Italians know how to cook—just ask any of them. But be sure to leave plenty of time: Once Italians start talking food, it’s a while before they pause for breath. Italy doesn’t really have a unified national cuisine; it’s more a loose grouping of delicious regional cuisines that share a few staples, notably pasta, bread, tomatoes, and pig meat cured in many ways.
On a Rome visit, you’ll encounter authentic local specialties such as saltimbocca alla romana (literally “jump-in-your-mouth”—thin slices of veal with sage, cured ham, and cheese)—and carciofi alla romana (artichokes cooked with herbs, such as mint and garlic), plus a dish that’s become ubiquitous, spaghetti alla carbonara—pasta coated in a silky sauce made with egg, pecorino romano (ewe’s milk cheese) and cured pork (guanciale, cheek, if it’s authentic). For historical reasons, a strong current of Jewish cooking also runs through Roman cuisine.
To the north, in Florence and Tuscany, you’ll find seasonal ingredients served simply. The main ingredient for almost any savory dish is the local olive oil, prized for its low acidity. The typical Tuscan pasta is wide, flat pappardelle, generally tossed with a game sauce such as lepre (hare) or cinghiale (boar). Tuscans are fond of their own strong ewe’s milk pecorino cheese, made most famously around the Val d’Orcia town of Pienza. Meat is usually the centerpiece of any secondo: A bistecca alla fiorentina is the classic main dish, a T-bone-like cut of meat. An authentic fiorentina should come only from the white Chianina breed of cattle. Sweet treats are also good here, particularly Siena’s panforte (a dense, sticky cake); biscotti di Prato (hard, almond-flour biscuits for dipping in dessert wine, also known as cantuccini); and the miele (honey) of Montalcino.
Emilia-Romagna is the country’s gastronomic center. Rich in produce, its school of cooking first created many pastas now common around Italy: tagliatelle, tortellini, and cappelletti (made in the shape of “little hats”). Pig also comes several ways, including in Bologna's mortadella (rolled, ground pork) and prosciutto di Parma (cured ham). Served in paper-thin slices, it’s deliciously sweet. The distinctive cheese Parmigiano–Reggiano is made by hundreds of small producers in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia.
Probably the most famous dish of Lombardy is cotoletta alla milanese (veal cutlet dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in olive oil)—the Germans call it Wienerschnitzel. Osso buco is another Lombard classic: shin of veal cooked in a ragout sauce. Piedmont and Turin’s iconic dish is bagna càuda—literally “hot bath” in the Piedmontese language, a sauce made with olive oil, garlic, butter, and anchovies, into which you dip raw vegetables. Piedmont is also the spiritual home of risotto, particularly the town of Vercelli, which is surrounded by rice paddies.
Venice is rarely celebrated for its cuisine, but fresh seafood is usually excellent, and figures heavily in the Venetian diet. Grilled fish is often served with red radicchio, a bitter leaf that grows best around nearby Treviso. Two other classic Venetian dishes are fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions) and risi e bisi (rice and peas) Liguria also turns toward the sea for its inspiration, as reflected by its version of bouillabaisse, burrida. But its most famous food is pesto alla genovese, a sauce made with fresh basil, hard cheese, olive oil, and crushed pine nuts, which is used to dress pasta, fish, and many other local dishes.
So many Neapolitans moved to the New World that the cookery of Campania—including pizza and spaghetti with clam sauce—is very familiar to North Americans. Mozzarella is the local cheese, the best of it mozzarella di bufala, made with milk from water buffalo (first introduced to Campania from Asia in the Middle Ages). Mixed fish fries (a fritto misto) are a staple of many a lunch table, and genuine Neapolitan pizza is in a class of its own. The cuisine of Basilicata and Puglia is founded on peasant simplicity: pasta, often made without egg, tossed with oil and seasonal vegetables such as broccoli rabe (cime di rapa) or garbanzo beans. The region is known for its sweet, piquant Senise peppersand spicy or fennel-spiked Lucanica sausage.
