25 Tantalizing Types of Traditional Italian Food To Try

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Plate of freshly made bolognese pasta with Parmesan, water, and wine in Amsterdam restaurant.

Fresh tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, olive oil… if you’re a fan of Italian cuisine, your belly is rumbling just reading those words. Some of the country’s most famous traditional foods revolve around simple but delicious ingredients on the Mediterranean coastline, rolling hills, and mountain landscapes.

Authentic Italian dishes go much further beyond what many of us know and love. Pizza, pasta, and mozzarella cheese don’t even scratch the surface of what you can find in places like the Tuscan countryside or the Pugliese coast.

If you ask a local about their take on the best traditional Italian foods, you’ll probably get an unexpected (and hunger-inducing) answer.

That answer will also differ based on the part of Italy they come from. For one, there’s a notable difference between northern and southern Italian foods. Plus, the country’s regions have classic Italian dishes you may not find elsewhere.

If you’ve got a trip to Italy planned and want to make the most of your meals, or if you want to learn more about famous Italian foods and maybe attempt some on your own, we’ve got you covered.

Thanks to my innumerable trips to the country that spared no expense on food. Read on to learn more about some of the most popular Italian dishes.

Different Types of Italian Food, best food in Italy
Here’s an illustration of traditional dishes in Italy

Best Italian Foods to Try

Following is a list of quintessential Italian foods to get your gums around!

1. Neapolitan-Style Pizza

Real Neapolitan Italian pizza called margherita pizza just out of the oven
FV Photography / Adobe Stock

We should start with what might be the world’s most famous Italian dish: pizza. Of course, it isn’t news to anyone that pizza comes from Italy. But you might be surprised to hear that Italian pizza differs in different regions and that the original came from the southern city of Naples.

Naples pizza, or Neapolitan-style pizza, was invented in the 1600s when explorers brought tomatoes to Europe from Peru for the first time. Poor people in Naples began topping their flatbread pizza dough with tomatoes, while the upper class thought the fruits were poisonous. Soon enough, though, visitors and locals alike began seeking out this new creation in the poor neighborhoods of Naples.

Pizza from Naples is all about simplicity – don’t expect huge amounts of toppings or unexpected ones. There are just four ingredients besides the pizza dough: tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil leaves, and extra virgin olive oil. That’s it, and that’s why it’s so good. Be sure to try this when in Naples, or better yet, take a Neapolitan-style pizza-making workshop while you’re there.

See Related: Best Pompeii Tours from Naples, Italy

2. Pizza Romana

Vegetarian roman pizza or pizza romana
Alessio Orrù / Adobe Stock

Of course, the word of magnificent pizza spread across Italy and reached the great city of Rome at some point. Roman cuisine added its own touches to the dish in terms of cooking methods and ingredients, blessing the world with more varieties of pizza.

Roman pizza is less constrained than pizza from Naples – which, by the way, is protected by an association; restaurants cannot say that they serve Neapolitan pizza without getting a certification. Pizza Romana can include more toppings like meats and vegetables. It also usually has a thinner crust that’s made with olive oil, but that distinction is flexible as well.

While Naples-style pizza can be cooked in as little as 90 seconds and at very high temperatures, Roman-style pizza takes much longer and at lower temperatures. It’s also common to find rectangular-shaped pizzas. And since you’re allowed to deviate with this type of pizza, why not build your own in a class in Rome?

See Related: Day Trips from Rome, Italy

3. Linguini allo Scoglio

Italian pasta with seafood, mussels, clams, shrimp and squid on complex background
Lorenzo Buttitta / Adobe Stock

I had a hard time deciding which pasta dish to list first. I settled on a classic perfect for a summer day on the Italian seaside – linguini allo scoglio, also referred to as linguini ai frutti di mare, or seafood linguini in English.

This is a typical Italian dish in most of the country’s south, thanks to its many miles of Mediterranean seashore. Along it, local boats are constantly bringing in the catch of the day, including mussels, squid, shrimp, and more. You have a light and tasty lunch with pasta like linguini, spaghetti, or a similar noodle, and with a sauce made from white wine and garlic.

You can find seafood linguini all around the country, even more so in the southern coastal areas. One of my favorite places to have this is in the cosmopolitan village of Portofino, which is not far from the Cinque Terre National Park.

