Ah Italy… the people, the history, the food!
Enjoying the local fresh cuisine is definitely one of the greatest experiences when travelling to Italy. No matter what region you go to, Italy is a foodies’ paradise where you can be confident in sampling some of the finest local delicacies, because good eating is just a way of life for Italians.
Writing this article not only brought back fond memories of my travels around Italy, it made me drool! I desperately wanted to go back and eat my way around Italy again. But I’m not the only one that feels this way so I’ve included some quotes from our well-travelled team on what their food highlights were for Italy.
Food in Italy is very regional, so something you ate and loved in one city or region can be vastly different or not even exist in the next. It’s not all about pizza and pasta either, most towns have a market day where you will be able to experience the freshest local produce like vegetables, cheeses, olives and meats.
Many of the major cities and tourist attractions will be surrounded by dubious restaurants offering soggy panini, spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine alfredo. But look a little further and it’s not hard to find authentic Italian cuisine. You often only need to walk a few streets behind the tourist spots to find family run restaurants that serve authentic regional food. They’ll often have a friendly and informal atmosphere making for a fun experience to share with friends. When dining out, it’s a good idea to check the bill carefully. Some restaurants will add unexpected service or cover charges or even add a few extra things you haven’t ordered.
When you first arrive in a new town, ask hotel reception if there are any food and walking tours. These tours will help you to go it alone for the rest of your trip by giving you the insider’s knowledge on how to order and what foods to look out for on a menu. Many will take you through local markets and some of the best gelato shops, where you will spoil your taste buds for good when you return home.
Let’s start with coffee
Let’s get one thing straight, all Italians are serious about their coffee! It’s as much a part of the Italian culture as pasta and pizza and no matter where you are in Italy you’ll get a great coffee.
Italians only drink cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato or any other form of milky coffee in the morning and never after an evening meal. It’s just not done!
You won’t need a double shot here. They drink single shots in small demitasse cups at a drinkable temperature so they can stand at the bar and quickly down their shot, before leaving to carry on about their day. So embrace the single shot but indulge more often.
“Gelato in any piazza. Walk up and sip espresso, roman breakfast. Tourist trap carafe's of wine with the meal, amazing lasagne (Florence), grilled seafood (Venice). Roasted meats with herbs (Rome), pasta entrées, Tiramisu that changed my life (Venice).”
Famous for its Aperitivo, or happy hour! It usually happens between 6 and 9pm. In most bars and cafés around the city, you can grab a drink and a bite to eat from the buffets. If you want something more rustic look out for cassoeula (a thick hearty pork and cabbage dish) and butter rich risottos on the menu. These are Milanese comfort foods at their finest.
Located near the Adriatic Sea, the city of canals is heavily influenced by seafood. Marinated sardines in sweet and sour flavours, cassopipa (spaghetti with spiced shellfish), spider crab and salt cod. Polenta is a regional specialty and often served with meat, fish, mushrooms or cheese.
The best seafood restaurants are often only open on market day so ask your accommodation staff for recommendations. As a rule of thumb, if the restaurant has a photo board of their dishes and someone outside begging you to come in, you might want to steer clear, it will probably be overpriced and inauthentic.
“8 years later, I still remember an incredible dish made very simply with only four ingredients. Pasta (fresh linguine), clams, olive oil and steamed broccoli florets which were slightly mushy but a vivid green. Much yummier than it sounds. Washed down with a lovely Pinot Grigio whilst sitting on a terrace on a beautiful winter morning on the island of Murano, Venice. Sigh.”
Thought of as having the best cuisine in Italy – but of course this is highly contentious – it’s a must for any foodie exploring Italy. Bologna is famous for Parmigiano–reggiano cheese, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar and is the birthplace of Bolognese sauce.
With the high speed trains servicing Italy you can be there in 1 hour from Milan and less than 40 minutes from Florence making Bologna a great place to base yourself away from the crowded cities. On a side note, Bologna is extra special for car enthusiasts as it’s close to the factories and museums of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati.
Extra virgin olive oil, bread and grilled meats are staples of Tuscan cuisine. At the markets you will find rotisserie trucks with all sorts of slow roasted meats with vegetables underneath catching the drippings. Here you will find the perfect accompaniments for a picnic lunch. Food and wine are great complements but try not to over indulge so you can stay sharp. If you look impaired you could become a target for thieves.
