Home to what’s arguably the most famous cuisine in the word, Italy is a top destination for food lovers.
Traditional Italian cuisine is extremely rich and varied, changing immensely from one region to the other.
While you will find more Mediterranean flavors and ingredients on the southern tip of the country but northern regions such as Veneto or South Tirol have a clearer influence from nearby Germany and Austria. And Piedmont and even some Lombard areas took much from French cuisine.
However, no matter where in the country you go, these are the top foods you should eat in Italy.
Food in Italy is Regional
In Italy the flavors of each region connect to distinctive characteristics in each area.
From the different ingredients and cooking method you can tell who conquered the country, who ruled over it, and what foreign influences still make part of the regional cuisine.
Italian gastronomy is determined by seasonality, and regionality.
The new gastronomic trend known as chilometro zero in Italian, stands exactly for that, the ingredients were produced locally, zero kilometers away from the table.
And even when pizza and pasta may trick you, there is not really such a thing as Italian food, the pasta shape will easily determine in which region you’re eating.
And while Pizza was born in Naples, every region has its favorite topping and even a pizza named after them. It’s certainly not the same to eat a Margherita (from Naples) or a Pugliese pizza, a Calabrese pizza, or a pizza Romana.
Food in Italy is highly regional, but we surely admit that some dishes have become extremely famous and are nothing but a must-try when visiting the country.
Here are our favorite Italian dishes that you should definitely taste whenever you go to Italy.
Popular Pasta Dishes in Italy
Pasta is essential Italian cuisine.
Lasagna or also lasagna al forno is a typical dish originating in Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region.
Probably among the most famous Italian dishes, it is made layering a type of flay pasta with Bolognese sauce filling (Bolognese is made with minced meat and tomato sauce), the final layer is made of béchamel sauce and topped with Parmesan dish. Finally, the tray is put in the oven to bake.
Lasagna also finds variations around the country, you will be served lasagna made with sausages or meatballs in Campania, while in other areas, it will have mozzarella cheese on top.
Pasta alla Carbonara
A fantastic dish from the Lazio cuisine, easily found in Rome, authentic carbonara is a perfect pasta sauce made only from raw yolks, Pecorino Romano cheese, and guanciale (pork cheeks) or pancetta (pork belly).
For enhanced flavor, locals love to sprinkle tons of freshly ground black pepper on top, and an extra drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
It’s a great winter dish, and incredibly flavorful.
Pasta al Pesto
Among the most tasty dishes in Italian cuisine, pasta al pesto originates in the region of Liguria.
Often served with a twisted pasta style known as trofie, pesto sauce is a creamy sauce made with fresh basil, pine nuts (locally known as pinoli), Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and abundant extra virgin olive oil is used to blend it.
Pesto is commonly served along the whole coast of the Cinque Terre, and there are as many variations as you can imagine, being the most popular one the recipe that adds cubes of boiled potatoes and peas to the dish.
Pasta al ragù
Ragù alla Bolognese is one of the most famous sauces you can combine pasta with.
But when in Bologna, the place where it comes from, you better order tagliatelle alla Bolognese, because that’s the type of pasta you’re supposed to have ragù with.
Ragù, often known as Bolognese sauce, is made with tomato sauce and ground beef. It is used in a myriad of dishes and fillings from other cuisines, including Greek moussaka for instance.
It is also used to prepare lasagna, and it’s a perfect base for a dozen other pasta fillings and dishes all over the world
Ragù can be made with other meat cuts as well, you will easily find ragù di pesce (made with fish) in coastal areas, while in the region of Umbria, ragù di cinghiale (made wild boar) is nothing but a local pride and absolute delicacy.
Original from Emilia Romagna this small stuffed pasta is a common dish which can be eaten either with ragù sauce or even served in a chicken broth. This last version, known as Tortellini in brodo, is one of the most popular foods you will find in this region during Christmas and other important celebrations.
Tortellini can be stuffed with cheese, meat, and even vegetables. For tortellini in brodo, locals choose tortellini stuffed with a semisweet filling pumpkin, cheese, and walnuts.
A bigger version of tortellini are tortelloni, they are a few centimeters larger and are often stuffed with a mix made of Parma prosciutto.
