Italian cuisine is arguably the most famous on the planet. It’s so vast, with each region renowned for its own specialties. Think of creamy servings of risotto alla Milanese from Lombardy or cheesy margherita pizzas from Campania.

It’s one thing to try Italian food in your home country, but sampling it in Il Bel Paese is another experience. Between seeing the cooking methods with your own eyes and the amazing flavors, immersing yourself in Italy’s gastronomy scene will stay with you forever.

Since moving to Italy in 2009, I’ve tried all kinds of Italian dishes, from the classics to lesser-known delights. In this post, I’ve compiled what I would consider the best foods in Italy you must try when you get here. Trust me, there’s something in here for all tastes!

Caponata

I couldn’t choose a dish better than caponata. It epitomizes true Italian recipes: olive oil and vegetables, filled with tomato sauce, and could pack you for a week.

Origins of Caponata

Caponata is a dish that originates in Sicily. Its meaning translates to “dish made up of various things,” and that it is!

Although caponata is eaten with fish or pasta today, it was hugely popular among the lower class back in the day. They used to make it with extra aubergine, green olives, and capers and soak it in a sauce called “agrodolce,” (sweet and sour). This is a dish you can try on one of our Palermo food tours.

caponata

How to say it

Caponata in Italian is pronounced (ca-poh-na-ta)

Caponata in Italian is pronounced (ca-poh-na-ta)

Key Ingredients

  • Eggplant
  • Yellow onion
  • Red bell pepper
  • Celery sticks
  • Olives
  • Capers
  • Raisins
  • Honey
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Vinegar
  • White wine
  • Parsley

How Caponata Tastes

If I were to sum up the tastes of caponata in three words, it would be sweet (honey), sour (vinegar), and savory (olives).

Where To Eat Caponata

Ristorante Nangalarruni, in the picturesque town of Castelbuono, knows how to cook up a good caponata. I love this restaurant, especially for the lovely family-oriented atmosphere.

My caponata came with a vegetable souffle in tomato sauce and ricotta cheese; it was divine, and the nuttiness of the ricotta paired perfectly with the mild sweetness from the eggplant and tomato sauce.

Ristorante Nangalarruni (€€) – Cortile Ventimiglia, 5, 90013 Castelbuono PA, Italy – Every day, 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm

Caponata’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Caponata is considered an antipasto. Some people like to order it with pasta or fish, I prefer to have it with some pieces of toasted bread. It gives it a pleasant, crisp taste with tons of flavors. The bread must be toasted, or the tomato sauce will make it soggy.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Caponata

I enjoy caponata with a glass of Etna Rosso, a red wine made near Mount Etna.

The red fruit and acidy flavors from the Nerello Mascalese grape adjust the sweet and sour tang of the dish. Also, the earthy hints mix with the eggplant’s richness.

Carciofi Alla Giudia

Carciofi alla giudia is arguably the most famous dish from the Roman Jewish community in Italy. 

Origin Of Carciofi Alla Giudia

Carciofi alla giudia was found in the Jewish Ghettos in Rome. This area existed during the Papal Rule, between 1555 to 1870. It was a gated community and often got flooded. The living conditions were pretty awful.

In a location close by, a bunch of artichokes were growing, so the Jewish community decided to fry them with oil in line with their kosher beliefs. Today, it’s known as Carciofi alla giudia.

carciofi

How to say it

Carciofi Alla Giudia in Italian is pronounced (car-cho-fii) (a-lah) (juu-dee-ah)

Carciofi Alla Giudia in Italian is pronounced (car-cho-fii) (a-lah) (juu-dee-ah)

Key Ingredients

  • Artichokes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Chopped lemons

How Carciofi Alla Giudia Tastes

Carciofi Alla Giudia, for me, tastes bitter, as do all artichokes, but because they’re fried, the bitterness isn’t as strong. There’s an earthy taste to them. They absorb a lot of the oil they’re cooked in, intensifying the flavor.

Where To Eat Carciofi Alla Giudia

Since Rome is home to the original Carciofi Alla Giudia recipe, you’ll want to try them there. My recommendation is Da Enzo al 29, a tiny typical family Roman trattoria down the street from the Ponte Palatino.

On some of our Rome food tours, we take everyone to try Da Enzo al 29’s mouthwatering carciofi alla giudia. Crispy with a golden-like texture and tender on the inside, their recipe tops anything else I’ve ever tried in the capital.