See Related: Where to Stay in Cinque Terre

4. Arancini

Deep fried balls of arborio rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese
msheldrake / Adobe Stock

Arancini are another favorite of mine – I love grabbing them from a stand to snack on them while walking around a city; there’s even a stand at my local airport that sells them to travelers hopping on a flight. These treats come from the island of Sicily originally but have since grown popular all around Europe.

They’re deep-fried rice balls about the size of a small apple and coated with breadcrumbs. The interior, along with the rice, is stuffed with various fillings – there’s usually cheese, along with things like peas, cooked ham, ground beef, or other things. You could eat them with a fork and knife, but local Sicilians just use their hands to take a bite (as do I.)

Arancini come in vegetarian and vegan forms as well, and this is becoming more and more common. You’ll surely find them on a street food tour in Sicily; you can also learn to make them yourself at a workshop on the island.

5. Risotto ai Frutti di Mare

Risotto with seafood on complex background
Lorenzo Buttitta / Adobe Stock

Risotto is a traditional Italian dish that comes in many different forms. It’s a dish based on rice rather than pasta, believed to have originated in the country’s north after the Arabs introduced rice to Europe.

However, the fishermen of the south must have introduced the flavors of the sea to it at some point, because risotto ai frutti di mare (seafood risotto) is one of my favorite things to order in the country today.

The rice is cooked with broth and butter until it becomes very creamy. Ingredients like mussels, clams, prawns, fish, and others are added. Seafood risotto is usually topped with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, perhaps some lemon juice, and the all-important grated parmesan cheese before serving, and the result is velvety greatness.

I’ve found that this type of risotto has become one of the most popular seafood dishes in much of Europe nowadays, and it’s rarely not good. And if you can learn to make risotto yourself, perhaps in this class in the wonderful city of Verona, you can add all kinds of flavors to it however you please.

6. Risotto alla Milanese

Plate of risotto alla milanese (milan risotto) with some cheese and a drink
Sofiia.Popovych / Adobe Stock

Another type of risotto that’s long been a classic Italian dish is risotto alla milanese, which means risotto from Milan. It’s the largest city in Northern Italy, and rather than using seafood, this risotto is based on beef or chicken broth.

The story goes that workers were staining glass windows at Milan’s Duomo with saffron and decided to throw a bit of it into risotto. Well, it turned out that this was a pretty good idea – the unique flavor was the perfect complement to the heartiness and creaminess of the dish, and it gave it its fantastic yellow color. Since then, risotto alla Milanese has become quintessentially Lombardian, easy to find in the region, and even sold in read-to-make packs.

Risotto alla Milanese pairs nicely with a glass of red wine, which, luckily, isn’t all that hard to find in Italy either. Look out for it on your next trip to northern destinations like Lake Como, Turin, or Milan; learn to make it yourself at a market tour and cooking class in the latter.

See Related: Ultimate Guide to Shopping in Milan: Best Areas to Explore

7. Pesto alla Genovese

A plate of linguini with pesto genovese (green pesto from genoa)
Ivan Floriani / Adobe Stock

One of my favorite ways to make an Italian pasta dish is with pesto alla Genovese. That name itself actually just refers to the sauce, and its name on a menu will be combined with something else – most commonly a pasta like linguini.

Pesto alla Genovese is a Ligurian specialty, meaning it comes from the northwestern coastal region of Italy. This is where the famous places of Portofino and the Cinque Terre are found, along with the city of Genoa, where the sauce’s name comes from. It’s made by crushing garlic, pine nuts, basil, salt, and parmesan cheese (or another hard cheese) and blending it all with olive oil.

The result is hard to describe, with strong notes of garlic, nuts, and cheese, and it’s quite heavenly. As mentioned, it can go on pasta, but also dishes like bruschetta and gnocchi (more on those later.) Learning to pound pesto in the Ligurian tradition yourself at a cooking class in one of the Cinque Terre villages is one of the best experiences to add to your trip.

8. Focaccia

Traditional Italian Focaccia with tomatoes, black olives and rosemary - homemade flat bread focaccia
mizina / Adobe Stock

Another typical dish from the Italian region of Liguria is focaccia, the fluffy flatbread topped with light flavors like herbs, olives, and onions. It’s one of my favorite things to eat in Italy when I’m driving through the country on a road trip, as it’s simple and often sold at highway rest stops (and yes, the quality is good even there.)

Focaccia is tastier than regular bread. The dough is mixed with olive oil before baking, and it’s cooked at a much higher temperature.

