Italians eat with the seasons, meaning most restaurants will change their menus depending on which vegetables are freshest and tastiest that week.
If you find yourself in Italy over the summer, these are the seasonal dishes to look out for.
Melon and ham
These brightly coloured ham-wrapped melon slices taste just as good as they look. The kind of meat depends on the area, with prosciutto and parma two of the most popular varieties.
The dish is a staple on every summer buffet or aperitivo table, and in fact it dates back to 2 AD, when doctors thought the balance between the cold, juicy, sweet melon and the warm, dry, salty ham was good for health. Some variations call for balsamic vinegar, mozzarella, or parmesan to be added, but try the duo on its own first.
Photo: Luca Nebuloni/Flickr
Remember what we said about eating with the seasons? This Sicilian dish takes all the vegetables that are at their best in summer and whips them up into a tasty stew.
Aubergine and capers are the stars of the show, served in a sweet tomato and vinegar sauce, and it can also include other vegetables such as celery, peppers, and potatoes, or nuts or fish for a more substantial dish.
Centuries ago, the caponata was a meal in itself, but now you're more likely to see it served as a side dish or a starter, either warm or cold.
The combination of mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil is light and fresh, making it a perfect summer combination – the fact it looks pretty in the colours of the Italian flag is just a bonus.
Again, the way to make sure this dish tastes its best is to pay attention to the ingredients, using fresh basil, high quality mozzarella, and tomatoes from your local market. Then drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for salad-y perfection.
Spaghetti or linguine alle vongole
Photo: Karen Thornton/Flickr
While tourists often book trips to Rome, Florence, or Milan during the summer, Italians use the hot months to escape the cities and head to the lakes or the seaside. If you follow their lead, take the opportunity to try some of Italy's delicious seafood recipes.
Spaghetti or linguine alle vongole (pasta with clams) is the classic dish to try, and not as heavy as some of the pasta classics like bolognese.
Fiori di zucca on sale at an Italian market. Photo: Giuseppe Masili/Flickr
When the zucchini harvest takes place in summer, resourceful Italians make sure no part of the plant goes to waste, and zucchini flowers (fiori di zucca – even though 'zucca' technically means 'pumpkin) are a delicacy that can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways. Markets sell the flowers either on their own or attached to the vegetable.
Stuffed, incorporated into a sauce, or used as a topping on pizza or pasta, you can experiment with different recipes, but the classic dish calls for them to be fried in batter.
Photo: Bharat Mirchandani/Flickr
Late summer brings the fig harvest, and with it plenty of opportunity to indulge in the flavourful fruit. They find their way into all courses of the meal: wrapped in prosciutto for an antipasto, mixed into a pasta sauce, or baked in pastry for dessert.
Photo: liz west/Flickr
Keep an eye out for the fresh cherries that hit the market stalls in June – particularly in the southern Puglia region, where local festivals celebrate the cherry harvest each year.
Eat them fresh as a snack or incorporate them into your favourite dessert, from gelato to cake to tiramisu. Another way to enjoy cherries all'italiana is to soak them in sugar and liquor for a dessert topping or after-dinner treat.
Photo: Alt Altendord/Flickr
Worlds away from its American cousin, the slushie, the Sicilian granita is a drink-dessert hybrid made for summer days. 'Granita' means 'little grains' and that refers to the texture of the dish, somewhere between sorbet and ice.
The dessert is thought to date back to the days of Arab rule, when local people sweetened snow from Mount Etna with the island's lemons and invented the granita.
Lemon remains the most traditional flavour, but you can often find nutty or fruity flavours on offer too. Chocolate is traditional in Catania, and almond granitas are a perfect accompaniment to brioche for a classic Sicilian summer breakfast.
Photo: Roland Tanglao/Flickr
If you need your caffeine fix but can't stand the idea of a hot drink in 40C weather, the affogato is a perfect compromise. It combines two Italian specialties, coffee and gelato, by smothering a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a simple espresso – 'affogato' literally means 'drowned'.
Note: overseas, you might see desserts labelled 'affogato' which have different flavours of gelato or additions such as whipped cream and sauces, but in Italy it's rare to deviate from the traditional recipe.
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