Think of Italy and you’re likely to think of food first and all the beautiful places to see second.
Italian cuisine – or some version of it – has colonized the rest of the world so successfully that there are probably uncharted corners of the Amazon rainforest where you can sit down at a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and order up a plate of pasta and sauce.
There’s a reason the food is so good. Actually, there are hundreds of reasons scattered throughout the different regions of Italy. If you can’t get to them all, here are some top classics:
Italy’s gift to TV box set bingers, deadline busters and delivery scooter manufacturers needs no introduction. Pizzas can be summoned to almost anywhere on the planet – including an intercity train – within 30 minutes provided there’s a phone connection and worthwhile tip.
But that greasy slice you’re eating out of a box (for breakfast? Seriously?) is a far cry from the real thing. A true Italian pizza is thick, tender and has an elasticity when chewed. It’s traditionally dressed with fresh tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, basil leaves and melting mozzarella or fior di latte cheese – or simply plain white pizza. The most savory is buffalo milk mozzarella.
Many atrocities have been committed in the name of pizza science – hot dog-stuffed crust anyone? Or pineapple pizza? But the original still never tastes better than in Naples, the city of its birth.
Tagliatelle al ragù
The rest of the world calls it “spaghetti bolognese.” But the rest of the world is wrong. This perfect blend of delicate ragù sauce and fresh golden tagliatelle pasta is a signature of the northern Emilia Romagna region, in particular the city of Bologna. Hence the global name.
Legend has it the tagliatelle shape was inspired by the curly blond hair of fearsome 16th-century Italian noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia. The ragù is made with finely chopped or ground pieces of pork and beef mixed with celery, carrots, onions, tomato sauce and red wine.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is grated on top, like a snow-capped peak. The original ancient recipe is protected by the Azdore, “pasta priestesses” who prepare fresh tagliatelle for clients each day across the region at fresh pasta boutiques.
Rigatoni alla carbonara
Few ingredients go into making this dish, but the secret is in their quality and the way they stick to the tube shaped pasta. Pecorino cheese, pork cheek and raw organic eggs are all that’s needed for Rome’s specialty dish.
Being a heavy and protein-rich meal, it’s usually served at dinner. The homemade rigatoni, must be “al dente” – cooked to exactly the point when it’s neither soft nor hard– so the dense egg-rich dressing clings without leaking into the plate. Spaghetti can also be used, preferably the homemade type with a gritty surface.
Carbonara may owe its creation to American influence – it’s likely that pasta with egg and bacon flourished with the arrival of the American troops in Italy during World War II – but Romans, and Italians in general, like to stick to an indigenous tale according to which the dish was a favorite of charcoal burners working on the cold Apennine Mountains.
Trofie al pesto
The word pesto literally means “crush” in Genoese. In this case, basil, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, pine kernels, garlic cloves, coarse salt and extra virgin olive oil, pulverized together in a Genoese marble mortar. They combine to create a dense, creamy sauce that smells of a Mediterranean garden and cries out to be stirred through a bowl of handmade trofie pasta twists.
This dish is at its best in Genoa, in northwestern Liguria, a land of seafarers and adventurers. The region was a spice trade hub in the Middle Ages, when use of herbs and flowers to flavor food became commonplace.
A legacy of these times, pesto flourished in the 1800s based on an earlier, older recipe made with garlic called “agliata.”
Freezer-ready superstore versions of this classic – more suited to propping open doors or breaking windows – have done it few favors over the years. But if made well with rich layers of ragù, béchamel sauce and Parmigiano cheese oozing between hand-made “sfoglia” sheets of fresh flat pasta, it’s still heavenly.
Eaten via recipes that use either spinach or tomatoes, lasagne is closely linked to the northern city of modern Bologna, but it traces its origins to Roman times.
It was, reputedly, philosopher Cicero’s favorite because its refinement and softness was easier to digest than many others found his outspoken beliefs. He’s said to have gulped down huge quantities up until he was killed.
Solo diners should avoid ordering this dish, unless they’re: A) really hungry. B) massively into fish. Brodetto is a fish soup of gigantic proportions. It’s served as a single main course but usually takes two people to finish.
Ray, mullet, sole, redfish and prawns gaze up from the bubbling pot, swimming in a pool alongside semi-ripe tomatoes, parsley and garlic. Grilled bread slices are dropped in before the eating starts and left to absorb the fishy liquid.
Once all the fish is gone, it’s time to devour the soaked bread. At the very end, thin spaghetti, called capelli d’angelo (or angel hair), is thrown inside the pot and mixed with the remaining sea broth.
