If you asked ten Americans to guess the best food in Italy, you’d get ten similar answers.
Because when thinking about Italian food, we’ve been trained to imagine an Olive Garden commercial: a long table filled with Caesar salad, breadsticks, spaghetti marinara, and maybe some tiramisu to “jazz” things up a bit.
Unfortunately, television has turned Italian food into a cliche. Luckily, Italy has much more to offer than what you’ll find on an episode of The Sopranos.
The evolution of Italian cuisine is a complex mix of historical, geographical, and cultural influences that date back centuries. The country’s Mediterranean location (which allowed trade and exchange of ingredients) and the Age of Exploration (which introduced New World foods like tomatoes and peppers) completely altered the country’s culinary landscape.
This, mixed with the deep appreciation for their culinary heritage, the preservation of familial Italian recipes, and the continuation of artisanal traditions, makes Italy one of the world’s most renowned and diverse culinary landscapes.
Our friend Robert has compiled a guide to some of the best classic Italian dishes you can eat in Italy. So, if you’re looking for the best food in Italy, you’ve come to the right place. From seafood sensations and meaty masterpieces to iconic pizzas and pastas, this guide has a dish for every palate. Buon appetito!
Guide to the Best Food in Italy
Antipasti: The Art of Italian Starters
Antipasti, or Italian appetizers, are an art form unto themselves, showcasing a variety of dishes and ingredients that set the stage for a memorable meal.
From cured meats like Prosciutto (ham), Guanciale (pig cheek), Bresaola (beef), Speck (smoked ham), and Lardo (pork fat) to delightful seafood options such as Pesce Crudo (raw fish) and Bottarga (pressed fish eggs), antipasti are just the beginning of Italy’s diverse culinary offerings.
Antipasti includes various cheeses and vegetarian options as well. This includes dishes like Caponata, a traditional Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, and capers in a sweet-and-sour sauce, and the iconic Caprese Salad, a simple yet delicious combination of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.
As you travel through Italy, you’ll find that each region has its own unique antipasti offerings. Some of the best options are below:
1. Pasticciotto Leccese
A delectable Italian pastry, famous in the city of Lecce. This sweet delight features a buttery, crumbly pastry shell filled with egg custard and sour cherries — creating a delightful contrast in textures and flavors that captures the essence of southern Italian culinary indulgence.
2. Sarde a Beccafico
A traditional Sicilian dish made with cooked sardines, wrapped in bay leaves, and stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins, almonds, and parsley.
A Sicilian masterpiece that blends sweet, savory, and tangy flavors seamlessly. This vegetable-based delight combines eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions simmered to perfection. Capers, celery, olives, and pine nuts add depth, while a sweet and sour sauce, achieved through sugar and vinegar, ties it all together.
Seafood Sensations: Fritto Misto and Spaghetti alle Vongole
Italy’s coastal regions offer a treasure trove of fresh seafood, with dishes like Fritto Misto and Spaghetti alle Vongole showcasing the bounty of the Mediterranean.
4. Fritto Misto
A lightly battered and deep-fried mixture of seafood and vegetables. This typically includes options such as squid, shrimp, smelts (or sardines) — and sliced veggies such as zucchini or eggplant. This dish is a popular choice for locals and visitors alike, perfect for sharing and savoring the taste of the sea.
5. Spaghetti alle Vongol
A classic Italian dish made with spaghetti, fresh clams in their shells, garlic, parsley, and chili pepper.
This dish highlights the natural flavors of the clams and the simplicity of Italian cuisine, allowing each ingredient to shine. While there is no explicit answer for the best place to enjoy spaghetti alle Vongole in Italy, you can be sure that any coastal region will serve up a delicious version of this dish.
A Northern Italian Delicacy: Risotto
A creamy and luxurious Italian rice dish that has gained international acclaim for its exquisite texture and versatility. The dish can be traced back to the introduction of rice in Sicily during Arab rule in the 14th century. It has since become a staple in Italian cuisine, often enjoyed alongside other favorites like Florentine steak.
6. Risotto alla Milanese or Risotto al Nero di Sepia
Risotto begins with rice — Arborio, Carnaroli, or another short-grain variety — sautéed in butter or olive oil and then simmered slowly in a flavorful broth. As the rice cooks, it releases starch, creating a velvety consistency that characterizes risotto.
This classic dish serves as a canvas for various ingredients, from earthy mushrooms and tender asparagus to succulent seafood or saffron threads, all infused into the rice. Often finished with a generous grating of Parmesan cheese and a touch of butter, risotto embodies the art of patience and precision in Italian cooking, resulting in a rich, comforting, and utterly satisfying dining experience.
