Ultimate Guide to the
Cuisines of Italy
Italy is famous for its culinary tradition. Its flavors, its colors and its variety make it one of the best and most famous world cuisines. It is true that Italian food relies on simplicity and quality, but Italians do not eat just pizza and pasta, or drink only wine and coffee! Actually, when traveling you will notice that Italian cuisine changes from region to region, and even from family to family. In fact, every household has its own recipe for classic Italian dishes.
This variety probably stems from Italian past history and its geography. Occupied by many different populations before reunification, Italy had been divided for a long time in small fractions and reunited just 150 years ago. Italian cuisine thus received many contributions into its culture and culinary tradition. Many ingredients imported from the New World like potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa, and beans are now in every Italian kitchen.
Moreover, Italy presents a variety of climates – the seaside gives way to the mountains, which give way to the hills and to plains. Forests, lakes and rivers cover some regions of Italy. Different zones and seasons produce different raw materials and needs, to which cuisine usually adapts. For instance, in maritime zones you will find seafood based, light cuisine; while in mountainous regions you will eat earthy, meat-based and rich dishes. Going south, food gets spicier. Olive oil is usually preferred to other fats such as butter or lard for both cooking and seasoning.
Each region has its own specialties, often influenced by foreign domination. Sicilian cuisine, for example, bears some Arab flavor, while Friuli conserved some Austro-Hungarian flavors in its regional cuisine and Sardinia presents some Spanish hints. Some specialties are now part of the Italian tradition, like Pesto from Liguria, Lasagne and Tortellini from Emilia-Romagna, Ragù from Bologna and Naples, Pizza from Campania, Limoncello from the South of Italy, and many more.
Some of these treats can now be bought in every supermarket and often even in other countries, but you will find the best varieties in their native place — the best Gelato in Sicily, the best Mozzarella in Campania, the best Speck ham in Trentino-Alto Adige, and so on. This is why one should visit many cities in Italy! Some items are a seasonal specialty and you will find them only at a certain time of the year- Panettone, Pandoro, Ricciarelli and Torrone (nougat) are all Christmas treats, while Colomba is a typical Easter cake, for example.
Each region in Italy has its typical dishes:
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for San Daniele ham, for cheeses like Montasio and for DOC wines like Pinot and Cabernet and for its Grappa, a strong pomace brandy. White or yellow Polenta made of boiled cornmeal is very popular and generally accompanies rabbit meat and game dishes. Frico is a typical dish prepared with melted cheese, while Gubana is a spiral-shaped cake with walnuts, raisins, sugar, liqueur and lemon zest, wrapped in thin dough, often taken with a glass of Grappa.
Veneto gave birth to the famous Tiramisu cake made with Savoiardi (ladyfingers) dipped in coffee spiked with liqueur, and covered with a cream made of Mascarpone cheese, raw eggs and sugar, and then topped with cocoa powder. The city of Verona is known for Pandoro, a rich buttery Christmas cake. Radicchio is a highly prized red chicory cultivated in Treviso. White asparagus is also much appreciated. Typical cheeses are Asiago and Piave. This region also produces good DOC wines like Bardolino and Prosecco. Maybe the most famous fish-based recipes are the Sarde in Saor (fried sardines in a sweet-and-sour onion sauce) and Baccalà alla Vicentina (cod cooked in a sauce made with milk, oil and onions).
Trentino-Alto Adige cuisine presents strong Austrian and German influences and is known for apple Strudel, Speck (a lightly smokedham), yogurt, Puzzone di Moena cheese, Knödel or Canederli (big dumplings made of potatoes, eggs, bread, cheese and various other ingredients), and apples. One of the most famous wines is the Müller-Thurgau. A type of long sausage called Luganega is also produced here.
