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Don’t get me wrong, but feasting on delicious food is not really a priority for me when I travel. At least that’s what I thought until I landed in Italy. Italy had a way of turning a non-believer into a glutton way beyond her wildest dreams. Now that I think about it, it’s not really surprising though. Considering Rome is one of the top three food destinations in the world. If you haven’t guessed it already, I went way beyond my food budget. My wallet wasn’t happy about it, but my tummy sure was!
I sampled some popular Italian food by region – some good old pizzas, pasta, gelato (and some more), tiramisu (some of the best I’ve had!) and a few dishes I couldn’t even pronounce the name of! However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I missed out on many quintessential Italian dishes.
On a quest for finding some best Italian dishes, I thought of asking some of my fellow travel bloggers on what to eat in Italy.
And I received some great recommendations and tips on how to find the best dishes to eat in Italy. So, here I am collating some drool-worthy Italian dishes suggested by some esteemed travel bloggers. They go on about their best food experiences from their time in Italy. The dishes mentioned here range from a variety of vegetarian, non-vegetarian dishes along with some melt-in-your-mouth desserts. And, best of all, most of them are sampled right from the source!
Now, let’s kick-off this best Italian dishes list by drooling over some exquisite desserts! Desserts may come last in the pecking order, but in here, they are always given a priority!
Traveling to Italy from India? Here’s a DIY Guide for scoring a Schengen Italy visa from India.
Desserts: Popular Italian Food By Region
Tiramisu (Veneto region)
Here’s a submission for one of the delicious desserts I tried in Italy from yours truly! (You can check me out on Instagram)
Tiramisu is speculated to have originated in the Veneto region, so I was keen on sampling it in Venice. For the uninitiated, Tiramisu is a coffee-flavored Italian dessert.
I found about a great confectionary – I Tre Mercanti while I was on a local Venice tour with Wanderjack. And I ended up sampling one of my best Tiramisu here. It was rich, and creamy, and melted right in my mouth. At I Tre Mercanti, apart from the classic coffee flavored Tiramisu, you’ll find a variety of other flavors too like Nutella, Pistachio, mango and so on. Usually, 3-4 flavors are available per day from a bunch of 25 flavors. Apart from Tiramisu, you can buy pasta, chocolates, and wines here.
Contributed by Dan from Honeymoon Always (Check him out on Instagram)
Eating out in Italy, we wanted to try all the typical Italian desserts. While sampling Panna Cotta didn’t interest us, we eventually gave it a try when a server recommended it. From that point on, it was hard to turn down a Panna Cotta for dessert during our trip to Italy.
Panna Cotta is a sweetened cream-based dessert, thickened with gelatin. It is flavored with vanilla and served cold with fruits, chocolate, and different sauces. We tried all sorts of delicious toppings and our favorites were a combination of caramel sauce and chocolate or a drizzle of honey with macerated strawberries, berries, pears, and figs. You can find good Panna Cotta all around Italy. We tried it in Florence , Cinque Terre, and Siena and each one was a delight! The name means cooked cream in Italian, but it is actually never cooked. The mixture is only heated enough to dissolve the gelatin.
Fun Fact – Panna Cotta is a quintessential Italian dish, but the Italian cookbooks didn’t have it until the 1960s.
Cannoli (Palermo, Sicily region)
There are so many delicious dishes to try when in Sicily—don’t miss pasta alla norma or pasta con sarde or the famous markets with their street food. But you certainly can’t go to Palermo without trying authentic cannoli.
Sicily, known for its sweet treats, there are bakeries and patisseries on every street corner, shelves piled with delicious desserts, gelatos, and pastries. But cannoli is the pasty which has traveled abroad with the Italian diaspora. And versions can now be found around the world. However, they never taste quite the same as they do in Sicily though. And that’s down to the freshness of the sheep’s milk ricotta which is sweetened and used to fill the deep-fried pastry tubes. You’ll find a variety of fillings and toppings in Palermo. Although the most traditional is glace cherry or candied orange or lemon peel with chunks of chocolate chip.
Hardcore foodies and sugar addicts should head south from Palermo to the villages of Piana degli Albanesi and Santa Cristina di Gela. Where rumor has it that you’ll find the best cannoli in Sicily.
For the ultimate Palermitan dessert hit try a cannoli-flavored gelato inside a brioche bun. For breakfast!
