I think it’s safe to say that, for most of us, the first thing that comes to mind regarding Italy is food. I mean, how could you not? With pizzas, pastas, cured meats, matured cheeses, and a whole Italian boot-full of other dishes and delicacies, the world cannot get enough.
And while we strive to make the tastiest Ragu or creamiest risotto we can, we must admit that no matter how well we make it, the dish will always taste better in Italy. In fact, each region of Italy has its own specialty dishes, from pizza in Naples to carbonara in Rome, and Ragu in Bologna to prosciutto in Parma.
So, in this article, we take you on a virtual food tour around the country so you can find out where your favorite dishes will take you.
Pizza Napoletana in Naples
Pizza is perhaps the most iconic food to come out of Italy; you can find pizzerias on street corners everywhere from Manhattan to Melbourne, but no matter where you go, the best will always be found in Naples, where they were first created.
Pizza Napoletana is Naples’ simplest, yet most loved pizza, with a thin floury base topped with rich tomato sauce, melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella, olive oil, and a bit of basil, and you’ll find it on the menu at every Italian restaurant.
In fact, the city is brimming with quaint family run pizza restaurants, all guaranteed to exceed your expectations, including Naples’ first pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba.
Ragu in Bologna (Spaghetti Bolognese)
Spaghetti Bolognese; it smells like comfort and tastes like home, not just for Italians, but for many of us who have grown up with this staple dish around the world.
But while we may feel like our mothers’ homemade spaghetti can’t be beaten, wait until you try spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna where it was first created (I know, who’d have guessed!) and passed down through generations from the dish’s founding grandmas.
Italians often use a secret ingredient to tip the scale in their favor — fine Italian red wine, and lots of it. This makes the Ragu sauce even richer, more fragrant, and that bit more delicious.
Arancini in Sicily
The beauty of Italian cuisine is that its dishes are mind-bogglingly simple, yet extremely satisfying, and arancini is one of the best examples of this.
Arancini is essentially deep-fried rice balls filled with mozzarella coated in breadcrumbs and, agreed, on paper it doesn’t sound like something you’d be scrambling to Sicily to find, but you will not regret it when you get there.
The wholesome, filling dish is the perfect savory snack or light dinner, so it’s no surprise you can find it on every menu on the island. If you want a little added snap to the flavor, you can find arancini filled with variations of meat and vegetables, as well as delicious dips.
Pesto pasta in Genoa
Pesto is a paste packed with a punch which originates from Genoa, once a large republic but now a busy port city in northern Italy. Its flavorful ingredients — basil, pine nuts, garlic, pecorino, olive oil and sea salt — which are ground together to bring out the tangy aromas and a creamy consistency, are a culmination of ingredients cultivated solely within the Genoan Republic.
As its ingredients are all found locally, there is of course nowhere better to enjoy pesto than in Genoa, whether it’s in a pasta, in a salad, or simply spread on toast.
If you really are nuts about pesto, don’t miss Genoa’s bi-annual World Pesto Championships, where enthusiasts from around the world compete for the ‘perfect pesto’ prize.
Gelato on the Amalfi Coast
There’s nothing more refreshing than slurping on a cold, fruity gelato on a hot summer’s day whilst strolling through Amalfi’s historic cobblestone streets, and catching drips from the cone with your tongue before it slides down your finger. No wonder Italians up and down the country have been obsessed with it for generations.
Whilst this tasty frozen treat actually hails from Sicily, the best place to try a gelato, particularly a lemon gelato, is on the Amalfi Coast, where the world’s biggest and best lemons are produced. Equally sweet yet sour, and creamy yet citrusy, nothing beats a lemon gelato.
Sicilian cannoli in Syracuse
Cannoli is another famous Sicilian sweet, oozing with goodness — and probably many calories — inside and out.
