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The one pasta dish you have to try from each of Italy’s regions

We don't know about you, but we can't imagine anything better than travelling Italy from top to toe, sampling the culinary delights of each of the places you stop at along the way.

The one pasta dish you have to try from each of Italy's regions
Freshly made spaghetti carbonara in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

But menu panic is a common pitfall for the uninitiated. If you're searching for authentic Italian food, you'll often find there's no translated version of the menu (sometimes there won't be a menu at all, but just a nonna or nonno reeling off the list of dishes on offer).

READ ALSO: How to decipher Italy's mind-boggling pasta menus

Many dishes known overseas, such as fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti bolognese, don't actually exist in Italy, except when restaurants are catering for tourists. And the cuisine varies a lot from place to place, so if you simply order the only thing on the menu you've heard of before, you might end up underwhelmed.

To eat like the locals do, try a regional specialty, which will be prepared with extra love and high quality fresh ingredients. Here are our top picks, with one from each of Italy's 20 regions. Foodie roadtrip, anyone?

Abruzzo: Maccheroni alla chitarra

This long, thin pasta shape is made using a special tool invented in 1890 and called a chitarra, which ensures the maccheroni have a porous texture so that sauce adheres well. You'll find it served with thick sauces based on tomatoes and meat, typically lamb ragu, with meatballs added in some parts of the region. Note: outside Abruzzo, the same dish is called spaghetti alla chitarra to avoid confusion with the short tube-shaped pasta also named maccheroni.

The maccheroni and the chitarra. Photo: fugsu/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Aosta Valley: Pasta alla valdostana

Though pasta doesn't dominate the menus in Italy's smallest region as much as it does further south, when they do cook it, they do it well. This creamy recipe uses Fontina, a cheese known for melting extremely well and often used in fondue (Italian fondue is even more decadent than the Swiss variety, with butter and cream added). Eaten with or without added ham, it's the perfect comfort food after a day on the slopes. Or whenever, in our opinion.

Basilicata: Fusili con la mollica 

In contrast to the Aosta Valley, pasta has a long, long history here. In fact, the region can boast that it's the first place in Italy with records of the foodstuff. Because it's historically been a poor area, Basilicata's dishes are typically simple, and they often contain the region's hot peppers. In this recipe 'mollica' refers to the soft inside part of bread, which is cooked up with tomatoes, onions, and red wine to make a tasty sauce.

Calabria: Pasta con le sarde

Eaten most often in Calabria and Sicily, many types of pasta can be used for this dish but you'll usually see long, thin tube shapes. The sauce combines sardines, anchovies and herbs including fennel and saffron. 


Photo: Marcello Paternostro/AFP

Campania: Spaghetti alle vongole

Sticking with a seafood theme, classic spaghetti with clams is popular throughout the country, but we recommend sampling it when you're by the sea. The sauce is simple, featuring wine, garlic and chilli, making it a perfect light lunch or 'primo' course.

Emilia-Romagna: Cappellacci di zucca

Stuffed pasta is the name of the game in Italy's culinary capital, with local specialties including lasagne verdi (a variant of the classic dish using spinach sheets), meat-filled tortellini in broth, and cannelloni, the cousin of lasagne. But if forced to pick one stand-out dish from the area, we'd recommend cappellaci di zucca, small pasta parcels (the name literally means 'little hats') stuffed with pumpkin or squash and served with a simple butter and sage sauce or local ragu. Head to charming Ferrara where this autumnal dish has its origins.

READ ALSO: Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy's favourite food

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia: Gnocchi di susine

The menus in this region are typically light on pasta and heavy on dumplings, so gnocchi are a good compromise between the two. This sweet version of gnocchi is a treat found in Trieste and the rest of the FVG region as well as in other countries that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Elsewhere they're usually a dessert whereas Italians sometimes list them as an entree, but whenever you choose to enjoy them it's sure to be a unique pasta experience.

 

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Lazio: Cacio e pepe

Literally meaning 'cheese and pepper' in the local dialect, this dish of just a few ingredients packs a flavoursome punch. Pecorino cheese and pepper are combined with the cooking water to make a sauce that coats the long, thin pasta, and it's a must-try when in Rome.

