Top 10 foods you must try when in Italy, and where to find them
By Bindu Gopal Rao
The plate in front of me is enticing – it looks straight from a farm, with fresh red tomatoes, luscious coloured bell peppers, home grown olives and fresh cheese. The fresh rocket cheese and garden vegetables make me dig in instantly into this delicious Caprese salad.
In Italy, food is a big deal, and is straight from farm-to-fork. So on your next trip to Italy, make sure you sink your teeth into these delicacies. Enjoy our list of Italy’s top 10 foods…
Pizza – Sun on the plate
While pizzas have become commonplace worldwide thanks to the ubiquitous pizza joint, real pizzas are a must when in Italy. Even small bakeries will have huge portions of pizza that will entice you with their attractive window displays. Pizzerias in Italy are a great place to try them, too, especially if you are in Naples where restaurants like Pizzeria Dal Presidente serves some delectable delights topped with Sicilian treats. Pizza Napoletana with its secret dough recipe and only two toppings is also a must try. Pizza al Taglio in Rome is another and sells rectangular pizzas by weight and also offers a variety of delectable options. Sfincione in Sicily, Pizza al Padellino in Turin and Panzerotto in Bari also have interesting takes on arguably one of the most loved dishes in the world. Little wonder, then, that most Italians say pizza is “sole nel piatto”… or sun on the plate!
Lasagne – A Naples staple
If there is one dish that defines good food in Italy, it is lasagne. It is said that Naples was where this delicious dish originated, and it’s believed the recipe dates back to the 14th century. Layered with pasta sheets, vegetable sauce, meatballs or sausages and various cheeses, this is a wholesome dish that can elevate your dining experience several notches. The pasta is made from durum wheat or semolina and only when you bite into the luscious layers of lasagna, bechamel and meat or tomato sauce, will you realise why Italy has come to be recognised as the food capital of the world. This is comfort food at its best. The classic lasagne alla Bolognese is the most popular version. Made with ragù, a meat based Bolognese sauce, béchamel sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese this is dolce vita on a plate. The other version is the Lasagne Napoletana that has meatballs, sausage, ricotta and mozzarella cheese and is a staple in the Carnivale in Naples.
Polenta – A ‘godsend’ loved by all
Made from boiled cornmeal, polenta can be served as porridge or as a loaf once it has cooled. Traditionally, the dish is stirred with a large walnut wooden stick till it thickens and develops a firm consistency. Once a staple food of the mountain regions of Italy, today it has been reinvented and is available across the country. If you are in southern Trentino you can sample potato polenta while in Tossignano a special polenta is made with a mixture of corn flour that’s half fine-grained and half coarse-grained. Polenta bianca made around the areas of Padua, Venice and Trevisois is made with a special variety of maize which is white in colour. In Mantua, polenta all’erba amara is made with corn flour, butter, herbs and grated parmesan. And as the Italian saying goes, “A chi ne’ campi sul lavoro stenta, son manna le cipolle e la polenta,” which means, “for those who work hard in the fields, onions and polenta are a godsend.”
Risotto – Classic Italian fare
Risotto is a dish made with short grain white rice varieties including Arborio, Vialone Nano, Padano, Roma and Carnaroli. A classic dish in the vast repertoire of Italian cuisine, this dish combines rice, vegetables, meat and cheese to create its characteristic creamy texture. Often served as an accompaniment to quality fresh fish, the secret lies in blending the rice with large amounts of butter to give the dish the right texture. If you are looking for great risotto then there are several restaurants in Rome, Bologna, Parma and Venice, as well as in Piemonte, Mantova and Milan that have built their reputation on this staple. The vegetarian version of risotto, alla zucca, is made with pumpkin, nutmeg and grated cheese, and the risi e bisi made with green peas are also good options for meatless meals.
Carbonara – When in Rome…
A pasta dish that originated in Rome, carbonara is made with bacon, eggs, black pepper and hard cheese and, most often, spaghetti. This is one dish that does not use any cream, and this is why the inherent flavours shine through. Some of the best restaurants in Rome to sample this dish are at L’Arcangelo, Marzapane, Pizzeria Emma, Roscioli, Da Danilo, Checco Er Carettiere, Hostaria Romana, Sciapò and Baccano. The spaghetti carbonara with black truffle at Rome’s Antico Arco is a delight as well.