Most importantly, it’s topped with herbs – salt and rosemary are two of the most popular, as well as a bit more olive oil. Often, it’s served just like that, but popular varieties include other toppings like olives, onions, and tomatoes.

Besides road-tripping, my wife and I like to have focaccia on the beach in the summertime, whether just for a simple lunch or with a glass of wine during sunset. It also makes a great snack on a boat tour of the coastline.

9. Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e fagioli - Italian pasta with beans
Studio Gi / Adobe Stock

One Italian dish that’s known across all regions is paste e fagioli, which translates to pasta with beans. Every region has its own claim-to-fame special way to make it, but many believe the original comes from Veneto, the region around Venice.

Pasta e fagioli is a hearty soup that mixes the beans with pasta. Its base can be a broth, whether from vegetables or beef, or made from a tomato paste. The other ingredients are just as flexible: onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, rosemary, bay leaves, garlic, and even Parma ham are common. Mixed together for a stew, they create a robust, flavorful, and healthy meal.

While it may have once been peasant food, pasta e fagioli has no such reputation today, and you can try a bowl just about anywhere you go. I think it’s particularly nice in the cold winters of the Alps after a ski, hike, or stroll through the local Christmas market.

10. Bruschetta

Italian bruschetta with chopped cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese
valentinamaslova / Adobe Stock

This is another one that most people will probably know, but they may not be familiar with the history, traditional ways to serve and eat it, or even the pronunciation. That’s right – the -sch in bruschetta is NOT pronounced softly as it is in shore. It’s a hard c, as in school.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can recognize bruschetta as one of the simplest but greatest Italian creations of all time. Like many other traditional Italian dishes on our list, it started as peasant food, as villagers would use old bread to taste the oil created by their olive mills. When tomatoes were introduced to Italy, they became a favorite topping on bruschetta.

Today, bruschetta comes in all kinds of forms. Think of it like a pizza in infancy. All start with toasted bread, and the most famous recipe includes some garlic rub and olive oil, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil.

Others like adding pesto, Italian prosciutto, and a bit of balsamic vinegar drizzle. You can find bruschetta in many forms around the entire country, but I think it goes especially great with a bottle of chianti in Tuscany.

See Related: Where to Stay in Tuscany: Best Places to Stay Without a Car

11. Fiorentina

Thick slices of florentine steak meat from chianina cow grilling over the embers
ellepistock / Adobe Stock

Meat lovers have found their favorite spot on the list. Florentine steak, known in Italian as bistecca alla Fiorentina (or simply Fiorentina), is one of the country’s most famous meat dishes, and is certainly one of the most iconic to try in Tuscany.

Fiorentina is a meat cut from the sirloin and rib area of a young cow, around the T-bone, making this a veal dish. It’s cooked very close to hot coals to start off but is removed rather quickly, just after a thin crust of dust is formed.

It then cooks for a few more minutes in a higher position until ready. The final product should be colored on the outside but red and juicy on the inside – the mean shouldn’t even be turned with a sharp object to avoid messing up this balance.

You don’t really need to season Florentine steak much, but every chef has their own recipe, and it may be served spiced or with sauce. Non-vegetarians should not miss the chance to try Florentine steak when in Florence, and with a nice bottle of chianti if possible. There are even walking tours of the city that end off with Fiorentina steak dinners.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Florence, Italy

12. Ossobucco

Stewed veal shank meat Osso Buco,  italian ossobuco steak. wooden background. Top view.
Vladimir / Adobe Stock

Let’s cover one of the other definitely-non-vegetarian-friendly famous dishes while we’re at it: ossobucco. This one is also made with veal and comes from Lombardy, the mountainous northern region around Milan. In fact, it goes very well with some risotto alla Milanese.

Ossobucco means hollow bone, and that’s kind of the point of the dish. The veal shanks are braised in a broth slowly with their bones still in.

The bone marrow should be scooped out and eaten with the meat and broth contents, as it’s considered the delicacy of ossobucco. There’s even a special spoon made for this purpose.

Besides risotto, ossobucco is very often served with some polenta (more on that later) or roasted potatoes – all great additions to make sure you enjoy every last bit of the flavor. The meat should also be topped with some garlic, parsley, and lemon zest when made in the traditional style, but variations exist. Look for this spectacular but little-known Italian food at authentic restaurants throughout Lombardy, especially during winter.