Lombardy is famous for its Risotto alla Milanese (rice with saffron) and Cotoletta alla Milanese (fried pork cutlet with bone). Bresaola is a typical cured meat, to be eaten cut in thin slices and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, pepper and scales of cheese. Other typical products are soft cheeses like Robiola, Crescenza and Gorgonzola. Panettone, a sweet, soft bread with raisins and candied citruses, is sold during Christmas time and it was invented in this region.
Val d'Aosta produces the famous Lard d'Arnad, cured with spices such as juniper, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rosemary. It is served in thin slices on hot pieces of Polenta, made with boiled cornmeal. Fontina cheese is also very famous, and is used to prepare Fonduta (a cheese fondue). The most important DOC wines are Torrette and Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle.
Piedmont produces well-known wines like Barolo and Moscato. Agnolotti, a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli, are a regional specialty, as is Bagna Cauda, a warm dip for vegetables made with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and anchovies. Piedmont also gave birth to the worldwide-known hazelnut spread Nutella and to Gianduiotti; small chocolates with hazelnuts, with a peculiar shape. Grissini are a product of Turin.
Liguria is certainly famous for its Pesto sauce, to be eaten with Trofie (pasta), and also for Farinata (a salty cake made with chickpeas flour) and Focaccia, which is similar to Pizza, but not quite the same. It is seasoned with oil, salt, and herbs and it can be sold with various fillings. For example, it can be filled with a soft cheese called Stracchino. Fish recipes like Zuppa di Pesce (fish soup) are common, as it is easy to buy fresh, tasty sea fish. Herbs are largely used. Canestrelli (flower-shaped shortbread rings) and soft Amaretti (with almond paste) are probably the most famous biscuits from Liguria.
Emilia Romagna is home to rich pastas like Tortellini, Lasagne, and Cappelletti. Other famous specialties are produced in this region – salami and cured meats like Mortadella, Culatello, Cotechino, and Parmigiano and Grana Padano cheeses. Aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar) is produced only in the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Sangiovese and Lambrusco are probably the most famous wines produced in Emilia Romagna. Panpepato, also known as Panforte, is a typical Christmas cake made with dried fruit, chocolate, candied orange peel, pine nuts, honey, cinnamon and a pinch of pepper and dusted with icing sugar.
Tuscany is famous for its olive oil, its wines and its love for meat, both beef and game, though fish is also used, especially on the coastal zones. The Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a classic dish. A T-bone steak is grilled over a charcoal fire, and seasoned with salt, olive oil and pepper. As it is very large, it serves more than one person. It should be eaten rare. Ribollita is a vegetable soup with black cabbage, beans and bread. Cacciucco is typical of the city of Livorno and it is a mixed fish soup. Regional pastries include Ricciarelli (almond biscuits with icing sugar on top), Cantucci (hard biscuits with almonds) and Brigidini (thin wafers with aniseed). Famous Tuscan wines are Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti and Vinsanto.
Umbria is known for olive oil, truffles and meats, especially game, like wild boar. It is also famous for mushrooms, potatoes, lentils and spelt. The city of Norcia is famous for its pork products, like Porchetta (a soft, spicy, moist pork roast with herbs) but the whole region produces salami, sausages, ham, and dairy products. Typical desserts are Torcolo, a ring-shaped cake with raisins, aniseed, candied orange peel and pine nuts, Rocciata, similar to a strudel, and Pinoccata, with pine nuts and caramelized sugar on a thin wafer, and Sweet Potato Fritters. Chocolate is also very important in Umbria, as the city of Perugia hosts a chocolate factory which produces, among many things, the small chocolates named "Baci" (kisses), dark chocolate truffles with hazelnut paste filling and a whole hazelnut on top.
Marche produces cured meats and salami, like Ciauscolo, so soft it can be spread on bread. Bruschetta, a slice of bread with tomato, olive oil and herb topping, is also from Marche. Another appreciated specialty is Olive Ascolane, fried green olives stuffed with minced pork meat mixed with parmesan cheese, bread and egg yolks. Added to small cubes of fried firm custard cream, fried mixed vegetables and lamb cutlets it makes a plate of Frittura Mista Ascolana (fried mix). As the region also has a coastal zone, "Stoccafisso" (stock-fish) and "Brodetto" soup is a must-eat. Verdicchio is one of the most famous wines produced in this region.