Liguria: Trenette al pesto

Another simple dish, but this pesto pasta is a world away from the dish made using a supermarket jar of the green stuff. Trenette is similar to linguine, a flat pasta that perfectly holds the basil-based sauce created in Liguria. Make sure you're getting true pesto genovese, which must be made using specific high quality ingredients and using a marble mortar and wooden pestle.

READ ALSO: Ten golden rules for making pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker

Lombardy: Pizzocheri alla valtellinese

This recipe originated in the town of Valtinella, and combines pizzocheri (think short buckwheat tagliatelle) with cabbage and potatoes. It's a winter dish, perfect for curling up with on chilly nights, with a generous dose of cheese and butter bringing it all together.

Marche: Vincisgrassi

Vincisgrassi is part of the lasagne family, but the ragu contains a bit of everything: mushrooms, pork and beef are the stars but it can also be a way of using up other odds and ends of meat such as chicken giblets and cock's comb. Records of the recipe date back centuries, with legend stating that a chef added a mix of extra ingredients to a classic ragu in order to impress a visiting general. The bechamel sauce is often infused with truffle oil to add that final fancy touch.

Molise: Cavatelli alla molisana

There are many reasons to head to Molise, a region of Italy most foreigners have never heard of, and one of them is the food. The name cavatelli means 'little cavities', and the shapes are similar to a shell, rolled up to form the cavity that traps the accompanying sauce. One of the sauces traditionally eaten with them is tomato-based, with sausage, carrots, and onions. 

Piedmont: Agnolotti al plin

Agnolotti are a type of ravioli, and the Piemontese variant — believed to be one of the very first stuffed pastas, created to celebrate the end of an historical siege — is one of the best. The name 'al plin' comes from a local dialect term meaning 'to pinch', in reference to how the small pasta pockets are created. They're always filled with meat: rabbit, beef, pork, and in the Monferrato region donkey, and served in a simple broth or sage and butter sauce.

Puglia: Sagne Ncannulate

Puglia is a great region for a foodie holiday, and the local pasta specialty of sagne ncannulate are a must-eat. These long spirals are typically served with a thick tomato sauce including plenty of garlic and basil, and are a common Sunday dinner dish.

Sardinia: Fregola ai frutti di mare

The name of these teeny-tiny pasta balls (very similar to cous cous) translates as 'breadcumbs', and they're usually eaten with seafood caught from around the coast of the island. It can be incorporated into all kinds of meals including broths and risottos, but for a classic take on the recipe, look for a simple version served with scallops.

 

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Sicily: Pasta alla norma

Pasta doesn't get classier than this, named after a Puccini opera. Aubergines are the star of the show here, mixed with tomatoes, ricotta, and basil.

Trentino-South Tyrol: Schlutzkrapfen

As with the other northern regions, pasta isn't such a staple here, but we can recommend this local dish, also known locally as Schlutzer. They're a kind of ravioli in a semi-circle shape, packed with ricotta and spinach in the classic version, but also served with plenty of other kinds of fillings.

Tuscany: Tortelli di patate

If you like carbs with your carbs, potato-filled pasta should be right up your street. Tortelli di patate are from the Mugello area, and you can eat them in a simple sauce like butter and sage, or with a hearty ragu. Like in neighbouring Emilia-Romagna, many typical Tuscan pasta dishes are stuffed, so you can also tuck into tortelli with chestnuts, ricotta and spinach, or meat fillings.

 

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Umbria: Strangozzi al tartufo nero

Umbria is black truffle country, and a simple pasta dish with truffles, olive oil, and garlic is one of the best ways to experience the specialty. Stringozzi are long pasta shapes, named after shoelaces because of how they look, and are one of the region's typical pasta varieties.

Veneto: Bigoli con l'anatra

Bigoli is like bucatini or a thicker, hollow spaghetti, and is a favourite pasta in Venice and the surrounding area. It's usually served with duck, as the meat is more readily available than in other regions. It's not one for the squeamish though, as the recipe typically includes the duck skin, fat, and sometimes giblets and liver too.

NOW READ: The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

 

 

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DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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