13. Pasta Bolognese

Delicious spaghetti served on a black plate with bolognese sause
gkrphoto / Adobe Stock

Meat goes great with pasta dishes, too. Bolognese is the best example of that, and it’s one of the most famous dishes to come from the region surrounding Bologna and one of my all-time favorites.

You can find pasta Bolognese on menus around the world, but don’t miss the chance to try the real thing from the real place.

Few people know that Bolognese meat sauce can be made with ground beef and ground pork as an alternative – frequently, it’s made with both. It’s slow-cooked with onions, tomatoes, carrots, and often with some milk. But once again, everyone seems to do Bolognese their way, and you’ll find variations even within the city of Bologna itself.

The sauce can be put on a variety of pasta and is most commonly found on tagliatelle and lasagne. Do not forget to top it with some parmigiano reggiano cheese!

Don’t miss the chance to visit Bologna, as it’s just an hour on the fast train from Venice and one of the coolest places in Italy. There are plenty of Bologna food tours that will show you the best tastes of the city, including Bolognese sauce dishes.

Read Also: Should You Visit Bologna or Florence?

14. Gnocchi

Freshly made gnocchi with green basil pesto sauce
fahrwasser / Adobe Stock

Gnocchi is another one of our all-time favorites and is served at my house at least once a week. It comes from the northern regions of Italy, where the climate and ground are more suitable for growing potatoes than other grains. However, like many of our other dishes, this one is found all over the country today in many different varieties.

Gnocchi is made by grinding potatoes and mixing them with wheat flour, salt, and egg to form small, round balls. Traditionally, these are boiled for just a quick amount of time, but versions today can also be pan-fried. The cooked gnocchi are mixed with a sauce of choice and may be garnished with more flavors before serving.

The result is a soft, irresistible bite of tastiness. Many people describe gnocchi as potato pasta or an Italian dumpling, but I find it inaccurate and put it in its own category. I recommend mixing it with red or green pesto and top it with a generous serving of mozzarella di bufala campana (buffalo mozzarella cheese).

15. Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad. Mediterranean salad. Mozzarella cherry tomatoes basil and olive oil on old oak table. Italian cuisine.
weyo / Adobe Stock

If you’re headed to the Amalfi Coast or the fabulous island of Capri, you’re sure to have the chance to try Caprese salad. In fact, the ingredients of this Italian salad are often used to make a sandwich, which is a very popular grab-and-go option around the country.

Caprese salad represents another one of the masterpieces of simplicity that Italian food gets just right. It’s just tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil topped with some olive oil, salt, and perhaps black pepper. The ingredients make up the red, green, and white colors of the Italian flag. This is one theory on why the dish was created in Capri in the first place, as wealthy vacationers flocked to the beautiful island and wanted to taste something traditional.

Caprese is simply eaten with a fork and knife, and you can drizzle some balsamic vinegar on it for additional flavor – but the people of Capri might have something to say about that. You can learn all about it in a Caprese cooking masterclass on the island.

16. Polenta

A chef stirring a pot of polenta, a traditional italian food
michelangeloop / Adobe Stock

Yet another wonderful starch that the Italians have engineered is polenta. A specialty of the northern parts of the country, its invention predates even Roman times – but the polenta we know today is a bit more recent, dating to the discovery of the Americas. Explorers brought back corn, which is what polenta is based on.

Corn is ground somewhat coarsely into cornmeal and boiled in water at a 1-to-4 ratio until it thickens. That’s it, besides adding a small amount of butter and salt.

The result is a smooth, creamy side that’s somewhat similar in its qualities to mashed potatoes or rice. You can eat it alongside meats or vegetables or serve it with polenta.

Another unique quality of polenta is that after cooking, it hardens to the thickness of a soft bread and can be cut with a knife. It’s still perfectly edible, and many people prefer it that way. Try polenta in all its forms when in the north of Italy, like in Lake Como on this walking food tour.

17. Carbonara

Italian pasta, carbonara spaghetti, close-up, selective focus
Studio Gi / Adobe Stock

Carbonara is another of the most famous Italian pasta dishes and can be found on menus worldwide. However, it’s also another one that is often obscured and overdone, and trying the real thing on a trip to Italy reveals a serious difference in deliciousness.