While carciofi alla giudia can be quite bitter sometimes, the way they salt them here balances out the bitterness to perfection. The servers here are always more than happy to cut you a slice of lemon, too, so it adds a zesty side to the flavor profile.

Da Enzo al 29 (€€€) – Via dei Vascellari, 29, 00153 Roma RM, Italy – Monday to Friday, 12:15 pm to 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm, Saturday, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm, and closed on Sunday

Carciofi Alla Giudia’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Carciofi Alla Giudia is another antipasto. Every restaurant you visit will have them in their menu’s appetizer section.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Carciofi Alla Giudia

A flavorful rose like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Hedòs 2021 pairs so well with all types of artichokes as it melds fruity softness with a touch of acidity, which mellows out the bitter notes of the artichokes.

Spaghetti With Clams

Spaghetti with clams is one Italian dish that I’ll never get tired of. As you can tell, the main ingredients of this one are fresh spaghetti, clams, and an added touch of garlic.

Origin Of Spaghetti With Clams

Originating in Naples, spaghetti with clams gained popularity through the Campania region, especially the coastal areas, since many small clams called vongola verace can be found there.

Spaghetti with clams is commonly known as spaghetti alle vongole. It dates back to the 18th century and was first recorded in the Duke of Buonvicino’s book, Cucina Teorico-pratica. 

spaghetti-with-clams

How to say it

Spaghetti and clams in Italian is pronounced (Spa-geh-tii) (a-leh) (von-goh-leh).

Spaghetti and clams in Italian is pronounced (Spa-geh-tii) (a-leh) (von-goh-leh).

Key Ingredients

  • Spaghetti
  • Clams
  • Salt
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlic cloves
  • Italian parsley
  • Red chili pepper (optional)

How Spaghetti With Clams Taste

I don’t think you have to love seafood to like spaghetti and clams. Yes, it’s a bit briny, but nowhere near as strong as other seafood. The sautéed garlic eliminates much of the fishy taste and balances out the sweetness from the clams.

Where To Eat Spaghetti With Clams

As long as you’re by the Naples seaside, you’re guaranteed a solid serving of spaghetti and clams.

There’s a lovely osteria I always go to called Osteria Da Antonio with views of Castel Nuovo fortress that has unbelievable spaghetti and clams. The chewy el dente pasta is amazing, the parsley adds a lovely herbaceous flavor to it, and the lemon on the side lifts the taste.

Osteria Da Antonio (€€) – Via Agostino Depretis, 143, 80100 Napoli NA, Italy – Every day, 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm and 6:30 pm to 11:30 pm 

Spaghetti With Clams Place In The Italian Course Structure

Spaghetti and clams will often be served as a primo since they fall under the pasta category.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Spaghetti with Clams

I love to have a well-rounded white wine with spaghetti and clams, something like an Irpinia Falanghina Demetra 2017 Antico Castello. It complements shellfish-based dishes because of its floral aromas and lovely balance.

Carbonara

A dish from the Italian cuisine that needs no introduction, carbonara is one pasta recipe everyone loves. 

Origin of Carbonara

Carbonara is known to come from Rome, as it’s often linked with the 1944 Allied liberation of Rome. It’s said that soldiers from the USA used to bring their bacon and eggs to Italian restaurants to add some flavor to the limited recipes.

Now, Neapolitans will tell you that carbonara comes from the Campania region as they think that the recipe was based on the dish called pasta cacio e uova, which has similar ingredients.

carbonara

How to say it

Carbonara in Italian is pronounced (car-boh-na-ra).

Carbonara in Italian is pronounced (car-boh-na-ra)

Key Ingredients

  • Spaghetti
  • Cubed guanciale
  • Whole eggs
  • Grated pecorino romano or Parmesan cheese
  • Black pepper

How Carbonara Tastes

There’s a common misconception that carbonara has an overpowering eggy taste; this is false.

If I were to characterize the taste of carbonara, I would say it has a cheesy, savory, and salty taste with an umami aftertaste and a spicy kick from the black pepper.

Where To Eat Carbonara

Carbonara in Rome knocks the ball out of the park, especially at one of my favorite restaurants, Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale. 

