or for dinner, you’ll be tempted to eat it with a fork.
Where to Eat it? Tuscany
6. Osso Buco
A specialty of the Lombardy region, the “bone with a hole” dish is traditionally made alla Milanese with cross-cut veal shanks, gremolata (a chopped herb mixture), vegetables, white wine and broth. It’s a stick-to-your-ribs dish that is usually served with risotto or polenta. Pair it with a full-bodied red like Chianti or Nobile di Montepulciano.
Where to Eat it? Lombardy (Milan)
This salted and cured fish roe is not for the faint of heart. Commonly made from tuna, grey mullet and sometimes swordfish, it is thinly sliced over a dish much the same as truffles are grated as a condiment. Most often it was found in Sicily and Sardinia but has made its way into southern Italian cuisine along with parts of Tuscany. It has an intense flavor, especially the tuna version, and some say a slight bitter aftertaste.
Where to Eat it? Sicily
8. Squash Blossoms
We've enjoyed squash blossoms throughout Italy. The bright orange flowers are dipped in a light batter and gently fried. Sometimes they’re stuffed with whatever the local cuisine and season may dictate. Our favorite version was in Sorrento where the flowers were stuffed with a flavorful herbed cheese. No matter how they're prepared, they're always delicious.
Where to Eat it? Campania (Sorrento)
A creamy rice dish made with arborio rice and chicken or beef broth that originated in northern Italy but can now be found throughout Italy. The short grain rice is slowly stirred with the broth over low heat until thick and creamy. Parmigiano reggiano cheese is sometimes added, or saffron, maybe mushrooms or fresh herbs. It all depends on what the dish is accompanying. It's yummy and should be enjoyed hot.
Where to Eat it? Risotto al Frutti di Mare (with Seafood) in Basilicata and Calabria, Risi e Bisi (Risotto with Peas) in Venice and the Veneto.
10. Balsamic di Modena
We could write a book on balsamic, we love it that much. True balsamic is produced in Emilia Romagna by long-established local families and its production and final product is heavily governed by a strict set of regulations known as DOP (“Protected Designation of Origin”). Not fermented like a “traditional” vinegar, true Balsamic di Modena is made from cooked grape juice that over time slowly concentrates in a system of wooden barrels. From the 3 year old IGP, to a minimum of 12 years to become DOP, to the very finest aged for 25 years, there is nothing else like it. At approximately €1.000,00 per liter ($1232.00 USD), it is one of the most expensive food items in the world. If you think balsamic is just a vinegar or even a condiment, try the real deal on anything from cheese to gelato, and taste for yourself why this transformative syrup is one of the true Italian delicacies.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna (Modena)
Originating in Rome (think Spaghetti alla Carbonara), this hearty dish is made with egg, pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano cheese, pancetta, or for an even richer version, guanciali (pork cheeks). Sometimes olive oil is used along with garlic and flat leaf parsley, but no matter the recipe, it’s usually prepared with lots of black pepper.
Where to Eat it? Lazio (Rome)
12. Ragù a la Bolognese
We were asked once in Bologna, “You’re not vegetarians are you? Because this is no place for that.” Ragù alla Bolognese is one of the quintessential foods you have to eat in Bologna. Made with varying amounts of beef, pork, veal and often pancetta, the meat is browned with garlic and olive oil then simmered with a small amount of tomato paste, white wine, and milk. In Bologna, tagliatelle is the traditional pasta for the dish. Enjoy with a nice acidy Italian red like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a frizzante Barbera from Orsi - Vigneto San Vito, and you’re in heaven.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna (Bologna)
13. Bistecca Fiorentina
A hallmark of Tuscan cuisine, this Florentine-style steak is as simple and delicious as it gets. A 2 inch thick t-bone or porterhouse steak from Chianina cattle, a Tuscan breed prized for its meat, is grilled over blazing hot coals. The meat is brushed with olive oil as it's roasting using a brush made from rosemary and is seasoned with only salt and pepper. Served rare, it is a carnivore’s dream steak. If you’re having this you might as well go all out and have a Brunello di Montalcino with it. You can ask for it to be cooked a bit more than rare, just be prepared for the looks you’re bound to get.
Where to Eat it? Tuscany
Meaning “little oranges” these fried rice balls are believed to have originated in Sicily. Cooked arborio rice, or risotto, is shaped into a small ball, coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. But there’s a surprise in the middle. Arancini are typically stuffed with mozzarella or fontina cheeses, or ragu sauce with a bit of meat. We’ve even had them stuffed with peas and ragu. Whichever you try, before biting into one break it open and give the hot cheese a moment to cool.
Where to Eat it? Sicily
A true love-hate relationship exists over this earthy delicacy given its unique and hard-to-define flavor - it seems you're either not a fan or you're smitten forever. The prized black truffle is most commonly hunted in the wild by experienced truffle hunters and their trained canine companions (pigs have been outlawed from truffle hunting in Italy). You can even go along on a tour for a unique farm-to-table food tour. Truffles can also be cultivated in orchards of oak and hazelnut trees. Wild or cultivated, it doesn’t matter. When thinly shaved slices are on your dish there’s no mistaking the aroma and flavor. For a more intense flavor the rarer white truffle is preferred by gourmet chefs the world over. The most expensive food in the world, the white truffle can sell for over €2500 (over $3000 USD) a kilo.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna
Found throughout Italy this is a simple soft flat bread similar to a pizza dough but lighter and more breadlike. Nothing fancy here. It’s usually baked with just a coating of olive oil and some salt. We’ve had it made with different herbs, a few pieces of onion and green olives. But our favorite so far was made with harvest wine grapes in a common foccacia known as Schiacciata con l'uva, or foccacia with grapes.
