The most important tip I can give you on Italy local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Italy, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Italy
Cuisine Italian food inside of Italy is different than what they call “Italian food” in America. It is truly one of the most diverse in the world, and in any region, or even city and village you go, there are different specialties. For instance, it could be only misleading to say that Northern Italian cuisine is based on hearty, potato and rice-rich meals, Central Italian cuisine is mainly on pastas, roasts and meat, and Southern Italian cuisine on vegetables, pizza, pasta and seafood: there are so many cross-influences that you’d only get confused trying to categorize. And in any case, Italian cuisine, contrary to popular belief, is not just based on pasta and tomato sauce – that’s only a tiny snippet of the nation’s food, as in some parts of Northern Italy, pasta isn’t even used at all, and rice, potatoes, lentils, soups and similar meals are very common in some parts of the country.
Italian food is based upon so many ingredients and Italians often have very discriminating tastes that may seem strange to Americans and other visitors. For instance, a sandwich stand might sell 4 different types of ham sandwiches that in each case contain ham, mayonnaise, and cheese.
The only thing that may be different between the sandwiches is the type of ham or cheese used in them. Rustichella and panzerotti are two examples of sandwiches well-liked by Italians and tourists alike. Also, Italian sandwiches are quite different from the traditional Italian-American hero, submarine, or hoagie sandwich (which by the way mean nothing to any Italian). Rather than large sandwiches with a piling of meat, vegetables, and cheese, sandwiches in Italy are often quite small, very flat (made even more so when they are quickly heated and pressed on a panini grill), and contain a few simple ingredients with rarely, if ever, lettuce or mayonnaise.
The term panini may be somewhat confusing to travellers from Northern Europe where it has erroneously come to mean a flat, heated sandwich on a grill. In Italy the term is equivalent to “bread rolls” (plural) which can be simple rolls or sometimes with basic filling. However instead of a sandwich why not try piadinas which are a flat folded bread with filling, which are served warm and are typical of the coast of Emilia-Romagna. Americans will notice that Italian pasta is usually available with a myriad of sauces rather than simply tomato and Alfredo. Also, Italian pasta is often served with much less sauce than in America. This is, in part, because pasta in a restaurant is usually regarded as the first course of a three- or four-course meal, not a meal in itself. Structure of a traditional meal: despite the stereotype, your average Italian’s meals consist of a small breakfast, a one-dish lunch and a two-dish dinner. Coffee is welcomed at nearly every hour, especially around 10:00 and at the end of a meal (unless that meal is pizza).
At the weekends and in restaurants (for other occasions), a meal typically consists of: antipasto (appetizers: marinated vegetables, mixed coldcuts, seafood, etc), primo (pasta or rice dish), secondo (meat or fish course) often with a side-dish known as contorno, and dolce (dessert). Like the language and culture, food in Italy differs region by region. Generally speaking pasta and olive oil are the staples of Southern Italian food, the Central Italian cuisines rely on pasta, meat and olive oil/butter while northern food focuses on rice and butter (but today there are many, many exceptions). Local ingredients are also very important. In warm Naples, citrus and other fresh fruit play a prominent role in both food and liquor, while in Venice fish is obviously an important traditional ingredient.
As a guideline, in the south cuisine is focused on pasta and dessert, while at north meat is king, but this rule can be very different depending on where you are. A note about breakfast in Italy: this is a very light meal, often just a cappuccino or coffee with a pastry (cappuccino e cornetto) or a piece of bread and fruit jam.
You should not expect a large breakfast. In Italy, it is not customary to eat eggs and bacon for breakfast – the very thought of it is revolting to most Italians. Indeed, no salty foods are consumed for breakfast. Additionally, cappuccino is considered something you’d have for breakfast; ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered an oddity and a typical “tourist thing”.
An ordinary coffee is considered much more appropriate. Another enjoyable Italian breakfast item is cornetto (plural: cornetti): a croissant or light pastry often filled with jam, cream or chocolate. Lunch is seen as the most important part of the day. In the past, many shops used to close down and resume after the two hour break period and to compensate for this, businesses used to stay open later than in most other European towns, often until 20:00. However, this is no longer the case and now the business hours of a typical Italian day are comparable to those in the rest of Western Europe but still a lot shorter than in North America or Asia.