Orecchiette alle cime di rapa
Nothing says Puglia more than this amazing local dish. Orecchiette is a handmade pasta shaped to look like small ears (orecchio is ear, while orecchiette means small ears in Italian).
This dish is served with a small green type of broccoli (often broccoli rabe), and it is one of the most unique pasta dishes that you can try in the country.
More Foods of Italy by Region
Is there anything more Italian than a slice of pizza? Well, yes, maybe a dish of spaghetti, but that’s a whole other item in our list.
Pizza is a delicacy that was born in the southern tip of the country, and as such, it contains very Mediterranean ingredients, such as fresh tomato, cheese, and olive oil. For a top pizza experience, it’s a great idea to eat in Naples, where it was born.
The classic pizza Margherita is made with thin flatbread-style crust and in a traditional brick oven. Margherita is simple, it has just fresh tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, and is often decorated with a few basil leaves.
Another northern favorite, polenta originates in the Trentino region and is one of the most delicious winter dishes you can imagine.
A staple of poor, rustic cuisine, polenta is made with corn flour and topped with ragù or Bolognese sauce, grated cheese, and at times also baked.
In some regions, it is common to find polenta topped with sweet Gorgonzola cheese, or even fried, in Lazio.
One of the most impressive, and also expensive, dishes you will find in Italy is the Bistecca alla Fiorentina or Florentine-style steak popular all over the Tuscany region.
This is a 2-inch steak grilled and flavored with rosemary and olive oil, and plainly seasoned with salt and pepper.
This typical dish is often paired with two of the most famous wines in the region, commonly defined as super Tuscan wines, Chianti is one of them, Brunello di Montalcino is the other.
Varying in ingredients as you move along the Italian peninsula, risotto is a creamy rice dish normally made with Arborio rice variety, chicken stock, and topped with Parmesan cheese.
You will find risotto ai frutti di mare (with seafood) in the southern regions of Calabria or Sicily.
While risotto alla Milanese (with saffron) is the to-go dish in Milan, the rest of the Lombardy region would also eat risotto ai funghi Porcini (with wild Porcini mushrooms).
But there are more varieties to it… risotto al limone (with lemon) is common in Campania, while risi e bisi is a risotto made with green peas and is a beloved dish in the Veneto region.
Milan takes pride in this original dish typical from this city and the general region of Lombardy. Literally meaning bone with a hole, this specialty is made with cross-cut veal shanks, vegetables, herbs and is cooked in white wine and broth.
Ossobuco is often served with polenta and even with risotto, and is a fantastic, flavorful dish to have in cold winter days.
Simple, fresh, and full of taste, this is an easy summer dish that you can have anywhere and in any moment.
It can be a starter or a side dish too, only three ingredients make Caprese salad: mozzarella di bufala, sweet, ripe tomatoes, and basil leaves. All sprinkled with some salt, pepper, oregano, and a good quantity of fresh, extra virgin olive oil.
Just like in pizza Margherita, Insalata Caprese comes from Campania, from the island of Capri, and exactly as the pizza, it honors the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil leaves!
Authentic Italian Ingredients
Many of the dishes we have mentioned would never be possible without the authentic local products that have made Italy a culinary destination attracting foodies from all over the world.
In the following section we include some of the most amazing staples of Italian cuisine.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Thick, genuine and full of fragrances, olive oil is a key ingredient in Italian cuisine, mostly used in the southern part of the peninsula (the north of Italy often prefers butter), olive oil can be the perfect seasoning for almost any dish you can think of.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
This traditional balsamic vinegar-style syrup is one of the most remarkable regional foods in the country.
The product, which is a Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) has very little resemblance with the traditional fermented vinegar, since Balsamic is made with an original process that sees grapes being cooked down to a very thick and concentrated juice that will later be aged in wooden barrels.
Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto can be found in salads, inside stuffed pasta, alone or in a delicious panini (or sandwich) all over Italy…and anywhere in the world!
Originally produced in the area of Parma, in central Italy, this is one of the finest staples in Italian cuisine.
Together with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (Parmesan, also from Parma), they are kitchen best-sellers both in Italy and endless foreign markets.
