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The must-try foods from every region of Italy

Italy is synonymous with good food, and yet Italian cuisine is often thought of abroad as little more than pizza and pasta. If you’ve spent any amount of time in the country, though, you’ll know every region has its own distinct cuisine.

The must-try foods from every region of Italy
Hazelnut chocolates are a specialty in Turin. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

So in case you need an excuse to eat yet more delicious Italian food, here’s our guide to the best local dishes in every single one of the country’s 20 regions. What are you waiting for?

Aosta Valley

A long way from the famously light Mediterranean diet, kitchens in the mountainous Valle d'Aosta region are full of red meat, cheese, butter and carbs. A favourite dish is Carbonada; beef is sliced thinly and browned in butter before being slowly stewed for hours in red wine flavoured with thyme, cinnamon and cloves.

It’s served over a pile of polenta or thick ribbons of pappardelle, with a glass of red wine. Just what you need after a day on the ski slopes or mountain trails.

Comforting beef stew and polenta is popular in Valle d'Aosta. Photo: svariophoto/Depositphoto

Abruzzo

The whole region of Abruzzo is crazy for arrosticini. These small grilled lamb or mutton skewers are cooked on a special gutter-shaped brazier, called a fornacella or canala.

What makes them arrosticini and not just any old barbecued kebab skewer? Firstly the meat is cut into 1cm cubes, importantly including plenty of fat, and packed tightly onto the wooden skewer before being cooked surprisingly slowly over charcoal. The fat and charcoal grilling produces some serious flavour. Real arrosticini fans will want to visit the area the foot of the Voltigno mountain in the province of Pescara, where the skewers are legendary.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

A post shared by Mangiare in Grande (@mangiare_in_grande) on Aug 6, 2018 at 4:35am PDT

Basilicata

This wild and beautiful region is home to one of the oldest cities in the world, Matera, and has long been known as a poor and very rural part of Italy. This is reflected in its simple but delicious cuisine.

Matera itself is famous for its crusty bread, while one of the most typical dishes found across the region is a simple soup called acquasale. Every family has its own recipe, but it usually involves frying onion with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, tomato, peppers, oregano or pepperoncino and adding water to make a thin soup, which is then poured over toasted rye bread.

Calabria

Very spicy foods are scarce in Italy, but for the exception head down to Calabria where the red chilli pepper (peperoncino) sneaks its way into almost everything.

Some of the most common ways to use peperoncino are either with pasta in a penne all’arrabbiata (literally ‘angry’ penne pasta), which can be found across Italy, or in the Calabrese ‘nduja; a kind of spicy, spreadable sausage made with pork and plenty of chilli. Peperoncino is often dried and ground into a powder, but that doesn’t make the spice any milder. It’s then sprinkled on everything from pizza to veggies.

Italian spicy sausage 'nduja. Photo: IriGri/Depositphoto.

Campania

Everyone wants to try an authentic pizza when they come to Italy and, along with Rome, Naples is the place to do it. Neapolitan pizza bases are thicker and squidgier than their Roman counterparts – meaning you can pile more toppings on. A favourite is buffalo mozzarella, which is produced in the Campania region.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

A post shared by GINO SORBILLO (@sorbillo) on Oct 1, 2018 at 1:46pm PDT

One of the city’s most famous pizzerias, Sorbillo, has a perpetual line out of the door for a table at its seafront location. However there are several neighbouring pizzerias where the cooking, view and atmosphere is every bit as good.

Emilia-Romagna

Those who come to Italy looking for spaghetti bolognese may be disappointed to find that technically, it doesn't exist. The closest thing Italians have to ‘spag bol’ is the Ragù alla Bolognese loved in this region; a sauce of minced beef and pork with carrots, onion and celery in tomato sugo. And it's not usually served with spaghetti, but tagliatelle or pappardelle.

It is however very acceptable to smother it in grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – the real stuff is made in the Emilia-Romagna region and in a small area of Lombardy.

Typical Bolognese ragu served with pappardelle. Photo: milla74/Depositphoto

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

Although Parma ham is much more famous abroad, Italians know that the area of San Daniele, in the north-eastern region of Fruili Venezia Giulia, produces some of the most delicious, melt-in-the-mouth prosciutto in all of Italy. The area’s microclimate and the quality of the meat combine during the curing process to produce a soft, sweet ham with a distinctive flavour. It’s a must-try if you’re in the region and, if you can’t find it on a restaurant menu, a local deli will have plenty.

Lazio

Traditional Roman Carbonara is made with just four basic ingredients: guanciale (cured pork jowl), eggs, pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. That means no cream, ever. It’s totally unnecessary since the raw egg and cheese mixture is what gives the dish its ‘creamy’ texture.

The origins of Carbonara are mysterious, but since the name is thought to be derived from the Italian word for charcoal, it’s said to have been a filling meal first made for coal miners.

Salt-cured guanciale is an integral ingredient in spaghetti carbonara. Photo: asimojet/Depositphoto

And we couldn’t leave out the now-trendy cacio e pepe, a simple spaghetti dish made with ground black pepper and pecorino cheese. Some trattorias, like Da Danilo in Rome, make a show of finishing off the pasta next to your table by swirling it inside a hollowed-out round of pecorino.