Sicily’s distinctive cuisine features strong flavors and aromatic sauces influenced by North Africa. One staple is pasta con le sarde (with pine nuts, wild fennel, spices, chopped sardines, and olive oil). Ffish is good and fresh pretty much everywhere (local swordfish is excellent). Classic desserts include cannoli, cylindrical pastry cases filled with ricotta and candied fruit or chocolate. Sicilian gelato and homemade pastries are among the best in Italy.
And Some Vino to Wash it All Down
Italy is the largest wine-producing country in the world; as far back as 800 b.c. the Etruscans were vintners. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that laws were enacted to guarantee consistency in winemaking. Quality wines are labeled “DOC” (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). If you see “DOCG” on a label (the “G” means garantita), this denotes an even higher quality wine region (at least, in theory). “IGT” (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) indicates a more general wine zone—for example, “Umbria”—but still with mandatory quality control.
You can shop for local wines in a bottiglieria (a simple wine shop) or an enoteche (a more upscale shop where many vintages, from several growers, are displayed and sold like magazines in a bookstore). In some cases, you can buy a glass of the product before you buy the bottle, and platters of cold cuts or cheeses are sometimes available to offset the tang (and alcoholic effects) of the wine.
Here's a quick guide to Italy's wine-producing regions:
Latium: In this major wine-producing region, many of the local wines come from the Castelli Romani, the hill towns around Rome. Horace and Juvenal sang the praises of Latium wines even in imperial times. These wines, experts agree, are best drunk when young, and they're most often white, mellow, and dry (or "demi-sec"). There are seven types, including Falerno (straw yellow in color) and Cecubo (often served with roast meat). Try also Colli Albani (straw yellow with amber tints, served with both fish and meat). The golden yellow wines of Frascati are famous, produced in both a demi-sec and a sweet variety, the latter served with dessert.
Tuscany: Tuscan wines rank with some of the finest reds in France. Chianti is the best known, and it comes in several varieties. The most highly regarded is Chianti Classico, a lively ruby-red wine mellow in flavor with a bouquet of violets. A good label is Antinori. A lesser known but remarkably fine Tuscan wine is Brunello di Montalcino, a brilliant garnet red served with roasts and game. The ruby-red, almost purple Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has a rich, rugged body; it's a noble wine that's aged for 4 years. The area around San Gimignano produces a light, sweet white wine called Vernaccia. While you're in Tuscany, order the wonderful dessert wine called Vin Santo, which tastes almost like sherry and is usually accompanied by biscotti that you dunk into your glass.
Emilia-Romagna: The sparkling Lambrusco of this region is by now best known by Americans, but this wine can be of widely varying quality. Most of it is a brilliant ruby red. Be more experimental and try such wines as the dark ruby red Sangiovese (with a delicate bouquet) and the golden yellow Albana, somewhat sweet. Trebbiano, generally dry, is best served with fish.
The Veneto: From this rich breadbasket in northeastern Italy come such world-famous wines as Bardolino (a light ruby red often served with poultry), Valpolicella (produced in "ordinary quality" and "superior dry," best served with meats), and Soave (beloved by W. Somerset Maugham), which has a pale amber color with a light aroma and a velvety flavor. Also try one of the cabernets, either the ruby-red Cabernet di Treviso (ideal with roasts and game) or the even deeper ruby-red Cabernet Franc, which has a marked herbal bouquet and is served with roasts.
Trentino-Alto Adige: This area produces wine influenced by Austria. Known for its vineyards, the region has some 20 varieties of wine. The straw-yellow, slightly pale-green Riesling is served with fish, as is the pale green-yellow Terlano. Santa Maddalena, a cross between garnet and ruby, is served with wild fowl and red meats, and Traminer, straw yellow, has a distinctive aroma and is served with fish. A pinot bianco, straw yellow with greenish glints, has a light bouquet and a noble history, and is also served with fish.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia: This area attracts those who enjoy a "brut" wine with a trace of flint. From classic grapes come merlot, deep ruby in color, and several varieties of pinot, including pinot grigio, whose color ranges from straw yellow to gray-pink (good with fish). Also served with fish, the sauvignon has a straw-yellow color and a delicate bouquet.