It’s a topsy-turvy meal typical of Vasto on the Adriatic coast.
Handmade pasta shaped like knots are stuffed with pork loin, ham, Mortadella salami, Parmigiano cheese, eggs and nutmeg and thrown in a thick capon broth.
Spurious legend has it that a voyeuristic innkeeper in Bologna was peeking through a keyhole to spy on Venus, Mars and Bacchus in the middle of a hot and heavy threesome. He caught just a glimpse of the goddess’ perfect belly button and tried to reproduce it in pasta form.
Voila! Tortellino was born.
The original recipe is protected by the Confraternity of Tortellino, die-hard purists who don’t tolerate creative twists.
Many towns in the Emilia Romagna region claim to be the originators of this staple dish, but there’s staunch rivalry between three: Modena, Bologna and Castelfranco Emilia, a small town halfway between them.
Yes, we know that “genuine” gelato places have opened in your neighborhood. And we know it’s good.
But it’s still not as good as the stuff you can eat anywhere in Italy, with warm evening sun on your face and an orchestra of ancient Vespas revving in the background.
Gelato is said to have been inspired by ancient Sicilians, who mixed fruit juice with snow from Mount Etna. Today, recipes call for milk, cream, sugar and eggs.
Traditional local flavors include pistachios, toasted almonds, nuts, lemons, mandarin oranges, figs and cactus figs.
It can be savored on its own or together with a brioche bun as the Sicilians do. Bun pieces are used to scoop the gelato, which can also be spread inside like a peanut butter sandwich.
Baccalà alla Vicentina
This dish is made from dried fish.
No, stay with us! This isn’t the gelatinous reconstituted fish of Scandinavian nightmares. This is a far more delicious proposition.
The secret is in the preparation – a recipe invented by merchants from Vicenza in the 1500s and protected by a brotherhood of chefs. Dried cod is softened by beating and then placed under running water for two days. Then extra virgin olive oil, milk, Parmigiano, onions and anchovies are added and cooked slowly so that the ingredients penetrate into each other.
It’s said that while savoring it, your mouth should feel the living fish still swimming in the ocean, a scenario which, we admit, is slightly nightmarish.
This dish of boiled cornmeal mush is best served as a steaming semi-liquid on a wooden platter. It can also be cooled, solidified, chopped into fingers and served grilled as rectangular finger foods.
Once a peasant dish believed to have aphrodisiac powers, it’s a great gluten-free substitute for bread. Having a neutral flavor, it’s good with everything: rabbit, mushrooms, braised veal with tomato sauce and milk. Even Nutella.
Carciofo alla giudia
This fried, crispy golden globe artichoke, which makes a crunchy sound with each bite, is a delicacy of Rome’s Jewish quarter.
The criteria for selection is strict. Only the best variety are chosen. They’re 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) wide, twice the normal size, and grow on the uppermost part of the plant that’s absorbed the most sunlight.
Once the rough leaves are delicately trimmed with a cobbler’s knife, the artichoke is dipped twice in frying oil at different temperatures. Served as an appetizer, sometimes upside down with the stem in the air, overspilling the plate like a blooming flower.
Risotto alla Milanese
It’s an Italian staple with an exotic taste. This creamy rice dish gets its golden color and soft texture from saffron. That’s why it’s also called risotto allo zafferano, although the Milanese call it by the more prosaic name, risotto giallo.
Local carnaroli or arborio rice is cooked with veal broth, butter, Grana Padano cheese and sometimes bone marrow. The secret to making a great risotto alla Milanese lies in giving the rice time to absorb the flavors.
As always, there’s a backstory. This one centers on a Dutch artist who, at a posh dinner while he was on assignment decorating the windows of Milan’s Duomo cathedral, served up a rice dish including the saffron he was using as a yellow dye. It proved an instant hit.
Don’t freak out if on your tour of Sardinia you come across village food fairs where baby piglets are staked and cooked over a bonfire. It’s all perfectly normal around these parts, and if you like meat and you’re not squeamish, we’re sorry to report that crunchy piglet is delicious.
Porceddu (meaning piglet in Sardinian) is a dish of baby pig that has fed solely on its mother’s milk and weighs less than 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds). That ensures the meat is tender and has a less pungent taste.
Once killed, it’s roasted for hours in public squares and prepared in a variety of ways. While cooking, drops of liquid lard are poured over the piglet to make it crunchier and tastier. When ready to be served, it can be glazed with honey and sprinkled with herbs.