There are many exciting variations of risotto, with ingredients like Parmesan, butter, wine, and seafood adding depth and richness to the dish. Some popular examples include Risotto alla Milanese, infused with saffron, and Risotto al Nero di Sepia, prepared with cuttlefish and squid ink.
Meaty Masterpieces: Bistecca Fiorentina and Osso Buco
For the carnivores among us, these classic Italian dishes are a must-try:
7. Bistecca Fiorentina
A true Italian delicacy from Florence — this dish is a massive, rare T-bone steak cooked simply over hot coals. The steak is cooked for 5-7 minutes, leaving the inner steak rare or medium-rare, and is often brushed with a rosemary and olive oil mixture for added flavor. Paired with a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, this dish is a celebration of Italian flavors and culinary traditions.
8. Osso Buco
Originating from the Lombardy region, Osso Buco is another meaty masterpiece worth savoring. The veal shank in this dish is bone-in, providing a deeper flavor. It is cooked over low heat on the stove, producing a stew of stock, vegetables, and white wine. Traditionally served family-style, Osso Buco is a perfect dish for sharing and enjoying the comforting, rich flavors of Italian cuisine. Paired with a big, earthy red wine — this dish will impress even the most selective of palates.
A Vegetarian Delight: Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan)
Italian cuisine doesn’t disappoint when it comes to vegetarian options, with dishes like Caponata and Eggplant Parmesan offering an array of flavors and textures to please any palate. We’ve already introduced you to Caponata, so let’s dive deeper into Eggplant Parmesan.
9. Eggplant Parmesan
Believed to have originated in Naples, Eggplant Parmesan is another vegetarian delight showcasing Italian cuisine’s versatility. This dish is created by layering fried eggplant slices with cheese and tomato sauce and then baking it to perfection. The result is a delicious, hearty, comforting, and satisfying meal, perfect for a light summer lunch when basil and tomatoes are freshly picked from the garden.
Whether you’re vegetarian or not, Eggplant Parmesan is a crowd favorite and one of the best Italian dishes I’ve had the opportunity to eat in Italy.
Cheese Heaven: Mozzarella di Bufala and Burrata
While not exactly “dishes” (I guess it depends on who you ask), no exploration of Italian cuisine would be complete without a trip to cheese heaven. And Mozzarella di Bufala and Burrata are two cheeses that deserve the spotlight.
10. Mozzarella di Bufala
A cheese made from the milk of Italian water buffalo. The milk is heated and then stretched and kneaded to form the cheese, resulting in a unique, creamy texture and rich flavor. To truly appreciate Mozzarella di Bufala, it is best enjoyed in the regions of Salerno, Capri, and Campania, where the cheese is produced. But let’s be real… it’s going to be good anywhere you get it in Italy.
Hailing from Puglia, this Italian cheese is made from buffalo mozzarella stuffed with cream and cheese curds. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains a soft, creamy, irresistible mixture. Burrata is best enjoyed with fresh basil and ripe tomatoes, creating a symphony of flavors that will leave you craving more.
Street Food Favorites: Arancini and Supplí
Italy’s street food scene is as diverse and vibrant as its regional cuisine, with traditional Italian dishes like Arancini and Supplí available in a convenient, portable form.
Fried rice balls filled with meat ragù and peas, or ham and mozzarella. These delicious morsels are a popular snack in Italy, and variations can be found everywhere, from street food stalls to fancy restaurants.
Another popular street food favorite is a fried rice ball with a light meat sauce, pecorino cheese, and a small ball of mozzarella cheese at the center. Like Arancini, Suppli can be found throughout Italy, offering a delicious and convenient snack for those on the go.
Whether you’re wandering the streets of Rome or exploring the picturesque villages of Sicily, Italy’s street food favorites provide a mouthwatering taste of the country’s rich culinary traditions.
Naples vs. Rome: Pizza
When thinking about the most popular Italian dishes, pizza immediately comes to mind. But did you know there are two main styles of pizza in Italy? That’s right – Roman pizza and Neapolitan-style pizza offer distinctly different experiences for your taste buds.
14. Neapolitan pizza
Originating from Naples, this pizza is cooked in a traditional brick oven and has an ultra-thin crust as the base that puffs up around the edges. Topped with a simple yet delicious combination of tomato sauce, whole basil leaves, and buffalo mozzarella, this pizza is one of Italy’s most famous dishes and an ode to the simplicity and quality of Italian ingredients.