Contributed by Kate Storm from Our Escape Clause (Check her out on Instagram).
If there’s one dessert that is synonymous with summer in Italy, it’s gelato! Silky smooth and utterly delicious, gelato is the perfect accompaniment to just about anything you’re doing in Italy. From wandering the streets of Florence to chilling out on the beaches of the Amalfi Coast.
In fact, if you’re visiting Italy in the summer, you might as well just schedule yourself a daily gelato break. It’ll give you a chance to try plenty of flavors, shops, and qualities.
Tasty gelato is served up on just about every Italian street corner–but not all gelatos are created equal.
For the best quality gelato, skip past the mounds of colorful gelatos glistening in shop windows near tourist highlights. While some of it is quite tasty, it’s not the real deal.
Genuine gelato needs to be stored out of the sun. Look for shops that store their gelato in the classic silver cans, out of sight. And serve less than a dozen flavors (this ups the odds that it was made in-house).
If you opt for the more touristic (and common) factory-made gelato, though, don’t worry — I’ve eaten gelato of all kinds all over Italy, from artisanal gelato made onsite to the average tourist-friendly cone. While exploring spots from Veneto to Tuscany to South Tyrol and beyond, and I haven’t had a bad scoop yet.
Check out two weeks itinerary to Italy on Kate’s blog Our Escape Clause.
Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian dishes: Popular Italian Food by Region
Neapolitan pizza (Naples, Campania region)
Contributed by Daryl & Mindi Hirsch from 2foodtrippers (Check them out on Instagram).
Naples has the best pizza in the world. This should be no surprise since Margherita pizza originated in the southern Italian city in 1889 and has grown in popularity over the years. Travelers who journey to Naples with the goal of eating authentic Neapolitan pizza are rarely disappointed since the city is filled with both popular Italian food and under-the-radar places to eat pizza.
Though it’s difficult to find a bad pizza in Naples, some pizzerias serve higher quality pies. After a month of eating pizza in Naples, we narrowed our favorite pizzerias to Da Michele, 50 Kalo, and Pizzaria La Notizia. These three pizzerias serve pizza fit for the pickiest Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian diners. Thanks to their attention to detail and the sourcing of top quality ingredients. We’re talking about tomatoes grown on the banks of Mount Vesuvius and meats cured by local artisans.
Though the lines may be long at the best pizzerias in Naples, the wait is well worth. Since the reward is amazing pizza at relatively low prices. If you love pizza, then a visit to Naples to eat Neapolitan pizza is a must during a trip to Italy.
Check out Daryl and Mindi’s site 2foottrippers for a detailed Naples Pizza Guide.
Panini is one of the staples of Italian food, and you’ll find it basically everywhere in different varieties. I love Panini, and it’s the perfect fast food with fresh ingredients. I had my best Panini in Florence at a place called SandwiChic in the central parts.
Basically, a panini is a type of Italian sandwich. And it originates from the word panino, which means a small piece of bread. It can be toasted or non-toasted, all after your personal preference. And the fillings can vary a lot, but normally you’ll see panini with salami, cheese or prosciutto.
It’s the perfect Italian food if you’re traveling on a budget, or just want a quick meal.
Polenta (Agrigento, Sicily region)
Agrigento in southern Sicily is home to the spectacular Valley of the Temples. The iconic Tempio della Concordia, built of marble in the 5th century BC, was already ancient when the Romans first saw it.
One of the many culinary specialties of Agrigento is polenta. A delightful concoction of cornmeal that can be served either hot or cold. Although polenta is also popular in other parts of Italy, primarily the Veneto, Agrigento has its own flair that makes this dish truly special. The trick in Agrigento is to bake polenta and serve it surrounded by tasty side dishes like lamb, fish, peppers or other vegetables. A dish of polenta and a glass of Italian wine is a true delight!
Vegetarian dishes: Italian Specialty Foods
Fave e Cicoria (Puglia region)
Contributed by Erin of Never Ending Voyage. (Check them out on Instagram).
Puglia is my favorite Italian region for food because it’s so vegetarian-friendly. With plenty of sun, fertile soil, and a flat landscape, it’s ideal for growing vegetables, as well as olives for the delicious local oil. The fruit and vegetables are fresh and flavourful, and restaurant menus take advantage of the seasonal local produce. Historically people in the region couldn’t afford much meat, so they were creative in their use of vegetables.