Lazio is home to Pasta all'Amatriciana with a sauce made of tomato, guanciale (dried pork cheek) and grated pecorino (cheese from ewe's milk), and to Pasta alla Carbonara, with raw eggs, bacon, cheese, black pepper and onion. A Supplì is a fried elongated ball of rice rolled in breadcrumbs and seasoned with tomato, egg and minced meat, with a mozzarella center. It is much appreciated as a snack or as an appetizer, often before pizza. Regional specialties are often meat-based, especially on offal – Trippa (cow's tripe), Pajata (calf intestines) and so on, but fish is also popular, more than ever when fried. An example is Filetti di Baccalà, battered cod deep-fried until golden. Another fried treat is the crispy Fiori di Zucca, zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and ham or salted anchovies. Roman cuisine is also characterized by some traditional Jewish dishes, like Carciofi alla Giudia, which are artichokes cooked in oil until crisp. A Maritozzo is a traditional Roman sweet bread with raisins and pine nuts, filled with whipped cream. Grattachecca is very popular in the hot summer months as it consists of shaved ice with fruit syrup or coffee.
Abruzzi is a mountainous region and its cuisine is quite earthy. As its economy was once based on sheep-breeding, lamb and sheep meat and cheese are the base of many dishes, as in the case of Arrosticini, small cubes of lamb meat grilled on charcoals and seasoned with oil, salt and rosemary. In the maritime region, fish is also popular. Maccheroni alla chitarra, a type of egg spaghetti cut into square sections, is served with a meatball sauce. When Christmas comes, sweet ravioli called Cagionetti are prepared and filled with various ingredients. Also famous are Confetti (sugared almonds) made in the city of Sulmona. Probably the most famous wine is Montepulciano, while the most famous liqueur is Centerbe (One hundred herbs).
Molise produces different types of pasta, like Cavatelli, to be served with broccoli or Ragù sauce. This region also produces olive oil, cheeses like Stracciata (similar to mozzarella) or Caciocavallo. Savoiardi biscuits are a typical product. Meat dishes include Torcinelli, lamb bowels stuffed with liver and eggs. Molise produces a fine type of pork salami curiously called "Signora di Conca Casale" (Lady of Conca Casale).The wines to be tried at least once are Falanghina and Aglianico. Cancelle are waffle cookies made from eggs, flour, sugar and butter. Their name comes from the fact that they look like "cancelli" (lattice gates).
Campania is where pizza and mozzarella made of milk from water buffalo probably reach their best. Moreover, fish dishes are popular as the Gulf of Naples is quite rich – octopus, mussels, eel, clams all find a place on the table. Typical vegetarian dishes include Parmigiana di Melanzane, made with fried eggplant, tomato, Parmigiano cheese and basil. Traditional desserts are Pastiera cake, containing ricotta cheese, orange flower water, cooked wheat and candied orange peel; Babà, a soft sponge cake drizzled with Rum; Sfogliatelle, small shell-shaped pastries filled with cream or ricotta, and Struffoli, a Christmas dessert made of small balls of fried dough covered in honey and sugar sprinkles. Typical liqueurs are the well-known Limoncello and Strega, while one of the most famous regional wines is Greco di Tufo.
