When it comes to food, no country does it better than Italy. Pizza, pasta, risotto, pesto, prosciutto… Italian cuisine is loved all over the world. But, what are the most authentic and traditional Italian foods, and where should you go on your trip to Italy to enjoy the best that Italian food has to offer?
Here are 16 famous Italian dishes or traditional foods to try in Italy, which can be squeezed into your Italian food tour. Just try not to drool everywhere…
Is there a better combination than bread, cheese, and tomato? Pizza has a long history in Italy, with the first use of the word “pizza” dating back to the 10th century in the south of the country. The modern pizza as we know and enjoy it today originated in Naples.
The story goes that the pizza Margherita was invented in Napoli by Raffaele Esposito. He combined cheese, tomato, and basil to reference the Italian flag and named the creation after the visiting Queen Margherita.
Where to eat pizza in Italy
Whether you’re looking for a slice of Italian street food, or to delicately digest your pizza with a knife and fork in a local trattoria, Napoli is the true home of pizza.
On paper, polenta doesn’t sound like the most appetizing of Italian foods, but it is truly authentic and a staple in Italian cuisine.
In essence, polenta is a boiled cornmeal or another grain. Once it’s cool, the mix can be solidified into a loaf; baked, grilled, or fried. Then, it’s served with meat, fish, or sauce, as a side dish.
Where to eat polenta in Italy
Polenta has roots in the north and central Italy, as well as neighboring countries, such as Switzerland, Slovenia, and Croatia. It also goes very well with osso buco.
3. Osso Buco
Hearty osso buco is a casserole of braised veal shanks, vegetables, white wine, and a rich broth. It goes great with polenta, risotto alla milanese, mashed potatoes, or even pasta. The marrow in the center of the bone is the best part of the dish, and is where the plate gets its name from: “bone with a hole.”
Note: veal is a very controversial ingredient. Veal is calf meat and the calves are often kept in dark, cramped conditions, as this makes the meat more tender. Research where your veal comes from, or swap to an alternative if you’re unsure whether it’s responsibly sourced.
Where to eat osso buco in Italy
Head to Lombardy, a northern and central province of Italy, where osso buco is a specialty.
Another great Italian bread product, focaccia has a similar consistency to pizza dough. It’s made from high-gluten flour, water, salt, water, and yeast. You may find this bread served as a side dish, such as focaccia al rosmarino (focaccia with rosemary), or as sandwich bread.
The name focaccia comes from the Latin, meaning “hearth” or “place for baking.”
Where to eat focaccia in Italy
The original recipe for focaccia is thought to come from the Etruscans (an ancient civilization that inhabited what is now Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio). However, modern-day focaccia is more famous in Liguria, the northwest coastal region of the country.
These little pasta pockets are filled with delicious morsels of meat (such as prosciutto, mortadella, or pork loin), cheese, nutmeg, and egg. Usually made fresh, the pasta dumplings are traditionally served in capon broth (broth made with rooster meat).
Tortellini is often described as being navel-shaped, which is where they get their Italian nickname, ombelico (“belly button”).
Where to eat tortellini in Italy
Tortellini is associated with the central Emilia-Romagna region, particularly the cities of Bologna and Modena.
Legend has it that the goddess Venus stayed at an inn in the town of Castelfranco Emilia. The innkeeper tried to spy on her beauty through a keyhole, but all he could see was her navel and was inspired to make pasta in this shape.
Whether you spell it lasagne or lasagna, this layered pasta dish has to be one of the most famous Italian dishes on the planet. A stack of pasta sheets, ragu, béchamel sauce, and cheese, lasagna is believed to be one of the oldest types of pasta – dating back to the Middle Ages.
Where to eat lasagna in Italy
The two regions most well-known for lasagna are Campania (southwest) or Emilia-Romagna (north and central). In the north, especially in Bologna, lasagna sheets are usually green, made with spinach or other vegetables, and served with lashings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Bottarga is salted, cured fish roe, and found in a lot of Mediterranean cuisines, including Italian cuisine. The fish eggs are usually from grey mullet or bluefin tuna.
With a tangy taste similar to dry anchovies (but way more expensive), bottarga is a typically served as an hors d’oeuvre with olive oil or lemon juice, and bread. Bottarga is also used in some pasta dishes.
Where to eat bottarga in Italy
As befitting Mediterranean islands, the best places to try bottarga in Italy are Sicily and Sardinia.
8. Squash Blossoms
These edible flowers are not only pretty but are also found in Italian cuisine in various forms. Taken from the plants of marrow, zucchini (courgette), and other types of squash, the blossoms are battered and fried, stuffed, made into soup, or simply eaten raw.
Although the blossoms have a very subtle flavor, they taste a little like young zucchini.
Where to eat squash blossoms in Italy
Try squash blossom fritters in the Campania (southwest) and Latium regions of Italy (central and west). Stuffed versions include fillings of prosciutto and mozzarella, with a light coating of batter.
Is there anything more satisfying than tucking into a steaming plate of risotto? This rice dish is cooked in a rich broth until it becomes gloopy, creamy deliciousness. Ingredients can range from veggies to meat, to fish, but most recipes include butter, onion, white wine, and – of course – a good helping of parmesan cheese.
Confusingly, even though risotto is super-filling, it’s usually served as a first course (before the main). One exception to this is osso buco alla Milanese, as mentioned above, which is served as a main course.
Where to eat risotto in Italy
Risotto is a northern Italian dish and originated in the region of Lombardy, so head to Milan to get your fill.
Get. In. My. Belly. A hugely popular Italian food enjoyed all over the world, pasta carbonara is an indulgence many of us simply can’t resist. Pasta noodles, eggs, pancetta, cheese, and a sprinkling of black pepper is a winning combination.
