If you love Italian cuisine, but are mostly familiar with what’s commonly served in places that cater to the typical American or British palate, you might be curious about taking a holiday down to Italy itself to try traditional food, as opposed to dishes like ‘shrimp scampi,’ which, while super-tasty, is Italian-American, and not part of Italy’s actual ‘line-up’ of traditional
The curious thing about traditional Italian food, city by city, is that there truly is no such thing as an all-round general label, because Italians are very regional in their thinking, both in populace and in cuisine. Dishes you’ll find in Bologna are very different than what you might find in Rome or Venice. Add to that the strong, continuing culture of fresh, open-air markets where many people go and purchase the day’s menu, based on what’s fresh, plus the delights of the Italian countryside where everything is truly fresh, and you have on your hands the best ways to savour Italy’s food culture.
Just the thought of that ought to make every foodie sigh with joy, so let’s continue on with our naming of the best Italy cities in which to try traditional Italian food, starting in the north and working our way south.
Northern Italy is mountainous, so the regions of this portion of Italy are going to focus more on creamy sauces, polenta, truffle-based and risotto dishes rather than just pasta. You’ll be surprised to note that the famous basil-based sauce known as pesto originates in Genoa, the capital of the region of Liguria. It’s official name, therefore is pesto genovese. But it’s not all rich sauces and polenta.
Genoa, for instance, offer up lovely seafood dishes, such as cacciucco, which feature five different types of seafood. Venice, capital city of the Veneto region, also offers up plenty of seafood dishes to tempt the daring ones who wish to try eel and octopus, and to satisfy the ones content to stick with mussels, scallops, shrimp and fish.
The region of Emilio-Romagna, the capital of which is Bologna, is located north of Tuscany, and is a large part of what’s given the world the sharp, rich meats and cheeses the region is most famous for. Parmiggiano-reggiano (aka ‘Parmesan’), prosciutto de Parma, and balsamic vinegar have their roots in this region, so Bologna should definitely be on your list of places to visit.
Central Italy is where you’ll be digging into Italy’s somewhat heavier foods: Tuscany, whose capital is Florence, is perfect for beef-lovers. Try bistecca alla fiorentina, which is simply grilled t-bone steaks from local cattle. Travel a bit further down to Rome itself, and you’ll discover dishes like Bucatini all’amatriciana, which has, as its root, an old shepherds’ dish called gricia.
Gricia itself was originally made with unsmoked pig’s cheek, sheep’s-milk cheese and dried pasta. These three ingredients sustained shepherds for centuries, and then around the beginning of the 18th century, the shepherds started migrating towards Rome, bringing gricia with them.
The amatriciana part is what separates the two dishes, as amatriciana is made with tomato-based pesto, and the tomato was not introduced to Italy until 1548. It wasn’t until Sicilian cooks, influenced by Spanish cuisine, started using tomatoes that the rest of Italy caught on, in the 18th century.
Rome is also known for carbonara sauce. Carbonara sauce is not made with cream, but with egg yolk, so if you’re lactose intolerant, traditional carbonara sauce will fit the bill and be just as rich and filling, so small portions are best.
Moving southward, you’ll realise that this area of Italy contains what most people think of as a healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’: there is plenty of pasta, sure, but it’s balanced out with olive oil, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit.
The city of Naples is the birthplace of the pizza, but while Rome’s version has thin and crispy crusts, Neapolitan pizza is thicker and chewier. So in truth, there’s a style of crust for everyone whilst in the big boot of Europe.
In the regions surrounding Naples, including Puglia, pasta is a staple ingredient. Much of Italy’s durum and semolina flour comes from the southern regions, so you’ll truly be eating local, right down to fresh pasta. Sicily, one of Italy’s most famous regions, is truly eclectic in its cuisine, thanks to those who’ve tried to conquer it over and over. Go from city to city just within Sicily alone and you won’t go wrong.
One dish you’ll want to try is Busiani with Pesto Trapanese, originating, of course, in the city of Trapani. Busiani is a corkscrew-like pasta, and the pesto Trapanese is simply tomato-based pesto.
You can also try Sicily’s many street foods, and as Sicily is home to strong flavours, this is the region in which to try anchovies, as they are everywhere. To top off your meal, allow your sweet tooth some fun with a cannoli or piece of cassata, a rich cake containing ricotta and topped with marzipan.
There are many cities and regions in which to try one particular Italian dish or another, and again, as Italy’s people think more regionally than collectively, each part of Italy shines with its own creativity and flavour. From Venice and Genoa, to Trapani, in Sicily, you’re sure to find at least one traditional Italian food that you’ll want to have over and over again.