Puglia is the largest producer of olive oil of Italy. It is known for durum wheat pasta and in particular for Orecchiette, a type of pasta shaped as small ears. Burrata is a traditional fresh cheese made of a shell of mozzarella filled with shredded mozzarella and cream. Bread produced in the city of Altamura is particularly valued. Taralli are a ring-shaped snack with a texture similar to that of a breadstick, which can be sweet with sugar glaze; or savory, with onion, garlic, olive oil, dried tomato, fennel seeds and chili. Fish and seafood is abundant in this region, so dishes are often based on that. Desserts include Zeppole, fried doughnuts sprinkled with sugar and filled with custard cream. Christmas desserts are Purceddhruzzi ("small pigs"), similar to Neapolitan Struffoli; Cartellate, a thin ribbon of dough rolled up and fried until golden, and then covered in honey, cinnamon and icing sugar; and Calzone di San Leonardo, a sweet half-moon shaped pastry filled with dried figs and cooked. Famous wines are Negroamaro del Salento and Aleatico di Puglia.
Basilicata produces Soppressata, a type of salami with chili. Its culinary tradition presents many sheep meat-based dishes like Gnummareddi, rolls of liver, kidney and lung. Peppers and vegetables are often used. Pork is cooked on a spit or made into sausages, like the long Lucaneca. Strazzata is a type of flat bread with black pepper and oregano, filled with cheese and ham, or with pepperoni and frittata (omelette). Basilicata also produces cheeses like Caciocavallo Podolico and Pecorino di Filiano. Aglianico del Vulture is a DOC Basilicata wine.
Calabria is famous for its hot cuisine, the spiciest of Italy. Preserved food plays a central role in this region. Sausages, fish and vegetables are conserved with oil in jars. Pork salami like the famous hot Nduja, cheeses, dried tomatoes and jars of food were vital to resist periods of famine and pirate attacks.
Calabrian cuisine is rich in vegetables like eggplant, red onions and broad beans. Fileja is a typical type of handmade long pasta wrapped around a rod. Meat dishes use pork, lamb, veal, goat and snails. Swordfish, stock-fish, tuna and anchovies are all eaten fried; or boiled, stewed, or grilled with herbs, lemon, tomatoes and parsley. Calabria produces superior Gelato (ice cream) like Tartufo di Pizzo, a half-sphere of hazelnut gelato with a liquid black chocolate center, covered with cocoa powder.
Other desserts are Pitta 'mpigliata, a round pastry with walnuts, raisins and liqueur; and Mastazzolu, a hard biscuit of Arab origins made with honey and aniseed liqueur. Nacatole, fried doughnuts with aniseed, and Giuggiulena made of sesame seeds and honey, are two of the many desserts prepared during Christmas time. Calabria produces many DOC wines, like Sant'Anna di Isola di Capo Rizzuto and Cirò.
Sicily presents a complex and very rich cuisine. Swordfish, anchovies and octopus play a very important role, while meat is mostly used in the inner zones of the island. Street food is varied, cheap and tasty. Typical street foods include Arancine, balls of rice traditionally seasoned with Ragù sauce, peas and mozzarella, or with saffron, butter and ham. There are many variants.
Arancine are as big as oranges (hence the name), covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Panelle are also very popular, and are fritters made with chickpea flour, water and parsley and eaten in a sandwich. Among pastas, Pasta alla Norma with tomato, grated hard ricotta, basil and fried eggplant and Pasta con le sarde with anchovies, onions and fennel seeds are maybe the best known. Cuscus is prepared with fish in the entire Trapani province and shows the strong Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine.
The island offers a wide variety of desserts and it would be a pity not to mention them – Cannoli (crispy tubes of fried pastry dough filled with sweet ricotta cream), Biancomangiare (milk based pudding with almonds, sugar and vanilla), Cassata (a sponge cake layered with gelato or ricotta with candied citrus peel and covered with marzipan, richly decorated with more candied fruit and icing), Granita (similar to sorbet; it is made with water, sugar and fruit or coffee), Frutta Martorana (marzipan sweets shaped like fruit and vegetables, with a lifelike appearance), Setteveli cake (multilayered chocolate cake from the city of Palermo), and handmade chocolate from Modica are just some of the most famous ones. Sweet wines like Marsala and Passito are appreciated all over Italy.
