I have been asked countless times what we eat in Italy, what are the most famous (and best) Italian dishes and where we can find them.
Italians are renowned for loving their food, and the Italian cuisine is one of the most famous and copied around the world.
I don’t remember the last time I saw a menu without some Italian main dishes such as lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, or even only some Italian snacks. Even in Afghanistan, in one of the restaurants we used to go often in Kabul, their menu contemplated some Italian foods. That one of them was the Mongolian chicken, is all a different matter.
The one thing I can say for sure to anyone asking me about our favourite foods and dishes is that there is no such a thing as “Italian cuisine”.
Uhu? That’s right, even if you are used to seeing spaghetti, pizza, and lasagne in the Italian menu of your local restaurant, it doesn’t mean they are the quintessential Italian foods.
It all relates to Italian history, really. Italy as a unified country is pretty young, the Italian peninsula was divided into smaller states and this is mainly why every region has their own traditions, dialect/language, festivals and dishes. Which makes it impossible to write a fully complete list of Italian dishes, foods, and ingredients.
But since we are brave and fear nothing, here is our simple list of Italian foods and dishes you should try during your Italian vacation.
What exactly do we eat in Italy? Find out the top Italian dishes you should treat yourself with.
Pizza, one of the most famous Italian dish
So, wrapping up the history crash course, are we saying that pizza is not Italian? Of course, it is, its birthplace is Naples, where you can find some of the best pizza in Italy.
All around the Mediterranean Basin, populations like the Greek, Egyptians, and Romans were already eating some sort of focaccia, or flatbread, so the origins are pretty fuzzy. The first mention of the word seems to date back to 997 and was found in Gaeta, today a town in Latina province, Lazio region, some 100 km from Naples and 140 from Rome.
Pizza as we know it today was first made in 1889 when the master chef from Naples Raffaele Esposito created the pizza Margherita topping with the tricolour of the Italian flag (mozzarella cheese for the white, tomato for the red, basil for the green) in honour of the then Italian queen Margherita di Savoia.
Pizza, however, comes in different shapes, flavours, toppings, even different flours for the dough. What does this mean? If you like the simple pizza Margherita, one of my favorite, it doesn’t mean that you will automatically like also the pizza “capricciosa“, with toppings like olives, artichokes, ham, and mushrooms on top of the basic mozzarella and tomato, or the “pizza ai 4 formaggi” (with four kinds of cheese).
There are countless types of pizza, and every day they invent new ones, with whole-grain flour, with a different yeast, different toppings, and the list could go on. So even if we call it “pizza” to make it easy to understand, we really mean a whole category of Italian food.
In my experience abroad, what tells apart the “Italian” pizza from the “non-Italian” one is the dough first, and the ingredients used for the toppings. Call me old-fashioned, but to me, the pizza with French fries, pineapple, and Nutella doesn’t sound appealing at all.
Nowadays, you can find excellent pizza in many cities in Italy. In Naples, you can go to “Da Michele” (via Cesare Sersale 1) for a truly original pizza, so original that for more than a century they’ve been making only Margherita and Marinara types, and whichever day of the week you decide to go, you will always find a queue of connoisseurs ready to spend their dinner side by side with their table neighborhood just to be able to enter. If your time in Naples is limited and can’t afford long lines, you can try the excellent Concettina ai Tre Santi (via Arena alla Sanità 7 bis), 50 Kalò (Piazza Sannazzaro 201/B), Gino Sorbillo (via dei Tribunali) or Di Matteo (via Tribunali 94).
Bucatini all’Amatriciana, a Roman pride. Or is it?
This dish falls into the other big umbrella category of Italian dishes commonly known as pasta. Bucatini all’Amatriciana is a well-known dish from the Roman tradition. Except, it wasn’t first created in Rome.
What?! That’s right, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Amatriciana comes from Amatrice, a town in Rieti province, still in Lazio region, like Rome. Sadly enough, Amatrice was one of the towns that were worst hit by the earthquake of August 24th, 2016, when more than 200 people lost their lives and the city was completely destroyed.
Rome and Amatrice have always dragged a quaint, cultural fight over the origins of this delicious dish. The most valid version wants the sauce to have been introduced to Rome by the citizens of Amatrice, from where the term “amatriciana” naturally comes from. In Rome, in fact, there is an alley called “Vicolo degli Amatriciani”, where Amatrice residents used to come and sell their products. All around, the area was filled with trattorie mainly run by Amatrice residents who served this dish initially in its “gricia” version, meaning the pasta dressed only with pecorino cheese, black pepper and guanciale (cured pork meat), originally from Grisciano, a small town in Rieti province. Apparently, the addition of tomato sauce dates back to the 17th Century and first appears in the cookbook of renowned Roman chef Francesco Leonardi who prepared it for the feast organized by Pope Pius VII at the Quirinale Palace in honour of Francis I Emperor of Austria.
