Traditional Italian food is not what you think it is. While many dishes are world famous, there’s much more variety than you’d imagine. In fact, food in Italy is actually very regional and dishes we eat in Sardinia may be unheard of in Lombardy or in Sicily. One thing for sure though is that one of the perks of visiting Italy is eating.
Let me start by stating that are several traditional Italian dishes that are eaten throughout Italy, and you will be able to try them no matter where and when you visit. However, there is a whole spectrum of Italian regional food – dishes that have regional and seasonal variations. There even are dishes don’t exist outside their tiny area of creation.
The reason for that is that Italians have always been a somehow fragmented population, very linked to traditions. This has caused a huge number of traditional Italian food and regional dishes to be made. Each of them is a small symbol of the region and its peoples’ pride.
So my question is: how much do you actually know about the less famous traditional Italian dishes? Let’s see some of this Italian regional food, so that you know what to try and where!
Traditional Italian Food – Northern Italy
Ossobuco (Braised Veal Shanks) (Lombardy)
The ossobuco is a typical recipe from Milan, dating back to the 1700s. It takes its name from the meat used to make it (veal shanks) and, even though it has a few variants, it’s generally boiled or steamed. The boiled version also makes for an excellent broth! It is often accompanied with risotto.
Risotto is an Italian regional food that originated in Lombardia but is now commonly eaten all around Italy, in a thousand different variations and recipes. The main feature that identifies a risotto is that the ingredients are cooked together with the rice and not added at the end (like pasta). Among the most famous risottos, you could try Marinara risotto (with seafood), zafferano (the real Milanese risotto, with saffron), and one of the hundreds of mushroom risottos available.
Cotoletta alla Milanese
The second most important typical Milanese dish, the Cotoletta is made with veal rib chop or sirloin, coated in breadcrumbs and fried in butter. There are a thousand variations of this dish, but the original cotoletta was born in Milan and no one should dare say otherwise!
Polenta is a dish that is eaten throughout Northern Italy, especially in the mountainous areas. Although there are hundreds of different recipes, the base ingredients of polenta are always the same, and extremely simple: corn wheat, water, and a bit of salt. Polenta was in fact a very poor dish, in the beginning. It’s typically accompanied with mushroom, cheese or even a sausage sauce.
Canederli is a traditional Italian food from Trentino, which got it from their Austrian neighbors. Canederli was originally a dish cooked to reuse food that otherwise would have been wasted: their main ingredients are dried wheat bread, cheese, vegetables, milk, and eggs.
Bagna Cauda (Piedmont)
Bagna Cauda is a typical sauce from Piedmont, made from anchovies and garlic, and where vegetables of various kinds are dipped. It’s usually served in a specific bowl (called fajòt) with a candle inside, so as to keep the sauce warm.
Vitello Tonnato (Piedmont)
Vitello Tonnato, in its original recipe, is a simple dish that’s served as an appetizer and is actually meant to be eaten cold or at room temperature. It became extremely popular during the 1980s. It’s made with very tender calf meat and a delicious tuna sauce.
Pesto alla Genovese (Liguria)
As the name suggests, pesto alla Genovese is a typical Genoese sauce, excellent on pasta (best if linguine or trenette). Its main ingredients are basil, garlic, pine nuts, pecorino cheese and olive oil, which need to be crushed together and then added to pasta without any cooking process.
Sarde in Saor (Veneto)
One of Veneto’s favorite dishes, Sarde in Saor is a dish based on fried sardines, onions, raisins, and pine nuts. They are commonly served as an appetizer and are pretty common in Venice, where they served as a cicchetti.
Traditional Italian Food – Central Italy
Lasagne (Emilia Romagna)
You surely have tried some type of Lasagne, but do you actually know the original recipe? The ingredients that need to go on top, and in between, those flat sheets of handmade egg noodles are just ragù sauce, some grated parmigiano or possibly Grana Padano, and bechamel sauce. All the other additions are not part of the real lasagna.
Tagliatelle al Ragu (Emilia Romagna)
Here’s a piece of shocking news: Spaghetti Bolognaise is not an Italian dish. We never created that recipe! But Tagliatelle al ragù is similar, comes from the same area, and is way tastier. Tagliatelle is a handmade type of egg pasta and ragù is a delicious sauce made with tomato sauce, a mix of ground beef and pork, and some carrots, onions, and oil to give it more taste.
Tortellini (Emilia Romagna)
Tortellini are another typical Italian dish you can eat pretty much anywhere, but they are originally from Emilia Romagna. They are made of egg pasta, and stuffed with meat and cheese – though there are now many variations. They are generally served (and cooked) with broth. They are one of the best traditional Italian dishes you can have in winter!
The name Ribollita name means “boiled again” and that’s exactly how this soup is made: it’s a dish traditionally made with leftovers, which are boiled multiple times. They say the more times you boil it, the tastier it gets. The main ingredients are dry bread and vegetables, especially kale and beans.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Tuscany)
The Fiorentina Steak is THE dish. You need to try it at least once if you visit Tuscany! It’s made with calf loin, which is among the finest cuts of meat, and cooked rare. Don’t trust anyone who cooks it more than that: it will lose all of its flavor, texture and charm!
