Italian food is the stuff of legend, and a big part of the reason many people choose to travel to Italy. (Yes, Italy's got Roman ruins, priceless museum treasures, and great scenery but let's face it—we come for the food!) Italy's cuisine tastes so good in large part to the high quality of ingredients that go into it—extra virgin olive oil, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, free-range eggs and meat, usually sourced as close to home as possible.
While a list of the best dishes in Italy could and does fill volumes, there are a few staples of the Italian pantheon of food that you simply must try while you're here. Read on for the top 10 foods to try in Italy, plus some suggestions for the best regions or cities to eat them.
Rome lays claim to several different pasta dishes, but perhaps its most revered is spaghetti alla carbonara, made from pancetta (bacon) or guanciale (pork cheek), Pecorino cheese, pepper, and a raw egg added at the last minute. It's most commonly served over spaghetti, but hollow, long bucatini pasta is a favorite version in Rome. Other Romanesque kinds of pasta include cacio e pepe and amatriciana. Trattoria da Oio in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood is one of the best places to try these classics.
Pizza (Naples, Rome or Anywhere!)
Your first bite of a real Italian pizza might be transformative—you'll certainly never look at cardboard-tasting American delivery pizza the same way again. In Naples, where the pizza Margherita (cheese pizza) was invented, pizza comes with a thicker crust but still manages to be light and chewy at the same time. Elsewhere in Italy and especially in Rome, pizza crust is paper-thin and foldable. Tasting that perfect balance of yeasty crust, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella cheese, plus any other ingredients you may opt for, is life-changing indeed. Check out this round-up that includes some of the best pizzerias in Naples.
Fresh Cannoli (Sicily)
You don't have to travel to Sicily to find decent cannoli, but at least make sure to buy it from an authentic Sicilian pasticerria (pastry shop). This festive-looking pastry consists of a tube of fried dough, filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese and mascarpone mixture. Variations may have candied fruit, pistachios, or chocolate filling or toppings. You'll probably need to shop around and sample cannoli at several different pasticerrie, to decide which one is the best.
While there are many, many reasons Bologna should be on your Italian vacation itinerary, food is near the top of the list. The city famous for its cuisine lies in the heart of Emilia-Romagna, the region famous for its high-quality ingredients. Lasagna Alla Bolognese is the city's hallmark dish—consisting of hearty, slow-cooked meat sauce (ragu, or bolognese) and béchamel (white sauce) layered between sheets of egg pasta. This is classic Italian comfort food that will make you miss your Italian nonna, even if you never had one.
With apologies to vegetarian readers, if you like your steak so rare it could almost "moo," bistecca alla Fiorentina is the cut for you. This thick T-bone steak is a specialty of Florence, made with Chianina beef raised in the surrounding Tuscan countryside. It's seared over an open flame on all sides but served blood-rare on the inside. It's garnished with salt and olive oil and usually little else. Even if you don't normally eat your steak rare—or don't usually eat steak—this is the way to try it. Osteria Toscanella in Florence is famous for its Fiorentina, and there are rustic eateries throughout Tuscany that grill them up right.
Truffles on Anything (Umbria, Tuscany, Piedmont)
If you've never tasted a truffle, you must try a dish with truffles when you visit central or northern Italy. We're not talking chocolate truffles, but instead, the earthy, pungent, seasonal fungus that grows underground, if sniffed out by specially trained dogs, and commands a premium price, both in restaurants and at food markets. Because truffles have such a unique flavor, they're best paired with foods that serve as a backdrop, like pasta with olive oil or butter sauce, or over fried eggs. Read more about white truffle fairs in Italy.
The flat, fertile lands of the Po River Valley mean that rice grows well and is a staple in these parts, even more so than pasta. When in Milan, or anywhere in the Lombardy region, try risotto alla Milanese, the city's signature dish of arborio rice cooked with broth, butter, and cheese, with a vibrant yellow color thanks to a precious smidge of saffron. Purists will argue over whether the dish should be made with beef stock or chicken stock, with a dash of white wine or with no wine at all. As with other pasta dishes in Italy, this is one to test out in several different restaurants to find your favorite.
The word pesto in Italian means "pound" and is derived from the pestle of a mortar and pestle. Basil and pine nuts grow abundantly in Liguria, the region of Genoa. Put all those together, and you get pesto alla Genovese, the sauce made of olive oil, garlic, salt, cheese, pine nuts, and basil, which gives it its bright green hue. Pesto can be used as a topping for pasta, risotto, bruschetta, and other dishes. In Genoa, from where the dish gets its name, the most tradition vehicle for pesto alla Genovese is Mandilli de saea—literally "silk handkerchiefs"—large, soft sheets of fresh pasta to which the rich, oily pesto sauce easily clings.
Tiramisu is a ubiquitous Italian dessert—you'll find in just about every restaurant, and it's in the repertoire of nearly every Italian home cook. But to sample the real deal, you must go to the city where tiramisu was allegedly invented, Treviso, just north of Venice in the Veneto region. The creamy dessert of ladyfinger cookies, mascarpone cheese, egg yolks, cocoa, sugar, and espresso—"tiramisu" translates to "pick me up"—first appeared in the Italian vernacular in the 1960s and has since become something close to sacred among national desserts. In Treviso, you can go right to the source—Le Beccherie restaurant, where the dish was first introduced.
One of Italy's purest food traditions is also its most glorious—antipasto, or appetizers. An antipasto misto, or mixed appetizer platter, typically consists of sliced, cured meats, local cheeses, olives, and bruschetta, toasted bread with olive oil and other toppings. This mix of savory snacks pairs well with sparkling prosecco or the wine of your choosing and can serve as a starter or a full meal, depending on your appetite.