Good luck trying to find a place open during the so-called “pausa pranzo” (lunch break), when visiting a small town, but this is not the case in the biggest cities or shopping centres. Dinner (i.e. the evening meal) is generally taken late, usually between 8:00 and 8:00 AM. In summer, if you are in a restaurant before 8:00 you are likely to be eating on your own, and it is quite normal to see families with young children still dining after 22:00. Cuisine is considered an art. Great chefs like Gualtiero Marchesi or Gianfranco Vissani are seen as half-way between TV stars and magicians. Italians are extremely proud of their culinary tradition and generally love food and talking about it – however, they are definitely not so fond of common preconceptions, such as that Italian food is only pizza and spaghetti. They also have a distaste for “bastardized” versions of their dishes that are popular elsewhere, and many Italians have a hard time believing that the average foreigner can’t get even a basic dish “right”.
A note about service: do not expect the kind of dedicated, focused service you will find in American restaurants. In Italy this is considered somewhat annoying and people generally prefer to be left alone when consuming their meal. You should expect the waiter to come and check on you after your first course, maybe to order something as second course. You should consider that Italy’s most famous dishes like pizza or spaghetti are quite lame for Italians, and eating in different areas can be an interesting opportunity to taste some less well known local specialty. Even for something as simple as pizza there are significant regional variations. The pizza of Naples has a thick, soft crust while that of Rome is considerably thinner and crustier.
When dining out with Italians read the menu and remember that almost every restaurant has a typical dish and some towns have centuries-old traditions that you are invited to learn. People will be most happy when you ask for local specialties and will gladly advise you. In Northern Italy at around 17:00 most bars will prepare for an appetitive especially in cosmopolitan Milan, with a series of plates of nibbles, cheese, olives, meat, brochette and much more… This is NOT considered a meal and should you indulge yourself in eating as if it was dinner, you would most likely not be very much appreciated. All this food is typically free to anyone who purchases a drink but it is intended to be just a snack before the main meal.
An interesting piece of trivia mostly lost on tourists and locals alike, is that the tomato did not make its way into Italian cuisine until well into the 17th century. The tomato plant is native to South America and as such, was not “discovered” by Europeans until its introduction in the late 1600s and early 1700s. No, Da Vinci didn’t eat pizza with tomato sauce and Michelangelo didn’t dine on it either. Specialties Almost every city and region has its own specialties, a brief list of which may include: Risotto – Arborio rice that has been sautéed and cooked in a shallow pan with stock. The result is a very creamy and hearty dish. Meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and cheeses are almost always added depending on the recipe and the locale.
Many restaurants, families, towns, and regions will have a signature risotto or at least style of risotto, in addition or in place of a signature pasta dish (risotto alla Milanese is a famous Italian classic). Risotto is a typical dish in Lombardy and Piedmont. Arancino – A deep fried ball of rice with tomato sauce, eggs, and cheese. It’s a southern Italian specialty, though are now quite common all over. It is NOT to be confused with supplì, which are a strictly Roman specialty and are pretty much unheard of in the rest of the peninsula. Polenta – Yellow corn meal (yellow grits) that has been cooked with stock. It is normally served either creamy, or allowed to set up and then cut into shapes and fried or roasted. It is a very common dish in northern mountains restaurants, usually eaten with deer or boar meat. Gelato This is the Italian word for ice cream.
The non-fruit flavors are usually made only with milk. Gelato made with water and without dairy ingredients is also known as sorbetto. It’s fresh as a sorbet, but tastier. There are many flavours, including coffee, chocolate, fruit, and tiramisù. When buying at a gelateria, you have the choice of having it served in a wafer cone or a tub; in northen Italy you’ll pay for every single flavor “ball”, and the panna (the milk cream) counts as a flavor; in Rome you can buy a small wafer cone (around 1.80) a medium one (2.50) or a large one (3.00) without limit of flavors, and the panna is free. Tiramisù Italian cake made with coffee, mascarpone, and ladyfingers (sometimes rum) with cocoa powder on the top. The name means “pick-me-up”. Pizza Supreme pizza Pizza is a quick and convenient meal. In most cities there are pizza shops that sell by the gram. Look for a sign Pizza al taglio.
