Food in Italy: What to Eat & Where
Close your eyes and imagine traveling to Italy. Really take a moment and picture yourself spending a few weeks there, getting to know the culture. Now wipe the drool off your chin and admit it – in your daydream, you were eating something fabulous. A plate of freshly stuffed pork sausage from a family-owned salumeria. Heaping portions of handmade pasta at a cozy trattoria. Piping hot pizza from a wood-fired oven, teeming with buffalo mozzarella and juicy tomatoes. Dining in Italy is the stuff dreams are made of.
However, if you found yourself in northern Italy, that pasta would likely be replaced with risotto. And if you aren’t in Naples, the pizzerias might be a bit hard to find. When it comes to “Italian food”, the truth is, it doesn’t exist. Rather, there are distinct regions with their own culinary specialties, stemming from diverse local landscapes and histories. Eating in Italy can be just as magical as in your daydreams, but it requires a bit of culinary homework to ensure you taste the freshest ingredients in the best dishes. The following is a brief introduction to the culinary regions of Italy, and what to eat, where.
Truffles in Piedmont
If the culinary focus of northern Piedmont were to be summed up in one ingredient, it would be white truffles. Easily foraged in this region, nestled in the shadow of the Alps, white truffles are the famous stars of many Piedmontese dishes. However, visitors to the area should not overlook dishes featuring earthy snails, rustic cow’s-milk cheeses, and handmade taglioni pastas.
Osso Buco in Lombardy
In northern Lombardy, the food is typically quite unlike the spaghetti-in-red-sauce stereotype many travelers imagine. Creamy risottos are far more prevalent than pastas, and butter is more commonly used in cooking than olive oil. Visitors to Lombardy, should not pass up osso bucco, a braised veal shank, usually served with risotto. Another famous dish is cotoletta alla Milanese, a breaded veal cutlet similar to the Wienerschnitzel. In fact, it’s debated whether which dish came first and inspired the other; the main difference between them is the cut of meat (the Milanese version is bone-in, the Wienerschnitzel is not).
Seafood in Veneto
There are two dishes all visitors to Veneto and its capital Venice must try. One is seafood; this region sits on the Adriatic Sea and is known for its shellfish, but any seafood-based dish is likely to be well worth a try. The other is fegato alla Veneziana, a rich plate of calf’s liver and onions that has been served in Ventian homes and restaurants for centuries. For those with a sweet tooth, this region is also the birthplace of tiramisu, the layered coffee-chocolate-marscapone dessert first crafted in the city of Trevisio.
Prosciutto in Emilia-Romagna
Things really start to get interesting in Emilia-Romagna. The historically wealthy region is widely considered one of the finest dining regions in Italy, and has a number of must-do dishes. Sweet, thick balsamic vinegar has been produced in the city of Modena since the Middle Ages, and travelers should make sure to taste the real thing in its birthplace. Additionally, the city of Parma is home to both the savory cured ham Prosciutto di Parma and world-famous cheese Parmigiano. Really, any pork-based dish is a good bet; overall, eating well isn’t difficult in Emilia-Romagna.
Soups in Tuscany
Tuscany is Italy’s most famous region for a few very good, very delicious reasons. Its capital city of Florence has been a cultural center for hundreds of years, home to the wealthy and important families such as the Medicis. Naturally, these wealthy and important people liked to eat well, and today visitors to Tuscany can revel in the region’s culinary heritage. For travelers who savor red meat, a steak alla Florentina, made from the prized breed of cattle known as Chianina, must be tasted. More humble but equally important dishes to the region include panzanella, a bread salad, and ribolita, a rustic soup composed of beans and vegetables. Tuscan cheeses are justifiably well reputed, especially Pecorino, and healthy doses of locally produced olive oil are present in almost every dish. As if this weren’t enough, Tuscany is the home of Italy’s famous hearty red Chiantis, including the world-renowned Brunello di Montalcino.
Pasta in Lazio
For those who dream of fresh pastas in tomato sauces, Lazio will hit the spot. Plus, it’s the region where Rome is situated, so it draws many first-time travelers to its tables. Specific dishes to try include spaghetti amatriciana, a hollow spaghetti served with tomato sauce, pancetta, and Pecorino cheese; pasta alla carbonara, a relatively new pasta dish involving pork (usually pancetta or bacon), black pepper, and a sauce composed of egg and cheese; and pasta arrabiata, a pasta served with a spicy sauce made from tomato, garlic, and red chilies.
Pizza in Campagnia
The sunny southern region of Campagnia is known for its sparkling Amalfi coast and sizable city of Naples. On the coast, kitchens serve up the kind of Mediterranean cooking now famous for its health benefits: freshly caught fish drizzled in olive oil, locally grown vegetables, homemade pasta. Octopus and squid make for a little more adventurous of a plate. In Naples, the favorite local ingredients (fresh buffalo milk mozzarella and juicy San Marzano tomatoes) were first famously combined to produce pizza. There is no better place to eat pizza than Naples, whatever a diehard New Yorker might tell you.
Peasant Food in Puglia
Less famous than her neighboring regions, Puglia is a historically poor area where culinary specialties were born out of hardship. The unusual but delicious pasta from this area, orecchiette, is made without eggs, and local fava beans are pureed and incorporated into all manners of dishes. The people of Puglia have been shepherds for generations, and accordingly, visitors to this overlooked region will find mouth-watering plates of roasted lamb and goat.