Italy is on every traveller’s bucket list. From the Colosseum in Rome to the flowers of Capri, it seems Italy has a city for everyone. Natural beauty and historic architecture aside, Italy ranks at the top of many travelers’ favorite culinary destinations. Italian cuisine often consists of humble ingredients, sometimes elevated and modernized, sometimes served traditionally. Whether it’s the fresh truffles found laced on handmade pasta in Florence, the traditional meat sauce of Bologna, seafood in one of the many coastal towns, or cheese that can only be found in small regions in the north, it seems Italy attracts visitors just on its kitchen alone.
10 Polpette Di Pane (Matera)
In the Province of Basilica is the ancient, underrated town of Matera, the oldest city in Europe. Once a notoriously poor city, Matera was considered to be shameful by Italian standards. In the city, there are cave dwellings, better known as the Sassi di Matera. Families upward of 10 or more used to live in these cramped, inhumane living conditions without natural light or running water. Residents often developed cholera, typhoid, and malaria, among other various diseases and viruses, due to their unhygienic lifestyles. However, in the 1980s, renovations occurred and Matera was fixed up and reborn. In recent days, the city has seen a tourism boom due to the breathtaking picturesque views Matera has to offer. As if its beauty alone isn’t enough to make you want to visit, the cuisine of Matera is unlike anything in the rest of Italy. Carrying its impoverished past in its dishes, menus boast many dishes that are made with humble ingredients. Perhaps the most humble dish of them all is polpette di pane, or “bread meatballs.” There is no actual meat in these balls, and they are instead made with stale bread, egg, cheese, and a blend of spices. Often served with sugo, or sauce, polpette di pane will blow your mind with how firmly they hold together, as well as how tasty they can be. One of the most popular places in the city to grab them is at Trattoria Lucana.
9 Pici Al Cinghiale (Florence)
Florence has some of the best cuisines in the country, and the options can feel overwhelming. Do you want fresh truffles shaved over handmade pasta? Do you want to split the dinosaur-sized bistecca alla Florentini with a friend or loved one? Do you want to try an infamous lampredottoor tripe, a sandwich from a chiosi, or a street kiosk? How about some gelato, rumored to have originated in Florence? The options in Florence are endless, and you can’t go wrong no matter what you choose to eat. However, for a true Florentine experience, you must order pici al cinghiale, a wild boar ragu with deep roots in the Tuscany region. Wild boar hunting in Tuscany is a tradition, with Italy having one of the highest rates of hunters per capita. Wild boar, though texturally similar to pork, is darker meat with a nuttier, more complex, and rich flavor. Wild boar ragu served over pappardelle is a dish that will be found on most menus in Florence for a good reason. Chunks of tender boar meat are simmered down with fresh Pomodoro, or tomatoes, often with the addition of juniper berries, red wine, and rosemary. It’s a rich dish that pairs perfectly with a glass of nearby Chianti or Montepulciano wine.
8 Tortellini In Brodo (Bologna)
Bologna is Italy’s culinary capital, so narrowing Bologna down to a singular dish is seemingly an impossible task. Though traditional Bolognese could have easily made this list, for something a little less predictable for the culinary haven that is Bologna, go for some tortellini en brodo. The best place in the city to get this dish is Sfoglia Rina, a humble pasta bar where thousands of fresh tortellini are rolled out daily in front of patrons’ eyes. Flavors range from cacio e pepe tortellini, squid ink tortellini, and traditional pork tortellini, to name a few. The real star of the menu is tortellini en brodo; a traditional tortellini served in a homemade broth paired with a side of vegetables. You simply sit down at a table, write down your order on one of the provided yellow pads along with your name, and hand it to a server. A few minutes later, your piping hot bowl of tortellini en brodo, floating with a plethora of fresh circular pasta, arrives at your table for you to consume.
7 Octopus Sandwich (Polignano A Mare)
Did you really go to an Italian seaside town if you didn’t indulge in some fresh seafood? Polignano a Mare is a quaint town in Italy’s Puglia region, a popular area for Italians to head to on holiday. Boasting dramatic limestone cliff sides over the aquatic waters of the Adriatic Sea, Polignano a Mare is a feast for the eyes. However, if you’re looking for a feast for your belly as well, the fresh seafood this town unsurprisingly offers is unmatched. A signature dish that will be found on most menus is a proper octopus sandwich. Sandwiched between two fluffy yet crusty pieces of Italian bread, tender octopus is encased inside, with a proper schmear of ricotta cheese, often with a red wine reduction and some type of bitter green. Pair with a glass a dry, crisp glass of white wine in the Italian sunshine, and you’ve got yourself a slice of paradise.
6 Bucatini All’Amatriciana (Rome)
No trip to Italy is complete without a stop in the Italian capital, Rome. Many restaurants, especially near famous sites such as the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Spanish Steps, and even the own sovereign nation of The Vatican, are tourist traps with overpriced mediocre food. This could lead one to believe that Rome’s cuisine isn’t up to the same standards as the rest of the country, but it’s far from the truth. You simply need to know where to go to find good grub. The trendy neighborhood of Trastevere offers up some of the city’s best dishes, and while carbonara from Trattoria da Enzo is one of the most exquisite dishes the city has to offer, you’d be delivered not to order bucatini all’amatriciana at least once while visiting the Holy City. You’ll find this rich tomato-sauce-based dish on every menu in Rome’s hippest neighborhood, and when your plate of fresh tubular pasta arrives, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find fatty, luscious morsels of guanciale speckled throughout the dish. Pair bucatini all’amatriciana with a glass of a bold red Italian wine, and you’ll quickly be shattering the myths that Roman food doesn’t live up to the hype. If you’re looking for a true Roman experience, order an appetizer of carciofi, or Roman artichokes, before your plate of pasta arrives. Just keep the wine flowing.