Truffles – A rare black and white treat
A gourmet food, truffles are one of the most sought after and expensive foods on earth, and also something that celebrity chefs vouch for strongly. Italian white truffles are well known in Tuscany and the best way to experience them is to go on a dedicated truffle trail. Italy has about 25 different varieties of truffle, with nine of them being edible, including magnatum Pico, the most expensive and precious white truffle (it grows from the middle of September to end of January). The tuber melanosporum Vitt, an expensive black truffle, grows from the middle of November to the middle of March. The best way to eat a white truffle? Fresh and sliced on dishes like risotto, handmade egg pasta, fried egg, fondue, tartare or a Caesar’s salad. Also notable is the norcia black truffle which can be eaten raw if it’s ground.
Focaccia – Served with a regional twist
Focaccia is a flat oven-baked Italian bread, thicker than pizza dough, that’s eaten topped with a combination of herbs, olives, chillies, onion, cheese and/or meat. Usually served as antipasti, it also works as a pizza base and as sandwich bread. In fact, focaccia is baked in roadside ovens (sold by weight), ensuring it can be eaten at all times of the day as a snack. Usually seasoned with salt, this bread varies across regions. Recco style focaccia is a Ligurian specialty and is a delectable version with two thin layers of dough in between a thinner layer of cheese. Bari style focaccia from Puglia is made with durum wheat flour and garnished with extra virgin olive oil, fresh tomatoes or olives. The focaccia Messinese option is cooked in metal pans and is served with vegetables, tomato, cheese and anchovies in small rectangular pieces.
Coffee, Coffee, everywhere…
The Italian culture of drinking coffee goes back several centuries, and the beverage is commonly made in a moka pot at home and dispensed from espresso coffee makers in cafés. While you may associate espresso coffee with Italy, there are in fact many other varieties that can trace their roots here. A caffè is a shot of espresso served in a tiny cup and can be had through the day. Other popular varieties include:
- Caffè corretto, a shot of espresso mixed with a shot of liquor
- Cappuccino, a milk-based coffee mixing foam with espresso
- Macchiato, a mix of espresso and cappuccino with a light foam
- Marocchin, a shot of espresso, foam and cacao powder sprinkled on the top
- Caffè Latte, usually served in a tall glass and has more milk and a little espresso
- Shakerato, a chilled espresso poured over ice
Other variants available include caffè al ginseng a tea latte, and caffè d’orzo, a barley coffee that’s naturally caffeine-free and usually has a citrus note.
Gelato – Italy’s answer to ice cream
Gelato is a must have when in Italy. With its dense texture and fresh flavours, gelato is also a healthy option as it has less fat than ice cream. It’s such a pleasure sampling freshly made gelatos that have an artisanal twist to them thanks to the all-natural ingredients being used. For the truly adventurous, you can also take a class to learn how to make this cool treat – just make sure you have two-four hours free and you can sign up for a class either at a cooking school or at a gelato shop. Caruso in Rome is a great place to try gelato (their fruit gelatos are to die for!). The Gelateria dei Neri in Florence has unusual options like gorgonzola and rice and Carapina offers seasonal delights made fresh every single day.
Tiramisu – The ultimate pick-me-up
Italy’s most popular dessert, tiramisu quite literally means ‘pick-me-up’, and the exotic combination of layers of espresso coffee, cocoa, mascarpone cheese, wine and ladyfinger biscuits certainly does just that! Most cafés serve versions of tiramisu, so when you find it on a menu be sure to check that it says ‘fatto in casa’, meaning ‘made in house’, so you know you are getting fresh and authentic tiramisu. Barberini Caffetteria and Pasticeria, Da Enzo, Flavio al Velavevodetto and Pompi are just some of the many cafés in Rome that offer some exotic tiramisu. In fact, the charm of this dessert lies in its myriad interpretations and the combinations of ingredients make it worth trying it out in as many different bakeries and cafés as you can!
Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bangalore, India, who believes writing provides a unique opportunity to meet a variety of people while exploring new places. Her work is documented at www.bindugopalrao.com