When ordering, simply point to the display or tell the attendant the type of pizza you would like (e.g. pizza margherita, pizza con patate (roasted or french fries), pizza al prosciutto (ham), etc.) and how much (“Vorrei (due fette – two slices) or (due etti – two-tenths of a kilogram) or simply say “di più” – more, or “di meno” – less, “per favore”). They will slice it, warm it in the oven, fold it in half, and wrap it in paper. Other food shops also sell pizza by the slice. Remember, getting your meal on the run can save money but some touristy sandwich shops charge an additional fee if you want to sit to eat your meal. Also, in many parts of the country pizzas have a thinner base of bread and less cheese than those found outside Italy. The most authentic, original pizzas is found in Naples – often containing quite a few ingredients (tomato and oregano, or tomato and mozzarella). The Neapolitan one is the only traditional Italian pizza. You can eat it in Naples, of course, but you can also find some few pizzerias in other big cities which make a pizza quite similar to the real Neapolitan pizza.
The traditional, round pizza is found in many restaurants and specialized pizza restaurants (pizzerie). It is rare to find a restaurant that serves pizza at lunchtime, however. Take-away pizzerias (pizzerie da asporto) are becoming ubiquitous in many cities and towns. Quality may vary, though they are almost always cheaper than restaurants (4-5 for a margherita on average) and are also open at lunchtime (a few are also open all day long). Some will also serve kebab, which may also vary in quality. Though take-away pizzas are also considered “second-class pizza” by most Italians, they are quite popular among the vast population of university students and they are usually located in residential areas; these are not to be confused with the ever so popular “pizza al taglio” shops in Rome, which are a sort of traditional fast food in the Capital and can be found at every corner. Quality is usually very good and pizza is sold by the weight; you choose the piece of pizza you want, then they put it on the scale and tell you the price.
Cheese and sausages In Italy you can find nearly 800 kinds of cheese, including the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, and over 400 types of sausages. If you want a real kick, then try to find one of the huge open markets, which are always open on Saturdays and usually during other days, except Sunday, as well. You will find all types of cheese and meat on display. Restaurants and bars There are numerous restaurants in Italian cities (like this one, in the exclusive Via Veneto, Rome) Italian bars in the centre of major cities charge more (typically double whatever the final bill is) if you drink or eat seated at a table outside rather than standing at the bar or taking your order to go. This is because bars are charged a very high tax to place tables and chair outside, so since most people do not use tables anyway, they had decided long ago to only charge those who do. The further away you are from the center streets, the less this rule is applied. When calling into a bar for a coffee or other drink you first go to the cash register and pay for what you want. You then give the receipt to the barman, who will serve you. Restaurants – with the notable exception of Rome and the surrounding Lazio region, where such a charge is forbidden by law – charge a small coperto (cover charge).
Some years ago attempts were made to outlaw the practice, with limited success. You can be charged for bread, but if you don’t want to pay for it just send it away. Some restaurants now levy a service charge, but this is far from common. In Italian restaurants a large tip is never expected. The customary 15% of the United States may cause an Italian waiter to drop dead with a heart attack. Just leave a euro or two and they will be more than happy. The traditional meal can include (in order) antipasto (starter of cold seafood, gratinated vegetables or ham and salami), primo (first dish – pasta or rice dishes), secondo (second dish – meat or fish dishes), served together with contorno (mostly vegetables), cheeses/fruit, dessert, coffee, and spirits. Upmarket restaurants usually refuse to make changes to proposed dishes (exceptions warmly granted for babies or people on special diets).
Mid-range restaurants are usually more accommodating. For example, a simple pasta with tomato sauce may not be on the menu but a restaurant will nearly always be willing to cook one for kids who turn their noses up at everything else on the menu. If you are in a large group (say four or more) then it is appreciated if you don’t all order a totally different pasta. While the sauces are pre-cooked the pasta is cooked fresh and it is difficult for the restaurant if one person wants spaghetti, another fettuccine, a third rigatoni, a fourth penne and a fifth farfalle (butterfly shaped pasta). If you attempt such an order you will invariably be told that you will have a long wait! When pizza is ordered, it is served as a primo (even if formally it is not considered as such), together with other primi.
If you order a pasta or pizza and your friend has a steak you will get your pasta dish, and probably when you’ve finished eating the steak will arrive. If you want primo and secondo dishes to be brought at the same time you have to ask. Restaurants which propose diet food, very few, usually write it clearly in menus and even outside; others usually don’t have any dietetic resources. People with coeliac disease may be surprised that many restaurants and shops offer gluten-free (senza glutine) food and the disease is generally well known. Gastronomia A Gastronomia is a kind of self-service restaurant (normally you tell the staff what you want rather than serving yourself) that also offers take-aways. This can give a good opportunity to sample traditional Italian dishes at fairly low cost. Note that these are not buffet restaurants. You pay according to what you order.