Many types of pasta can be used for carbonara, but the most popular include spaghetti, linguini, and tagliatelle. The secret is in the sauce, as it shouldn’t contain much more than its four main ingredients: egg, black pepper, pecorino cheese, and pancetta. Pecorino is sometimes substituted with Parmigiano Reggiano and Pancetta with guanciale.

It’s all added to the hot pasta and tossed to form the silky sauce. Other countries often use bacon or generic ham instead of the appropriate Italian meats. It definitely makes a difference! You can see how to make it the right way during a cooking class in Verona.

See Related: Italy vs France: Which is Better to Visit?

18. Tortellini

Cappelletti in brodo. Pasta italiana. Ravioli, tortellini on a plate of broth
filippo / Adobe Stock

The stuffed pasta known as tortellini is another one of Italy’s most popular gifts to the world. While Italians can agree that it originated in the Emilia Romagna region, there is less consensus about whether it came from Bologna or Modena. Luckily, they’re just a quick train ride away from each other, so you can try tortellini in both.

This hearty dish is another one whose traditional composition might surprise you. The pasta is stuffed with a mixture of meats, including pork loin, Parma ham, and mortadella, as well as Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

The pasta is made with flour and egg – no oil or water is required. The stuffed pasta should be boiled in capon (a certain type of chicken) broth, as water will cause it to lose its flavor.

Tortellini stuffed with more creative fillings or served in tomato sauce are often tasty but are not as authentic and flavorful as you’ll find in Emilia Romagna. In cities like Bologna, pre-made and ready-to-boil tortellini are sold at markets by the kilo! A foodie tour of the city will reveal it all.

19. Risi e Bisi

Classic italian risotto with peas, cheese parmesan, prosciutto. Risi e Bisi (Venetian-style rice and peas)
Natalia Hanin / Adobe Stock

If you want to try real Venetian cuisine on the canals of Venice, look for a restaurant that serves risi e bisi rather than the tourist-trap pasta and pizza all over the place. Risi e bisi means rice and peas in the local dialect, and that’s pretty much what the dish is made of, although it has a much less boring taste than you might think.

The story goes that risi e bisi was made as an offering to the Doge of Venice during the feast of San Marco many centuries ago, as the Venetians wanted to capitalize on the spring harvest of fresh peas. It was a huge hit. The dish is not quite a risotto or a soup, although it is eaten with a spoon and feels like a comfort food.

Traditional risi e bisi is cooked with beef broth, vegetables, mortadella, and parmesan cheese along with rice and peas, and it’s served in springtime when the peas are fresh. Seek it out in some of the outer-island neighborhoods of Venice for a true taste of the city.

20. Carpaccio

fresh carpaccio salad with wine vinegar
Anna_Anny / Adobe Stock

Another traditional hit from the canals of Venice is carpaccio, originally consisting of thin slices of raw beef but now encompassing fish as well. This inventive dish is much more recent than the rest, having just been created in 1963.

Giuseppe Cipriani, founder and owner of the famous Harry’s Bar, is the father of carpaccio. He made it for a countess who her doctor told to consume raw meat due to a condition.

The product was thinly-sliced sirloin served with lemon, olive oil, white truffle, and parmesan. It became a menu hit and spread far beyond Venice, and today, carpaccio is served with a variety of accompaniments and flavors.

Carpaccio is a must-try delicacy for those who aren’t grossed out by raw meat – those who are might opt for the tuna version, which is just like eating sushi!

On a similar note, be sure to stop by the dish’s birthplace, Harry’s Bar, which still serves carpaccio with its signature drink, the Bellini.

21. Tagliatelle al Tartufo

truffle delicacy cooking vegan restaurant food mushroom pasta concept. Culinary delights.
igor_kell / Adobe Stock

One of the jewels of Italian cuisine is the rare and expensive truffle. These are a type of fungus that grows underground, near tree roots, and are next to impossible to farm. Their rarity makes them extremely expensive; luckily, the flavor is so strong that you just need a tiny bit to cook with.

White and black truffles can be added to a variety of dishes, especially pasta. Tagliatelle is a popular one I’ve used here, but it could be any type. Similarly, the sauce and other ingredients are largely flexible – it’s great to see what different restaurants can create with the truffle flavor!

The only common theme is that the truffle shavings are rarely added while cooking; they are used as a topping or just before assembling the final product.

Funnily enough, there were many decades during which truffles weren’t eaten, as it was thought they were the work of the devil. Nowadays, it’s one of the most high-end and exclusive flavors you can get.