This crispy, deep fried, and sugar-coated pastry is rolled into a tube and filled with a mouthwateringly sweet and soft ricotta cheese, and then either dipped or topped with a choice of cherries, orange peel, pistachios, cinnamon or chocolate chips for the ultimate Italian treat.
You can often find a selection of flavors in pastry shops around the island, and luckily you can find them in little bite-sized rolls, so you can be as indulgent or reserved as you like.
Mushroom risotto in Milan
Located at the skirt of the Dolomite Mountains in the north of Italy, Milan’s climate is a bit on the chilly side compared to most Italian cities during winter.
Therefore, cuisine in this region offers an extra sense of warmth and comfort, and there is nothing more comforting to a Milanese than a hearty mushroom risotto.
Typical of Italian dishes, mushroom risotto has very few ingredients; it’s simply rice and mushrooms mixed with butter, parsley, garlic, parmesan and (also typical of Italy), a splash of white wine. Bellissimo! The result is a rich, creamy, moreish meal that will leave your heart and stomach happy.
Bruschetta in Florence
Bruschetta is simply a thin slice of crunchy yet fluffy rustic bread topped with fresh juicy chopped tomatoes and fragrant basil, sprinkled with olive oil, garlic and salt.
The freshness of bruschetta’s bread, tomato and basil combination, make it a perfect appetizer or light bite.
To appreciate the dish fully, head to Florence, the Tuscan capital, sit in one of the bustling piazzas inside the city’s historic walls, and watch the world go by as you munch on a flavorful bruschetta.
Prosciutto and coppa in Parma
Cured meat is a popular food throughout Europe, but there is nowhere that does it better than Italy, or the city of Parma to be more specific where the famous Parma ham, also known as prosciutto, originated.
This tender, wafer-thin sliced cut has a way of unraveling in your mouth, and tingling your tongue with a subtle smokey and salty taste.
Coppa is another favorite Italian cold cut with a similar taste to prosciutto, but it is slightly thicker and larger for more flavor. You can find these meats all over Parma on pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches, but the best of it is found at the local butchers.
Carbonara in Rome
As the capital of Italy, Rome is brimming like an over-stuffed cannoli with Italian restaurants serving traditional regional cuisines from all across the country.
There are so many delicious Italian dishes to try in this city that it’s hard to know where to start, but ‘when in doubt, eat carbonara’ tends to be a good rule of thumb here.
Its signature thick and creamy pasta sauce is made from Italian cheeses, like pecorino or parmigiano, mixed with eggs and chunks of cured ham, making it rich, salty, and, well, very filling, but totally irresistible. What’s more, carbonara actually originates from Rome too!
Seafood ravioli in Cinque Terre
Ravioli is a pasta used throughout Italy, distinguished by its large, plumped up, parcel-like squares which can be stuffed with a wide variety of fillings including cheeses, meats, and vegetables.
Along the Cinque Terre coastline in northwestern Italy, where the fishing industry booms, ravioli is often stuffed with seafood, allowing us to indulge in the bounties local fishermen bring in from sea.
You can find many kinds of seafood ravioli dishes around Cinque Terre, but some of the most popular are crab and prawn, and shrimp. but there is nothing more delicious (or expensive) than lobster ravioli.
Parmesan, mozzarella and pecorino throughout Italy
While many Italian specialties are specific to a location, there’s one that you’re guaranteed to find wherever you go, with whatever you order from a menu. In fact, you kind of can’t get away from it. Yes, it’s cheese!
Mozzarella is perhaps Italy’s most renowned cheese, with its thick, chewy and stringy texture often enjoyed on pizzas and in Caprese salads. Parmesan, meanwhile, is a hard and full-bodied cheese sprinkled on pretty much anything Italians can get their hands on, or in pasta sauces to make them dreamily creamy.
Pecorino, on the other hand, is simply best enjoyed on its own. It’s left to mature for a month or more depending on the desired strength, but any mouthful of pecorino is like a taste of heaven.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.