5 Pistachio Arancini (Catania)
Sicily is home to our favorite green nut: the pistachio. In Catania, most cafés, if you choose to skip out on sipping your Italian-style espresso at the counter and sit down, will serve you a free snack of pistachios. Pistachios can be found in both sweet and savory dishes all over Sicily, and despite their overwhelming appearance in Sicilian cuisine, you’re unlikely to get sick of them. They’re better here than anywhere else in the world, and Sicilians take a lot of pride in their beloved little nut. For a unique pistachio-ladled treat that you’re unlikely to find back at home, go for pistachio arancini in Catania. Arancini is a traditional Italian rice ball, often stuffed with meat, cheese, and peas, but the Sicilian version differs greatly. Still a typical deep-fried rice ball, pistachio arancini is stuffed with, you guessed it, Sicilian pistachios, often accompanied by a creamy, savory sauce. It is otherworldly, and though there are many places to order it, one of the best in Catania is Serafino Arancini Espressi, a humble little place with a large variety of arancini.
4 Tonna Con Cipolle In Agrodolce (Tropea)
When most people think of Italy, they think of architectural structures such as The Colosseum, tangy tomato sauce-dressed pasta, the mountains and lakes of the north, and the rolling hills of Tuscany. Seldom associated Italy with beaches, but with 2174 miles of coastline, Italy has many beaches, some being the best in Europe. One not to be missed is the tiny beach town of Tropea in the Calabrian region. Tropea, though a little tricky to get to, is well worth the transit. It’s a walkable town where the streets will be lined with its famous red onions. Yes, it’s true. There’s a town in Southern Italy known solely for its red onions, better known to the locals as the cipolle di Rossi. These red onions, though appearing similar to the ones we know in the US, are far less pungent and much sweeter. Locals wear you can bite into them like an apple. If you’re not up for eating raw onions, a dish not to be missed is tonna con cipolle in agrodolce, or tuna with onions in agrodolce. Agrodolce is a traditional Italian-style sweet-and-sour sauce. Piles of tangy, sweet onions sit atop a fresh, fatty tuna filet, proving Italy doesn’t only master the art of pasta but of fresh seafood as well. Put on your sunhat, grab a glass of wine, and learn to love a side of Italy you’ve likely never seen; the relaxing seaside vibe of the South.
3 Ossobuco (Milan)
Contrary to popular belief, Italy is not only known for its pasta dishes. The boot-shaped nation has so much more to offer, though if you do choose to only eat pasta, you will likely never be disappointed. Many Italian dishes consist of hearty meats, and the one that reigns them all is Osso Bucco, found on almost every Milanese menu. Often served with risotto Milanese or risotto with saffron, ossobuco is a dish consisting of bone-in veal shanks, braised low and slow with white wine and vegetables, creating a brown sauce on the thicker side. Milan is a bit posher than the rest of Italy, which should be telling since their risotto dish contains saffron, the world’s most expensive herb. Join the reigns, and eat like an Italian Queen or King with this hearty, upscale dish in the Italian fashion capital.
2 Parma Ravioli (Parma)
Situated about an hour and a half south of Milan and approximately two hours north of Florence lies the quaint town of Parma. Parma is home to some of Italy’s best and most familiar food, Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano likely ringing the loudest bells. It should be illegal to visit Parma and not indulge in both of these local delicacies. A tour can be booked directly through the legitimate Parmigiano Reggiano website for a visit to a factory and a tasting of the real deal. Remember, REAL parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in the Parma region in Italy, meaning that the powdery parm-like product you see at the grocery store in a green plastic container is not it. One of the most decadent ways to eat Parmigiano Reggiano is in ravioli form. Pop into any one of Parma’s many eateries, and you’re likely to see it on a menu. The fresh pasta provides an irresistible chew against the sharp nuttiness of the local cheese, and if the dish is topped with a bit of cracked pepper, the flavors round out to a perfect dish.
1 Pizze Fritte (Naples)
Many travelers to Italy skip Naples, with the false narrative that there’s nothing to see or do. At most, many use it as a transport point to get from Rome to the Amalfi Coast. It’s worth spending at least a night in Naples, but if you can’t be convinced, even if you have a singular hour in Naples, you must get pizza. Pizza originated in Naples, and from classics to more innovative pies and slices, it’s hard to go wrong in your deciding. However, for a treat to the original street food, try pizze fritte. Centuries ago, Italian nonnas didn’t have ovens, and to make money, they fried their pizza and sold it on the street. There are several variations of pizze fritte, including the beloved calzone and montanara, or the classic fried pizza. The dough is crispy, and the interior is soft. Topped with fresh Napoli tomatoes, basil, and perfectly salted mozzarella, you’ll find it difficult to ever find street food that compares.