Art, millennia of history, architecture, the lakes, the coast, the islands, the mountains. The cities, the towns. The natural wonders, the heritage sites, the monuments. The list of reasons to visit – or at least in these current crazy times, dream about – Italy, is long.
But what would a trip to the boot-shaped nation be without the food?
Memories of my last carbonara at my favourite trattoria in Rome before lockdown literally keep me up at night! The silkiness of the egg sauce. The bite in the pasta. The crunch of that guanciale. The saltiness of the Pecorino Romano.
Food memories are some of the strongest we have. They weave a tale of nostalgia, togetherness and are tied to time and place. Italy evokes so many for me.
Here is a virtual feed around the country. A must-not miss dish in each of the 20 regions. As you might guess – it was difficult (borderline heartbreaking!) to select just one per region. Italian cuisine is not homogenous but regional, and reveals intricacies within regions and even from town to town. It’s tied to tradition, geography and socio economic status (for instance, egg pasta was historically more prevalent in the north because, the south was less affluent). The produce, dishes and customs are undeniably rich and varied throughout the country. And because of this, Italy’s food is the envy of the world.
Let this list guide and inspire you. Let the debate begin. I hope you’re hungry, let’s go!
It would be a crime to leave Rome without having feasted on a carbonara. Here, spaghetti or rigatoni are laden with a silky egg and Pecorino Romano sauce and crispy guanciale (pork cheek). It’s like nowhere else in the world, in fact if you haven’t eaten one in Rome, you haven’t eaten one!
Pizza was too obvious! I can’t get enough of the sfogliatella pastry filled with ricotta and candied citrus. The ‘frolla’ has a smooth crust and my preference, ‘riccia’ resembles lobster tail pastries.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina
This cut of (usually Chianina) beef resembles a large T-bone steak and in many Tuscan restaurants, you’ll be shown the raw piece before it is put on the grill. Enormous, it’s usually shared between two and served rare to medium rare.
Pallotte cacio e ova
One of central Italy’s finest example of the humble, cucina povera, this traditional dish brings bread, cheese and eggs together like a meatball. They are then fried and cooked in tomato sauce.
The classic coffee-soaked savoiardi (lady fingers) covered in sweet mascarpone is a the perfect ‘pick me up’ as the name suggests. While it has Venetian origins, it’s probably the world’s most widely enjoyed Italian dessert.
Anything hazelnut flavored or filled is bound to be of exceptional quality in this region. The decadent gianduiotto is a chocolate, hazelnut praline treat with a silky smooth texture and usually wrapped in gold or silver foil.
Don’t leave the region without eating either tagliatelle with bolognese ragù or tortellini (especially in brodo, broth) and luscious lasagne. So while the world famous spaghetti bolognese is not a traditional Italian dish, here you can try the real deal.
You’ll usually see this ear-shaped pasta served with cime di rapa (brocoletti or turnip tops) and glimpses of older women sitting out front their homes in Bari making them are some of my favourite Italian street scenes.
Pasta Mollicata ‘Ammuddicata’
This heartwarming pasta dish is simplicity at its best. Pasta, usually bucatini, are served with breadcrumbs made from stale bread, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. Variations often include peperoncino, tomato and even a splash of red wine.
The Sicilians sure know their way around a sweet! They fill their crispy cannolo shells with sweet, creamy ricotta and sometimes top them with pistacchio or candied fruit.
Deep fried. Cheese. Pastry. Honey. That’s probably all you need to know! This traditional sweet is filled with Sardinian pecorino cheese and when it’s out of the fryer, drizzled with local honey. It’s the perfect marriage of crispy, salty and sweet.
This creamy rice dish is one of Italy’s best comfort foods. It’s so versatile and lush. Risotto Milanese made with saffron and bone marrow is the most traditional around these parts.
Especially around the Norcia area, the region has a long history of salumi making. It’s where the term, Norcineria comes from, referring to ancient artisanal curing of meats. Try all the pork cuts from prosciutto (leg ham) to capocollo (cured pork neck) to the most famous corallina salami.
Pesto is made differently across the boot. The one people are most accustomed to is Pesto Genovese. A pungent aroma of fresh basil, pinenuts, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, parmigiano reggiano and sometimes pecorino cheese too.
Caciocavallo di Agnone
Produced in Agnone and some surrounding towns, this sheep’s milk cheese has been produced for centuries. After an initial 20 days of aging, it’s left to mature for at least 3 months in natural caves.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
While pasta and rice are also popular, here locals are pretty fond of their polenta. The humble corn-based dish is sometimes served with another regional specialty, Frico – a crunchy Montasio cheese fritter.
Best described as a chilli-spiced pork spread, ‘nduja is usually eaten on bread and can even be found in pasta dishes. Found across the region, the most famous is the one made in Spilinga in the Vibo Valentia area.
When you think cheesy fondue you may think Switzerland. And this region shares a border so you’re not wrong. Here they use a local cheese and it’s northern alpine cooking at its best.
Olive all Ascolana
Olives stuffed with three types of meat (usually pork, chicken, beef), crumbed and fried, this delicacy originating from Ascoli Piceno, are the perfect aperitivo snack.
Trentino Alto Adige
Strudel di mele
Geography here means Austro-German traditions are felt to this day and it’s certainly not hard to find a good apple strudel in this part of the country.
Maria Pasquale is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Rome. She writes regularly for USA Today, CNN and Fodor’s and has bylines in Architectural Digest, The Telegraph, La Cucina Italiana and La Repubblica. Her book, I Heart Rome is a love letter to the city she has called home for almost a decade.