Pizza, spaghetti, and gelato are delicious – but they only scratch the surface of Italy’s diverse culinary offerings. With countless regional dishes and an impressive panoply of street food, it’s a disservice to limit yourself to the typical tourist diet. Here are some terrific, less known Italian dishes you need to try on your next trip.
You though spaghetti was good? Wait until you try bigoli, the signature pasta of the Veneto region. Unlike smooth, thin spaghetti, bigoli noodles are thick, coarse and tubular (each has a hole in the middle, similar to bucatini) and are traditionally handmade from buckwheat flour and duck eggs. Bigoli is generally served with a simple sauce of dry red wine, vegetables, and roasted wild duck – which clings better to the dense, rough noodles – and then garnished with parsley and a sprinkle of Parmesan.
Crisp and golden brown, arancini refers to a dish of stuffed rice balls. The rice balls are fried after being coated in a dusting of crunchy breadcrumbs. These rice balls are usually filled with ragù, tomato sauce, mozzarella and peas. Similar to pasta and pizza dishes in Italy, there are a diversity of regional variations of the arancini. The regional specialties are made with different fillings and shapes depending on the location that the dish is prepared in. Some examples include the arancini con ragù (containing tomato sauce, rice and mozzarella), arancini con burro (made with creamy béchamel sauce), arancini con funghi and arancini con melanzane.
Ribollita is traditionally considered cucina povera, or poor man’s food, invented by servants who would collect their master’s unfinished bread and vegetables and boil it in water for their own dinner (the word ribollita in Italian literally means ,,reboiled’’). You could never tell by tasting it—with bread to thicken the soup, it feels as rich and hearty as a chilli. Despite its humble beginnings, ribollita is proudly considered one of Tuscany’s most important (and delicious) dishes.
The dish contains thin slices of veal, topped with salty prosciutto and herb leaves. These ingredients, joined together with a toothpick, are sautéed in a pan until the meat is done. Different varieties of meat, such as chicken and mutton are also used for preparing the saltimbocca. A well-made serving of saltimbocca promises to be a delectable dish melts away in the mouth. Highly popular among locals and travellers in Italy, this savoury delight is certainly not to be missed.
This corn mush, which is nearly identical to the grits eaten in the southern states of America (variations are down to the coarseness or fineness with which the kernels of corn are ground), was originally made from whatever starches were handy, including acorns and buckwheat. However, the introduction of corn to Europe in the 16th century saw it become the dominant ingredient of polenta. Although it lacks the diversity in shapes and textures that pasta has, polenta is the perfect accompaniment to a wide range of meats, especially stewed meats, and it is arguably one of the most comforting foods you can eat when the temperatures drop in cities like Milan, Turin, and Venice. Look for it as a mush, or packed and fried into wobbly fritters.
- Risi e Bisi
Risi e bisi, or ,,rice and peas’’, may not sound like Italy’s most sophisticated dish, but it’s surprisingly flavorful. As the name suggests, it consists only of rice and peas, cooked with stock and seasonings much like a traditional risotto, except without the constant stirring in order to achieve a slightly soupier consistency. The result is a clean, exquisitely balanced dish that – in typical Venetian fashion – allows its main ingredients to shine.
- Tortellini en Brodo
For many families in northern Italy, specifically Emilia-Romagna, tortellini en brodo is a staple dish, particularly during the holidays. Unlike typical tortellini, served in a heavy cream sauce, these float naked in a simple, homemade chicken broth (kind of like the Italian version of wonton soup, except filled with veal and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese). It’s topped with a light sprinkling of grated Parmesan – and that’s it. You’ll never want to eat tortellini any other way.
Rounding out the holy trinity of Italian starches is rice, which is often eaten as the creamy, luxurious risotto. Ironically, Italians aren’t huge rice eaters, what with all the pasta and the polenta, but they are the largest producers of rice in Europe. While southern Italy is often called the country’s bread basket, Northern Italy, especially Lombardy and Piedmont, are its rice bowl. It’s fitting then, that the Arborio and Carneroli varieties grown in the vast rice paddies of these regions are turned into one of Italy’s most iconic dishes by being mixed with stock and stirred until they form a velvety semi-soup that perfectly conveys the flavors of anything cooked with it. The most famous type of risotto is probably the saffron-infused risotto alla milanese, which was invented, according to legend, by the workmen building the Milan Cathedral who were using saffron to dye the stained glass windows and figured they would also throw it into their rice. Other classic versions of the dish include risotto al nero di sepia (with cuttlefish and ink) and risi e bisi (already mentioned before), both of which hail from Venice.
Like Tuscany’s ribollita, the canederli from Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region is made using leftover bread; this time, it’s mixed with eggs and milk to create a golf ball-sized dumpling similar to the German knödel. Often, speck (smoked, raw ham typical of northeastern Italian cuisine), cheese, and spices are added for extra flavor before the canederli are boiled in beef or chicken broth. Whether you have them served ,,dry’’ with melted butter, or in a shallow pool of broth, canederli are the perfect winter comfort food.