Preparing it is a spectacle, and the secret to making a great crunchy porceddu lies in skillful rotation of the gigantic skewer so that the outer skin is crispy but not burned while the meat remains tender.
Amatriciana sauce was born in the town of Amatrice, a town in Italy’s central Lazio region, when a local recipe was adapted after tomatoes were brought here following the discovery of America.
Since adopted as a Rome classic, its secret lies in choosing the right kind of pasta – and none does it better than bombolotti.
These thick, wide macaroni have ridges that trap the sauce made from premium tomatoes, fried crispy pork cheek and a topping of grated savory Roman pecorino cheese. True to its name, the bombolotti explodes deliciously in the mouth at first bite.
Sweet-tasting veggies are not something typically ordered in Italy, but this extravagant Sicilian concoction will win anyone over. It’s a sweet and sour mix of different vegetables dressed in a sauce of tomato extract, onions, celery, capers and olives.
There are many caponata variations, but most use small potatoes, eggplant and bell peppers cooked with almonds, pine nuts, raisins, sugar, vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil.
It’s no shock that a country famous for its desserts and famous for its coffee would find a way to combine them so sublimely. What is a shock is that this glorious combination was supposedly conjured up in a brothel.
Tiramisù is concocted of layers of Savoiardi ladyfinger biscuits dipped one by one in a whipped mixture of mascarpone cream cheese and a fine blend of different coffee powders. Chocolate powder is also sometimes added, but purists like to stick to just coffee.
It’s traditionally made in large trays and served in rectangular portions like lasagne.
The name tiramisù literally means “lift me up” or “pull me up” – a reference to the restorative powers it apparently bestowed upon customers of brothels in the northern city of Treviso, allowing them to spend more money.
Can’t cook but want to learn to prepare great Italian food? Start here. This symbol of the Mediterranean diet is made simply by alternating slices of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese dressed with extra virgin oil, salt, pepper and fresh basil leaves.
The white of the mozzarella juxtaposed with the red of the tomato and the green of the basil is said to represent the Italian flag. Its birthplace is believed to be the chic island of Capri. Insalata Caprese means “salad made the Capri-way.”
Bollito alla Piemontese
Meat addicts will love this dish originating from the northern region of Piedmont. Bollito simply means “the boil” and is a feast of various meats. One single dish holds boiled pieces of seven different beef cuts plus parts of other animals: calf’s head, chuck steak, ox tongue, ox tail, flank; one whole capon and one cotechino pork sausage.
Carrots, onions, fresh rosemary, celery, garlic, salt and pepper are added to spice up this butcher’s platter. The meat can then be dipped in a variety of bittersweet sauces.
The trick is all in the timing and temperature. The longer the meats are boiled, the tastier they get, but there’s a risk of destroying the flavor through overboiling.
Linguine allo scoglio
Meaning “sea rock” in Italian, scoglio is a name that suits this dish of linguine entwined with calamari, clams, mussels, shrimp and baby prawns and dressed with chili pepper, parsley, tomatoes and a glug of white wine.
It’s a seafood pasta recipe hailing back to the ancient fishing traditions when families living along the coast ate their evening pasta with the fresh daily catch.
Linguine, aka “small tongues,” is a flat thin noodle ideal for seafood dishes. This dish resembles shoreline rocks after crashing waves have left behind a handful of marine life. The original recipe comes from Naples but has extended to most southern cities. In Rome, it’s also served wrapped in tinfoil.
Not to be tackled for lunch unless there’s room for an afternoon nap, this tasty dish is an oozing stratification of fried eggplant slices, Pachino tomato sauce, eggs, fresh basil and caciocavallo or fior di latte cheese.
The best eggplants are the oval, dark purple, fat ones ideal for frying. They can also be topped with grated, smoked ricotta.
Despite the name, it has nothing to do with northern town of Parma but comes from deepest Sicily and is a popular dish mainly in southern Italy.
Coda alla vaccinara
This dish is what happens when you let oxtail stew for hours in a huge pan of celery, carrots, onions and a liter of red wine. The best versions take two days, with ingredients simmered slowly over a low flame until the meat falls away from the bone at the touch of a tongue.
At the end of the meal, grilled bruschetta slices are often dipped in the pan to mop up the remaining carrots, oxtail and celery sauce. This typical Roman dish, usually savored during festivities, is so tender it melts in the mouth.
Italians don’t usually like to mix meat and fish, but there are a few exceptions. One is vitello tonnato, aka veal covered in tuna cream.
This unusual concoction sees boiled veal fillets sliced into circles and covered in a dense layer of mayonnaise mixed with shredded tuna, anchovies and capers. The concoction is typically served cold as an appetizer.