Luckily, simple truffle pasta dishes don’t usually reflect that expense. In Tuscany, you can even go on a truffle hunt with one of the specially-trained dogs that know how to find the “black gold” of the countryside.

22. Cannoli

Assorted cannolis with a bottle of limoncello
Woodrow Matthews / ViaTravelers

Finally, the desserts! Let’s start them off with a sweet treat from the island of Sicily: cannoli. Many people are familiar with these aesthetically pleasing little tubes of crunchy and creamy goodness. In English, we often use cannoli as singular (i.e., “a cannoli”); in reality, that’s the plural form, and a single dessert is a cannolo.

Cannoli are deep-fried pastry dough tubes filled with ricotta-based cream. They range in size from bite-sized to several inches long.

The tips of the cannoli, where the cream comes out, are often dipped in or topped with chocolate chips, candied fruit, nuts like pistachios, or a combination. The whole thing may be dusted with powdered sugar.

Cannoli are kind of irresistible, and this is one dessert I can’t pass up if I see them at a bakery in Italy. If you’re visiting the picturesque town of Taormina in Sicily, you can actually take a cannoli-making course that will give you a certificate afterward – add it to your resume.

23. Italian Gelato

Delicious icecream in beautiful Venezia, Italy in front of a canal
irinanillu / Adobe Stock

Ice cream is great almost anywhere, but no one does it like the Italians. “Gelato,” which means “frozen” in Italian, refers to any type of ice cream. But Italian gelato is distinct from any other; it was how the ice cream the rest of the world has come to know was born.

Italian gelato contains less air than typical American ice cream, meaning you get more bang for your buck in each scoop! But seriously, less air means denser, richer, and more flavorful ice cream. Gelato also contains much less butterfat than its American counterparts – another huge win for the Italian ice creams.

The traditional vanilla, chocolate, and coffee flavors you find in a gelato shop are sure to be exceptional, but try something like stracciatella or fior di latte to have your mind blown.

Don’t go crazy on toppings, either, although a bit of whipped cream makes it just right, in my opinion. You can learn all about how, exactly, this Italian delicacy is made differently at a gelato-making class in Florence.

See Related: Where to Stay in Florence, Italy: Best Areas & Neighborhoods

24. Tiramisu

Italian Dessert Tiramisu with Mascarpone Cheese and Espresso Coffee
Victority / Adobe Stock

Tiramisu means “pick me up” or “cheer me up,” and something is seriously wrong if it can’t do that for you. This Italian cake originates from the north, but the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia fight over which was responsible. It’s the GOAT.

The cake is made of ladyfinger cookies dipped in espresso, layered among a mascarpone cheese-based cream. It’s all topped with cocoa powder and eaten like a cake with a fork or spoon.

Nowadays, all kinds of special touches are added to tiramisu. Many people like to add rum or amaretto liqueur to the espresso, while others add bases to the dish, like speculoos cookies. You can learn the traditional ways (and enjoy some limoncello) at a tiramisu class in Naples if you’re curious and have a sweet tooth.

25. Panna Cotta

Delicious italian dessert panna cotta with raspberry sauce and m
ehaurylik / Adobe Stock

Finally, we have panna cotta, another sweet specialty from the north of Italy. The name means “cooked cream,” and while it’s quite creamy, this dessert is not cooked.

Instead, a sweet mixture of cream and sugar is further flavored with coffee, vanilla, chocolate, or even rum before being solidified with gelatin in molds.

The cooled and hardened product is plated and often topped with berries, sweet sauces, or other flavors. Panna cotta can be made to appear very fancy-looking and is often served at high-end restaurants.

Like many other Italian desserts, panna cotta is not vegan-friendly or lactose-intolerant-friendly, so use caution if you have these dietary restrictions. If not, a small helping of panna cotta is often the ideal way to end an Italian dinner.

Cuisine in Northern Italy vs Southern Italy

Stunning Vernazza of Cinque Terre, Italy
janoka82 / Adobe Stock

If you are fortunate to visit both Southern and Northern Italy on the same trip, you’ll likely pick up on differences in what you see on the menu each evening.

Everyone seems to have a different way of defining where the North becomes the South, though. People describe the “border” as being as far north as the River Po, which runs from Turin to Venice, while others say Rome makes the transition.