Lombardy: These wines are justly renowned -- and, if you don't believe us, would you instead take the advice of Leonardo da Vinci, Pliny, and Virgil? These great men have sung the praises of this wine-rich region bordered by the Alps to the north and the Po River to the south. To go with the tasty, refined cuisine of the Lombard kitchen are such wines as Frecciarossa (a pale straw-yellow color with a delicate bouquet -- order it with fish), Sassella (bright ruby red -- order it with game, red meat, and roasts), and the amusingly named Inferno (a deep ruby red with a penetrating bouquet; order it with meats).
The Piedmont: The finest wines in Italy, mostly red, are said to be produced on the vine-clad slopes of the Piedmont. Of course, Asti Spumante, the color of straw with an abundant champagnelike foam, is the prototype of Italian sparkling wines. While traveling through this area of northwestern Italy, you'll want to sample Barbaresco (brilliant ruby red with a delicate flavor -- order it with red meats), Barolo (also brilliant ruby red, best when it mellows into a velvety old age), Cortese (pale straw yellow with green glints -- order it with fish), and Gattinara (an intense ruby-red beauty in youth that changes with age). Piedmont is also the home of vermouth, a white wine to which aromatic herbs and spices, among other ingredients, have been added; it's served as an aperitif.
Liguria: This area doesn't have as many wine-producing regions as other parts of Italy, yet it grows dozens of different grapes. These are made into such wines as Dolceacqua (lightish ruby red, served with hearty food) and Vermentino Ligure (pale yellow with a good bouquet, often served with fish).
Campania: From the volcanic soil of Vesuvius, the wines of Campania have been extolled for 2,000 years. Homer praised the glory of Falerno, straw yellow in color. Neapolitans are fond of ordering a wine known as Lacrima Christi ("tears of Christ") to accompany many seafood dishes. It comes in amber, red, and pink. With meat dishes, try the dark mulberry-color Gragnano, which has a faint bouquet of faded violets. The reds and whites of Ischia and Capri are also justly renowned.
Apulia: The heel of the Italian boot, Apulia, produces more wine than any other part of Italy. Try Castel del Monte, which comes in shades of pink, white, and red. Other wines of the region are the dull red Aleatico di Puglia, with a mellow taste so sweet and aromatic that it's almost a liqueur; Barletta, a highly alcoholic wine made from grapes grown around Troia; the notably pleasant and fragrant Mistella, a really fleshy wine usually offered with desserts; the brilliant amber Moscato della Murge, aromatic and sweet; Moscato di Trani, which is velvety and tastes of a bouquet of faded roses; and Primitivo di Gioia, a full-bodied acid wine that, when dry, appears with roasts and, when sweet, appears with desserts. One of the region's best wines to drink with fish is Torre Giulia, which is dark yellow tending toward amber -- a "brut" wine with a distinctive bouquet.
Sicily: The wines of Sicily, called a "paradise of the grape," were extolled by the ancient poets, including Martial. Caesar himself lavished praise on Mamertine when it was served at a banquet honoring his third consulship. Marsala, an amber wine served with desserts, is the most famous wine of Sicily; it's velvety and fruity and sometimes used in cooking, as in veal Marsala. The wines made from grapes grown in the volcanic soil of Etna come in both red and white varieties. Also try the Corvo Bianco di Casteldaccia (straw yellow, with a distinctive bouquet) and the Corvo Rosso di Casteldaccia (ruby red, almost garnet, full-bodied and fruity).
Italians drink other libations as well. The most famous drink is Campari, bright red in color and flavored with herbs; it has a quinine bitterness to it. It's customary to serve it with ice cubes and soda.
Limoncello, a bright yellow drink made by infusing pure alcohol with lemon zest, has become Italy's second-most popular drink. It has long been a staple in the lemon-producing region along the Amalfi Coast in Capri and Sorrento, and recipes for the sweetly potent concoction have been passed down by families there for generations. About a decade ago, restaurants in Sorrento, Naples, and Rome started making their own versions. Visitors to those restaurants as well as the Sorrento peninsula began singing limoncello's praises and requesting bottles to go. Now it's one of the most up-and-coming liqueurs in the world, thanks to heavy advertising promotions.
One gastronomic trend to watch for as you travel in Italy is the growth in popularity of artisanal beer, especially among the young. Although supermarket shelves are still stacked with mainstream brands like Peroni and Moretti, smaller stores and bars increasingly offer craft microbrews (known as birre artigianali). Italy had fewer than 50 breweries in 2000. That figure was over 1,000 by 2018, and is still rising. Craft-beer consumption has more than tripled since 2012, according to data released by brewers’ association Unionbirrai. You’ll even find quality beers on the hallowed shelves of the occasional wine vendor.
High-proof grappa is made from the "leftovers" after the grapes have been pressed. Many Italians drink this before or after dinner (some put it into their coffee). It's an acquired taste -- to an untrained foreign palate, it often seems rough and harsh.
Italian Menu Terms
Abbacchio -- Roast haunch or shoulder of lamb baked and served in a casserole and sometimes flavored with anchovies.
Agnolotti -- A crescent-shaped pasta shell stuffed with a mix of chopped meat, spices, vegetables, and cheese; when prepared in rectangular versions, the same combination of ingredients is identified as ravioli.
Amaretti -- Crunchy, sweet almond-flavored macaroons.
Anguilla alla veneziana -- Eel cooked in a sauce made from tuna and lemon.
Antipasti -- Succulent tidbits served at the beginning of a meal (before the pasta), whose ingredients might include slices of cured meats, seafood (especially shellfish), and cooked and seasoned vegetables.
Aragosta -- Lobster.
Arrosto -- Roasted meat.
Baccalà -- Dried and salted codfish.
Bagna cauda -- Hot and well-seasoned sauce, heavily flavored with anchovies, designed for dipping raw vegetables; literally translated as "hot bath."
Bistecca alla fiorentina -- Florentine-style steaks, coated before grilling with olive oil, pepper, lemon juice, salt, and parsley.
Bocconcini -- Veal layered with ham and cheese, and then fried.
Bollito misto -- Assorted boiled meats served on a single platter.
Dos & Don'ts
Italians measure foodstuffs by the kilogram or smaller 100g unit (ettogrammo abbreviated to etto, equivalent to just under 4 oz.). Pizzerie al taglio (pizza slice shops) generally run on this system, but hand gestures can suffice. A good server poises the knife, then asks for approval before cutting. Più (PYOO) is "more," meno (MEH-noh) "less." Basta (BAHS-tah) means "enough." To express "half" of something, say mezzo (MEHD-zoh).
Braciola -- Pork chop.
Bresaola -- Air-dried spiced beef.
Bruschetta -- Toasted bread, heavily slathered with olive oil and garlic and often topped with tomatoes.
Bucatini -- Coarsely textured hollow spaghetti.
Busecca alla Milanese -- Tripe (beef stomach) flavored with herbs and vegetables.
Cacciucco ali livornese -- Seafood stew.
Calzone -- Pizza dough rolled with the chef's choice of sausage, tomatoes, cheese, and so on and then baked into a kind of savory turnover.
Cannelloni -- Tubular dough stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables and then baked in a creamy white sauce.
Cappellacci alla ferrarese -- Pasta stuffed with pumpkin.
Cappelletti -- Small ravioli ("little hats") stuffed with meat or cheese.
Carciofi -- Artichokes.
Carpaccio -- Thin slices of raw cured beef, sometimes in a piquant sauce.
Cassatta alla siciliana -- A richly caloric dessert that combines layers of sponge cake, sweetened ricotta cheese, and candied fruit, bound together with chocolate butter-cream icing.
Cervello al burro nero -- Brains in black-butter sauce.
Cima alla genovese -- Baked filet of veal rolled into a tube-shaped package containing eggs, mushrooms, and sausage.
Coppa -- Cured morsels of pork filet encased in sausage skins, served in slices.
Costoletta alla milanese -- Veal cutlet dredged in bread crumbs, fried, and sometimes flavored with cheese.
Cozze -- Mussels.
Fagioli -- White beans.
Fave -- Fava beans.
Fegato alla veneziana -- Thinly sliced calves' liver fried with salt, pepper, and onions.
Focaccia -- Ideally, concocted from potato-based dough left to rise slowly for several hours and then garnished with tomato sauce, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper and drizzled with olive oil; similar to a deep-dish pizza most popular in the deep south, especially Bari.