Sardinia has two culinary traditions, one based on fishermen's habits, the other based on shepherd's habits. Even if it is an island, Sardinian cuisine is better known for pig, kid, lamb roasts, the thin and dry Carasau bread, honey, and especially for cheese from ewe's milk, like Pecorino Sardo and Fiore Sardo, as the pastoral tradition has always been very strong there. Of course, there are many fish recipes, with Spanish and Genoan influences, especially on the coast, where lobster, shellfish, tuna and Bottarga (the roe pouch of tuna, dried and cured in salt) are largely used. Herbs like mint and myrtle are used to season meat and fish, but also to prepare digestive liqueurs like Mirto.
Sardinian desserts are often based on fresh cheese, honey and almonds. Seadas are fried ravioli filled with fresh cow's cheese with lemon then covered with liquid honey. Pabassinas are made from shortbread dough, walnuts, raisins, almonds, lemon zest and honey. Pardulas are small cakes filled with ricotta cheese; Pan'è saba is a cake made with cooked grape must, raisins, sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and dried fruit. It's mostly prepared for Easter and Christmas. Cannonau and Malvasia are perhaps the most famous wines of the island.
How and when do Italians eat all these specialties? In Italy there are three main meals during the day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It is common to start the day with colazione (breakfast), which is usually based on milk, coffee, pastries, cereals, jam and butter on bread, Nutella and cookies. Many Italians like to go to a bar (café) and get a cappuccino or an espresso and a cornetto (croissant), all the while standing at the counter. There are many drinks to try if you're tired of espresso and cappuccino: you could try a caffè macchiato (espresso with a bit of frothy milk), a caffè ristretto (stronger than espresso, as it is made using less water), a caffe latte (a mixture of milk and coffee, not foamy at all), a "latte macchiato" (warm milk with a bit of coffee), or a marocchino (espresso with a spoon of Nutella, a bit of frothy milk and sprinkled with cocoa powder). Be careful! Ordering a "latte" will get you a glass of simple milk, while asking for a "caffè" will get you an espresso.
Pranzo (lunch) is around 1:30 pm. In Southern regions it can be later, while in Northern regions it can be a bit earlier. During the week this meal can be quick and light, while on the weekend it becomes the main meal of the day as it can be enjoyed with more calm.
Lunch can be anything from street food like pizza (you can buy it by weight) or sandwiches, to just a plate of pasta, especially when one has to go back to work after the lunch break. But it can also be a full meal with antipasto (appetizer), primo (first course – it can be pasta, risotto, gnocchi or ravioli), secondo (second course – meat, eggs or fish), contorno (side dish), frutta (fruit), dolce (dessert), and coffee, sometimes followed by some liqueur, to help digestion.
Such a big lunch is traditionally cooked on Sundays or for special occasions.
Cena (dinner) is usually lighter than lunch but its structure can be the same. Some families prefer soup instead of pasta. Sometimes the first course is skipped in favor of a rich second one, and sometimes the leftovers from lunch will be eaten for dinner. Generally speaking, this meal is consumed around 8 pm, and again, it can be earlier in Northern Italy and later in Southern Italy.
In between meals, there can be snacks, aperitifs, and "after-dinners". Students usually get a snack between breakfast and lunch, and another one between lunch and dinner (both called merenda). Such a snack can be savory or sweet. Aperitifs and after-dinners are reserved for adults, as they can involve alcoholic drinks and cocktails. Aperitivo is usually taken before dinner and it consists of a drink and some snacks like chips, olives, salty crackers or savory finger-food. Usually people meet for an after-dinner to get desserts and liqueurs and have a chat.
Eating and chatting go very well together, and Italians know it! They like to stay at the table long after they're finished eating and have a good chat while relaxing. A meal is a social event that brings together family members and friends. It is an occasion to discuss issues, exchange ideas, and solve problems.