Where to Eat it? Everywhere
The most famous of this dry-cured ham comes from Parma but we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying its rival in quality in Modena too. The finest prosciutto is designated as DOP (“Protected Designation of Origin”). To earn the DOP label a strict set of rules must be followed starting with the pigs that are raised in Italy under DOP regulations. Aged for a minimum of 14 months then checked by a DOP inspector, Prosciutto is a buttery smooth delicacy well worth the wait.
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna
18. Sea Urchin
Sea urchins are plentiful along the warmer coastal areas of Italy like the Amalfi coast, Capri, and Sardinia, and are best avoided when you're in the water because of their sharp spines that will sting. But on the table, the urchin roe is added to spaghetti to create a sublime local specialty that is both indescribable and delicious. We think it's sweet, slightly salty and briny - just like the sea - and pairs perfectly with a crisp Italian white wine.
Where to Eat it? Sardinia
19. Ragù di Cinghiale (Wild Boar)
There is a difference of opinion as to whether the tastiest wild boar are in Umbria or in Tuscany. Our experience has been with ragu made from the Tuscan variety, but we can't imagine having a bad version of this hearty meal because the meat is so flavorful. The fall hunting season brings this highly regarded meat to the table. Often served with pappardelle, a wide ribbon-shaped pasta, or pici, a thick spaghetti-like pasta you'll find all over Tuscany, it's delicious over any kind of pasta or on its own. This is a fall and winter stick-to-your-ribs dish. Pair it with any of the Tuscan full-bodied reds and enjoy.
Where to Eat it? Umbria
20. Parmigiano Reggiano
Every time we visit Bologna we enjoy the true DOP “King of Cheese”. Production is labor intensive and heavily regulated by DOP rules - even the milk cows and what they are eating is governed by DOP rules. Sounds pretty strict until you’ve tasted that nutty, tangy goodness. There's nothing like it! The rounds of cheese must be stored and aged for a minimum of 12 months. They are then checked by a DOP inspector and must pass the test before being labeled as DOP. Next time you’re in an Italian deli that cuts wedges from a cheese wheel, look for the large imprinted number on the side of the round. That’s the consortium where the round was produced. Strict yes, but cosi delizioso!
Where to Eat it? Emilia Romagna
Originating in Italy's northwestern Liguria region, pesto is perfect in the warmer months when fresh locally sourced basil is most abundant. This is a simple sauce made with basil, pignoli nuts (pine nuts), garlic, aged parmigiano or pecorino cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper. The ratio of ingredients varies from place to place and is usually done to the maker’s taste. Sometimes spinach or even parsley is added to lessen a strong basil aroma and develop a more complex flavor. Toss it into warm pasta or spread it over grilled crostini.
Where to Eat it? Liguria (Cinque Terre)
22. Sarde in Saor
Traditional in Venice, this authentic Italian dish of fried or broiled sardines is topped with onions stewed in oil and vinegar, mixed with raisins and sometimes pignoli or pine nuts. Preserved with a vinegar base followed by a hint of sweetness, this dish epitomizes Venetian seafood. It’s typically served cold or at room temperature and is Venice culture and history all in one dish!
Where to Eat it? Veneto (Venice)
23. Pecorino Toscana
Made from sheep’s milk and milder than Pecorino Romano, this is one of Tuscany’s favorite cheeses. It can be aged for one month and eaten as a soft cheese or aged longer for a harder more intense cheese. The aroma and taste can vary depending on what the sheep are eating at the time of production but we’ve yet to find one we didn’t enjoy. Enjoy a cheesemaking tour and tasting for a real farm-to-table foodie experience!
Where to Eat it? Tuscany (Pienza)
24. Orecchiette Cime di Rapa
Orecchiete, or little pasta ears are still made by hand in Puglia (or Apulia, the Latin name for the region), located in the heel of Italy's boot. The shape is made by smearing little dough discs against the table to create a cup, perfect for holding whatever sauce you wish to add. But in Bari, Orecchiette is typically served with broccoli rabe or rapini, a bitter green that's popular in the Mediterranean diet and resembles broccolini more than the typical broccoli eaten in the US.
Where to Eat it? Puglia (Foggia)
25. Bufala Mozzarella
Native to the Campania region of Italy, this iconic cheese is made from the milk of the Italian water buffalo, with the curds from the bufala milk stretched and pulled into small balls. It adorns every Italian table in the region and is often eaten with fresh basil and ripe Campania tomatoes in a salad adorned with the red, white, and green colors of Italy, known as Insalata Caprese. NOTE: Don't confuse bufala mozzarella with burrata, the ball of bufala mozzarella stuffed with fresh cream and cheese curds which originated in Puglia. Although both are equally delicious!
Where to Eat it? Campania (Salerno)
Love Traditional Italian food? Check out more about the foods of Italy and the Mediterranean Diet:
- Getting Back to Italy and a Healthier Mediterranean Diet
- Tenuta di Paganico: An Ultimate Farm-to-Table Experience in Tuscany's Rustic Maremma
- Top 10 Movies To Watch Before Traveling to Italy!
- Authentic Venice: Exploring the Traditional Food and Wine of Sant'Erasmo, the Garden of the Doge
There are more than 25 iconic regional Italian foods to try, but we had to end the culinary madness somewhere! Which foods would you add to the list?