The ‘Cesarine’ of “Home Food” The Cesarine of Home Food, present in many Italian places, spread and enhance the traditional recipes, the peculiarities of the territory of the local products and welcome guests within their houses, preparing for them courses from a menu in which intertwine skills, gastronomic tradition and unforgettable flavours. The Home Food project, with the patronage of the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Bologna, stands for the protection and preservation of traditional food culture and typical products of Italy. Through the creation of a virtuous circle and non-profit, Home Food, allows its members to be Guests at the table of Italian families and enjoy the food prepared by the lady of the houses, which are friendly called with the epithet of “Cesarine”, and are the depositories of the ancient culinary know-how.
What to Drink in Italy
Bars, like restaurants, are non-smoking. Italians enjoy going out during the evenings, so it’s common to have a drink in a bar before dinner. It is called aperitivo. Within the last couple years, started by Milan, a lot of bars have started offering fixed-price cocktails at aperitivo hours (18 – 21) with a free, and often a very good, buffet meal. It’s now widely considered stylish to have this kind of aperitivo (called Happy Hour) instead of a structured meal before going out to dance or whatever.
While safe to drink, the tap water in some parts of Italy (e.g. Sardinia, or parts of the South) can be cloudy with a slight off taste. some Italians prefer bottled water, which is served in restaurants. Make sure you let the waiter/waitress know you want regular water (acqua naturale) or else you could get water with either natural gas or with added carbonation (frizzante). Rome, in particular, has exceptional pride in the quality of its water. This goes right back to the building of aqueducts channeling pure mountain water to all the citizens of Rome during Roman times. Don’t waste plastic bottles.
You can refill your drinking containers and bottles at any of the constant running taps and fountains dotted around the city, safe in the knowledge that you are getting excellent quality cool spring water – try it! Wine Italian wine is exported all over the world, and names like Barolo, Brunello and Chianti are well-known. In Italy wine is a substantial topic, a sort of test which can ensure either respect or lack of attention from an entire restaurant staff.
Doing your homework ensures that you will get better service, better wine and in the end may even pay less. DOC, DOCG, IGT? The Denominazione di origine controllata certificate restricts above all the grape blend allowed for the wine, and in itself it is not yet a guarantee of quality. The same applies to the stricter Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita. These two denominations are indications of a traditional wine typical of the region, such as Chianti, and often a good partner for local food. But some of the best Italian wines are labeled with the less strict Indicazione geografica tipica designation, often a sign of a more modern, “international” wine. So before reaching Italy, try to learn a little about the most important wines of the region you are planning to visit. This will greatly increase you enjoyment. Italian cuisine varies greatly from region to region (sometimes also from town to town), and wine reflects this variety. Italians have a long tradition of matching wines with dishes and often every dish has an appropriate wine.
The popular “color rule” (red wines with meat dishes, white wines with fish) can be happily broken when proposed by a sommelier or when you really know what you are doing: Italy has many strong white wines to serve with meat (a Sicilian or Tuscan chardonnay), as well as delicate red wines for fish (perhaps an Alto Adige pinot noir). Unlike in the UK, for example, the price mark-ups charged by restaurants for wines on their wine list are not usually excessive, giving you a chance to experiment. In the big cities, there are also many wine bars, where you can taste different wines by the glass, at the same time as eating some delicious snacks. Unlike in many other countries it is unusual for restaurants to serve wine by the glass.
The vino della casa (house wine) can be an excellent drinking opportunity in small villages far from towns (especially in Tuscany), where it could be what the patron would really personally drink or could even be the restaurant’s own product. It tends to be a safe choice in decent restaurants in cities as well. Vino della casa may come bottled but in lower-priced restaurants it is still just as likely to be available in a carafe of one quarter, one half or one litre.
As a general rule, if the restaurant seems honest and not too geared for tourists, the house wine is usually not too bad. That said, some house wines can be dreadful and give you a nasty head the next morning. If it doesn’t taste too good it probably won’t do you much good, so send it back and order from the wine list. Italians are justly proud of their wines and foreign wines are rarely served, but many foreign grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are increasingly being used. Beer Although wine is a traditional product, beer is very common as well.