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (Lazio)
Cacio and Pepe spaghetti are one of the symbols of traditional Italian food, and only require three ingredients: pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese, and pepper – which needs to be freshly crushed in order to keep all the flavor. It’s a must-try dish if you visit Rome.
A list of traditional Italian food would not be complete without mentioning Carbonara. This dish needs no introduction nor explanations: you will find plenty of places where to eat the original version, and probably enjoy listening to some discussion about what needs to go in the sauce.
Lombrichelli (Lazio – Viterbo)
The Lombrichelli are a typical handmade pasta, with a dough only made of water and wheat – no eggs. They are usually very common in the Viterbo area and can be served with different types of sauce, though they are best enjoyed with a meat sauce.
Not to be confused with Arancini, supplì are balls of tomato risotto stuffed mozzarella cheese, covered in bread crumbs and deep-fried. They are a common snack served in many places in Italy, but they were originally created in Rome.
Olive all’Ascolana (Marche)
Typical of the Marche area, this Italian traditional dish consists of green olives, filled with meat, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. They are delicious snacks/appetizers, easy to carry around at a picnic.
Arrosticini are delicious skewers of sheep or lamb meat, usually eaten with bread and olive oil (possibly homemade) and accompanied with wine. They are usually found in Abruzzo – only here you will eat the real and delicious ones – but are sometimes sold in supermarkets, even though those are less tasty.
Traditional Italian Food – Southern Italy
Nothing more than pizza can represent traditional Italian food. This dish was firstly created in Campania but has now taken possession of every restaurant and pizzeria in Italy and abroad. Nowadays you can enjoy pizza with a thousand different toppings and shapes, but don’t ever attempt to get pineapple or chicken on a pizza in Italy – not unless you want to be kicked out of the restaurant.
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina (Campania)
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina are gnocchi made with potatoes and cooked in a tomato sauce with basil, sprinkled with grated cheese and mozzarella, and baked in the oven. You can eat them everywhere around Italy, but they are best when in their region of origin, Campania.
Babà is a typical sweet pastry from Naples and, despite having French origins, it is nowadays associated with Campania. It is made with flour and yeast, dipped in rum, and at times you can find it stuffed with chocolate or cream. Babas can vary in dimensions and are sold all around Italy.
Focaccia Barese (Puglia)
Focaccia is a serious deal in Bari, and it’s eaten at any time of the day and for every occasion. This typical piece of bread, topped with tomatoes and olives, is part of the most loved regional dishes of Puglia, and for good reasons. Probably, nothing could beat its taste and versatility.
Orecchiette alle cime di rapa (Puglia)
Especially loved in the area of Bari, orecchiette are a typically homemade pasta that, in this specific recipe, is cooked together with turnip greens. There are variations to the ingredients to put in the pan, but the main ones are the same: turnip greens, garlic, anchovies, a touch of cayenne pepper, oil, and of course orecchiette pasta.
Fave e cicoria (Basilicata)
Made with dried fava beans and chicory, this dish is eaten and loved all around Basilicata. The recipe is quite easy and consists in making a cream out of the fava beans and plating it with boiled chicory.
Traditional Italian Food – The Islands
Culurgiones are a type of ravioli (stuffed pasta) that come in several variations. The supposedly original version is from Ogliastra and consists of handmade dough, and stuffing made of pecorino cheese, potatoes, and mint – though each village in Ogliastra has its own (and inevitably best) recipe.
Fregola con Arselle (Sardinia)
Fregola is a type of bran pasta that is usually cooked in broth or made into some sort of soup. Fregola con arselle is a seafood recipe made with fregola, clams, tomato, garlic, white wine, and parsley. It’s typical of Cagliari but can be found in many other places in southern Sardinia.
Bottarga (Sardinia and Sicily)
Bottarga consists of dried eggs, either from tuna (Sicily) or mullet (Sardinia). There are several recipes with this type of food, from pasta to appetizers. In several parts of the islands, bottarga is sliced and served on bread (crostini) or used as a seasoning for spaghetti.
Malloreddus alla Campidanese (Sardinia)
As the name suggests, malloreddus alla campidanese are a typical Campidano dish: they consist of the traditional malloreddus pasta and a sauce made with tomato sauce and Sardinian fresh sausage, and sprinkled with pecorino cheese. It’s one of the most famous and loved Sardinian dishes.
Pasta with sea urchins (Sardinia)
This is a typical dish found in the coastal areas of Sardinia. Until some decades ago, it was considered a poor dish, easy to make, because sea urchins were overabundant and easy to find everywhere. Now, because of the excessive exploitation, sea urchins are more difficult to come across – they can be harvested only under certain conditions, and the dishes made with them are considered a real treat only to be enjoyed when fishing them is permitted.
Despite the ever-going debate over their name (arancini or arancine, depending on whether you eat them in Palermo or Catania) this dish is one and only: a cone-shaped rice ball filled with a meat sauce, peas, and caciocavallo cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. This is the original version, but if you visit Sicily, you’ll find more than 30 variations of it.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Sicily)
This dish is a so-called “piatto unico” (meaning it offers enough calories and nutritional value to be eaten alone, without needing any side dish) and it’s made with sliced and deep-fried eggplants, which are then piled up in layers of tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, and basil. After the layering is complete, melanzane alla parmigiana are baked in the oven. This dish, despite being of Sicilian origins (contended with Campania) is eaten everywhere in Italy.
There are a thousand variations of this traditional Sicilian dessert (with Arab origin) made with a fried wafer shell and stuffed with a mixture of ricotta cheese and candied fruit (though at times you will find them with and with either chocolate chips and even decorated with pistachio crumbs.
Traditional Italian Dishes Found Throughout The Country
Despite having been eaten all around Italy for centuries, no one still holds the Tiramisu patent, meaning it isn’t clear who made it first. The recipe as we know it today is quite recent: the version with egg yolks and mascarpone cream, savoiardi cookies dipped in coffee, and cocoa powder was firstly written down at the end of the 1900s!
Bruschetta has an ancient history. It was probably already eaten by the Romans – or even earlier – and it has been a typical dish for the poorer classes throughout the centuries. It was made in order to use every bit of bread in the house, so as not to waste the one that had hardened: the bread was in fact toasted, rubbed with garlic, and garnished with simple things like oil, olives, and, later on, tomatoes. Bruschetta is now a popular appetizer served with any topping you can think of.
Minestrone is another poor dish, commonly eaten by farmers’ families because it only required some water, salt, and seasonal vegetables. It was easy and cheap to make and could be cooked in several different ways to adapt to the season and number of members in the family. Depending on the area, it has different variations and ingredients and is now considered one of the most common traditional Italian dishes.
Polpette, internationally known as meatballs, are cooked and served all around Italy but they are thought to be of Persian origins: they were probably imported during the Middle Ages. Anyway, regardless of where they come from, they are now an essential part if the Italian tradition.
They are usually cooked with a thick tomato sauce, but every region has its recipes and variations: some fry them, some add vegetables or different types of cheese, but every kind of polpette is equally delicious.
Other Common Italian Foods
There are some other foods that, despite not being dishes with a proper recipe, are undeniably Italian to the core and a symbol of the country’s identity and traditions. Here’s a list of the most famous ones.
Mozzarella is one of the most representative cheeses in Italy: it was created in a monastery, during the middle ages, and its production follows the same old procedure since the beginning. To make mozzarella, milk has to be handled by knowing hands, or the ending result won’t be great.
Mozzarella is eaten and exported all around the world, both its basic recipe and its fancier variation, made with female buffalo milk: mozzarella di bufala, which is even more tender, and creamier.
Parmigiano and Grana Padano
Parmesan cheese is another staple Italian food. There are a thousand different types of Parmesan, but the most famous ones are Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano, both made in the Emilia Romagna region.
There are several tiny technical differences in the recipes, aging, and whatnot, but the main thing that tells Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano apart is the milk used to make them: skimmed milk for the former, a mix of whole and skimmed milk for the latter.
Mortadella is a type of Italian salami, originating from Bologna, and it’s probably Italians’ favorite meat to put in a sandwich. There are several famous places that produce it and many, many others offering a tasting tour, where you can try mortadella in various dishes, paired with different wines, and learn a bit more about it. As of late, mortadella has become a popular topping for pizza – without tomato sauce and accompanied by a pistachio cream.
Another Italian staple, loved by everyone, prosciutto actually comes in two very different variations: prosciutto cotto, pinkish and soft, which is slowly cooked at very specific temperatures, and prosciutto crudo, darker in color, saltier and not cooked but only cured, and usually served in very thin slices.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Another Emilia Romagna excellence and the queen of dressing sauces – the king being, obviously, olive oil – aceto balsamico has many, many imitators, but the original one is the Aceto made in Modena. No one should doubt that Modena’s balsamic vinegar is the best, or even worst, suggest that there is a better balsamic vinegar on the market!
Half of the traditional Italian dishes wouldn’t exist without olive oil. The majority of Italians buy it from their local, trusted oil mills, and every single one of them swears their oil is the best in the country. During oil production season, it’s common to come across heated discussions on the topic or to see people bargaining about prices and discounts.
Truffles are a very expensive type of mushroom, that you will find mostly in fancy restaurants and bistros. Italy is the worldwide number one exporter of the white truffle, the rarest and most pricey type of this mushroom. Until recently, the animal used to find truffles in the Italian countryside were pigs, but since they are deemed too damaging for the environment, a law has imposed the exclusive use of trained dogs.
Gelato is one of the biggest symbols of traditional Italian food. You can buy gelato basically anywhere in the country, but what you should be looking for is the artisanal one: anyone can make gelato, but very few places will give you the best handmade gelato in the area. And trust me, your Italian experience won’t be complete, if you don’t try a proper gelato! Once you find the perfect gelateria (ice cream shop), you will only have to choose among the best gelato flavors: good luck!
Feeling hungry? Make sure to read these posts:
- What To Eat In Rome
- What To Eat In Sardinia
- What To Eat In Puglia
- What To Eat In Naples
- What To Eat In Bologna
- What To Eat In Florence
- The Countries With The Best Food