What to Eat in Italy: 7 Personal Favorites

by Jessica on October 24, 2011

by | October 24th, 2011  

Scan through any guide to Italy and you’ll come across at least the polite suggestion (if not the outright command) that eating your way through the country is a good way to spend a vacation. Yes, Italian food is that good.

It’s nigh-unto-impossible to write one comprehensive non-book-sized list of what to eat in Italy, so here’s my list of the foods I think ought to be on a must-try list on for an Italian trip. Some of them are very regional, so if you aren’t traveling into the area where they’re made, you can always live by my number one rule when it comes to eating in Italy:

If it’s local and in season, you should eat it. Period.

Now, on with the food show. Here’s a list of seven suggestions for what to eat in Italy, plus the cities and/or regions where they’re from (and therefore, usually, best).

What to Eat in Italy

Pizza


Perhaps the most famous Italian food export, pizza is easy to find pretty much anywhere you go in Italy. You can even have pizzas worth writing home about in cities from Venice to Palermo, or anywhere in between. But for the queen of all pizzas, you’ve got to go to Naples.

Naples is where pizza comes from, and the city takes its signature dish seriously. All over the city (and the Campania region) you’ll see pizzerie proudly displaying their “vera pizza napoletana” signs to let you know that they’ve gotten the regional pizza consortium’s stamp of approval.

Yes, there’s a regional pizza consortium. I told you they took pizza seriously in Naples.

Traditional Neapolitan pizza is meant to be a single serving, arrives at your table in one piece, and is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. Opinions vary on whether it’s acceptable to eat the whole middle and leave the crust (you can order a small pizza, a “mignon,” if you’re really not that hungry), and in some parts of Italy you’ll see people manually cut triangular pizza “slices” to pick up (folded in half lengthwise) and eat – but for the most part pizza in Naples is eaten in its entirety and without touching the pizza with your hands. One reason for this hands-off approach is that Neapolitan pizza tends to be a bit more “wet,” especially in the middle, as the best mozzarella contains more water than the shredded (and dry) stuff most of us are used to.

You’ll find regional variations on pizza in other parts of Italy, but for a traditional pizza experience I suggest you make a beeline for Naples.

>> Read more about the best pizza places in Naples

Gelato


I think I look forward to eating gelato twice a day when I’m in Italy more than any other aspect of my travels through the country. It feels like the quintessential holiday indulgence – eating ice cream twice a day! – but it’s far less sinful than some other indulgences one could mention…

Ahem.

Eating frozen treats in Italy dates back to Roman times, and it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly where or when gelato in its current form was “invented,” but one story is that gelato as we know it today was first created in Florence in the mid-16th century. It’s no surprise, then, that Florence is one of the cities in which gelato regularly generates raves.

The truth is, though, you can have rave-worthy gelato in many places throughout Italy. My favorite gelato, the one I dream about, is one particular flavor at a tiny neighborhood gelateria in Milan. I’ve had gelato so good it was other-worldly in Turin, Amalfi, and Manarola. In Sicily, they serve gelato inside a brioche roll. The main thing is to know how to spot good gelato, and to not be afraid of tossing a little cup if it’s not up to snuff. It’s only a couple euro, after all, and there’s no point in wasting precious stomach space (not to mention calories) on gelato that doesn’t make you swoon.

>> Read more about how to find good gelato in Italy

Prosciutto


Vegetarians excepted, pork products in several forms are likely on your must-eat list for Italy. Prosciutto is the most famous of these, and I swear it does taste better when you eat it close to its source in the Emilia-Romagna region, but there are so many porky variations available in Italy that you’re encouraged to try and compare as many as you like.

You’re likely to find prosciutto on Italian menus from the tip to the toe, but – as mentioned – it comes mainly from the Emilia-Romagna region, and particularly the area around Parma. While prosciutto isn’t really a seasonal dish, there is an annual Prosciutto Festival in and around Parma that takes place usually in September. During the festival, prosciutto makers open their doors and give guided tours of the facilities – even if they’re in Italian only, they’re pretty fascinating.

For my part, my favorite time to eat prosciutto is the summer, because my favorite way to eat prosciutto is in prosciutto e melone. This dish is an appetizer, and consists of thin slices of prosciutto wrapped around wedges of fresh melon (usually a cantaloupe-type variety). I could eat prosciutto e melone by the truckload, and I don’t even like cantaloupe!

Other pork products you’ll see on menus and in recipes throughout Italy include mortadella, pancetta, culatello, cotechino, porchetta, and guanciale.

>> Read more about going to a prosciutto festival in Italy

Coffee


Having a tiny cup of espresso in the morning, standing at the bar on the way from your apartment to the office, is so very Italian that the idea of not joining in on that fun isn’t acceptable – even if you’re on vacation, don’t have an office to go to, or an apartment to come from. You still need breakfast, right?

In this section, I won’t get so specific as to tell you which Italian coffee drink to order. That’s a personal decision, and the variety of coffee drinks in Italy is such that to suggest just one is far too limiting. More important than the drink you choose, however, is the experience itself.