15. Roman-style pizza
Unlike traditional round pizzas, Roman-style pizza is typically rectangular or square in shape and baked in large trays or sheet pans. With a focaccia-like texture, the dough is generally thicker than Neapolitan pizza.
One of the defining characteristics of Roman pizza is its variety of toppings. The rectangular shape allows a wide range of toppings to be added in sections, making it easy to offer a diverse selection. Common toppings include:
- Classic Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil)
- Various vegetable combinations
- Cured meats
- Even creative options like potato and rosemary
Both styles are delicious in their own right, but if you’re looking for the best, head to Naples or Sorrento in the Campania region, where pizza is truly an art form.
Pasta: Cacio e Pepe, Carbonara, and Bolognese
Next up on our Italian food list: pasta.
A quintessential component of Italian cuisine, with countless variations on iconic pasta dishes. Among these — Spaghetti Bolognese, Pasta Carbonara, and Cacio e Pepe stand out as true culinary masterpieces.
16. Pasta Carbonara
Originating from Rome and Lazio, carbonara is a mouthwatering dish made with guanciale, egg yolks, Pecorino Romano cheese, and crushed black pepper. This hearty dish is best enjoyed with a food tour around the city, exploring Rome’s culinary scene.
This dish, on the other hand, hails from Bologna and Emilia Romagna. This rich meat-based sauce is made with varying amounts of beef, pork, veal, and pancetta.
It is simmered with tomato paste, white wine, and milk. Bolognese is commonly served with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, creating a deliciously satisfying meal that pairs perfectly with an acidic Italian red wine, such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a Barbera Frizzante.
18. Cacio e Pepe
Last but certainly not least, Cacio e Pepe is a simple yet heavenly pasta dish from Rome. Crafted from Pecorino Romano cheese derived from sheep’s milk, a dash of freshly ground black pepper, and a portion of the starchy cooking water from the pasta, Cacio e Pepe offers a satisfyingly creamy and peppery flavor. Best enjoyed with a glass or two of tasteful wine, this dish is a testament to the power of simplicity in Italian cuisine.
Northern Italian Dishes: Polenta, Truffles, and Pizzoccheri
Northern Italy, with its cooler climate and Germanic food influences, is known for its hearty dishes and comforting flavors. Some of the popular dishes and ingredients in this region include:
A delicious cornmeal porridge often served as a side dish or incorporated into more complex Italian recipes like Polenta fritters or stews.
Edible spores from the underbelly of fungi, these earthy delicacies are shaved over dishes to add flavor and aroma. Truffles can be found in several northern and central Italian regions, particularly in Piedmont, Marche, and Umbria.
White truffles are highly prized for their garlicky, musky aroma and are shaved thinly over dishes like pasta and risotto. Alongside white truffles, the region also yields black truffles, which have a subtler flavor and find their way into various dishes and sauces. The rich forests and soil of Northern Italy provide ideal truffle-growing conditions, making it a hub for truffle hunting and culinary celebrations, where these prized fungi play a starring role in gourmet cuisine.
For a unique truffle experience, you can join a food tour in Bologna, where you’ll have the opportunity to hunt for truffles with pigs and trained dogs!
Pizzoccheri is a traditional Italian pasta dish originating from the Lombardy region. The star ingredient of Pizzoccheri is “pizzoccheri” pasta, a type of flat, short ribbon-like pasta made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour. This pasta is typically cooked along with a medley of hearty ingredients such as potatoes, cabbage (or Swiss chard), and layered with butter and cheese. It’s then seasoned with garlic, sage, and sometimes a sprinkle of ground black pepper. Pizzoccheri is a comforting and rustic dish that perfectly captures the flavors of the alpine region, making it a beloved winter comfort food in Italy.
Central Italian Cuisine: Ribollita, Saltimbocca, and Lampredotto
This delicious hearty soup is made with vegetables, beans, and stale bread and exemplifies Tuscan cuisine. This soup is cooked in a pot over low heat for hours, allowing the flavors to meld and intensify for a truly satisfying meal.
A famous Italian dish originating from Rome — Saltimbocca is made with veal, crispy prosciutto, and aromatic sage and is typically pan-fried in butter or olive oil.
A classic Florentine street food, this dish consists of thinly sliced and slow-cooked tripe (the stomach lining of a cow). It’s then simmered in a flavorful broth seasoned with herbs and spices. The tender and savory tripe is often served in a crusty roll or on a plate with a drizzle of green sauce, such as salsa verde.
Southern Italian Food: Orecchiette, Caprese Salad, and Limoncello
Southern Italy is a treasure trove of fresh ingredients, vibrant flavors, and diverse culinary traditions. Home to the regions of Campania, Sicily, and Puglia, southern Italy offers a wealth of delicious dishes that showcase some of the best food the Mediterranean has to offer.