It’s a specialty of the Piedmont region, which bears the influence of past French conquerors.
Malloreddus alla Campidanese
Malloreddus are tiny, shell-shaped, durum-wheat flour pasta that are served with a sauce of onions, sausage ragù (preferably flavored with fennel) or dried salami and dressed with salty Sardinian pecorino cheese. Basil can also be added.
The sauce gets trapped inside the malloreddus’ tiny pockets. Local lore has it that the name of the pasta in regional dialect means “little bulls” as their shape reminded shepherds of calves. It’s a classic main course from Sardinia’s southwest Campidano area.
Tonnarelli cacio e pepe
Tasty Roman pecorino cheese, blended with sprinkled black pepper, melts as soon as it mixes with the thick, curly tonnarelli spaghetti freshly pulled out of a pot of boiling water.
The secret to making a great sauce is adding teaspoons of hot salty water from the boiling pasta pot to help the ingredients blend in a creamy, slightly adhesive sauce that sticks easily to the tonnarello.
Cheese fanatics tend to add an extra layer of grated pecorino to make it even tastier. It’s a simple Rome signature dish, found at typical trattoria.
Those with a sweet tooth will adore this top Neapolitan pastry, which is fun to eat. There are two types of sfogliatella. The riccia, meaning “curly,” is shaped like a shell and has crunchy layers of puff pastry stuffed with fresh sweet ricotta cheese, crushed candied orange bits, vanilla and cinnamon. It’s sprinkled with sugar.
When its corner is bitten off, the pastry unravels like woolen yarn exposing the inner filling.
Ffrolla sfogliatella is roundish and stuffed with the same ingredients but wrapped in shortcrust pastry.
Local poets have written sonnets praising the delicious taste of these “two sisters.” It’s a street food sweet treat. In Naples, pastry stands sell sfogliatelle freshly made each day.
These handmade ravioli are stuffed with mashed potatoes, chopped mint, garlic and grated Sardinian pecorino cheese. They’re best savored straight, “in white” with no added sauce but just a bit of extra virgin olive oil or grated tuna eggs (bottarga). They’re laid out on the plate to form a blossoming flower.
Culurgiones are also eaten with tomato sauce and fresh basil. Hand-shaping them can be tricky; it takes time to learn how to properly do it.
Once the ingredients are wrapped inside the dough, the borders are pinched together to form little lines resembling wheat spikes. A typical dish from Sardinia’s Ogliastra region, in the past it was prepared as a festive treat to celebrate grain harvest, a sort of local Thanksgiving food.
Agnolotti del plin
Hand-made squared ravioli with zig-zag edges filled with roasted meat, these are usually eaten either with veal broth, a rich meat sauce or with butter and sage.
Being a highly nutritious dish, it’s usually served at dinner and on special occasions. While the agnolotti are cooking, a glass of red wine can be poured over them to enhance the flavor. A thin layer of grated Parmigiano cheese is added at the end as topping. Plin is the final “pinch” given to close an agnolotto.
In the past, farming families ate them without any sauce to best savor the Piedmont recipe’s ingredients.
Risotto al gorgonzola
This succulent rice dish was born on the border between Lombardy and Piedmont. Gorgonzola blue cheese is an ideal dressing for risotto. It has a delicate taste when added to locally grown rice varieties such as carnaroli that absorb the flavors during cooking.
To make it, rice is cooked with vegetable broth with morsels of Gorgonzola thrown in at the end, just before butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are added. Black pepper is sprinkled on top.
Nuts and pieces of special sausages from the Piedmont town of Bra made with a mix of veal and pig fat can also be added to the dish.
Gorgonzola cheese was, apparently, created by mistake. It’s said that a young dairy man, eager to meet his girlfriend, forgot to finish his work and left the cheese pot outside. Instead of throwing away the almost rotten curd the next morning, he added a fresh layer. In between the two, green “parsley” looking veins of mold formed.
Timballo is the art of recycling food leftovers from the day before or after a festive meal. It’s the Italian equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon pie. Anything can go inside to stuff the shortcrust pastry as long as it’s been previously cooked.
Pasta, meat, cheese, vegetables, tortellini, eggs, sausages and even fish are mixed together with besciamella sauce and placed inside the dough, which is then folded and cooked in an oven.
It’s mostly eaten in central and northern Italy, with family recipes passed down through generations. Timballo was invented as a way to conserve expensive ingredients and make meals last for days.
This article was first published in February 2021 and last updated in May 2023.