Have your coffee shot at the bar like the Italians do. It’s a tiny cup, so you’re only standing there for a few minutes at the most anyway. Grab a cornetto pastry to have with your coffee – again, like the Italians – and that’s your breakfast. It’s quick and cheap, and this not-enormous breakfast means that you’ve got permission to stop mid-morning for a snack and – yes – another coffee.

This is, after all, what the Italians will be doing.

When I’m in Milan, my go-to coffee drink is one I can’t find outside Italy (indeed, it’s not exactly common outside Milan) called a marocchino, but there are countless variations on the simple caffè – there are even some non-coffee options for those of you who want to partake in the experience without the actual coffee.

>> Read more about the different kinds of coffee drinks in Italy

Ribollita


This dish is not only regional (it’s from Tuscany), it’s seasonal. Sure, you’ll find ribollita on the menu in many Tuscan cities (especially the more popular ones) year-round, but to Tuscans it’s a winter dish. When you hear more about what it is, you’ll understand why.

The word “ribollita” simply means “re-boiled” – and ribollita is a bread-and-vegetable soup that’s heated once in order to cook it and then heated again the next day (or later) in order to eat it. That second cooking is where the dish gets its name. There are variations on what vegetables go into a ribollita, but it wouldn’t be considered very traditional if it didn’t include day-old bread, cannellini beans, and a Tuscan type of kale called cavolo nero.

Ribollita falls into the category of “cucina povera,” loosely translated as “peasant cooking,” and its inexpensive (yet filling) ingredients make it easy to see why. It’s a fabulous dish for using up stale bread, and with the vegetables, spices, and excellent local olive oil that’s added it’s way more flavorful than you think it will be.

This isn’t a dish to try in the summer when it’s hot out, but if you’re visiting Tuscany and there’s a chill in the air, it’s the ideal way to warm up from the inside out. You’ll never look at stale bread the same way again.

>> Read about another hearty Italian soup in this lentil soup recipe from Umbria

Tortellini in Brodo


The pasta names on a menu in Italy are likely to be among the most familiar to non-Italian speakers, because they’re the same names we use in English – spaghetti, tagliatelle, farfalle, etc. While tortellini may be a familiar pasta name and shape, however, the way it’s served in the Emilia-Romagna region might be surprising.

The traditional way to serve tortellini in the region that gave birth to these little pasta pockets is in a broth, or “brodo” – hence the name tortellini in brodo. The broth is made either of chicken or beef, and there’s often nothing in the broth but a handful of little tortellini. In the Italian style of multi-course meals, tortellini in brodo is the pasta course – it would be followed up by a main course of meat or seafood – so it isn’t meant to be a heaping pile of pasta.

With so many pasta shapes out there, it may seem odd to focus on just this one pasta dish – and it’s true that you’d be smart to find out if there’s a local pasta specialty (or specialties) wherever you are in the country and order that. I’m highlighting tortellini in brodo in particular here because it was definitely a new way to eat pasta when I first had it, and it became a fast favorite. The light (but flavorful) broth allows the flavor of the pasta filling to come through, which is important, given that there’s such a small amount of filling in each bite.

The fact that there’s a legend about how the shape of a tortellini is meant to mimic the shape of Venus’ navel is just an added bonus, methinks.

>> Read more about all the different pasta shapes in Italy

Anchovies


Everything else on this list is either something most people already love or that sounds innocuous enough that even not-very-adventurous eaters are willing to try it. Anchovies, on the other hand, have a bit of a reputation to overcome.

I happen to like it when a briny, cured anchovy is melted into the dressing of a caesar salad, but I never would have dreamed of eating anchovies on their own – or *gasp* putting them in pasta sauce – before I went to Liguria. Now, I crave them between trips.

We’ve all heard that the popular Cinque Terre used to be a bunch of sleepy fishing villages, but you may not have heard that one of the main fish they’re pulling out of those waters (to this day) is the anchovy.

Up and down the Ligurian coast, anchovies are on the menu, and they’re nothing like the cured and canned version you’re probably accustomed to. These are fresh anchovies, often served as an appetizer with a bit of lemon and olive oil, and they’re incredible. In some cases, they’re small enough to be cooked and served whole – heads and all – but if you’re not comfortable eating the heads you can cut those off easily enough.

You may not dream of anchovies (acciughe in Italian, pronounced ah|CHOO|geh) the same way I do after your visit, but you’ll at least have expanded your horizons of what that tiny fish can become.

>> Read more things you didn’t know about the Cinque Terre

photos, top to bottom, by: keepwaddling1, brianandjaclyn, CarlYoungdale, 3oheme, tuscanycious, WordRidden, dblackadder


{ 14 comments }

Mary Jo Manzanares October 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm
Corner

I’d add:

Lemoncello – yeah, it’s technically an alcoholic drink, but put over ice cream you can call it a food.

Grappa – I don’t understand the fascination, and now always decline, but you gotta try it once.

