There is no such thing as Italian food, rather there are regional foods found in Italy which reflect the Italian history and culture of the regions. However, many people are unaware of this until they travel to Italy and wonder why they are eating food in Sicily packed with heat and chilies, while in the north they are eating food cooked with cream and butter rather than with olive oil, with no chilies to be seen. It all comes down to history which helped shape the Italian food culture.
They eat the dainty food of famous chefs with the same pleasure with which they devour gross peasant dishes, mostly composed of garlic and tomatoes, or fisherman's octopus and shrimps, fried in heavily scented olive oil on a little deserted beach." ~ Luigi Barzini, The Italians (1964)
The Passion of Italians Regarding Food
If you have a meal with Italians you will be amazed at how passionate they are about their food and what they are about to eat. At restaurants in Italy they don't just order off the menu and are satisfied, there is always a long discussion with the waiter or waitress in what has gone into the dish, where the ingredients have come from and how it will be prepared.
Only after all questions have been asked to their satisfaction will Italians order. And then even after that, general discussion usually follows as to whether they may have seen it done better. Of course, as far as they are concerned, no one really cooks as well as their mama and nonna (grandmother).
Eating is not just a meal to an Italian, he is participating in a gastronomic ritual based on centuries of history and culture. It is not a hurried affair, it is one to be enjoyed. Italian lunch time is 1:30 p.m. and can stretch well into the later afternoon. Wine is only consumed with meals, never any other time, and the time is enjoyed with family and friends.
And when Italians order they work their way steadily through the menu starting with the antipasto (starter), followed by the primo pasti (first course, usually pasta, rice or gnocchi), the secondi pasti (second course, usually a meat dish), and finally dolci (dessert).
And try cooking for Italian friends! It is a daunting experience! I soon learned that serving up an Italian dish that wasn't from the region just wasn't acceptable; it had to be a local dish. And as for food from another country...I once made a Berry Crumble for a street party, and a Pear and Chocolate Upside-down Cake. Only the brave went for the Berry Crumble, and I had a lot of positive comments from those who were adventurous enough. But for the rest, they almost recoiled in horror at the alien food being offered to them, and declined very politely.
Regionalism of Italian Food
So why are Italians so proud of their local dishes? Well up until 1861 Italy was a collection of independent states, each with its own laws, customs, dialects and traditions. As a result, no one region offers the same traditional food. Instead you will find specialty dishes coming out of each region which is unique to that part of Italy. And it can even be more specific than that, where even a particular town or village can be famous for a signature dish or product. So we have pizzas from Naples, Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, Parma Ham from Parma, and Torte di Ricotta from Rome.
The geographical areas of the country, its diverse climatic conditions and soil has also shaped Italian food and its cooking. For the dairy-farming northern parts of Italy, they use cream and butter in their cooking rather than those from the south who rely on olive oil. Even the shape of the pasta is different! In northern Italy, Italians there have traditionally made flat pasta with eggs and butter. In the south the prefer tubular pasta and use herbs and spices extensively.
Having traveled the length and breadth of Italy, I can honestly say, that only once did we come across a bad meal. It was in Montepulciano, our second visit, where we were trying to find a restaurant we had visited some years before.
Despite all efforts, we ended up in a little restaurant with few tables, and thought we would be onto a winner. Instead our record of having a gastronomic bonanza at every place we had ever eaten finally came to an end.
However, 99.9% of the time Italian food offered in restaurants throughout Italy is honest, simplistic and delicious no matter where you go.
And the third influence on Italian food has been as a result of invaders and conquerors who brought their food to the shores of Italy and some of it was taken on board and developed into what it is today.
However, having said all of that, there are some top dishes in Italy that you really should look out for when traveling this magical country. We have listed them as our Top 10 authentic Italian Dishes to taste on your trip to Italy.
Avoiding Tourist Traps when Eating in Italy
Finally, don't fall into the tourist trap of paying over the top prices for restaurants on famous piazzas, especially in places like Venice, Sienna, and even Arezzo. Look for those restaurants away from the touristy areas. Firstly, they won't have the tourist menus plastered all over the windows, so the food will be better and secondly, you will get authentic Italian food.
But here is a bit of friendly advice, despite thinking ourselves very clever in doing just that, on our first trip to Venice we found a restaurant away from St. Mark's Square and settled down to a reasonable meal. We ordered cokes and a beer. When we got the bill we were horrified at the price, why was it so expensive when the food was so cheap? Because each coke and beer had cost more than each plate of food, and the prices of the cokes weren't on the menu!!! Tourists beware! Rather eat at restaurants frequented by locals and check the menu carefully.
REGIONAL ITALIAN FOOD: Southern Italy
So why do they prefer chilies in their food down in Southern Italy? Well, For centuries Sicily was conquered by many super-powers at the time; the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Hapsburgs, Bourbons they all came, conquered and influenced the Sicilian food in some way. But no more so than the Arabs who really left their stamp with the introduction of spices and aromatic herbs, they brought eggplants, oranges and lemons, couscous and used dried fruit in their cooking, especially raisins.
Today Sicily is famous for lots of dishes that have been influenced by these invaders. A classic Sicilian dish in the province of Trapani, is couscous cooked with the broth of the local fish to give it a seafood flavor. This is just one example, but there are many others.
But there are other areas other than Sicily which make up this region. When we talk about Southern Italy we are talking about Apulia, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Sicily and Sardinia.
In Southern Italy their Italian food is rustic, robust and bursting with flavors. They extensively use rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, sage, basil and lemons in their food, along with garlic, anchovies, sardines, octopus, olives, olive oil, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Chicken cacciatore uses some of these ingredients.
