Italian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines worldwide and it’s hard not to see why. There’s no shortage of delicious food to whet your appetite, whether it’s pasta tossed in olive oil and fresh tomatoes or melt-in-your-mouth gelato to keep you cool on a hot summer’s day. But cuisine in Italy isn’t only about pizza, pasta and ice cream. The country is home to a vast and intriguing gastronomy scene that varies massively depending on which region you visit.
Eating isn’t just a necessity in Italy, it is a way of life. Meal times are long and sociable affairs, with dinner typically eaten late in the evening (around 9pm) and consisting of several tasty courses. Many recipes are often passed down through the generations, with family-run restaurants proudly serving up dishes, which may have first been made almost a century ago.
Traditional Italian food is celebrated for its wholesomeness and range of tantalizing flavors, whether it’s fragrant herbs and seasonal vegetables or high quality cured and smoked meats. While pasta and pizza are mainstays on most menus, you’ll also find trattorias (casual eateries) and osterias (formal restaurants) serving up tasty risottos and hearty meat dishes like slow cooked lamb.
Cheese is extensively used in Italian cooking; the most popular variants include mild and creamy mozzarella, the strong and nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the crumbly and veiny gorgonzola. Meat-eaters will be able to sample expertly cured prosciutto, particularly in Parma just south of Milan where it’s traditionally from. Classic ingredients you’ll spot in most Italian homes and restaurant kitchens include olive oil, lemons, fresh herbs like basil, oregano and rosemary, tomatoes, garlic and anchovies.
From sampling pizza in Naples to savoring risotto in Milan, prepare to eat your way around Italy with our guide below.
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Cuisine in Italy by region
In the same way that Italy varies massively in its landscapes, it also does in its gastronomy. Every corner of the country has a vastly different approach to food, with each city, town and seaside village promising a new culinary delight to savor.
The food in northern areas of Italy, including the popular destination of Milan typically includes plenty of cheese and cream-based sauces. In fact, Milan is the birthplace of four iconic cheeses: Grana Padano, Gorgonzola, Stracchino and the Tiramisu staple, Mascarpone. Expect to eat plenty of rice and polenta, and if you are a meat lover, don’t miss the Ossu Bucco – delicious veal shanks cooked in white wine and tomato sauce. Visiting around Christmas? Milan is also the home of festive sweet bread Panettone. Must-try dish: Risotto
Italy’s capital has long been known for food that uses seasonal ingredients like artichokes (harvested in April) or zucchinis flowers (available in summer), as well as creamy cheeses like Ricotta. Rome is also at the forefront of the country’s latest food trends. Make a beeline for the creative Trastevere neighborhood to find dozens of small trattorias serving up both classic and fusion cuisine in Italy. Must-try dish: Pasta alla Carbonara
Tuscan cooking is all about using simple ingredients whose flavors are allowed to shine through. Rich truffles and hearty cannellini beans are just a few things you can expect to see on the menu. The region’s capital Florence claims to be the birthplace of creamy gelato, while cheese lovers should make a trip to Siena to try its local Pecorino cheese. Soups are also particularly popular in Tuscany and you’ll be able to sample Zuppa alla pisana (a broth made with kale and beans) in Pisa. Must-try dish: Pappa al Pomodoro soup
The Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast’s charming collection of cliffside fishing villages has helped secure it as one of the best spots in mainland Italy for fish and seafood. Tuck into juicy king prawns or salty clams tossed into hand-made pasta or enjoy one of the region’s mouth-watering local cheeses like Mozzarella or Provolone del Monaco. Due to its status as a high end vacation destination, you’ll find many Michelin-star restaurants dotted along the Amalfi Coast, including Don Alfonso 1890 that’s housed in a Neapolitan palace just outside Salerno. Make sure you reserve a table in advance! Must-try dish: Spaghetti alle Vongole
Venice’s proximity to the ocean means its traditional food is packed with wholesome bean soups as well as flavoursome seafood dishes, from squid ink risotto to centuries-old antipasti consisting of preserved sardines or creamed dried cod. The city’s romantic waterways are criss-crossed with alleys hosting dozens of tempting eateries, some of which have been there for decades, plus you’ll find plenty of colorful, fresh ingredients in markets like the one near Rialto Bridge. Must-try dish: Minestra de Pasta e Fasioi
The unofficial birthplace of Italy’s classic Pizza Margherita, Naples is packed with more pizzerias than you’ll ever be able to dine at. In fact, the city has even gained UNESCO cultural heritage status for its pizza making. If you need a break from pizza during your visit though, try Neapolitan pasta dishes filled with salty seafood, fresh legumes or potatoes. For something sweet, savor some Neapolitan Struffoli – deep-fried dough balls drizzled in honey and sprinkles. Must-try dish: Pizza Napoletana
Sicily is perhaps best-known for its lemons which are often used to make Limoncello. When it comes to food, fresh seafood is heavily featured, although the star of the show has to be Sicilian cannolis – a delicious sweet treat made up of fried pastry tubes stuffed with a ricotta-based filling. For a savory alternative that’s just as decadent, try the island’s cheesy, deep fried rice balls known as Arancini. Must-try dish: Arancini
Those who can’t resist a cup of joe in the mornings will be in for a treat on an Italian vacation. Coffee drinking is a large part of modern Italy’s heritage, with cafes and restaurants across the country serving up Italian-born drinks like espresso or cappuccino. They’re often paired up with sweet treats such as Amaretti (almond flavored biscuits) or you could even enjoy coffee-based desserts like Tiramisu or Affogato (made with a scoop of vanilla gelato).
Along with its culinary prowess, Italy is also of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world and the home of several prestigious varieties. Head to Tuscany to enjoy a tasting session at one of the vineyards in the Chianti area. If you would like to sample some Barolo wine that’s identifiable for its floral and cherry notes, head to Piedmont on the French and Swiss border, for a taste of this famous red wine.
Those who enjoy a glass of crisp Prosecco should make a trip to Veneto’s wineries, which stretch all the way from the Dolomite Mountains to Venice on the Adriatic Coast. Other popular wines produced in Italy include Pinot Grigio, Amarone and Bardolino.
One of the most iconic Italian traditions is that of the aperitivo – a pre-dinner drink, often accompanied by finger foods, that’s usually enjoyed between 7pm and 9pm at the end of the workday. While it started off in Northern Italy, it is now popular throughout the country.
There are numerous Italian liqueurs to enjoy as a refreshing aperitif. On the Amalfi Coast, savor zesty Limoncello, which makes the most of the country’s lush lemon crops. Almond-infused Amaretto is popular in Saronno, while pungent, grape-based Grappa is the aperitif of choice in north eastern Italy. Aperol, Campari and Amaro are also three key Italian alcoholic drinks which are typically mixed into flavorful cocktails.
If you want to truly relish the delights of cuisine in Italy, book a private, tailor-made vacation with us and get ready to treat your taste buds.
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