There are also plenty of variations on the recipe. The noodles are usually spaghetti, but fettuccine, linguine, rigatoni, and bucatini are also common. Pancetta can be switched for guanciale or smoked bacon. The cheese is usually pecorino romano or parmigiana-Reggiano.
Where to eat carbonara in Italy
Due to the differing recipes, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the dish has its roots, though it’s most famous in Rome. Carbonara, as we know it today, was likely influenced by the Second World War, when Italians were eating a lot of eggs and bacon, supplied by US troops.
The name may mislead you, as arancini directly translates as “little orange.” However, this is a reference to the ball shape, as well as the golden color achieved after the stuffed rice balls are coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried.
Fillings vary, but the most common are al ragu (meat, tomato sauce, cheese, and peas) and al burro (ham, cheese, and béchamel sauce).
Where to eat arancini in Italy
These rice balls are a popular snack and street food in Sicily, but can easily fill you up as a meal if the portion is generous. Versions in the east of the island have a cone shape, in reference to the local volcano, Etna.
12. Ragu alla Bolognese
Bolognese sauce, or as it’s called in Italian, ragu alla bolognese (or simply, ragu), is a meat-based sauce used to make lasagna or to dress tagliatelle. Ask around for “spaghetti bolognese” in Italy and you’ll just get blank stares.
Ingredients include ground meat (beef, veal, or pork), celery, onion, carrot, tomato paste, and white wine. These are sweated, sautéed, or braised, then slow-cooked to produce a thick, rich, meat sauce. Sounds a little different to your typical spag bol at home, right?
Where to eat ragu alla bolognese in Italy
Head to the city of Bologna for a traditional pasta bolognese. But, as mentioned above, make sure you ask for ragu and don’t expect quite the same flavor that you may find outside of Italy. If you’re looking for a more tomato-focused sauce, try further south, or ask for ragu alla napoletana.
Photo c/o Deposit Photos
The height of decadence and a distinct, instantly-recognizable flavor, the truffle starts out life as a type of fungi called a tuber, found close to tree roots. The use of truffles dates back to 1700 BC and in Italy, was used by ancient Romans.
Today, prized black truffles (nicknamed “black diamonds”) are collected annually in central Italy, between November and March.
Where to eat truffles in Italy
The undisputed home of the black truffle in Italy is Norcia, in the central region of Umbria. You’re sure to see strengozzi al tartufo on the menu; strengozzi is a thin noodle-type pasta, similar to fettuccine, whilst “tartfufo” means truffle.
Visit Norcia in February and you can even join in the Norcia Truffle Fair, Mostra Mercato del Tartufo Nero di Norcia.
Photo c/o Deposit photos
Prosciutto is the word most associated with the thinly-sliced, dried, cured ham served with antipasti, but make sure you’re ordering prosciutto crudo (cured ham), rather than prosciutto cotto (cooked ham). Order prosciutto crudo with melon as the perfect starter or a light snack.
The process of making prosciutto is an art form. First, the ham is cleaned and salted. Then, over a two-month period, the meat is pressed to drain any blood left in the meat. Next, the ham is left to dry and finally, hung to air for up to 18 months.
Where to eat prosciutto in Italy
Prosciutto crudo can be found country-wide, but certain regions have their own special variant. Head to Emilia-Romagna for parma ham, try Friuli-Venezia Giulia for prosciutto di San Daniele, and South Tyrol for speck.
You may know this cheese better by the name “parmesan,” though this name is usually given to products made outside of the traditional areas of production in Italy. Therefore, if you buy a product called Parmigiano-Reggiano, you know you have the real deal.
A generous grating of this sharp cheese is the cherry on the top of any savory Italian food. To understand how aged your Parmigiano-Reggiano is, look for the following words: minimum (12 months), Vecchio (18 to 24 months), and stravecchio (24 to 36 months).
Parmigiano-Reggiano dates back to at least the Middle Ages with recipes not dissimilar to those still used today. Interestingly, during the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys buried his parmesan cheese, as well as his wine, in order to preserve it. Good to know he had his priorities straight.
Where to eat Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy
The name describes the regions which made this Italian cheese famous: Parma and Reggio, both provinces within the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
Crushed garlic, pine nuts, salt, basil, hard cheese (usually Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino), plus olive oil makes for a delicious blend of flavors. Pesto sauce has roots in ancient recipes, but the introduction of basil as an ingredient (brought over from India) occurred during the 19th century.
Pesto, or pesto alla Genovese, is a delicious green sauce you’re likely already very familiar with. However, the name “pesto” actually derives from the word “crushed,” so you may see the word “pesto” used for other sauces or concoctions made by grinding with a pestle and mortar.
Where to eat pesto in Italy
Genoa, in the region of Liguria, is the home of pesto. It’s often served with trofie or trenette pasta, with potatoes and string beans thrown in too.
If you want to take home a pot of Genovese pesto for yourself, but you’re worried about your liquid allowance in your hand luggage, don’t worry – Genoa Airport has its own “pesto scanner,” especially so that people can take home a souvenir portion of their famous sauce.
Other Traditional Italian Foods
Of course, Italian food isn’t limited to the 16 examples of famous Italian dishes listed above (after all, what about the desserts? That’s practically a whole other Italian cuisine in itself!).
Did we include your favorite traditional Italian food above? Or is there an authentic Italian dish that we missed out? Let us know in the comments.
Check out these other Italy guides:
- Shopping in Italy for the Perfect Italy Souvenir
- Where to Stay in Cinque Terre
- Top Sardinia Beaches You Must Visit
- Top 8 Cinque Terre Beaches to Visit This Summer
- Where to Eat and Drink in Rome, Italy
- 16 Best Things to Do in Rome in Two Days
- 18 Must-Have Experiences When Visiting Venice Landmarks
Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!).