Most of the Southern Italian dishes are either meatless, or filled with seafood, with a little lamb on occasions. In Naples the simple thin-crust pizza topped with tomatoes, garlic, basil and anchovies is known everywhere as the Napolitana Pizza, which is baked in open-brick ovens and most often eaten as a snack. And Naples also claims the invention of ice cream and ices. They love to roast their vegetables and so you will also find roasted red pepper, char-grilled courgettes and egg-plant on the menu, along with marinated artichokes.
Other regional dishes from Naples are Pommarola, a typical tomato sauce with fresh basil to be served with spaghetti or other kinds of pasta. Spaghetti alla Caprese is tuna fish, tomatoes and olives. Bistecca all Pizzaiola is a steak with a sauce made of fresh tomatoes, garlic and oregano. Finally, look for sfogliatelle, sweet ricotta cheese turnovers.
For dessert you can settle for Sicilian Cassata, Nougat, Cannoli or Sicilian Almond Biscuits. If you like cheese, try Ricotta, Provolone, Mozzarella from Campania, Scamorza, or Smoked Scarmorza.
REGIONAL ITALIAN FOOD: Central Italy
When we think of Central Italy, many people immediately think of Tuscany. However, there are many diverse areas making up this region. There is Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria and Lazio, with it's capital Rome.
Le Marche is a beautiful part of Italy that very few people visit, which is a shame, as this is a totally unspoiled region, with lots of hidden gems to visit, including the stunning renaissance town of Urbino.
If you ever get to Ascoli Piceno, which I can also highly recommend, it is a charming ancient town in the Le Marche region, you have to try their signature dish; Olives Ascolana. It consists of enormous green olives stuffed with a meat mixture, sometimes chicken livers other times ground pork and chicken, covered with bread crumbs and deep-fried. Delicious!
The food from these areas is also simple and rustic and always hearty. Food here has come up through the ages and is based on peasant cooking. It relies heavily on olive oil, rosemary, basil, garlic, tomatoes, porcini (mushrooms), truffles, white beans, beef, lamb, pork, hams and salamis. Fresh fish can be found in the coastal areas of this region, but seldom offered in traditional restaurants inland.
I love Italian food from this area. You are never disappointed and the flavors just pop. I have never tasted such delicious tomatoes and rock melons as those found in this region during the height of summer. Once you have tasted a melon or tomato here, those that you have back home will pale by comparison. And as for the Pecorino cheese when it is still young is wonderful and creamy.
And yet it is not difficult to understand, once you realize that the variety of vegetables and fruits grown in Italy, and especially in central Italy, are varieties that have been grown for generations. When people want heirloom vegetable seeds, they get them from Italy, where people there are eating them on a daily basis! And secondly, 80% of all Italian food is grown organically. And, that speaks for itself!
The only thing I don't like about Tuscan food, is the fact that their traditional bread is made without salt. This was due to many hundreds of years ago when a salt tax was imposed and the Tuscans decided to thumb their noses and do without!
If you do go to Tuscany order a Bistecca all Fiorentina if you see it on the menu. Your steak will be so large it will hang off the sides of your plate, but it will be the most tender meat you have ever tasted. It is grilled over an open fire, served with rosemary and olive oil and comes from the Chianina cattle that you find in the Val di Chiana; from Arezzo down to Orvieto.
The list of famous dishes from this region are endless, but we will give it a try. Tortellini, Spaghetti al Ragu, Cannelloni tubes of pasta stuffed with a meat sauce, Panzanella, a summer salad made with stale bread, tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, Crostini, Mortadella, Prosciutto Cotta, Panforte that is a delicacy from Siena and one of my favorites. It is a confection made of honey, candied fruits, nuts, almonds and cloves. Look
out too with anything that contains wild boar, known as Cinghiale which produces a rich, and tasty meat sauce.
And in Rome, Lazio it is also famous for dishes such as Spaghetti Carbonara with bacon, cream eggs and Pecorino cheese, Abbacchio which is suckling lamb seasoned with sage and garlic, rosemary and anchovy paste. Then there is Risotto Romano, Gnocchi Romano and Saltimbocco Romano which is veal escalopes with ham and sage.
REGIONAL ITALIAN FOOD: Northern Italy
As mentioned before, the Italian food here in this region is made more with butter and cream. And although they have pasta, they prefer eating bread and polenta. This region is made up of two district areas; Northwest Italy of Aosta Valley, Liguria, Lombardy and Piedmont. And Northeast Italy of Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol and Veneto.
Well-known pasta dishes of the northern region of Liguria include Ravioli and Minestrone Soup. The rice growing Po valley gave birth to risottos. Risotto Milanese from Lombardy is probably the most famous which is a well-known Italian rice dish with saffron and white wine.
Dishes such as Bresaola, Panettone a typical Christmas cake with sultanas and candied fruit, Zabaglione an egg yolk based dessert, Ossobuco; shin of veal cooked in tomato sauce and usually served with rice, and Foccacia will be familiar to many who have traveled Northwest Italy.
Other well known products of this area is of course Parmesan cheese, and Prosciutto ham, both from Parma. However, don't forget Gorgonzola from the northwest. For those traveling to Northeast Italy keep your eyes out for Polenta, Tiramisu, Carpaccio, stuffed zucchini flowers and Risi e Bisi.
So you can see that there really isn't such a thing as Italian food. The only unifying aspect is, that when they cook, they insist on high quality ingredients. When we talk about Italian food we should really be talking about Italian regional food for each offers something totally different from their neighbors, but just as delicious!
Parmesan Cheese Facts
See our other pages on Regional Food and Wine in Italy:
If you are traveling to Italy any time soon you are probably wondering about when Italians eat, what they eat and how the menu is structured. Our Italian Food Culture page explains just that, including the types of coffees you can order, how not pay less for your coffees and your food.