The most difficult thing about eating in Italy is that you can’t try everything. Every day you have a finite number of meals, and a finite amount of space in your stomach, whereas there seem to be an infinite number of Italian dishes that you “absolutely need to try”. From regional specialties to the finest seasonal delicacies, you would need multiple lifetimes to sample all the best Italian food, and that’s before you even consider dessert and drinks. Before you start to panic, we’ve come up with a little bucket list of Italian foods for you to try on your trip. This isn’t a best of, and it’s certainly not exhaustive – for one thing, we’ve avoided the topic of cured meats and cheeses because they are worlds unto themselves – but on it are the dishes that we think everyone should try at least once when they visit Italy. Taken together, they sum up the heart and soul of the various cooking traditions that exist around the country. If we’ve missed your favorite dish, and we’re sure there are a few of them, please let us know in the comments.
Though a slab of flat bread served with oil and spices was around long before the unification Italy, there’s perhaps no dish that is as common or as representative of the country as the humble pizza. Easy, cheap, and filling, pizza has long been a common snack or meal, especially in Naples where tomato sauce was first added. When the Italian Queen Margherita came through the bustling city on a tour of her kingdom in 1889 she asked to try this dish that she saw so many of her subjects eating. A local entrepreneur served her the now legendary combination of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil, creating (or more likely, branding) the Margherita pizza. Whether by coincidence or design, the Margherita also displays the colors of the Italian flag.
Today, there are essentially two types of pizza to choose from in Italy: Neopolitan-style pizza, or Roman-style pizza (though to be honest, many delivery places exist that is a happy medium between the two). Neapolitan-style pizza has a thick, fluffy crust. It tends to be a little smaller in diameter because the dough hasn’t been rolled out as far and it’s more filling. Roman-style pizza is has a paper-thin crust and just the slightest crunch (you don’t want it to be soggy!) It’s larger in diameter but typically lighter and less of a gluten bomb.
Because of Naples’ history with Queen Margherita, the city claims to be the birthplace of modern pizza, although the point is debated throughout Italy. Whatever the case may be, the general rule for ordering pizza in Italy is to shoot for fewer toppings. You should also be skeptical of any pizzerias that load the toppings onto their pies – this can often be a tactic used to cover up the use of poor ingredients. Fewer toppings are a sign of confidence in the product because each topping has to be exemplary. Whichever pizza you might favor, the other rule of thumb is: When in Rome, do as the Romans do, i.e., eat Roman style pizza. When in Naples, naturally, do as the Neapolitans do.
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Smoked eggs from the rat of the sea. Wait, what? Don’t be put off by this rough description on an Italian delicacy because the other way to describe bottarga is “Sicilian Caviar”. In August and September southern Italians take the roe from grey mullets, salt it, press it, and then leave it to air dry for six months. The result is a solid hunk of eggs the color of amber and blood oranges that, when sliced and eaten or grated over pasta, blossoms into a gloriously savory, smoky, and briny bouquet. Though essentially a poor man’s answer to preserving seafood in the days before refrigeration, it is now considered one of the most sought after and luxurious foodstuffs in Italy, right up there with truffles (more on those later). We recommend it grated over pasta, or simply sliced thinly and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
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Lasagna is a wide, flat pasta noodle, usually baked in layers in the oven. Like most Italian dishes, its origins are hotly contested, but we can at least say that’s its stronghold is in the region of Emilia-Romagna, where it transformed from a poor man’s food to a rich meal filled with the ragù, or meat sauce.
Traditionally lasagna wasn’t made with tomatoes (remember, those came over from the New World in the 16th century); only ragù, béchamel sauce, and cheese, usually mozzarella or Parmigiano Reggiano or a combination of the two. Even today, only a bit of tomato or tomato sauce is used in a traditional ragu, unlike most Italian-American dishes, which are basically swimming in tomato sauce. This concentrates the flavor of the meat but sometimes is a little jarring for American palates.
Though you can find lasagna throughout all of Italy, there’s nothing like trying the hearty dish in Emilia Romagna with homemade noodles, fresh ragù, and a generous dollop of regional pride
4. Fiorentina Steak
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 (or nearly 2-4 pounds).
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While on the topic of Tuscany, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention this hearty soup which has become so popular Campbells makes a (not amazing) version. With roots in the peasant cooking of the region, this vegetable soup is thickened with bread instead of meat, because that is what was cheaper and more readily available for hundreds of years in the desperately poor Italian countryside. In Tuscany, the dish is considered a special treat in the autumn, when the taste of the harvest vegetables is at its most vibrant and the soup explodes with an intense savoriness despite the absence of meat (at least in the traditional versions). Often eaten as a first course instead of pasta in the trattorie of Florence, this is one hearty stew that shows off the immense, and often untapped power of great produce.
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