The Amatriciana, made with tomato sauce strictly made with San Marzano tomato, guanciale, chilli pepper, a tiny little of white wine, olive oil, salt and black pepper, and a sprinkle of pecorino cheese on top, is best combined with pasta such as bucatini, spaghetti, and rigatoni.
Plenty of places where you will see the Amatriciana on the menu, but not all of them will serve the original recipe. Some of the best restaurants for this dish are Armando al Pantheon (Salita de’ Crescenzi 31), Domenico dal 1968 (Via Satrico 21) and L’Arcangelo (Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli 59).
If you are travelling to Rome, you might want to check out our website entirely devoted to the Eternal City for the most detailed tips on how to make the most out of your trip. Food lovers in Rome will very much enjoy my eBook “Tasting Rome by Neighbourhood” where I suggest five itineraries in five different districts. Alongside the best restaurants in each district, I include also the top things to do and places to visit.
Sardinian fregola, best with seafood
Small-size type of pasta made with durum wheat flour and water, handmade and toasted in the oven, fregola (or fregula) is a traditional Sardinian dish. Its round shape similar to the Middle Eastern couscous engendered the moniker of Sardinian couscous, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery.
Is it a legacy of Phoenician and Carthaginian presence in Sardinia or is it native from the island? We can’t say for sure, but what we know is that the etymology comes from the Latin ferculum and it means ‘crumb’. The first written sources that mention the fregola date back to the 10th Century. The Millers Statute of Tempio Pausania, a town in northern Sardinia, ruled that the making of this pasta should strictly take place from Monday to Friday because Saturday and Sunday the water was to be used only to water the fields and pastures.
Now you find the fregola sold also in supermarkets in Sardinia, but the best one is handmade at home. Tradition wants the process to make the fregola almost as a home ritual. Back in the day, in Sardinia, women prepared it by laying the durum wheat semolina on a large plate kneading and working it with a circular hand movement and adding slowly lukewarm salty water. The circular movement of the hands, almost rubbing it, gives the semolina the distinctive shape of small spheres. When ready, the fregola is left to dry and then toasted in the oven for about 15 minutes that will give it its unique colour and flavour.
There are many ways to cook and dress the fregola, they make soups, they dress it with vegetable or meat-based sauces, but the absolute best way to enjoy it is with seafood and shellfish such as clams, mussels, and egg fish bottarga.
This pasta is truly delicious. If you travel to Sardinia you do not want to miss it. You will have some of the best fish and seafood in Cabras, a town close to Oristano, where you can enjoy a delicious homemade fregola with seafood at the Agriturismo da Pinuccia (better to call for bookings +39 0783 391 015).
Spaghetti alla Bolognese, the popular dish that doesn’t exist
It’s one of the most popular Italian dishes, you might have even booked a trip to Bologna just to try it in its birthplace. Only to find out that it doesn’t exist. That’s right, the famous spaghetti alla bolognese doesn’t exist. It was invented abroad, not sure where, and given an Italian name because, food-wise, everything made in Italy works.
This is why when Micheal Portillo went to Bologna for a BBC documentary and started asking around where he could find the best “spaghetti bolognesi”, the locals reacted with dismay: “Spaghetti bolognesi not here in Bologna!”
So, if it’s too late and you are already in Bologna, what can you eat? Read on.
Tagliatelle al ragù, the real bolognese
In Bologna, the real deal is the tagliatelle al ragù (please don’t call it alla bolognese). Aren’t tagliatelle spaghetti? Nope. Spaghetti are round and made with semolina, while tagliatelle is a fresh flour and egg ribbon-shaped type of pasta that takes just a few minutes to cook in boiling water.
Ragù has now become a very popular sauce in Italy and we do pair it also with spaghetti, ravioli dumplings, and pennette.
How to make ragù is a very sensitive issue in Italian kitchens, so I will try my best give you a general recipe in the hope I won’t hurt anyone’s feelings, especially in Bologna. First of all, you brown the pancetta (Italian version of bacon) in extra-virgin olive oil, and when it’s ready you add finely chopped onion, celery, and carrot (no garlic, please). Next, you add the minced beef, moisten with a bit of white wine (half a glass) and start stirring slowly and gently. Add the tomato sauce and simmer for two hours. A few minutes before your turn off the fire, add salt and pepper to taste.