The cheese and eggs gave their dish a creamy texture and eggy undertones, and the chef sprinkled chopped bacon all over the top; I was afraid to even touch the plate when it was dropped on the table. It looked that good.

Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale (€€) – Borgo Pio, 186, 00193 Roma RM, Italy – Monday, 11:45 am to 10:30 pm, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, 11:40 am to 10:30 pm, Sunday, 11:40 to 6:30 pm, closed on Wednesday

Carbonara’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Carbonara is seen as a primo in the Italian course structure as it’s a pasta dish.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Carbonara

I tend to order a fruity wine with my carbonara, like a red, such as Bardolino 2020. This red wine is quite dry with medium tannins and has a medium acidity level.

Pizza

It’s not a list of Italian foods without mentioning pizza, a dish with a flat base of dough covered in tomato sauce, cheese, and all kinds of toppings catered to the consumer’s taste.

Origin Of Pizza

Pizza was born in the city of Naples. In the 1700s and 1800s, this was where a lot of the lower class lived; Neapolitans were in dire need of the cheapest food they could get their hands on, so they came up with the idea of pizza. And of course, we offer you authentic Neapolitan pizza on our Naples food tour.

pizza

How to say it

Pizza in Italian is pronounced (pii-tsa)

Pizza in Italian is pronounced (pii-tsa)

Key Ingredients

  • Flour
  • Yeast
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Olive oil
  • Tomato sauce
  • Cheese (optional)
  • Toppings like veggies, meats and other sauces

How Pizza Tastes

Pizza will taste differently depending on what toppings you get on it, but for this explanation, I’ll stick to a margherita.

Margherita pizzas have crispy dough, which is chewy on the inside; the tomato sauce gives the flavor profile a tanginess with some acidity. The melted cheese will soak into the tomato sauce, giving it a creamy edge with a gooey texture. 

Where To Eat Pizza

I always say that you can’t get better pizza than in Naples; it’s unbelievably delicious there. If you happen to go there, try the pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele.

I ordered the marinara, and all I can say is wow, the blend of the rich sliced garlic and sweet tomato sauce was heavenly, and the way the thin crust broke in my mouth with every bite was tantalizing.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (€) – Via Cesare Sersale, 1, 80139 Napoli NA, Italy – Every day, 11:00 am to 11:00 pm

Pizza’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

One thing you can’t take from pizza is to eat it for any course, but it’s typically considered a primo.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Pizza

If you’re going to order a Margherita, a tasty pinot noir like Pinot Nero Riserva Trattmann 2019 will pair perfectly with your cheesy slices. If I were to define its flavors, I would say it’s mildly spiced with some cacao-like undertones and very light on the palate.

Lasagna

I’ll finish my list of the best foods you must try in Italy on a high note with lasagna, one of the oldest pasta dishes ever to be made.

Origin Of Lasagna

Lasagna is another one of Naples’ great inventions that dates back to the Middle Ages. The first recipe was actually found in an English cookbook, but it didn’t include some of the ingredients of the version made in Naples.

lasagna

How to say it

Lasagna in Italian is pronounced (la-za-nya)

Lasagna in Italian is pronounced (la-za-nya)

Key Ingredients

  • Lasagne noodles
  • Sausage or ground beef
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Sugar
  • Parsley
  • Parmesan, ricotta, and mozzarella
  • Egg

How Lasagna Tastes

When I say lasagna is like a rollercoaster of flavors, I’m not lying. It’s a hearty dish with a tangy richness from the tomato sauce, a creaminess from the three cheeses, and a strong, juicy, umami flavor from the meats used.

Where To Eat Lasagna

Compared to some of the other regional dishes I have spoken about, lasagna is good wherever you go. But since I stuck to cities where they’re from, I’ll do the same for Lasagna with Naples.

There’s a gorgeous little spot in Naples called Cala la Pasta, which only serves lasagna on Sundays, and it tastes sensational. I still dream about the way the lasagna sheets soaked up all the sauce and the garlic and onion infusion throughout the dish.

Cala la Pasta (€) – Via dei Tribunali, 179/180, 80139 Napoli NA, Italy – Monday, 11:00 am to 11:00 pm, closed Tuesday, Wednesday to Sunday, 11:15 am to 11:00 pm

Lasagna’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Like a lot of the options on this list of Italian foods, lasagna is a primo.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Lasagna

There are lots of wines you can pair with lasagna, but I would suggest you order a glass of red Barbera, something like a Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne 2021.