Prosciutto di Parma, also known as crudo di Parma is a dry-cured ham, a DOP product made following a strict set of rules when it comes to the meat used, the aging period, and the curating process.
Probably the most delicious cheese you will find if you are all for strong, pungent flavors. Parmesan cheese is the perfect ingredient to add extra flavor to pasta, pizza, and many other recipes.
Another Italian DOP staple, several rules apply for cheese to be considered authentic Parmesan cheese.
Mozzarella di Bufala
Original from the region of Campania, there would be no Naples pizza without this unique mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella di bufala is made from Italian water buffalo milk.
What to Have for Dessert in Italy?
Sweets in Italy are also different from region to region.
While cakes with nuts and raisins or strudel-type pies will be common the more to the North you travel, lighter and creamier sweets are easy to find in the South.
On one thing we can all agree, sweets in Italy are delicious, so let’s describe a few of the tastier ones, starting with a universal favorite…
Is there anything more magnificent than a cone of creamy, Italian gelato? No, there isn’t!
Gelato, made with full-fat milk and sugar makes one of the most stunning desserts in an endless variety of flavors.
Unlike regular ice cream, gelato does not have eggs or cream in its original recipe, so it can be considered healthier as well.
This Sicilian sweet is one of the most amazing dishes you can try when visiting the country.
People even buy Cannoli and fly with them to their home countries once they’ve tried how delicious these pastries can be.
Cannoli are made using fried pastry shells in the shape of a tube (or a cone in some areas), filled with a creamy filling of sweetened ricotta cheese.
Depending on the bakery you decide you get your cannoli from, you can find that they can be sprinkled with candied orange or lemon or chocolate.
Although this is a typical Christmas dish, panettone is an amazing type of sweet bread filled with raisins, nuts, and candied fruit (often orange or lemon), popular during the holidays but also found in every season.
Regional varieties include Pane Dolce, in Liguria, and Pan d’Oro in Lombardy, often served with a side portion of flavorful and warm sabayon sauce.
Tiramisu is a popular Italian dessert, often found all over the world, originally from the area of Treviso.
The name Tiramisu literally means “pick-me-up”, and so it does thanks to the abundant quantity of coffee you will find among the ingredients.
Tiramisu is made with layers of coffee-soaked biscuits, sweetened Mascarpone cheese and a sabayon-style cream. It is often topped with powdered dark chocolate and a few of the variations include strawberries or nuts mixed with the cream.
Drinks and Beverages of Italy
Italy is home to unique drinks and beverages that have made their way all over the world.
From the unique espresso coffee to cappuccino or the more sophisticated mocha and mochaccino with a touch of chocolate, Italy knows its way when it comes to coffee.
Italy is also a land of wines, with endless vineyards spread all over the country, you will be able to find some of the most refined and expensive labels in the world when visiting the country.
A quick escape to the Tuscany region will prove the best idea if you are interested in tasting wines such as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Sangiovese, or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Italian aperitivo or appetizer drink is often served in Italy during the so-called aperitivo hour, before dinner.
Popular drinks served with small bites of food include cocktail-style drinks such as Negroni, Campari, Bellini, and Spritz.
When it comes to spirits, grappa is the way to go in Italy. This alcoholic beverage is a kind of brandy made with grape pomace, ranging from 35 to 60 percent alcohol by volume made by distilling the left over from winemaking.
It is very popular in the colder areas of the country and often consumed after a lunch or dinner. When grappa is added to a small shot of espresso, you will get a caffè corretto, perfect for a cold winter morning!
Are you ready to taste your way around Italy? There are plenty of delicious dishes to try, especially when visiting small villages and staying a bit off the beaten track.
Always choose trattorie (small restaurants) with limited menus to make sure you taste the most authentic and fresh homemade dishes that have put this country among the most important foodie destinations in the world.
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Gabi Ancarola is a translator and travel journalist living in Crete. She regularly writes about Europe for several magazines about travel, gastronomy, and hospitality. She has published several travel guides about Greece and plans customized trips to the Greek islands. She loves cooking local dishes, taking photos, and driving on the mountain roads of Crete.