One of the great pleasures of travelling to Italy is sampling its incredible food. Italian food remains the most popular national cuisine on the planet and even though French and Spanish food can match it in terms of flavour and elegance, there simply is no food as beloved or replicated as Italian food. When heading on an Italy vacation, you’re going to want to feast on Italian food. Luckily, you’ll have no problem finding incredible dishes no matter where you head in the country. From region to region, city to city, town to town, you’ll find unique flavours you’ll want to savour.
There are numerous ways to eat your way through an Italy vacation, but for the sake of clarity, let’s imagine you’re heading north to south to experience the nation’s culinary delights.
Heat and Comfort in Milan
If you’re embarking on an Italy vacation as an add-on to another European trip, you can easily start in Milan in the north of the country. Milan is close to both France and Switzerland, tucked just beneath the Swiss Alps. As such, it has a colder climate than much of Italy, so the cuisine leans into the heat that a good meal can provide.
For instance, on an Italy vacation in Milan you’re likely to find red meats and poultry served with polenta, a corn mush very similar to grits in the Southern United States. Although Italians only began to serve polenta as it exists now after corn was transported from North America in the Renaissance, Northern Italians have made polenta-like dishes from other grains since Roman times. Polenta is either boiled into a porridge-like substance or formed into loaves that are baked or fried. The flavour is often bland on its own, but it’s extremely absorbent, soaking up the juices of meats and vegetables served with it, making it a popular side dish. It’s also served very hot, which can be comforting on cold Milanese nights.
In Milan, you’re also likely to dine on ossobuco, a delicious dish of veal shank served with the bone-in. The treat of ossobuco is the bone marrow left inside the bone, which you scoop out after finishing the rest of the dish. It’s a little burst of umami to close out your main course.
Eat the Old Standards in Northern Italy
Nearby Milan in the farmers’ fields of Lombardy and Piedmont grows the majority of Italian rice or Arborio. This rice is primarily used to make risotto, the delicious, gooey, slow-cooked rice concoction that makes any other way of serving rice seem hopelessly bland. Risotto’s particular texture and starchy flavour is a result of cooking it slowly in boiled broth and wine, letting the liquid absorb into the rice and bring out its starches. The cooked rice is then combined with cheeses, like parmesan, and other ingredients, such as baked mushrooms or tomatoes, and pesto. The result is always the same – starchy goodness, both incredibly aromatic and savoury.
Pass south from Milan to the province of Emilia-Romagna to dine on favourites like lasagna and Tortellini en Brodo. Lasagna is one of the most popular dishes in American-Italian cuisine, but the kind you’ll find in cities like Bologna has far less tomato sauce in it than in North American versions. Instead, the base of the sauce is a fine ragu, which is layered along with béchamel sauces and cheese on wide, flattened noodles.
While lasagna is warm and heavy as it’s baked, Tortellini en Brodo is light as can be. This noodle soup consists of meat-stuffed tortellini served in a simple chicken broth and topped with parmesan. Although tortellini is popularly served with a heavy cream sauce like an Alfredo sauce, Tortellini en Brodo has no cream in it. Instead, the delicious flavours of the broth and the thin dough of the tortellini itself do the heavy lifting. Once you try Tortellini en Brodo, you won’t be missing the cream.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth in Venice
Travelling east takes you to Venice, on the Adriatic Sea. While Venice has always been a distinct centre of culture and even acted as an independent city republic through much of its history, it is still undeniably Italy, and you can find almost every sort of Italian dish here, as the city caters to the large number of international tourists who visit it every year. One thing that you’ll notice in Venice, on your Italy vacation, is how much people love dessert. Perhaps it’s the perpetual atmosphere of “holiday” that the city projects or the fact that tourists simply love gelato and other sweets, but regardless of the reason, when the sun goes down in Venice, you’ll be stuffing yourself to bursting with sweets.
Tiramisu is often credited with originating in Venice, so it’s a great place to indulge your sweet tooth with this Italian dessert. Tiramisu is made from coffee, eggs, sugar, cocoa, and mascarpone cheese, and layered through ladyfinger pastries. First, however, stop off at a local bar to grab an espresso, which is so much fresher, aromatic, and stronger than you’d find in North America. (Also remember that there is no drip coffee in Italy; an Americano is merely an espresso diluted in boiled water here.) After revitalizing yourself with a coffee, treat yourself to tiramisu. It’s truly an elegant dessert and one with some genuine flavour beyond being just a sugar rush.
Savour the Harvest Flavours of Tuscany
From Venice head southwest to Florence, in the heart of Tuscany. Florence has such a vast amount of artistic treasures within its borders that it’s hard to imagine you’ll have time to eat in between all the museum and palace visits. However, you do not want to miss the incredible foods to be found in this Tuscan city.
Perhaps most famous (or infamous if you’re vegetarian or vegan) of Florence’s dishes is the Fiorentina steak, an extremely-thick cut of beef that is seared on the outside and served very rare on the inside. It’s meant to be shared among a few people, as the serving portions are enormous and you wouldn’t likely be able to finish it unless you can really pack it in. As well, the cut and serving style of Fiorentina steak is exclusive to Tuscany; you won’t find the real thing anywhere else.
