Five Not-to-be-Missed Foods in Italy

One of the most important elements of any Italy trip is not what you'll see in the piazzas and museums, but what you'll sample from your plate and glass. Italy is about art and culture, of course, but it is also about food and wine, and the traditional cuisine is such an integral part of this country's history and culture that it is often hard to separate the two. Everything from the landscape to the opening hours of businesses has been shaped by Italian's eating habits over the centuries, so it's only fitting that an authentic experience in Italy includes tasting its most authentic dishes.

cannolo-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Here are five of our favorites - chosen from a thousand contenders - that are a must for any Italy trip. Be sure you try each in its home region, as Italy is a patchwork of micro-cuisines and eating a northern dish in the south or vice versa simply doesn't pack the same flavor punch.

Pizza Napolitana


Sure, pizza, you say. Of course. But before you order that pizza in Rome or - God forbid - Venice, remember that there is pizza and then there is real pizza napolitana, a DOC certified food made according to the regulations established by the "Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana", or True Neapolitan Pizza Association, in 1984, which set out rules regarding everything from the shape of the wood-burning oven (domed) to the length of rising time for the crust dough (24 hours).

Pompeii 044(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are aiming for purist authenticity, you should order either a Margherita or a Marinara. The former, Pizza Margherita is the most popular pizza in Italy and the standard by which all pizza is measured. Legend holds that this pizza was first prepared in 1889 by the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito in Naples' historic Pizzeria da Pietro, for Queen Margherita of Savoy. The red of its San Marzano tomatoes, white of its fresh mozzarella, and green of its basil is a homage to the Italian flag, and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and served piping hot from the oven, this may be as close to perfection as pizza can get.

pizza al portafoglio(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The Marinara is the second most popular pizza in Italy and has has a history that stretches even further back than the Margherita. This simple tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, and olive oil topped pizza is called “the sailor's wife”, as it was once a fast but filling meal for returning fisherman, and is still a satisfying snack or dinner after a day on Italy's southern coast.

Truffles


It is almost impossible to describe the earthy, smoky, pungent taste of truffles, and this rare and expensive delicacy is one of the signature flavors of northern and central Italy, often grated over pasta or grilled meat, added to sauces and patès, or stored with rice or eggs for a truffle-infused risotto or frittata.

truffles(Photo by Sara Goldsmith in Umbria via Flickr)

Though common on menus across Italy, truffles are not as easy to come by as one might think. They are found only in specific micro-climates in the undergrowth of wooded areas in the foothills of the Alps and Apennines, and attempts to domesticate their production have been largely unsuccessful.Trained truffle dogs are needed to dig them up from under the layer of leaves and loam, and the world's most precious tubers are particularly sensitive to changes in weather and precipitation, so have plentiful and lean years.

truffle-hunt-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The best area to sample the delicate white truffle is around Alba in Piemonte, which is where the most important truffle festival and auction is held each fall. The more flavorful black truffle is common in Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine, and its fun to head out to the hills with a local *tartuffaio* and his dogs on a truffle hunt, followed by an unforgettable truffle meal.

Artichokes


With all the flavor-packed seasonal fruit and vegetables available in Italy's markets, it's hard to choose just one to search out. That said, no one prepares artichokes with the panache of the Romans, so when in Rome, order Carciofi alla Romana or Carciofi alla Giudìa. Or both. We suggest both.

_MG_1066(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Artichokes are in season both in the spring and fall, so you get two chances each year to sample the heirloom Carciofo Romanesco del Lazio IGP fresh from the fields in the region of Lazio, where the city of Rome is located. Known more commonly as Cimaroli or Mammole Romane, these protected artichokes are loved for their large but compact bulb, small choke, and tender leaves.

_MG_1058(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Carciofi alla Romana, or Roman-style artichokes, are whole bulbs gently braised in wine with parsley, mint, garlic, salt, and pepper. Deliciously tender and memorably flavorful, these are a common side dish in spring and fall. Carciofi alla Giudìa, or Jewish-style Artichokes, are served as an appetizer in Rome's historic Jewish Ghetto and elsewhere in the city. Trimmed whole bulbs are deep fried twice and served with a pinch of salt: the outer leaves are satisfyingly crispy and the heart creamy and tender.

Fiorentina


Italy is not known for its beef, but for its pork. From Prosciutto di Parma to Lardo di Colonata, most of the country's most famous meat products are pork charcuterie, and pork has long been one of the pillars of the traditional “cucina povera”, or rural cuisine.

IMG_0388(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

That said, the postwar economic boom brought an increase in beef production and consumption, and Italian beef today is among the world's highest quality, with a distinct flavor from heirloom breeds and open grazing. To satisfy your inner carnivore, look no further than the bistecca alla fiorentina, or Florentine-style steak, the massive cut made from Chianina beef, one of the world's most historic breeds that is raised in the rolling countryside of Tuscany.

beef-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Bistecca alla Fiorentina is made from beef aged 2 to 3 weeks and refers to two cuts - bistecca nel filetto and bistecca nella costola - both from the loin between the rib cage and the rump. The higher nel filetto cuts near the rib cage also contain the fillet and are more tender, and more marbled and flavorful lower nella costola cuts do not. Both are measured by “fingers”, and are always between 3 and 4 fingers high, weighing in between 800 g and 1.2 kg. Most restaurants will show you your steak before cooking it, and it is perfectly acceptable to share a steak between two people. Steaks are cooked for just 3 to 5 minutes on each side and served with no condiments, so the outside of the steak will be almost charred from the coals and the inside will be very rare and only warm, not hot. If you prefer your beef any more cooked than that, it's best to choose different cut!

Aperitivo


Yes, l'aperitivo isn't a food...or even a meal, unless you stretch it out and end up with an “apericena”. But this quintessentially Italian pre-dinner cocktail-and-finger-food break is such a wonderful expression of the relaxed Italian pace of life and joie de vivre that any Italy trip should include at least one.

Aperitivo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

You can enjoy an aperitivo in any city or town in Italy, and limit it to a single spritz and some olives or nuts, or settle in for a number of cocktails and glasses of wine paired with more filling finger food. In Milan, the aperitivo is drink-heavy and chic, in Rome, it is more informally social and can evolve into dinner. But by far the best place to tuck into an aperitivo is in Venice, where the city’s tiny cafès - called bàcari - serve a delicious array of cicchetti finger food washed down with a small glass of wine, known as an ombra.

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(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Cicchetti vary from bar to bar, and can include fried foods, crostini, salads, and, most famously fish and seafood. The most traditional are sardee in soar (marinated sardines and onions tossed with raisins and pine nuts), baccalà mantecato (creamed cod served on a slice of polenta), baccalà Vicentina (a creamy cod, anchovies, and onion spread), and moscardini (tiny octopus). We recently took a voga rowing lesson in Venice that included a cicchetti crawl, the perfect combination of Venetian traditions.

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Contributor: Rebecca Winke

Concierge in Umbria
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