One of the most typical Puglian dishes is a bowl of comforting fava e cicoria, fava bean puree topped with cicoria or bitter greens. Cicoria is translated as chicory, but this local green is closer to endive than to chicory.
Every restaurant and home has a different interpretation of this simple dish from rustic to elegant, thick or thin, served with chilli oil or whole roasted peppers or just a drizzle of fruity olive oil. The beauty lies in the contrast between the bitter greens and the creamy, nutty beans.
I ate fava e Cicoria all over the region, but my favorite versions were those with a modern twist in the lovely baroque city of Lecce in the far south. At Osteria degli Spiriti it was served with sweet caramelized onion, grilled pepper, and toast and at La Cucina di Mamma Elvira it was beautifully presented and topped with a flower-shaped fried shallot.
Catania (Sicily region)
If you come to Catania for one thing, let it be for the most delightful pasta dish. I’m talking about Pasta Alla Norma — prepared with pasta al dente of course, tossed in a tomato sauce, topped with eggplant, basil, and ricotta cheese. This classic dish is a popular Italian food all across Sicily, the name supposedly originates from the opera Norma by the composer Bellini from Catania.
For an unforgettable and romantic meal head over to the restaurant Me Cumpari Turiddu. We enjoyed it so much we ate here twice! The food is always prepared fresh, made with seasonal produce and local ingredients from the land and sea. Not only is the food and service sensational, everything about this place is decorated in true Sicilian fashion. I couldn’t help but obsess over the tablecloths hanging above the chandeliers, a very unique and creative way to display some everyday items found inside Sicilian homes.
After our dinner here I was fortunate enough to meet the lovely owner and chat with her about the restaurant. She shared that one of her main objectives with the restaurant is to highlight and preserve what can be found inside any Sicilian Grandmother’s home from the cooking to the decor.
One can enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Me Cumpari Turiddu. If you don’t have time for a meal consider visiting the Tea Room available after 6 pm for tea and sweet treats. For an authentic Sicilian dining experience in Catania, you won’t want to miss Me Cumpari Turiddu.
Trofie con Pesto (Lerici, Liguria region)
One of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Italy was at a small restaurant called Il Frantoio in Lerici, a Ligurian coastal town I highly recommend if you are planning to visit the Cinque Terre. In a town where most eating establishments are pizzerias or tourist-oriented seasonal places, Il Frantoio offers a cozy fine dining experience with local produce featuring prominently on the menu. Tucked away in a location off Via Cavour, a way up the hill from the main piazza, Il Frantoio is worth the walk.
Fresh produce is the hallmark of Ligurian cuisine. And the most famous representation is Pesto alla Genovese, made with basil grown locally, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano. So, when we visited Liguria, I wanted to try a dish where the famous pesto of the region was the star.
At Il Frantoio, I sampled Trofie con Pesto alla Genovese. Trofie pasta — a short twisted pasta available locally in Liguria. And designed to hold the pesto when tossed in it. The dish consists of trofie pasta, cooked al dente and tossed with a generous helping of Genovese pesto, cooked diced potatoes, and cooked cut green beans. So simple, but oh-so-flavorful! I relished every morsel and scraped the plate clean.
The food was delicious, the ambiance cozy, and the service exceptional. If you are planning a visit to the Ligurian coast of Italy, then check out Lerici and Il Frantoio: it’s totally worth it!
Cacio e Pepe (Rome, Lazio region)
Contributed by Katy Clark of Untold Morsels. (Check her out on Facebook).
When in Rome, don’t forget to try one of the city’s famous and ancient pasta dishes. Cacio e Pepe — a simple dish full of flavors, that will transport you back to Roma with one bite. Proof of the fact that sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious. This pasta dish has only a handful of ingredients!
The key to tasting the best version of this dish is, as always, the quality of the ingredients. You can try a delicious Cacio e Pepe at Flavio al Velavevodetto [Via di Monte Testaccio, 97, Rome]. Although you can find many variations of this dish in Rome, their version of Cacio e Pepe was one of my favorite meals in Rome.
Find an extensive Rome Food Guide at Katy’s site, Untold Morsels.
Artichokes (Rome, Lazio region)
Contributed by Hadas from The Fashion Matters (Check her out on Instagram)
The Roman-style artichoke, known in Italy as the Carciofi alla Romana, is a Roman typical dish. I’ve been told that while in Rome I’ve got to try this delicious traditional dish. Like they say: In Rome, do as the Romans do, and so I did, and it definitely met my exceptions. It was an excellent starter to my Italian meal which followed by a delicious pasta.
They serve Roman artichokes in almost all restaurants across Rome and therefore it is very easy to find. Noted as one of the most popular regional dishes in the Roman cuisine, and it’s easy to see why: it is light, healthy and suitable for vegetarians. I would totally recommend to try it out when visiting Rome. Especially for those who are looking to sample the Italian cuisine beyond than just pizza.
Find out about delicious desserts to try in Italy at Hadas’s site – The Fashion Matters.
Pici (Tuscany region)
Contributed by Chris at Explore Now or Never (Check her out on Instagram)
Pici (derives from the Italian word appicare), made in Tuscany since the days of the Etruscans in 700 BC, is a hand-rolled peasant’s noodle that looks like a very thick spaghetti. (Appiciare refers to the manual technique used to roll out the noodle. It looks a lot like the technique children use when making long snakes of American play-dough.)
Unlike other pasta, however, pici is made from just flour and water (no eggs used). It’s rustic and simple like so many delicious foods in Tuscany. Pici is served with everything from a simple sauce of breadcrumbs roasted in olive oil, red pepper and garlic (pici alla bricole) to a hearty red sauce.
We enjoyed it as the first course—with asparagus, prosciutto, and parmesean— in one of the most remarkable meals of our lives at a tiny restaurant in the beautiful Val d’Orcia in Tuscany. We were the only tourists in the place, holding out our plates for a serving just like the kids from a local soccer club who were also lunching there. Then we learned how to make it ourselves during an incredible one-day cooking class in Tuscany.
Parmigiano Reggiano (Emilia Romagna region)
Contributed by Megsy from Food Fun Travel (Check her out on Facebook).
There are many kinds of cheese that you can try around Italy and even around the world. But there is only one cheese that we refer to as the King Of Cheeses. And that is Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese).
Made in the region of Emilia Romagna this cheese is made only under the strictest of conditions. For example, the cows must be from the Emilia Romagna region. And only be fed hay grown within the specified DOP area. DOP is Italian for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, also known in English as PDO – Protected Designation of Origin. This means a lot when it comes to Italian food. And many of the best Italian dishes must adhere to the DOP and its regulations.
You can buy Parmigiano Reggiano throughout Italy. But if you are in Emilia Romagna, I highly recommend going out to one of the factories to see how this world famous cheese is made. And you can even get a tasting at the end where you can try 12 months, 24 months and 36 months aged cheese. You won’t believe the incredible flavors and texture with every cheese.
Another famous local specialty is balsamic vinegar – try them together! It might sound weird but it’s an incredible taste sensation that you won’t soon forget!
Find out more about what to eat at Emilia Romagna at Megsy’s blog Food Fun Travel.
Non-Vegetarian: Italian Specialty Foods
Bottarga (Sicily region)
Contributed by Kaila from Nom List (Check her out on Instagram).
If you appreciate the umami-packed salty goodness of anchovies, you’ll love bottarga. It’s simply the Italian name of salted fish roe which is cured and popular around coastlines all around the world. Commonly made from the roe of the grey mullet (but Atlantic bluefin tuna is also used), it’s served thinly sliced or grated like cheese over Italian dishes.
Bottarga is also known as the caviar of the south and is truly a delicacy! One of the many Italian specialty foods that you can learn to cook in Italy. It’s time-intensive to prepare bottarga – it’s first hand massaged to get rid of any air pockets and then dried in the sun for a couple of weeks in sea salt. The finished product is a hard slab which is often (but not always) coated in beeswax, similar to hard cheese.
The bottarga topped pasta at Al Boccone Ristorante is absolutely to die for. Not only does it have a killer view with a gorgeous outdoor patio, but the service is also first-rate. You can also get delicious fish dishes at this specialty fish restaurant. There’s nothing better than enjoying an epic fish meal with bottarga pasta packed with umami while viewing the sunset in Sicily. It’s definitely a truly priceless experience.