In the autumn in Tuscany, you’ll also be able to savour Ribollita, a harvest soup that takes advantage of the leftover vegetables that a peasant was likely to have in the season. It was originally known as a poor-man’s food, as the recipe is meant to compensate for the lack of expensive meat by using bread to thicken the stock. Today, recipes vary, but you’ll always find bread, cannellini beans, kale, and cabbage in the soup. It’s a humble dish, but bursting with bright flavours and packing a good veggie punch.
Florence is also a great place to taste focaccia, the fresh-baked, heavy Italian bread that continually delights foodies around the world. With its combination of fluffy insides, salty and oily crust, and strong hold, focaccia works nicely as either sandwich bread or a treat on its own. Indulge however you like; there’s no wrong way to enjoy focaccia on an Italy vacation.
When in Rome, Eat Carbonara
By the time you get to Rome, you might be thinking your culinary journey is nearing completion, but it’s not. Rome is a whole world of food unto itself and you could figuratively eat your way around the country by staying within the city limits and travelling between its multitudes of impressive restaurants. However, if there’s one classic dish that reigns supreme here, it is carbonara.
The carbonara you find in Rome is not the sort your mom used to make for you (unless your mom is an incredible Italian lady with a knack for gastro wonders, in which case, I’m jealous). While there are plenty of great pastas that should hold your attention on an Italy vacation, carbonara is perhaps the best dish to appreciate the flavourful simplicity of Italian cooking. The recipe consists of a long noodle (usually spaghetti or linguini, and freshly made) covered in a savoury sauce made from egg yolks, pecorino cheese, cured guanciale, and copious amounts of black pepper. The heat from the pasta and meat effectively cooks the eggs, and deliciously coats the long noodles. While American versions of the dish will substitute bacon and cream for the fresh yolks, pecorino, and guanciale, accept no substitutes. Once you taste Roman carbonara, there’s no going back.
In Rome, you’ll also find pizza everywhere you look. While daytime joints will give you only the fluffy snack kinds (most restaurants heat up their ovens for 7pm), once the sun starts to dip you’ll find the real deal of Roman pizza all over the city. Roman pizza is typically rolled very thin, lightly-topped with foods like prosciutto and some buffalo mozzarella, and cooked at an extremely-high temperature until the bottom of the pizza almost burns. Roman pizza is a great dish to enjoy alongside a glass of fine vino and great company, although if you want to eat the original pizza, you’ll have to head further south.
Naples: Home of Pizza
As any Neapolitan will proudly tell you, Naples is the birthplace of pizza. The pizza in Naples is more similar to the kinds you’ll likely find in North America than the stuff in Rome (and it is loads better too, as some North American varieties of pizza should barely be considered food). In Naples, the most famous type of pizza is the Queen Margherita Pizza, which has tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and basil leaves (incidentally the colours of the Italian flag). Neapolitan pizza is thicker than Roman pizza and typically more filling. The crust has a lip unlike the flat Roman pizza, and you’ll find all manner of toppings baked on it, from the favourites like the aforementioned mozzarella and basil to artichoke hearts and boiled eggs to anchovies and capers.
While pizza is Naples’ claim to gastronomic fame, there are plenty of other dishes in the city that’ll leave you salivating. Many pastas in Naples incorporate seafood, as the city has been a fishing port for many centuries, and the quality of seafood is among the best in the world. Spaghetti alle vongole is a popular pasta dish incorporating seafood that you should try while in the city. The name literally means “spaghetti with clams,” indicating its main ingredient. The clams are cooked in oil and added to the pasta alongside either a garlic and parsley sauce (blanco) or tomato and basil sauce (rosso).
Island Treats in Sicily
After Naples, you might think you’ve eaten your way through Italy, but you’re not done yet until you head to the island of Sicily and experience what Sicilian culture has in store for you. Sicily was an independent nation for most of its history and its unique culture comes out in its sorts of foods. Chief among the Sicilian dishes you need to try is arancini, the deep-fried rice balls that are popular even in North American kitchens.
These rice balls are stuffed with cheese or meat and then deep fried and typically served as antipasto. Arancini embodies the sort of “crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside” hook that fast food chains in North America love to use in their marketing. However, unlike fast food, aracini is real food, made with loving care and drawing on centuries of cooking knowledge and tradition.
If you want to try something a little more adventurous and luxurious than arancini while in Sicily, get yourself some Bottarga, known as Sicilian caviar. This refined dish used to be a way for poor fisherman to preserve roe for long months on end, but soon became a luxury dish much like caviar. Bottarga consists of roe from gray mullet that is salted, pressed, and then air dried for up to six months. At this point it turns a deep amber colour and is either served with olive oil or lemon juice as a delicacy on bread (much like caviar) or grated into a pasta. The flavour is salty and strong (similar to anchovy), but there’s a complexity to the palette that isn’t there in similar dishes.
From Milan to Sicily, from Florence to Venice, from Rome to Naples, Italy boasts some of the best food the world over, with each city having its own definitive dishes that have contributed to the cherished tradition of Italian cooking.
You need only head on an Italy vacation to experience why Italy is king when it comes to food. Eating your way through Italy is an adventure unlike any you (or your stomach) have ever experienced. In fact, once you taste Italian food made on this European gem, you might never return.