In terms of traditional Italian cuisine, that differentiation belongs on the northern end of the spectrum. In the north, Italian food is more land-based and influenced by bordering countries like France, Switzerland, and Austria.

The mountains of the Alps and the ecosystems they host create different ingredients and, therefore, different flavors than the Mediterranean coastline of the south.

While there is some seafood, food in Northern Italy is a bit more hearty and land-based – beef, lamb, and pork are common proteins. They also use butter more frequently, alongside or instead of olive oil.

Polenta and rice are a bit more common here than the pasta and bread you’ll find in the South; sauces that accompany them are more creamy than the tomato-based ones in the South.

Southern Italy capitalizes on its mild climate and its long seaside. The environment is perfect for growing fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, olives, lemons, peppers, and more.

That’s why you’ll find a lot of tomato sauce, olive oil, and spicier or zestier foods here. Seafood plays a much bigger role, although land-based proteins are definitely still available.

Italian Food vs Italian-American Food

Aerial View of Capri, Italy
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Now that we’ve seen some of the best food from Italy, let’s mention a few things that are not Italian. Besides the north-south divide, there’s another important distinction not to be mixed up – what many people consider “Italian” food in America isn’t Italian.

Some Italians will smile and laugh at this common misconception, while others will be flat-out offended by what people do to their beloved cuisine across the Atlantic!

Italian Americans feel strongly about this, too. They argue that the recipes they know and love have been passed down through the generations from ancestors who came from Italy, and therefore, they are indeed authentic by definition.

In reality, everyone is correct, as once-traditional recipes transformed, minorly or majorly, to meet the desires and needs of average Americans.

The classic spaghetti and meatballs that we know and love is one example – separately, these foods are quintessentially Italian but wouldn’t be served together. Veal, chicken, eggplant, meatballs, and anything ending with parmesan are definitely not Italian.

Chicken ending in marsala, piccata, and francaise is not a thing. And sorry, garlic bread may be delicious, but it is definitely just Italian-American.

Furthermore, the dining experience in Italy is quite different from that in America. Italian people treat dining as a social event that lasts much longer than you might expect (or enjoy – I’m a fan of just eating and leaving).

In Italy, dinner consists of several courses that start very light and get heavier; Italian-American meals are often just one big course. Don’t worry though – however you like it, restaurants in Italy will serve you as many courses as you please.

FAQ

What are the most famous Italian dishes from Sicily?

One of the particularly famous local dishes from the southern Italian island of Sicily is arancini. These are deep-fried rice balls stuffed with all kinds of things – some of the most popular include ragu, peas, ham, and mozzarella cheese. Cannoli, the famous Italian pastries deep-fried and stuffed with creams and chocolates, are also Sicilian.

What are some of the most popular Italian foods with seafood?

Thanks to its long Mediterranean coastline, Southern Italy utilizes seafood in many of its traditional dishes. Linguini allo scoglio (linguini with seafood), as well as the more specific linguini alle vongole (linguini with clams), combine fish and shellfish with one of the country’s most popular pastas; these are usually made with a white wine and garlic sauce but can be made with tomato sauce as well. Risotto, Italy’s beloved creamy rice dish, is often made with fish, prawns, squid, and other seafood.

Is modern Italian food different from classic?

What many chefs and restaurants call “modern” Italian cuisine usually combines famous traditional foods with flavors and methods from around the world, making them different from what you might find in a small village or on menus from long ago. However, Italian staple foods like tomato sauce, olive oil, local cheeses, and fresh basil leaves are commonly used, especially if the dish will ultimately be referred to as “Italian.”

What are the best food tours in Italy?

One of the top things to do in Italy is take a food tour. The best Italian food tours can be found nationwide, and booking one is a must for your Italian vacation. Try this day trip from Rome for a three-course lunch, a walking tour of street food in Rome, or take a pizza and gelato cooking class near Florence. You can’t go wrong!

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Woodrow Matthews
WRITTEN BY

Woodrow Matthews

Woodrow is a travel writer who enjoys sharing experiences, tips, and tricks from his vacations. He’s been to 40+ countries, all 50 US states plus Puerto Rico and the USVI, and lived for several years in France, from which he explored many parts of Europe. Woodrow is an expert in travel hacking, finding bargain flights, and coined the term "upgrade engineering" referring to his talent to upgrade simple hotel room bookings into suite stays. Woodrow loves scuba diving, hiking, beaches, and all things aviation.

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