Wild boar – Over pasta, in ravioli, whatever. Slow simmered, tender, full of flavor — delicious!

Osso buco – But only in the small restaurants where you know it’s the real thing and not something concocted for the tourists.

Regional pasta – Whether its pici, tagliette, or whatever, if it’s local, it’s good.

Truffles – Of course, this is dependent on being there the right time of the year.

Bruschetta – Made some many different ways, depending on where you are, but it’s much different – and much more flavorful – than what you’ll find here in the US.

Wine – How could you leave this off? I’m a sucker for the good stuff, and proseco has become a household staple, but for a few bucks in nearly any small cafe you can get a liter of heaven.

Corner

Jessica October 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm
Corner

All great contributions, thanks for the list, MJ! :)

Corner

Eric December 29, 2011 at 8:21 am
Corner

Can I just say that I had a sampling of Bruschetta in Florence that forever ruined bruschetta for me anywhere else. YES, it was that Awesome. We had stopped at a small cafe (Enoteca Bevo Vino) to get a drink on our way back from Piazzale Michelangelo, and were the only couple there. After delivering us the glass of wine and a beer we ordered, the bartender (an older gentleman who spoke NO English, and was extremely hospitable) disappeared into the back and came out with a small plate with 2 pieces of Bruschetta on it. The most red, juicy, flavorful tomato I have ever had, just the right amount of garlic gragged across the perfectly toasted crostini, a drizzle of EVOO and chiffonade of basil topped it off. I have never tasted Bruschetta that good, and unless I go back to Italy (and that cafe), I may never again.

Corner

Jessica January 4, 2012 at 10:31 am
Corner

It’s all about the quality of the ingredients, Eric – find good-quality tomatoes, bread, and basil and you may be able to recreate that bruschetta at home (though you won’t be able to duplicate the ambiance!).

Corner

Ann October 25, 2011 at 2:12 am
Corner

I noticed anchovies from the cinque terre. Well folks I’m presently living near the cinque terre even though I’m from New York.
So all of you are welcome in asking.

P.S. there’s a trick in making anchovies which people usually don’t tell you but I will.
Ann

Corner

maz stanley January 27, 2012 at 1:17 pm
Corner

Hi, Lucky you living in the cinque terre such a lovely place.!!!! Have the recent floods affected you? I returned back to the UK AND WAS COMPLETLY HORRIFIED when I read about the rain as I have a property about 30 mins on the train from there,and always have several days where I visit Monterosso for lunch and a relaxing day. Aulla, which is my nearest large town was affected too so I am not sure what to expect when I get back to my apartment in May.although I live in a small village halfway up a mountain and heavy rain does not bother me there too much, but my beautiful Monterosso,I do hope it has recovered. With regards to you, Maz.xx

Corner

Karen September 23, 2012 at 8:03 am
Corner

Hi Ann
We are heading to the cinque terre next week. Do you have any suggestions for activities, places to eat or go, that we should not miss? We are healthy and active and like to eat…and drink.
Thanks!

Corner

Varghese October 25, 2011 at 3:43 am
Corner

I have to say that this sure is a highly enlightening article about the foods of Italy…:) Keep it up..!

Corner

cloudio January 4, 2012 at 8:58 am
Corner

To your list and Mary Jo I would add Parmigiano Reggiano and Tiramisù

(you can find caffè marocchino in Turin, too, they often make it with Nutella instead of chocolate)

Corner

Rachel S May 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm
Corner

I’ve been fortunate enough to try everything listed except for the tortellini in brodo. For those traveling to the Naples area, I would have to add Mozzarella di Bufala. Simply AMAZING! And…I would be tempted to add lardo…buttery delicious-ness! : )

Corner

Betsy June 17, 2012 at 10:01 am
Corner

I love the medium size draft of ice cold birra(beer) in Venice . I order a small 1.50 euro sandwich of fungi and ham or a toast and cheese with it. So good and cheap. You can savor it and sit under the umbrella in the campo for an hour and people watch. I have been disappointed by most restaurant fare. Too many euros for a small plate of oily pasta. We have an apartment in Venice for a month so can shop at Rialto market and cook at home in the apt. We eat looking out the windows at the grand canal traffice. Bellisimo.
Oh, love the yogurt too, especially lemon and vanilla. So much better than American yogurt which is way too thick.

Corner

helen July 17, 2012 at 7:22 am
Corner

these are great, thanks!
any chance of a what to eat when you are a vegetarian? specifically a vegetarian visitng lake garda for a week?
thanks xx

Corner

Tony Morris September 4, 2012 at 7:37 am
Corner

What a fantastic article, I really enjoyed reading about food in Italy.
It’s good to see so much more than Pizza and Pasta.

Corner

Hannah February 7, 2013 at 9:49 am
Corner

Jessica,

You mentioned that the best gelato you’ve had in Italy was in Milan. What is the name of the gelateria and what is this magical flavor? :) I will be traveling to Milan in May and would LOVE any recommendations you may have on gelato or anything else for that matter.

Thanks!

Corner

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: