What do we mean when we talk about “Italian food”? Pizza? Pasta? It’s a little more complicated than that…In this guide we go beyond generalisations and stereotypes to discover delicious Italian dishes in every region, from north to south.
The best Italian dishes in the North
It gets cold up north, so expect to find lots of meat, rice, and filling ingredients like butter and lard. This is the place for salumi, tasty cheeses, and filled pasta. If you’re in Milan, try ossobuco alla milanese (veal shanks) or a simple but delicious risotto alla milanese.
Cheese fondue is a must in the mountains – particularly on a skiing trip! – as well as creamy polenta and succulent ribs.
As in neighbouring regions, you’ll find excellent meat and cheese in Piemonte. But if you want to try some Italian food that’s more specific to the region, we recommend bagna cauda (a hot dish made from vegetables, garlic and anchovies).
The home of pesto! Make sure you order traditional pasta dish like trofie with fresh pesto, and sample some freshly-baked focaccia. Another popular dish with ancient roots is farinata (a kind of bread or cracker made from chickpea flour) – apparently it was a staple even in Greek and Roman times!
Many of the dishes in this mountainous region originate in cucina povera (poor cuisine) – simple but tasty dishes made from polenta and corn. You’ll also notice a strong influence from the region’s northern neighbours, with sauerkraut and goulash on the menu.
Polenta, meat and cheese are popular here, with the addition of fish and seafood from the Adriatic coast. And while you may associate prosciutto with Parma, many think that the best prosciutto in Italy is actually from San Daniele in the Dolomites.
This region has a similar cuisine to its neighbours – polenta, rice, meat and vegetables. If you’re in Venice, avoid the tourist traps (there are lots of them!) and look for a more authentic restaurant offering fresh seafood and local specialties like seppie (cuttlefish) and cicchetti (finger food with a range of traditional toppings, including cod).
The Italian food you have to try in Central Italy
Fresh, simple ingredients and good quality meat characterise Italian dishes across the country, and Tuscany is no exception. When in Florence, you have to try a steak (bistecca alla fiorentina), or some typical street food like a sandwich with lampredotto (cow’s stomach). Vegetarian? Try the hearty bean and kale soup known as ribolita, or pappa al pomodro (bread and tomato soup).
This beautiful region in central Italy in heaven for meat and cheese lovers. Why not take a trip to Perguia or Orvieto to try the wine, flavourful cheeses, cold cuts and truffles? And don’t just stick to pasta – some of the best dishes in Umbria are soups and stews.
If you want to sample the best of Roman cuisine, join us on a food tour! Decadent and delicious pasta like carbonara and cacio e pepe, fried treats like suppli and fried artichoke, hearty meat dishes, thin and crispy Roman-style pizza, gelato…the list goes on! The towns around Rome also have excellent food – take a trip to the Castelli Romani for wine and porchetta.
Some say this region is the winner when it comes to Italian food. To see for yourself, head to Bologna and the surrounding towns like Parma and Ravenna. Prosciutto and parmesan cheese (parmigiano) are the most famous local specialties, but no trip to Emilia-Romagna is complete without a plate of tortellini (stuffed pasta in broth).
You’ll find top quality truffles and meat here – try the coniglio in porchetta (roasted rabbit with pork, herbs and spices). But Marche also has a decent coastline, so there are some mouthwatering options for seafood lovers too, like stockfish with potatoes (a typical dish in Ancona) or wild mussels known as moscioli.
This mountainous region is best known for its meat. Arrosticini are a must-try – tasty chunks of lamb cooked on skewers. You should also try the local version of spaghetti, pasta alla chitarra, traditionally served with a rich meat sauce.
This small, picturesque region is seriously underrated, but the food alone makes it worth a visit. The cuisine here is influenced by Sicilian rule and a history of poverty, which means an influence on simple, fresh food. You’ll find delicious cheese made from sheep’s milk and meaty dishes like pezatta (stewed mutton with herbs and spices) and ventricina (spicy sausage).
Discovering Italian tradition in the South
Home to the best pizza in the country – add eating a margherita in Naples to your Italian bucketlist if it’s not already on there! Mozzarella and tomato is a winning combination in general, so try a caprese salad too. So simple, but so good! As well as cheese and vegetables bursting with flavour, Campania is also known for its fish and seafood. Try a fritto misto di mare (fried seafood) or a dish of spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams, garlic and parsley).
Tasty vegetables are an important part of the cuisine in Puglia too, and the south in general. More sunshine means more flavour, after all. You’ll find excellent tomatoes and wild bitter greens like cime di rapa. Sometimes the simplest dishes are the best, like friselle (crunchy bread similar to a bagel, usually topped with fresh tomatoes and olive oil). The most famous pasta in Puglia is orecchiette (“little ears”), which you can see being made by hand in the streets of Bari.
This underrated region has both mountain and sea, and a varied range of food. Many dishes come from the Italian tradition of cucina povera, like pane cotto (baked bread) with vegetables, or pasta mollicata (pasta with bread, cheese, vegetables and spicy oil). A lot of dishes in Basilicata have some added chili spice, like lucinaca pork sausage.
The cuisine here is similar to neighbouring Basilicata – cucina povera, delicious vegetables and plenty of spice. ‘Nduja is the most famous Calabrian dish – a very tasty spicy sausage. The local red onion, cipolla rossa di Tropea, also gives an extra burst of flavour to many dishes.
As you would expect, the island of Sardinia is best known for its fish and seafood. Make sure you try the lobster, bottarga, octopus salad, and just about anything from the sea – it’s not going to disappoint! But Sardinia also has a rich tradition of meat dishes, such as lamb (accompanied by artichokes) and porcheddu (suckling pig).
Some of the most delicious and distinctive dishes in the whole country – the Emilia-Romagna of the south, perhaps? Of course, you should start with the fish and seafood, which is incredibly fresh and full of flavour. Sardines and swordfish are some of the most common ingredients, and aubergine plays an important role in dishes such as caponata and pasta alla norma. Then there’s the street food, like arancini (deep-fried rice balls), and desserts such as cannoli and cassata…Hungry yet?
As you can see, there’s enormous variety in Italian dishes. As you travel from region to region, make sure you try the local specialties, instead of falling back on the generic order for a “pizza margherita” (unless you’re in Naples, of course, in which case you should definitely have a margherita for lunch! And possibly for dinner too…)
To plan your trip and learn more about Italian food tours, contact Roads to Rome Private Tours!
Read more: Italian food: 1 great dish from each of Italy’s 20 regions (CNN)
Written by Alexandra Turney