Not sure about the outcome? Take a piece of freshly baked bread, dip into the sauce and enjoy. If the sauce is very good, after you finish your tagliatelle you are allowed to proceed with the “scarpetta” (little shoe), a popular custom that involved yet another piece of fresh bread rubbed all over the plate until it becomes white again. In Italy, we keep cool and don’t do this at the restaurant, but it’s usually the best part.
Lasagna, meat-based or vegetarian, a not-so-difficult dish
Another dish that in Bologna is paired with the ragù sauce is the famous lasagna, one of those heavenly specialities that you absolutely must eat in Italy. The concept of lasagna is pretty simple: layers of flat and wide pasta, a sauce of your choice and besciamella (white sauce), preferably homemade.
The origins of this dish can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, nonetheless. In Rome it was called “lasana”, “lagana” or “lasanum”, Latin words that descended from the Greek “lasanon” or “laganon”, the two civilizations always close and very much intertwined. Mentioned by poets and writers from ancient times, from Apicius in the 1st century to Jacopone da Todi from Umbria region in the Middle Ages to Tuscan poet Cecco Angiolieri in the 13th century, to the 14th-century “Libro di cucina del secolo XIV” that introduced the alternate layers of pasta and cheese.
The origin of the modern lasagna is probably to be traced back to the 15th century in the fusion of the ancient Roman dish and this medieval treat with the essential addition of the tomato sauce in Naples a century later. There is also the school of thought that wants lasagna to be originated in Naples rather than in the Emilia Romagna region (Bologna’s), and many are the sources that would confirm this, such as the early 14th-century “Liber de coquina” and the book “La lucerna de corteggiani” published in Naples in 1634. Both of them mention the dish.
While in Bologna they use their favourite meaty sauce, lasagna can be paired with every type of flavour. It’s absolutely delicious dressed with broccoli sauce, or veg tomato sauce, mushrooms, truffle-based sauce, pumpkin, eggplants and whatever you can think of. Thankfully in Italy, you can find a good lasagna in many places, so make sure you are pretty hungry and enjoy.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina, more than just a steak
Meat lovers don’t need to look further, they will have their best time in Florence with the local Fiorentina T-bone steak, the undisputed star in the local restaurants. Historical sources mention Florentines’ love for steaks from old times. In the Middle Ages, the Medicis used to buy large amounts of beef meat and give it away to the population on the occasion of San Lorenzo celebrations on August 10th.
Like for all the traditional dishes, also bistecca alla Fiorentina requires care and attention to detail, and more often than not there’s the risk to find some not-so-authentic Florentine T-bone steak.
So how do they cook it exactly in Florence?
First of all, it’s worth mentioning that there is no bone-less Fiorentina steak and that the original is from Chianina breed. The ideal weight is around 1 kg, sometimes 1.3, this is why it’s always better to be two when you order it. When ready for cooking, the meat needs to have aged for a couple of days and at room temperature. Never place it on the hot grill when it’s cold, take it out of the fridge some 3-4 hours before cooking.
When you are ready, place your steak on the hot grill when the charcoal starts turning into ashes, strictly without dressing, and barbecue it for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. When done, place your rare-cooked steak on a wooden board before cutting it so the internal juice distributes. Some restaurants in Florence serve it as rare as the original recipe is supposed to be and then if guests want they place it on the grill again for a couple of more minutes.
Some of the best places in Florence to eat the Florentine steak are Trattoria Sergio Gozzi (piazza San Lorenzo 8/r), affordable prices, open only for lunch where you can try many of Florence typical dishes, Trattoria Mario (via Rosina 2/r), a traditional Florentine restaurant, and l’Brindellone (via Piattellina 10/11), affordable fares and generous portions in San Frediano quarter.
Tuscan pici, more than rustic spaghetti
The Florentine T-bone steak might even be the star of the show, but this is definitely not the only speciality you can have in Florence.
Tuscany, too, boasts its own type of pasta. Pici is similar to spaghetti but thicker, and originate from Siena and Grosseto provinces, d’Orcia valley and Chiana valley. Made with a simple combination of ingredients, flour, water and salt, Tuscan pici are worked by hand until they become long and thick. Like all the best recipes, this, too, comes from the creativity of the lower class.
The original sauce for the pici is the “aglione”, a simple and delicious tomato and garlic dressing, ragù, duck or rabbit liver sauce, or with breadcrumbs, a sauce recipe made with soft breadcrumbs, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, salt and chilli pepper. Today you can also find them dressed with hare or wild boar sauce.