The flavors of this wine are of mineral and vanilla notes. I find it to be a medium-bodied wine with a dry texture with soft tannins, Resulting in a harmonious flavor.

Pasta e Patate

Pasta e patate is a Neapolitan classic that will have you yearning for more after you try it.

Origin Of Pasta e Patate

Dating back to the 16th century in Naples, pasta e patate comes from when the country was under the domain of the Bourbons

Special ingredients such as potatoes and vegetables were incredibly cheap to ship from America, so locals would order them in to make unique recipes. One of those that they came up with included pasta e patate.

patate

How to say it

Pasta e patate in Italian is pronounced (pa-sta) (eh) (pa-taa-teh)

Pasta e patate in Italian is pronounced (pa-sta) (eh) (pa-taa-teh)

Key Ingredients

  • Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Carrots
  • Cellary
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parsley (optional)
  • Provola cheese

How Pasta e Patate Tastes

Pasta e patate is a savory dish that often has a thick broth with a strong tomato flavor that gives the sauce a distinct sweetness. When the smoky-flavored provola cheese is sprinkled on top, it gives the pasta and potatoes a creamy edge; I really wish everybody in the world could taste that.

I like to put some pepper on top of my pasta e patate as it adds a light, spicy, and woody aftertaste.

Where To Eat Pasta e Patate

One of the tastiest pasta e patates I tried was at the Trattoria da Nennella in Naples. Before I talk about the food, the vibe here is unmatched; I couldn’t get enough of the bubbliness from the staff, and the upbeat Italian music made me want to dance the night away.

Prepare yourself for a hugely heavy portion of pasta e patate. I found it very creamy and a little salty, but wow, the texture of the pasta was phenomenal; the chewiness was just to my preference.

Trattoria da Nennella (€) – Piazza Carità, 22, 80134 Napoli NA, Italy – 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm

Pasta e Patate Place In The Italian Course Structure

Pasta e patate is primarily a primo piatto, along with other famous pasta-based dishes.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Pasta e Patate

I think a flavorful red wine would pair well with Pasta e Patate because it has a high level of acidity, which would complement the pasta and potatoes. Plus, the fruity taste of herbs and fruits would add some unique character to the dish.

Vitello Tonnato

Next up, I have something a little different from the other dishes I have mentioned: a cold-served plate called Vitello Tonnato.

Origin Of Vitello Tonnato

Vitello tonnato’s story can be traced back to the 18th century in the northwest Italian region of Piedmont. It was made mainly by the lower class, with leftover meats they could pull together to make the best possible recipe.

While different versions of vitello tonnato can be found today, the original recipe contained a unique flavored sauce formed with anchovies and oil.

vitello

How to say it

Vitello tonnato in Italian is pronounced (viit-eh-loh) (toh-nn-ato)

Vitello tonnato in Italian is pronounced (viit-eh-loh) (toh-nn-ato)

Key Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • Veal
  • Sea salt
  • Rocket leaves
  • Eggs
  • Anchovy fillets
  • Capers
  • White wine vinegar
  • Tinned tuna

How Vitello Tonnato Tastes

While you might think the veal in this dish takes up much of the flavor, that’s untrue. The tuna sauce has the strongest taste; it gives it a savory and light tangy tinge, and the capers give it a piquant kick.

Where To Eat Vitello Tonnato

There are plenty of cities in northwest Italy where you can try vitello tonnato, but my favorite is Turin because it’s home to one of my favorite restaurants, Antiche Sere.

The vitello tonnato I had in Antiche Sere was amazing; between the saltiness from the fresh anchovies and the richness of the veal, I loved it.

Antiche Sere (€€€) – Via Cenischia, 9, 10139 Torino TO, Italy – Monday to Saturday, 7:00 pm to 12:00 am

Vitello Tonnato’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Vitello tonnato is commonly classified as an antipasto in the traditional Italian course structure, but it’s often ordered as a secondo too.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce
prosecco

Wines That Can Be Paired With Vitello Tonnato

Most people who order vitello tonnato as an appetizer will enjoy a glass of Prosecco with it, as the bubbles pair nicely with the capers.

Risotto alla Milanese

When it comes to Italian rice dishes, a dish like risotto alla milanese wins it for me.