An ear-shaped pasta made with durum wheat semolina and water and shaped like an ear. This iconic food of Puglia is often served with cime di rapa, a vegetable similar to broccoli rabe or turnip greens.
26. Caprese Salad
A traditional Italian salad made with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, is another southern Italian favorite, evoking the fresh and vibrant flavors of the Mediterranean. This delightful dish is the ideal choice for a light summer meal when the tomatoes and basil are just plucked fresh from the garden.
Fun Fact: The collection of ingredients is said to represent the Italian flag: green (basil), red (tomato), and white (mozzarella).
An Italian liqueur made from lemons, sugar, and alcohol, is a popular after-dinner digestif in southern Italy. This sweet and refreshing drink is a testament to the region’s love of vibrant, sun-kissed flavors and is the perfect way to end a delicious meal.
Italian Cooking Experiences and Food Tours
To truly immerse yourself in the world of Italian cuisine, consider participating in cooking experiences and food tours throughout Italy. These culinary adventures provide a unique opportunity to:
- Learn about local ingredients, cooking techniques, and traditions
- Indulge in some of the country’s most delicious food options
- Take hands-on cooking classes with expert chefs
- Enjoy guided tours of famous food-related destinations
These events offer a wealth of opportunities for food lovers to deepen their appreciation for Italian cuisine and culture and to eat the most iconic foods in Italy.
Popular options for Italian cooking experiences and food tours include:
- Italian Culinary Adventures
- Authentic Food Quest
- The International Kitchen
- Cooking Vacations
- Culture Discovery Vacations
When you travel to Italy, whether exploring the bustling markets of Rome, hunting for truffles in the forests of Piedmont, or learning to make fresh pasta in a Tuscan farmhouse, Italian cooking experiences and food tours provide an unforgettable and immersive culinary journey through Italy’s rich food culture. Nonetheless, this is one of the best countries in the world for food! For more travel tips, consider checking out this insightful guide for exploring Italy.
From the iconic pizzas and pastas of the north to the fresh seafood and vibrant Mediterranean flavors of the south, Italian dishes showcase the country’s rich food culture, regional diversity, and love of fresh ingredients. There’s no better time to embark on a culinary adventure and discover the delicious world of Italian cuisine. Buon appetito!
Frequently Asked Questions for Best Food in Italy
What are the most famous Italian foods?
For many travelers, the most famous Italian foods are Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Pizza Napoletana, Risotto, Arancini, Bistecca Fiorentina, Polenta, Osso Buco, and Truffles.
Which part of Italy has the best food?
With its fresh local ingredients and meat-leaning dishes, Bologna is widely considered the ‘culinary capital of Italy’. For that reason, it’s arguably the best place to find delicious food in Italy!
The city has given birth to iconic dishes like tortellini, lasagna, and mortadella. Bologna is also renowned for hosting some of Italy’s finest dining establishments, where both traditional and contemporary Italian food is offered without breaking the bank.
What are the main food rules in Italy?
Indulge in Italian cuisine confidently with these four essential food rules.
- 1. Don’t mix fish and cheese
- 2. Drink cappuccinos only in the morning (they’re serious about this one)
- 3. Enjoy pasta as a first course, and
- 4. Never combine pasta with bread.
What are the main differences between Neapolitan and Roman pizza?
Neapolitan pizza has an ultra-thin crispy crust that fattens up around the edges, while Roman pizza is typically rectangular and has a thicker base, like focaccia.
What is the traditional filling for Arancini?
Arancini are filled with a delicious mix of meat ragù and peas, or ham and mozzarella – a perfect combination for your taste buds!
These Italian rice balls are a great appetizer (or snack). They are easy to make, and you can customize them with your favorite fillings. Whether you’re looking for a quick snack or a special treat, Arancini will satisfy your craving.
Where does the best Italian olive oil come from?
Tuscany is the most famous region for olive oil in Italy. The hills of Tuscany, with their ideal climate and diverse olive varieties like Frantoio and Leccino, yield fruity and well-balanced extra virgin olive oils.
As your culinary journey through Italy comes to a close, remember that each dish narrates a story of tradition, innovation, and passion. From the streets of Naples to the hills of Tuscany, the best food in Italy is a celebration of diverse flavors and rich cultural heritage. So, as you embark on your own gastronomic adventures, may every bite be a reminder of the vibrant tapestry that is Italian cuisine.
Robert runs Travel Breakdown