Gorgeous Italy draws travelers keen on exploring her stunning scenery, unique culture, and gastronomical delights. With its rich cuisine, this beautiful Mediterranean land offers countless famous and traditional must-eat foods.
A multitude of popular Italian delicacies and dishes, sweet and savory, await your discovery during your sojourns when you are in Italy. These traditional Italian dishes are deeply rooted in the Italian culture, and recipes are often passed down between generations and are cherished for their authentic origins.
One of the best ways to get the true taste of these amazing dishes is directly from local home chefs, who are passionate about cooking and sharing a slice of their culture with you.
Be sure to leave ample space in your belly to tuck into these top 10 must-try dishes in Italy:
The Mothers of All: Pasta & Pizza
One should not miss out on feasting on pasta and pizza, the two iconic traditional Italian dishes during their vacation.
Pasta types vary significantly depending where you go in Italy. Be sure to try the regional specialties in the cities that you are visiting. If you are exploring beautiful Rome, order a serving of the pasta alla carbonara, prepared with ingredients such as eggs, Pecorino cheese, guanciale (a type of Italian cured meat made from pork cheeks) and black pepper.
If you happen to book the famous Roman home-chef Alessandro’s A truly Roman feast overlooking the Vatican City, make sure to ask for Spaghetti alla Carbonara (with eggs, bacon, cheese, pepper and chili pepper) or Spaghetti alla Gricia (with bacon, cheese, pepper and chili pepper).
When it comes to pizza, the first type that comes to mind is Margherita. Originating from Naples, the pizza margherita is a simple but tasty dish. Order this popular item from the local pizzeria, and you can expect to be served with a crispy, thin-crust pizza topped with olive oil, garlic, basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
Crisp and golden brown, arancini refers to a dish of stuffed rice balls. The rice balls are fried after being coated in a dusting of crunchy breadcrumbs.
These rice balls are usually filled with ragù, tomato sauce, mozzarella and peas. Similar to pasta and pizza dishes in Italy, there are a diversity of regional variations of the arancini. The regional specialties are made with different fillings and shapes depending on the location that the dish is prepared in.
Some examples include the arancini con ragù (containing tomato sauce, rice and mozzarella), arancini con burro (made with creamy béchamel sauce), arancini con funghi and arancini con melanzane.
Smoked eggs from the rat of the sea. Wait, what? Don’t be put off by this rough description on an Italian delicacy because the other way to describe bottarga is “Sicilian Caviar”. In August and September southern Italians take the roe from gray mullets, salt it, press it, and then leave it to air dry for six months. The result is a solid hunk of eggs the color of amber and blood oranges that, when sliced and eaten or grated over pasta, blossoms into a gloriously savory, smoky, and briny bouquet. Though essentially a poor man’s answer to preserving seafood in the days before refrigeration, it is now considered one of the most sought after and luxurious foodstuffs in Italy, right up there with truffles (more on those later). We recommend it grated over pasta, or simply sliced thinly and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
Lasagna is a wide, flat pasta noodle, usually baked in layers in the oven. Like most Italian dishes, its origins are hotly contested, but we can at least say that’s its stronghold is in the region of Emilia-Romagna, where it transformed from a poor man’s food to a rich meal filled with the ragù, or meat sauce.
Traditionally lasagna wasn’t made with tomatoes (remember, those came over from the New World in the 16th century); only ragù, béchamel sauce, and cheese, usually mozzarella or Parmigiano Reggiano or a combination of the two. Even today, only a bit of tomato or tomato sauce is used in a traditional ragu, unlike most Italian-American dishes, which are basically swimming in tomato sauce. This concentrates the flavor of the meat but sometimes is a little jarring for American palates.
Though you can find lasagna throughout all of Italy, there’s nothing like trying the hearty dish in Emilia Romagna with homemade noodles, fresh ragù, and a generous dollop of regional pride
The dish contains thin slices of veal, topped with salty prosciutto and herb leaves. These ingredients, joined together with a toothpick, are sautéed in a pan until the meat is done. Different varieties of meat, such as chicken and mutton are also used for preparing the saltimbocca.
A well-made serving of saltimbocca promises to be a delectable dish melts away in the mouth. Highly popular among locals and travellers in Italy, this savoury delight is certainly not to be missed.
In fact, you can learn how to make this particular dish yourself with our host Alberto while you are in Rome. Complete with a market tour, Alberto will teach you about the beauty of Italian cuisine with a cooking class right in the heart of Rome.
The world-famous ossobuco alla milanese is a bone-in veal shank, cooked low and slow until meltingly tender in a broth of meat stock, white wine, and veggies. Traditionally, it’s accompanied by a gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, and parsley) but that’s optional. Although the Milanese like to claim this meaty masterpiece there are as many versions of it as there are nonnas in Lombardy, which is known for hearty, often rustic dishes that are good at coating the ribs and staving off the winter chill. Despite the popularity of ossobuco (which literally means ‘hollow bone’), it’s not always common to see it on restaurant menus because it needs about three hours of cooking time. If you do get a chance to eat it in a restaurant or home, or even to cook it yourself, you should jump at the opportunity. It’s usually accompanied by polenta or the next item on our list.
Light and creamy, the tiramisu is a well-known dessert sought-after by locals and travellers alike. Ingredients such as ladyfingers, coffee, eggs, sugar, cocoa and mascarpone cheese required in the preparation of this sweet treat.
If you visit Rome, you can also attend Fresh Pasta and Tiramisù Cooking Class to learn how to make home-made Tiramisù.
Creative dessert-makers have given an innovative twist to the traditional recipe of the tiramisu, coming up with varieties such as the fruit tiramisu, chocolate tiramisu, and the intriguing-sounding ch’tiramisu.
Ribollita is traditionally considered cucina povera, or poor man’s food, invented by servants who would collect their master’s unfinished bread and vegetables and boil it in water for their own dinner (the word ribollita in Italian literally means “reboiled”). You could never tell by tasting it—with bread to thicken the soup, it feels as rich and hearty as a chili. Despite its humble beginnings, ribollita is proudly considered one of Tuscany’s most important (and delicious) dishes
Osso buco alla Milanese
If there’s one meat dish you must try in Italy, let it be osso bucco and not chicken parmigiana (which isn’t actually Italian). You can’t go wrong with veal shanks braised slowly in white wine and vegetables, served with a tangy, garlicky gremolata. (Many modern variations of osso bucco include tomatoes, but authentic Milanese osso bucco is cooked without). Don’t forget to scoop out the rich, buttery marrow from inside the veal bones—it’s the best part of the dish.
The origins of torrone are somewhat blurry—some say it originated in Lombardy, some insist it was created in Sicily. It doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that you eat it. It’s a creamy, sticky, nougat-like candy made with honey, egg whites, toasted nuts, and citrus zest, sold in thick slabs at cafes and sweet shops across Italy. Normally, we’d say that nothing beats the original, but one modern variation comes dipped in chocolate.