Beer did not belong to the Italian tradition in the way that wine does, but in the last 30-odd years there has been an explosion of english-style pubs in every town, big or small, with usually a huge selection of any kind of beer, ale, stout and cider, from every country in the world. Major Italian beers include Peroni and Moretti and these are usually the ones offered by daytime cafes. If you are serious about beer drinking, there are many bars that specialise in serving a wide range of bottled beers (see city articles for more details), as well as Irish pubs and similar establishments.
There is an increasing number of micro-breweries around the country. They often are run by local beer enthusiasts turned brewers, running small breweries with a pub attached. Their association is called Unionbirrai . In the Trieste region it is far more common to drink Slovenian beers and the most popular brands are ‘Union’ and ‘Zlatorag’. Other drinks A cold limoncello on a warm night Limoncello. A liquor made of alcohol, lemon peels, and sugar. Limoncello can be considered a “moonshine” type of product (although usually made with legally obtained alcohol) as every Italian family, especially in the middle-south (near Napoli) and southern part of the country, has its own recipe for limoncello. Because lemon trees adapt so well to the Merreanean climate, and they produce a large amount of fruit continually throughout their long fruit-bearing season, it is not unusual to find many villa’s yards filled with lemon trees bending under the weight of their crop. You can make a lot of lemonade, or better yet, brew your own limoncello.
It is mainly considered a dessert liquor, served after a heavy meal (similar to amaretto), and used for different celebrations. The taste can be compared to a very strong and slightly thick lemonade flavor with an alcohol tinge to it. Best served chilled in the freezer in small glasses that have been in the freezer. It is better sipped than treated as a shooter.
Grappa is made by distilling grape skins after the juice has been squeezed from them for winemaking, so you could imagine how it might taste. If you’re going to drink it, then make sure you get a bottle having been distilled multiple times. Limoncello and grappa and other similar drinks are usually served after a meal as an aid to digestion.
If you are a good customer restaurants will offer a drink to you free of charge, and may even leave the bottle on your table for you to help yourself. Beware that these are very strong drinks. Coffee Bars in Italy offer an enormous number of possible permutations for a way of having a cup of coffee. What you wont get, however, is 100 different types of bean; nor will you find gourmet coffees. If you like that kind of stuff, better take your own.
A bar will make coffee from a commercial blend of beans supplied by just one roaster. There are many companies who supply roast beans and the brand used is usually prominently displayed both inside and outside of the bar. You can take you coffee as follows: Caffè or Caffè Normale or Espresso. This is the basic unit of coffee, normally consumed after a meal. Caffè ristretto. This has the same amount of coffee, but less water, thus making it stronger. Caffè lungo. This is the basic unit of coffee but additional water is allowed to go through the ground coffee beans in the machine. Caffè americano. This has much more water and is served in a cappuccino cup. It is more like an American breakfast coffee but the quantity is still far less than you would get in the States. So far so good. But here the permutations begin. For the same price as a normal coffee, you can ask for a dash of milk to be added to any of the above. This is called macchiato. Hence, caffè lungo macchiato or caffè americano macchiato. But that dash of milk can be either hot (caldo) or cold (freddo). So you can ask, without the barman batting an eye, for a caffè lungo macchiato freddo or a caffè Americano macchiato caldo. Any one of these options can also be had decaffeinated. Ask for caffè decaffeinato.
The most popular brand is HAG and it is quite usual to ask for caffè HAG even if the bar does not use that particular brand. If you are really in need of a pick-me-up you can ask for a double dose of coffee, or a doppio. You have to specify this when you pay at the cash register and it costs twice as much as a normal coffee. All the above permutations still apply, although a caffè doppio ristretto may be a bit strange. Additionally, if you need a shot of alcohol, you can ask for a caffè corretto. This usually involves adding grappa, brandy or sambuca; “corrected” being the Italian expression corresponding to “spiked”.
Normally it is only a plain coffee that is corrected but there is no reason why you should not correct any of the above combinations. Then there are coffee drinks with milk, as follows: Cappuccino. Needs no introduction. If you dont like the froth you can ask for cappuccino senza schiuma. Caffè latte. Often served in a glass, this is a small amount of coffee with the cup/glass filled up with hot milk. Latte macchiato. This is a glass of milk with a dash of coffee in the top. The milk can be hot or cold. Finally, in the summer you can have caffè freddo, which is basically plain coffee with ice, “caffè freddo shakerato” (shaked ice coffee) or cappuccino freddo, which is a cold milky coffee without the froth. This list is by no means exhaustive. With a vivid imagination and a desire to experiment you should be able to find many more permutations. Enjoy!
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.