Fontina -- Rich cow's-milk cheese.
Frittata -- Italian omelet.
Fritto misto -- A deep-fried medley of whatever small fish, shellfish, and squid are available in the marketplace that day.
Fusilli -- Spiral-shaped pasta.
Gelato (produzione propria) -- Ice cream (homemade).
Gnocchi -- Dumplings usually made from potatoes (gnocchi alla patate) or from semolina (gnocchi alla romana), often stuffed with combinations of cheese, spinach, vegetables, or whatever combinations strike the chef's fancy.
Gorgonzola -- One of the most famous blue-veined cheeses of Europe -- strong, creamy, and aromatic.
Granità -- Flavored ice, usually with lemon or coffee.
Insalata di frutti di mare -- Seafood salad (usually including shrimp and squid) garnished with pickles, lemon, olives, and spices.
Involtini -- Thinly sliced beef, veal, or pork, rolled, stuffed, and fried.
Minestrone -- A rich and savory vegetable soup usually sprinkled with grated parmigiano and studded with noodles.
Mortadella -- Mild pork sausage, fashioned into large cylinders and served sliced; the original lunchmeat bologna (because its most famous center of production is Bologna).
Mozzarella -- A nonfermented cheese, made from the fresh milk of a buffalo (or, if unavailable, from a cow), boiled, and then kneaded into a rounded ball, served fresh.
Mozzarella con pomodori (also caprese) -- Fresh tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, basil, pepper, and olive oil.
Nervetti -- A northern Italian antipasto made from chewy pieces of calves' foot or shin.
Osso buco -- Beef or veal knuckle slowly braised until the cartilage is tender and then served with a highly flavored sauce.
Pancetta -- Herb-flavored pork belly, rolled into a cylinder and sliced -- the Italian bacon.
Panettone -- Sweet yellow-colored bread baked in the form of a brioche.
Panna -- Heavy cream.
Pansotti -- Pasta stuffed with greens, herbs, and cheeses, usually served with a walnut sauce.
Pappardelle alle lepre -- Pasta with rabbit sauce.
Parmigiano -- Parmesan, a hard and salty yellow cheese usually grated over pastas and soups but also eaten alone; also known as granna. The best is Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Peperoni -- Green, yellow, or red sweet peppers (not to be confused with pepperoni).
Pesci al cartoccio -- Fish baked in a parchment envelope with onions, parsley, and herbs.
Pesto -- A flavorful green sauce made from basil leaves, cheese, garlic, marjoram, and (if available) pine nuts.
Piccata al Marsala -- Thin escalope of veal braised in a pungent sauce flavored with Marsala wine.
Piselli al prosciutto -- Peas with strips of ham.
Pizza -- Specific varieties include capricciosa (its ingredients can vary widely, depending on the chef's culinary vision and the ingredients at hand), margherita (with tomato sauce, cheese, fresh basil, and memories of the first queen of Italy, Marguerite di Savoia, in whose honor it was first made by a Neapolitan chef), napoletana (with ham, capers, tomatoes, oregano, cheese, and the distinctive taste of anchovies), quattro stagione (translated as "four seasons" because of the array of fresh vegetables in it; it also contains ham and bacon), and siciliana (with black olives, capers, and cheese).
Pizzaiola -- A process in which something (usually a beefsteak) is covered in a tomato-and-oregano sauce.
Polenta -- Thick porridge or mush made from cornmeal flour.
Polenta de uccelli -- Assorted small birds roasted on a spit and served with polenta.
Polenta e coniglio -- Rabbit stew served with polenta.
Polla alla cacciatore -- Chicken with tomatoes and mushrooms cooked in wine.
Pollo all diavola -- Highly spiced grilled chicken.
Ragù -- Meat sauce.
Ricotta -- A soft bland cheese made from cow's or sheep's milk.
Risotto -- Italian rice.
Risotto alla milanese -- Rice with saffron and wine.
Salsa verde -- "Green sauce," made from capers, anchovies, lemon juice and/or vinegar, and parsley.
Saltimbocca -- Veal scallop layered with prosciutto and sage; its name literally translates as "jump in your mouth," a reference to its tart and savory flavor.