What to Eat (and When) in Italy

Advice From an Italian Food Writer

By Valentina Solfrini, Travel Writer

Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.  

Ciao Felicity,

You asked me to share my thoughts on eating in Italy. I'd be happy to! The idea of 'eating Italian food' is, to Italians themselves, a far-fetched one. The country is so wildly diverse it can feel impossible to pin down, and despite having one of the most diverse and fascinating food scenes in the world, there are still tourist traps; goodness knows how many times I’ve witnessed visitors get bad pizza from overcrowded places, or discover that the one specific recipe they were expecting to try is nowhere to be found.  

Overhead shot of appetizers on table

Photo: Valentina Solfrini

In order to help you steer clear of these pitfalls, here is a little guide with tips for finding the best, most seasonal dishes in each region of Italy. While it’s impossible to neatly sum up Italian food, guide think of this as your eating road map for whatever part of this beautiful country you find yourself in.

If You’re In The North

Rice is grown all over the misty and flat Padan plain, so if you are there ask for a good, hearty risotto. From the saffron or bone marrow risotto of Milan and Lombardy to the radicchio risotto of Veneto, this is a dish to be enjoyed throughout the year (though it’s especially perfect as a warming winter food). Polenta is also northern Italy's forte, and Veneto, Friuli and Piedmont are where I've had the best in my life. A porridge-like dish made of cornmeal, polenta can come with a variety of sauces on top, or as an accompaniment to saucy mains like brasato (meat braised in red wine sauce).
Braised beef and polenta
Photo: Shutterstock

In Piedmont, do not miss out on gianduja—a mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts that blows Nutella out of the water—as well as truffles; this is one of the best places in Italy to get a hold of white ones in particular. They’re best enjoyed atop a bowl of tajarin, which is long thin pasta dressed with butter. Piedmont also has one of the richest extravaganzas in the world—the aptly-named “Cheese” festival in the town of Bra.

Large wedges of wrapped Parmesan cheese
Photo: Shutterstock

For those wanting even more cheese, the Padan plain is also the birthplace of wonders like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana padano, and Gorgonzola. If you're in Emilia, aim to get your hands on a piece of 64-month-old Parmigiano, or try several of varying ages and observe how the texture and flavor changes with each. Try them with a few drops of balsamic vinegar from Modena—the real deal, called 'Tradizionale', is very thick, pricey, comes in small bottles, and tastes like caramelised heaven. Emilia is also home to prosciutto and some of the most famous pasta dishes in the world: lasagna, stuffed pasta like cappellacci and ravioli, and all sorts of delectable egg pastas.

If You’re In Central Italy

If you find yourself in Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, or the surrounding areas, look for game; mushrooms (when they’re in season, which is late summer/fall); hearty soups and stews like ribollita (Tuscany) or zuppa di cicerchie (Umbria); and artisanal, small batch cured meats and farmers’ cheeses. The abundant forests of the Apennines make these lands perfect for, once again, the sought-after truffle; you'll find them on pasta as well as in cheeses and locally made sausages.

Outdoor table and bin of dried mushrooms
Photo: Valentina Solfrini

This area is also notable for its legumes, boasting the widest variety in Italy. You'll find them in many soups, or even as cold salads in the summer, both often enriched by freshly foraged greens from the nearby hills, especially in the area surrounding Castelluccio di Norcia and the Sibillini Mountains.

If You’re In Southern Italy

Seafood and vegetables are strong throughout the south: olives, tomatoes, mussels, octopus, potatoes, and figs are everywhere to be found. Another perk of the bottom of the boot is buffalo mozzarella and ricotta, both of which are fresh, summery, and delicious. On a citrus-y note, Sicily and Campania grow the best lemons you’ll ever have—look out for the rich, thick, and incredibly sweet varieties from Amalfi or Procida. In Naples, there is a must-try pastry called delizia al limone, as well as babà al limoncello and, of course, limoncello itself.

Pile of large lemons

Generally speaking, the south produces some of the best pastries and sweets I've tried in all of Italy. Order a decadent breakfast or an afternoon merenda of brioche and granita in Sicily, custard-filled pastries in Campania, or pasticciotti and iced coffee in southern Puglia. There’s no better start to the day.

Things To Do Everywhere

APERITIVO

A spritz cocktail and appetizers
Photo: Valentina Solfrini

Aperitivo—drinks served with a platter of snacks or small buffet—can be had pretty much anywhere in Italy between 5 p.m. and dinnertime. Those with a buffet are usually called apericena, and are a 'happy hour dinner' of sorts. Veneto, is where you’ll find the best (and cheapest) spritz, which go along with small bites called cicchetti (similar to the concept of tapas).


PIZZA

Pizza coming out of traditional oven
Photo: Shutterstock

Perhaps the most renowned Italian food, pizza can also be found throughout the country. The best pizza I've tried, however, was in Rome, where it’s served as long strips with several toppings, and in Naples (the dish’s rightful home) where it comes in a round shape with a pillowy crust.. Wherever you are, look for places that proof their dough for 48-72 hours, and use local ingredients.


GELATO

Gelato and pastries on table
Photo: Valentina Solfrini

Good gelato is another food you can count on. Artisanal gelato makers create flavors in tune with what’s locally in season, so there may be some unique or unusual varieties on the rotating menus, but classics include pistacchio (pistachio), nocciola (hazelnut), fior di latte (‘flower of milk’), and stracciatella (vanilla with bits of chocolate).

My ultimate advice? Whatever destination you decide to visit in this diverse country, be sure to take a walk down the back alleys or a drive through the countryside. It’s in these spots that you’ll find the coziest places to sit down, have a meal, and enjoy some of the world’s best food. Italians, after all, know how to make a meal unforgettable.

Italian restaurant and homemade pasta

Photo on left: Valentina Solfrini

A NOTE ON TIPPING:
Tips are not required in Italy. But, if you appreciated your waiter’s service, some extra change will make them the happiest.

Have a wonderful time eating your way all across Italy!

A dopo,
Valentina

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Valentina Solfrini was born in 1990 in a tiny Italian medieval village called Gradara, where she still lives after a bit of wandering through the USA. In the past, she has stained her hands with oil paint, engraving ink, black charcoal, and darkroom developing fluids before switching to digital photography and making a career out of it. She photographs vineyards, food, people, and other beautiful things all around Italy. Her work has been published throughout the world, in magazines and online in the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Japan, Italy, and Germany. The first book inspired by her blog, Naturally Vegetarian, was published by Penguin Random House in November 2017.

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