Some of the best places to taste pici in Tuscany are Trattoria Sergio Gozzi (piazza San Lorenzo 8/r), affordable and very traditional and Baldini (via il Prato 96/2), simple Tuscan cuisine, in Florence, Gli Attortellati (Strada Provinciale 40 Trappola 39) near Grosseto, or Da Forcillo in Sinalunga, viale Antonio Gramsci 7, Siena province.
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Spaghetti cacio e pepe, easier said than done
If you are still wondering what to eat in Italy, if you are in Rome don’t miss the delicious tonnarelli cacio e pepe. In a world where meat dishes took full control, this is a refreshing break. At first sight, it might seem the easiest recipe ever, and only after you try to make it on your own you will know you might have drawn too hasty conclusions.
Square-shaped “guitar spaghetti” according to Abruzzo tradition, in Rome this type of fresh pasta is known under the name of tonnarelli, and it’s the preferred one for this recipe. The original recipe is one of the dishes belonging to the cucina povera tradition of Lazio and Abruzzo regions and was made with the little ingredients shepherds could carry with them on the pastures, so even though now many restaurants make it with tonnarelli, the beginning was with normal spaghetti.
This rustic dish is easy to understand, as its main ingredients are just as the name reads: cacio (Roman pecorino cheese) and black pepper. During its cooking process, however, it’s crucial to pay attention to the detail, because if you don’t your effort will fail the last minute. So just because it’s with cacio and pepper, it doesn’t mean that you can simply sprinkle these on top of the ready pasta.
For an ideal cacio e pepe, grate the cacio cheese and keep it in the bowl with the freshly ground pepper where you are going to drop the spaghetti. When the pasta is ready (al dente), drain it by transferring it directly to the bowl with a slotted spoon so that it retains some of the water (now rich in starch) and creates the creamy texture distinctive of this dish. Eat it very warm.
While it’s not super complicated, it requires care and sadly not all restaurants in Rome bother to make it properly. I myself had the unpleasant experience of having delivered a “butter and pepper” after ordering a “cacio e pepe”.
Some of the places in Rome where you can find the real deal are Armando al Pantheon (Salita dei Crescenzi 31, tel. +39 06 6880 3034. It’s always packed, booking a few days in advance is mandatory), and Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio neighborhood (via di Monte Testaccio 97, tel. +39 06 574 4194) and in Prati area (piazza dei Quiriti 4/5, tel. +39 06 3600 0009).
Spaghetti alla Carbonara, the pride of Roman cuisine
Just like the cacio e pepe, spaghetti alla carbonara are another pride of the Roman cuisine and one of the most popular also abroad, so this is probably one of the dishes you will eat in Italy.
What are the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara? For sure, this dish, too, comes from the creativity of the working class who, not being blessed with the best pieces of meat and the finest ingredients, had to brainstorm as much as they could to come up with something edible and delicious. Because it doesn’t matter what year or historical period we are talking about, Italians have always been pretty fussy about their food.
Even though we know for sure it was a poor meal, the exact origins are fuzzy. While in Italy we love to claim everything we have dates back to at least a couple of hundred years ago, carbonara seems actually pretty recent. Let’s say that before the 1940s there was no sign of it.
Some appoint Tuscan charcoal workers as the inventors of this now legendary recipe, some prefer to salute the citizens of Naples and the Abruzzo region for such a gift to posterity. Even Americans tried to claim the yearned-for paternity saying that the US soldiers in Italy after WWII created the famous dish using two ingredients common in their diet, bacon, and eggs.
Probably the truth lies in between. It seems, in fact, that spaghetti alla carbonara is the result of a contamination of cultures and habits: the simple meal of the Italian shepherds made of dry spaghetti, eggs, cacio cheese and pepper met with the American bacon, shaping the first idea of carbonara.
Now that we pointed out its humble and not-so-old origins, let’s go to the kitchen.
Like almost for everything in Italy, also the carbonara ingredients are a reason for debate: some prefer it with pancetta, some with guanciale. Pancetta is less fat (less fat doesn’t mean light), both are luscious and guilt-carrying. Beat the egg yolks in the large dish that will contain the finished pasta, add two spoons of cacio cheese, black pepper and a little of the water where the spaghetti are cooking (because in the meantime you dropped the spaghetti on the salty, boiling water). Keep aside half of the eggs for later and while the pasta is cooking, brown the finely sliced guanciale (or pancetta) in a pan until it is crunchy and the fat looks almost translucent.