Hiding in the region’s soil is black gold… truffles! The small medieval town of San Miniato holds a truffle fair on the last 3 weekends of November. Here you will find some of the finest white truffles in the world and you can eat and drink all types of Tuscany’s earthy rustic products like extra virgin olive oil, walnuts, chestnuts and porcini mushrooms. Mix these ingredients with a fine risotto or pasta and thin shavings of the best strong and pungent local truffles and prepare for your taste buds to be blown away.
“On a daily basis I would alternate by eating a risotto or pasta for lunch and dinner! Lots of gelato, fortune tellers and Aperitivo. One of my favourites - Risotto alle Milanese (Risotto with parmesan & saffron), try it yourself.”
The home of pasta and like they say, “when in Rome”... Do stay away from the obvious tourist joints that litter the city. Instead try a pasta crawl through the hidden gems a few streets back. Here you will taste the richly simple delicacies of pasta with finely grated pecorino romano cheese and lots of black pepper, artichokes stuffed with garlic and herbs and cooked slowly in olive oil or simply deep fried - bellissimo! Pizza is famous here too but it’s different from the pizza you’ll find in Naples. Roman pizza is called pizza al taglio or pizza by the slice and has a thicker crust like focaccia. They cut a slice for you, put it in the oven to heat and you pay by the weight of your slice. Unfortunately Rome is also known for its bag snatchers and pickpockets, so don’t just hang your bag on the back of your seat, instead put it between your feet where you can keep an eye on it.
“Spaghetti Carbonara in Rome. There's an amazing pizza place in Venice, rated #10 out of 1213 restaurants on Tripadvisor. 3-4 euros for a huge slice of pizza. Win!”
Pizza, pizza, pizza and not like we know it here in NZ! There’s no stuffed crust or unusual combinations like cashew nut and banana. In Naples, you are expected to eat your pizza with a knife and fork and don't expect it cut into triangles, it comes as a single serving pizza pie. Pizza in Naples comes piping hot from wood-fired ovens bubbling with simple toppings. The cheese and sauces are made from the freshest ingredients and slightly runny compared to our style, so expect to make a mess.
If you have ventured this far you are in for a treat. Sicily is an island surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea which makes for the freshest seafood imaginable. What more could you want from a holiday, sun, sea, food and wine?
While the cuisine is predominantly traditional Italian fare, Sicily is heavily influenced by its neighbouring Spanish, Greek and Tunisian food cultures. Sardines straight from the boat are placed over hot coals and grilled to perfection. Tuna, sea bass and swordfish are also popular in Sicily. Simply drizzled with olive oil and garnished with Sicily’s famous lemons, which have a rough skin but are bursting with flavour.
One of the most popular dishes from Sicily is Arancini. These are seasoned rice balls stuffed with cheese and different fillings, deep-fried or baked in breadcrumbs.
You CAN NOT leave Sicily without trying freshly made cannoli. This sweet treat consists of tubes of pastry deep fried and filled with the sweetest ricotta and topped with pistachio or Sicily’s famous orange rind. The fresher the cannoli the better, and when they say fresh they mean it, 15 minutes is considered old.
“Swordfish, pizza, gelato, drinking limoncello - Pasta alla Norma”
And lest we forget – Gelato!
It would be fair to say Italians are very passionate about their gelato. Just like coffee it is ubiquitous and you’ll find gelateria’s in all the cities and market places. True artisanal gelato is made with fresh natural ingredients, seasonal fruit for the best taste and made in small batches. Others are mass produced and full of artificial colours and preservatives. You will know true gelato when you taste one and will never go back to those imposters. Thankfully this great website has listed where to find the best gelato in Italy.
Be prepared to have your taste buds ruined for any other form of ice cream when you return home.
Slow down and unwind
As you can see, for many of us food is an important part of any holiday, so take our advice and make sure you take time to relax and enjoy the food, wine and coffee. You’re on holiday, so go and have that long lunch, soak in the scenery or just while away the time soaking up the atmosphere. It’s Italy, enjoy!