Origins Of Risotto Alla Milanese

There are various stories of where risotto alla milanese comes from, but its first official documentation was in Giovanni Felice Luraschi’s cookbook that was released in 1829 called Nuovo Cuoco Milanese Economico.

Another story suggests that the recipe came from the glazier of Milan’s cathedral called, Valerio Diependale, who was working on the Duomo during the 16th century.

risotto

How to say it

Risotto alla Milanese In Italian is pronounced (rii-zo-tt-oh) (a-lah) (mii-la-neh-zeh)

Risotto alla Milanese In Italian is pronounced (rii-zo-tt-oh) (a-lah) (mii-la-neh-zeh)

Key Ingredients

  • Arborio rice
  • Unsalted butter
  • Beef stock
  • Parmesan
  • Salt
  • White wine
  • Saffron powder
  • Onion
  • Beef marrow

How Risotto Alla Milanese Tastes

There’s one flavor from risotto alla Milanese that stands out to me, and that’s the bitterness and floral taste of the saffron. You’ll also notice a nuttiness from the rice and a light salty tinge from the parmesan.

Where To Eat Risotto Alla Milanese

As you can tell, the name risotto alla Milanese really gives this one away. The northern Italian city of Milan is the birthplace of this dish, so you’re guaranteed a good serving in most restaurants, but especially on our Milan food tour.

One place I can’t recommend enough for their risotto alla Milanese is Osteria Conchetta. You can see the chefs making it tableside in the cheese wheel; it tasted absolutely divine, from the saffrony rice to the sweet, sauteed onions.

Osteria Conchetta (€€) – Via Conchetta, 8, 20136 Milano MI, Italy – Tuesday to Friday, 7:00 pm to 11:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday, 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm, closed on Mondays

Risotto Alla Milanese’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Risotto alla Milanese would be seen as a primo piatto since it’s a rice-based dish.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Risotto Alla Milanese

A tasty Pinot Bianco pairs beautifully with risotto alla Milanese because of its gentle flavors, and it has a nice balanced body to complement the risotto.

Florentine Steak

If you’re a meat eater, you’ll want to stick around for this one, bistecca Fiorentina, the city of Florence’s famous steak dish.

Origin Of Bistecca Fiorentina

Bistecca Fiorentina has been putting a smile on people from Fiorentina’s faces since the 1500s. Since meat was such a delicacy back in the day, it would only be eaten on big occasions; one of these was the Night of San Lorenzo.

It has been noted that bistecca Fiorentina was so special because of the particular cut taken from the cow.

steak

How to say it

Bistecca Fiorentina in Italian is pronounced (bis-te-cc-ah) (fior-en-tii-na)

Bistecca Fiorentina in Italian is pronounced (bis-te-cc-ah) (fior-en-tii-na)

Key Ingredients

  • T-bone steak
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • Fresh rosemary
  • Fresh sage

How Bistecca Fiorentina Tastes

The T-bone steak used to make bistecca Fiorentina is charred, which gives it some smokiness, and the salt and pepper added with the juiciness of the meat brings out some incredible natural brash flavors.

Where To Eat Bistecca Fiorentina

There’s no place for Bistecca Fiorentina in Florence quite like Trattoria Dall’Oste. Honestly, when I saw the portion size for the first time, I nearly fell off the chair; it could feed a handful of people.

The beef was so tender, and the explosive flavors from the herbs gave it an almost pine-like taste.

Trattoria Dall’Oste (€€) – Borgo S. Lorenzo, 31, 50121 Firenze FI, Italy – 12:00 pm to 10:30 pm, every day

Bistecca Fiorentina’s Place In The Italian Course Structure

Because of the sheer size of Bistecca Fiorentina, it’s considered a main course in the Italian course structure.

1. Aperitivo
2. Antipasto
3. Primo
4. Secondo
5. Contorno
6. Dolce

Wines That Can Be Paired With Bistecca Fiorentina

A famous wine that’s often paired with Bistecca Fiorentina is Chianti Classico, which is filled with soft tannins that aren’t too strong to take over the taste of the beef.

Conclusion

That’s the end of my ultimate list of the best foods to try in Italy. There’s so much more I could have mentioned, but I could be here writing all day, so I stuck to the dishes I know you’ll love.

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