When the spaghetti are ready (al dente, please), dropped them on the dish with the eggs and cheese, if you manage with a big fork directly from the pot to keep them moistened enough to form a delicate cream. Stir well, add the guanciale, the grated cheese, and more pepper. Keep stirring so that the egg thickens, if it becomes too dry add some of the cooking water. The result will be a velvety cream enriching your pasta experience. The end. Please refrain from adding ingredients such as onion, garlic, chilli or fresh cream, sooner or later this will become illegal in Italy.
Where to eat an unforgettable carbonara? At Roscioli in Via dei Giubbonari 21, a stone’s throw away from Campo de’ Fiori, a very popular tourist destination, so you can’t miss it. You’ll thank me later, for now, enjoy your spaghetti.
Polenta, your ideal winter Italian dish
Traditional staple from northern and central Italy, polenta is a typical “poor” dish made of fine and coarse cornmeal that comes in white and yellow: the white one, typical of Veneto and Friuli regions, is a more delicate version, while the yellow is the most common. Obviously, the finer, the softer.
Admittedly, put it like this, it doesn’t really seem one of those delicious Italian dishes the country is famous for, and the reason is pretty simple: even though we are talking about simple cornmeal, polenta is not easy to cook. First of all, you need to pay attention to the ratio flour/water (the water must be 4 times the amount of the flour, so cook 400 grams of medium-grain polenta 1.6 liters of water), then pour slowly the flour on the boiling water stirring to avoid the formation of lumps and keep stirring for 40 to 50 minutes. When you make polenta, you are allowed to take a day off your gym schedule.
Rich in carbs, it’s often paired with proteins such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. When paired with veggies, it makes for a delicious vegetarian dish: if you have the chance, try Tuscan black cabbage polenta, gorgonzola cheese polenta, or with rapini (for your convenience, cime di rapa in Italian). When it comes to food, the Italian creativity is hard to beat, and today polenta is served in the most different shapes, from truffle-flavoured polenta baskets to polenta-stuffed dumplings to polenta bruschettas. Gluten-free, it’s good also for who suffers from celiac disease.
For a good polenta you ought to go north, you will find great dishes in Aosta (Valle d’Aosta region), Milan, Udine (Friuli Venezia Giulia), Bergamo or Trento to mention a few. Trento is a lovely city, some of the best hotels are Grand Hotel Trento and Al Cavour 34 B&B.
Spaghetti ai frutti di mare, pasta meets the “fruits of the sea”
Certainly, pasta is a popular food in Italy, and when paired with seafood it becomes a heavenly dish that will make you want coming back to the Bel Paese.
One of the foods to eat in Italy, spaghetti ai frutti di mare is mainly a tradition from the central and southern provinces. You can find it with different types of seafood, mussels, clams, razor clams and baby clams, some adding also prawns. The flavour is enhanced by the addition of fresh cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and extra-virgin olive oil. If you are wondering what are the best foods to eat in Italy, a meal of spaghetti di mare will satisfy your curiosity (and appetite).
While now you can find it all over Italy, the best and most delicious varieties of this dish still are in regions like Sardinia (try Cabras town in Oristano province), Sicily, usually along the coast, I had a delicious one in San Leone near Agrigento, or Puglia region.
Saltimbocca alla Romana, a dish from the Roman cucina povera tradition
The word “saltimbocca” means jump into the mouth, and when it’s Roman-style, it’s a very popular second course of the capital’s meals. Just like for every dish that reaches the top of the hit parade, also for the saltimbocca alla romana the origins appear shrouded in mystery. Some even claim it was first seen in Brescia, northern Italy. What we know for sure, however, is that businessman and cookbook writer Pellegrino Artusi mentioned it in the late 19th century after he tried at the historic Roman trattoria “Le Venete”.
Easy and pretty fast to make, saltimbocca alla romana doesn’t require many ingredients, the main ones being veal cutlets, ham and sage. Preparing this delicacy involves pounding the already tender cutlets with the meat mallet, cover them with a thin layer of flour, add a leaf of fresh sage and on top a slice of prosciutto crudo (an Italian type of cold cuts). Stick everything together with a toothpick. Melt a knob of butter on a pan and start placing the meat making both sides brown but be careful not to overcook the side with the ham. When ready, some quickly simmer with a drizzle of white wine. Serve them very hot with a side dish of your choice, which can be a fresh season salad, sautéed chicory, puntarelle greens, very much loved by Romans, but please, not with pasta, like Jamie Oliver suggests, unless you want to break a Roman’s heart.
When in Rome, try your saltimbocca alla romana at Zampagna all’Ostiense (via Ostiense 179), along with other Roman specialities, and Da Checchino (via di Monte Testaccio 30).
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