Food in Italy varies a lot by region, and almost every city and town has its specialties, but there are some dishes you’ll find almost anywhere. Make sure to try at least one of the yummiest dishes… even though I really suggest to try them all!
1 – Pizza. How can you possibly miss this one? Traditional Italian pizza has a thin crust, and is baked in a wood-fired oven. Most classic and simple flavor is Pizza Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. But every pizza place has at least 15-20 different types of pizza you can choose from. If you are looking for “pepperoni” ask for pizza al salame, or pizza alla diavola (spicy): the Italian word peperoni (one “p”) means bell-peppers, and that is what you will get asking pizza ai peperoni! Usually Pizzerie only light up the wood fired ovens at night, so reserve your pizza outing for dinner. Especially in Rome, you can also find the Pizza al taglio, a more thick, stand-up pizza, sold in slices: you can choose different flavors and its ideal for a snack or a fast lunch on-the-go. This type of pizza is easily found around all Rome at any hour. Also try the roman Pizza Bianca (literally “white pizza”), a focaccia style pizza bread, light, fluffy, crispy and salty, that can be found in all bakeries in Rome.
2 – Gelato. No visit to Italy is complete without eating gelato. Once you try the real gelato artigianale, you can’t go back to the industrial one. Italian gelato is acknowledged by many experts in the subject to be the best ice cream in the world. And this because the ingredients are all natural and of very high quality. The fruit flavors, for example, are made with real fruit and taste like the real fruit: try them in summer, they are exceptionally refreshing. Most of fruit flavors are made without milk: if you are vegan or lactose intolerant, ask which one you can choose from. Or ask for granita: a semi-frozen dessert made of finely minced ice, sugar and fruit, or coffee, or chocolate. When you are looking for real homemade gelato, search for signs proclaiming artigianale (artisan), or produzione propria (our own production), or fatto in casa (homemade). Also try the affogato: a scoop of gelato (usually cream flavor) literally drowned in espresso… Wonderful.
3 – Pasta. Another specialty of Italian cuisine. Every region has its own recipes, and each one is really delicious. For example: pasta alla carbonara in Rome (based on eggs, Pecorino cheese, guanciale –cheek lard- and black pepper); pasta al ragù in Bologna (meat-based sauce); pasta al pesto in Genoa (crushed garlic, basil, and pine nuts blended with olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese). You must try also pasta with seafood and pasta with funghi porcini (porcini mushrooms). A tip on Italian pasta: usually it’s cooked al dente, that means not overcooked, when the center of the pasta is still a little bit crunchy, firm to the bite. Pasta that is cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index, and is more digestible. Good restaurants never serve pasta scotta (overcooked, soft and slimy). A special mention for risotto: an Italian rice dish cooked in broth to a creamy consistency. If you can’t eat gluten, or you love rice, try one of the numerous Italian recipes, like risotto alla Milanese (with beef bone marrow, lard and cheese, flavored and colored with saffron), risotto al nero di seppia (made with cuttlefish cooked with their ink-sacs intact), risotto al Barolo (made with red wine and sausage meat and/or Borlotti beans), risotto alla pescatora (with spicy sauce and seafood), risotto ai funghi porcini (yes, I love mushrooms…).
4 – Coffee and Cappuccino. Italian caffè (espresso) is short, black and strong, topped with a caramel-colored foam called “crema“. Italians drink it several times during the day, especially for breakfast and after lunch. You can have a coffee in many different ways: lungo (a long coffee – they’ll let the water pour from the machine until the coffee becomes weak and bitter), americano (very long coffee), ristretto (short – the stream of coffee is stopped before the normal amount), macchiato (coffee “stained” with milk, usually just a bit of foam on top of the espresso). If you are looking for US “latte”, don’t ask for latte in Italy: in Italian it literally means “milk”, and you risk to get a simple glass of milk, maybe hot… Try instead caffelatte, latte macchiato or cappuccino. Cappuccino is a shot of espresso served in a large cup with steamed milk and foam. Italians usually drink it in the morning, for breakfast, not after lunch time, and absolutely not with meals. Caffelatte is an espresso with hot milk, a cappuccino without the foam, usually served in a glass; perhaps is the closest thing to US “latte”. Latte macchiato is steamed milk stained with espresso, served in a glass; no foam, more milk and less coffee than a caffelatte.
5 – Salumi e formaggi. Cold cuts and cheese: you can find infinite types of them, and again every region has its specialties. Above all salumi, try Prosciutto Crudo di Parma (raw ham, salted and seasoned), mortadella di Bologna (finely hashed pork sausage, whith small cubes of pork fat, flavored with spices) and, if you are in Northern Italy, Bresaola (air-dried, salted beef, aged two or three months). Order salumi misti, a variety of cold cuts, as an appetizer, to have a taste of several of them. Cheese’s types are perhaps even more than salumi’s. The most classic are perhaps Parmigiano Reggiano (a flavorful, spicy, salty, aged cheese, perfect sprinkled on pasta, risotto or any other dish), and Gorgonzola (soft and spicy, blued with mold). But you really have to try Mozzarella di Bufala (mozzarella cheese, made of buffalo’s milk), Burrata (an outer shell of solid mozzarella cheese, with a center of both mozzarella and cream, that gives an unusual, soft texture to the whole thing), and Robiola di Roccaverano (a fresh, creamy, sweet cheese made with cow, goat, and/or sheep’s milk, delicious with honey), if you are in Piedmont. As a general rule, every food (and wine) that is labeled D.O.C. or D.O.P. (controlled designation of origin and production) has a quality assurance and its certainly good.
6 – Wine. Italy is home to some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world, and Italian wines are known worldwide for their broad variety. Wine is extremely popular in Italy, and almost everybody drinks it during meals: pairing wine and food, so that they bring out the best in one another, is almost a science, or an art. Every region has its bests and their cuisines reflect their indigenous wines, and vice-versa. Most of the D.O.C.G. (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) wines are concentrated in Piedmont and Tuscany. If you like wine, but are not a real “estimator”, you can simply order vino della casa (house wine) at a restaurant: you have only to choose between red and white wine, and the dimension of the carafe. It would be as good as a bottled one (and less expansive!). If you want to try a bottled wine, maybe as a gift, then you can head on Barolo (produced in Piedmont from Nebbiolo grape, described as having the aromas of tar and roses, is noted for the ability to age and usually take on a rust red tinge as mature); Brunello di Montalcino (red wine produced in Tuscany, made 100% from Sangiovese, has a fleshy texture with common aromas and flavors of blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry, chocolate, leather and violets) Chianti (produced in the Chianti region, in central Tuscany, Chianti Classico has floral, cherry and light nutty notes), or Passito di Pantelleria (a sweet moscato, ideal with dessert and cheese).
Photo source: wikipedia.