Arrosticini (Abruzzo region)
Contributed by Jennifer from The SoFull Traveler (Check her out on Instagram)
While most travelers in Italy look forward to their bowl of pasta and scoops of gelato, it should be noted that the richness of the Italian cuisine goes much, much further than these stereotypical, high carb bowls of deliciousness. In particular, the meats of Italy are some of the finest in the world. From region to region, you’ll find unique meat dishes specific to their own area. For example, the greenest region in Italy is the Abruzzo region with a landscape ideal for farming.
I had the pleasure of living in the Abruzzo region where I was introduced to their (and my) favorite specialty: Arrosticini. Arrosticini is long, thin skewers of lamb meat (castrated sheep to be specific). It develops a unique flavor profile, thanks to a fornacella. A fornacella is a long, slender, charcoal grill designed specifically for arrosticini with dimensions that allow the meat to hang directly over the coals. That produces a mouthwatering product cooked to perfection.
As expected with the world’s specialty, arrositicini was always saved for big events, celebrations, and shared among large families and groups of friends. My Italian host dad made the best in the entire country (self-proclaimed). If you want to eat these like a local, don’t use utensils! Simply bite into each piece and slide it off the skewer. Buon appetito!
Prosciutto di Parma (Bologna, Emilia Romagna region)
Contributed by Allison Green from Eternal Arrival (Check her out on Instagram).
Italy has a love affair with its cured meats, from salami to speck and everything in between. But the king of Italian cold cuts is undoubtedly prosciutto. And Parma produces the best prosciutto on earth. I got the opportunity to try delicious prosciutto di Parma while I was on a food tour in Bologna, straight at the source: the prosciutto factory itself. We got to see how they make prosciutto di Parma. And also learn about all the other different kinds of cured meat produced in Emilia Romagna, such as lardo, culatello, and others.
It was really cool getting to see all the hard work and time that goes into perfecting, curing, aging, and packaging prosciutto di Parma. It is then shipped all over Italy and the world. Being one of Italy’s foods with PDO (protected designation of origin) status, it can only be made in a very specific region of Italy.
Genuine Prosciutto di Parma is expensive but well worth it. It’s saltier and nuttier than your traditional mass-produced prosciutto. As they feed the pigs here with whey (liquid remains from cheesemaking) of parmigiana reggiano. While you can get prosciutto di Parma all over the world, there’s something special about eating it at a makeshift picnic at the factory. Right where it was created. I got to eat prosciutto while toasting the hardworking people who make prosciutto happen.
We paired the prosciutto and other cold cuts with two local Italian wines – the sparkling white Pignoletto and the sparkling red Lambrusco. I definitely recommend doing a food tour when in Emilia Romagna. So that you can not only see where your favorite foods come from but try it alongside the people who create it as well.
Mortadella (Bologna, Emilia Romagna region)
Contributed by Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic (Check her out on Instagram).
Although most people who visit Italy for the first time travel to Rome, Venice, and Florence I always urge people to go to Bologna. Not only is this city one of the most affordable because it’s a university town but it’s also home to so much great food. Bologna is definitely one of the most underrated cities in Italy.
Bologna is known as La Grassa and is what food lover wouldn’t want to visit a city known as The Fat? One of the best things to do in Bologna is to eat and drink. While the city is home to so many epic Italian dishes, one of my most memorable afternoons was eating mortadella and drinking prosecco at the Mercato di Mezzo.
Outside of Italy, we call mortadella by its home city name – Bologna. But in Italy, it isn’t just a cheap sandwich filling. It uses high-quality ingredients and made with love.
Mortadella is essentially an Italian sausage made with ground pork and a bit of fat. Sparkling wine is a perfect pairing to balance the salty fatty, decadent snack. And it gives you an opportunity to just linger in the market, deciding what you want to eat next!
Fregola con le arselle (Cagliari, Sardinia)
Contributed by Claudia from My Adventures Across the World (Check her out on Instagram).
One of the must-try dishes in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, is fregola con le arselle. This is a rather rough, unrefined kind of pasta that is best homemade. It looks like a sort of large couscous, but thicker and chewier. It’s best cooked within a broth-ish sauce made with garlic, excellent quality olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and parsley. As well as fresh clams. Not many restaurants serve fregola, actually – this is the kind of dish one would normally eat at home. Indeed, it is hard to get it right in spite of needing only a few ingredients.
A great place to try it is Ristorante Italia (The restaurant has the same name as the hotel on the opposite side) in Via Sardegna, in Cagliari.
So, what are your top Italian dishes? Anything you’d like to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!