- Osso buco alla Milanese
If there’s one meat dish you must try in Italy, let it be osso bucco and not chicken parmigiana (which isn’t actually Italian). You can’t go wrong with veal shanks braised slowly in white wine and vegetables, served with a tangy, garlicky gremolata. (Many modern variations of osso bucco include tomatoes, but authentic Milanese osso bucco is cooked without). Don’t forget to scoop out the rich, buttery marrow from inside the veal bones – it’s the best part of the dish.
Not a fish person? Cacciucco will change that. The spicy, zesty seafood stew is native to Livorno, historically made by fishmongers using the day’s unsold catch – which might include shellfish, monkfish, squid, or octopus. The fish is cooked in a rich tomato and chile-based broth flavored with sage and garlic, and served with crusty bread (necessary for sopping up the remaining broth from your bowl). It’s so good that Italian immigrants in San Francisco created their own Italian-American version, cioppino, using Pacific Ocean seafood and with the addition of wine.
- Fiorentina steak
A bistecca fiorentina, or Florentine T-bone steak, covers all of the characteristics of Italy’s best dishes: a specific cut of meat from a specific cow prepared in a very specific way all within the confines of a specific region. In the case of the enormous bistecca fiorentina, it’s a T-bone steak cut thick (at least 5 centimeters) from the loin of a Chianina cow raised in Tuscany. It’s cooked for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness, until the outside is cooked and the inside remains very rare. No sense in asking for a medium-well done steak here, the meat is too thick to even think about it! Despite all the dogma, there are some variations on the Florentine steak. For one, the meat isn’t always from a Chianina cow these days. Many Florentines are okay with the addition of new breeds but others swear that the enormous size and muscle of the Chianina makes for the best t-bones. If in doubt, simply ask. Also, the Florentines tend to prefer the higher cuts, nearer to the rib cage, which contain the fillet known as bistecca nella costola, whereas beyond Florence in Tuscany you’ll likely get a bistecca nel filetto, a lower cut that tends to be smooth and more melt-in-your-mouth. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the better, though. The Florentines argue that the bistecca nella costola comes from a more used muscle, meaning it’s more flavorful. Whichever cut you get, this is a dish to be eaten exclusively in Tuscany – either in Florence or the countryside. It’s also meant to be shared! When ordering, remember that bistecca alla fiorentina is priced by weight; for two people you’re typically looking at 1-2 kg.
- Focaccia di recco
This dish is one of the top reasons we love Liguria, right up there with Portofino and the Cinque Terre. Hailing from the Genovese town of Recco, it’s one of the region’s tastiest yet simplest specialties: essentially just a thin sheet of baked focaccia with a creamy layer of crescenza cheese in the middle. It’s like grilled cheese, but better, if that’s even possible.
Bottarga isn’t so much a dish as it is an ingredient: it’s salted, cured mullet roe and is a delicacy of both Sardinia and Sicily (widely known as “the caviar of the south”). Because of its rich, briny, salty flavor, it’s used in many Southern Italian dishes: grated over linguine, shaved atop bitter greens, or sliced with buttered bread or crostini. It’s so good, you’ll want to smuggle some back in your suitcase.
Light and creamy, the tiramisu is a well-known dessert sought-after by locals and travellers alike. Ingredients such as ladyfingers, coffee, eggs, sugar, cocoa and mascarpone cheese required in the preparation of this sweet treat. Creative dessert-makers have given an innovative twist to the traditional recipe of the tiramisu, coming up with varieties such as the fruit tiramisu, chocolate tiramisu, and the intriguing-sounding ch’tiramisu.
The origins of torrone are somewhat blurry—some say it originated in Lombardy, some insist it was created in Sicily. It doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that you eat it. It’s a creamy, sticky, nougat-like candy made with honey, egg whites, toasted nuts, and citrus zest, sold in thick slabs at cafes and sweet shops across Italy. Normally, we’d say that nothing beats the original, but one modern variation comes dipped in chocolate.
The term “digestivo” or “digestive” does not refer to one drink, but a class of drinks that are enjoyed after a big meal with the aim of settling the stomach and helping you feel not-quite-so-full. Drinking them dates back to the Middle Ages, when people all over Europe believed in the medicinal properties of alcohol mixed with sugar and herbs. Although the doctors are still out on the medical benefits of drinking medium to strong liquors after a meal, the fact remains that you cannot say you have enjoyed a real Italian meal unless you top it off with a shot of the hard stuff. Popular digestives include limoncello, grappa, amaro, cynar, amaretto, and if you’re feeling brave, sambuca which has enough alcohol to make a horse giddy. If you step off the beaten track in Italy you will also discover all types of nice post dinner tipples made from local fruits and herbs. Don’t be shy, they are always worth a sip.
And you know, how it all ended up in our case?
(We didn’t take the courage to taste at least half of them, haha)
At least the view was great
sources: walksofitaly, bonappetour, cntraveler