Liguria

Traditional Genoan pesto is a tribute to two of the most wonderful fresh ingredients found in the Liguria region: small leaves of fresh basil, and aromatic extra virgin olive oil. It’s ground together with garlic, parmesan, pecorino, salt, pine nuts and quite a lot of patience. This national treasure is perfect with Ligurian pastas, including trofie and trenette, and you’ll often find this is served with potatoes and green beans.

A rustic-style pasta genovese. Photo: zkruger/depositphoto

Lombardy

This northern region bordering Switzerland is home to some of Italy’s most famous dishes, such as bresaola and cottolette alla Milanese. Risottos are very popular here, as is Cassouela, a casserole made with pork meat, cabbage, and various other ingredients depending on the area. Despite the similar-sounding name it’s pretty different to a French cassoulet. It’s usually served with creamy polenta and a strong red wine.

Marche

There are lots of reasons for foodies to explore Marche, but hunting down a bowl of brodetto should be high on the list. Ancona's classic dish, brodetto all'anconetana, uses the fantastic variety of local seafood and reflects the city's seafaring heritage. It's a rich, slightly spicy, tomato-based soup, resembling bouillabaisse, made from a mix of whatever the local catch contains that day, which could be anything from cod to cuttlefish. The dish was originally made on board fishing boats for lunch but is now enjoyed in the city’s best restaurants, too.

A typical brodetto all'anconetana. Photo: fanfon/Depositphoto.

Molise

If you’re visiting this lesser-known region, locals will tell you to try the baccala arracanato, or cod gratin. In this unusual dish, cod is baked by putting it inside the fireplace, or inside a fire pit, covering the pan with smouldering embers and leaving it to cook slowly. The fish is coated with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and walnuts, raisins, olives and cherry tomatoes. Using an oven, apparently, will not produce the right kind of flavour, so it’s worth finding a kitchen that cooks it the traditional way.

Puglia

Surrounded on three sides by water, it’s no surprise that this region loves raw seafood, especially polipetti (baby octopus) eaten whole with just a squeeze of lemon.

Then there’s the egg-free durum wheat pasta, usually found as small cavatelli or orecchiette (little ears). For the most classic Pugliese primo (first course), they’re tossed with cime di rape (broccoli rabe), tomato, a little olive oil and seasoning, sometimes including chopped anchovies.

Piedmont

Piedmont is a magical region for food and drink lovers. The fertile land around Turin is home to some of Italy’s best wines (Barolo and Barbaresco), which are used here to make rich stews, sauces and even an indulgent red wine risotto.

Its misty valleys are known for producing excellent hazelnuts, used in the typical gianduja hazelnut cream chocolate. You can try melt-in-the-mouth giandujotti chocolates in cafes and chocolate shops anywhere in the region – except for in the heat of summer, when they’d melt on the shelf. Turin is also famously the place where Nutella spread was invented.

Risotto is a favourite dish in Turin and all over Piedmont. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Sardinia

As well as its famous seafood, the island of Sardinia eats lots of seadas. These pastries are the perfect combination of sweet and savoury, and can be eaten as either anantipasto or a dessert. They’re big ravioli-shaped parcels of rustic semolina pastry, filled with lemon-infused pecorino cheese, deep-fried and drizzled with honey. You can find seadas all over the island – just make sure they’re freshly fried so you can enjoy them warm while the cheese is soft and melted.

Sicily

The famous Sicilian cannoli can be found across the world nowadays, but nothing beats the real thing. These hollow tubes of crisp pastry are filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese and decorated with candied fruit, chocolate or chopped pistachio.

Cannoli are thought to have originated in Palermo under Arab rule. They were traditionally eaten only during Carnival, but now can be found all over the island at any time of year.

Sicilian cannoli filled with sweet ricotta cream. Photo: uroszuric/Depositphoto

Trentino-South Tyrol

Italy's northernmost region has a split personality. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse after World War I. As with the language, cooking here comes with an Austrian accent. Unsurprisingly strudel is very popular here, with apple, pear, blackberry and all kinds of other fillings. You can find it in almost any restaurant, but El Pael serves vast and high quality portions along with local history lessons.

Apple strudel is a favourite in northern Italy. Photo: rhyzkov86/Depositphoto

Tuscany

While Florence and the surrounding region is now becoming famous for the bistecca alla Fiorentina – a thick slab of steak simply grilled and seasoned to perfection – people didn’t eat beef here until relatively recently. Eating your expensive cattle would’ve once been seen as madness, especially when the nearby forests were full of game.

Instead cinghiale, or wild boar, was (and still is) more popular locally. Pappardelle al sugo di cinghiale might be the most characteristic Tuscan dish; a rich, slow-cooked tomato sauce with wild boar meat served over pappardelle pasta ribbons, best with a glass of Chianti Classico.

Umbria

Much like Tuscany, the forests hold the biggest culinary treasures in this hilly central region. And truffles are the star of the show. The tartufo nero (black truffle), which grows just below ground level all over the forested region, finds its way into almost everything.

Still more prized is the tartufo bianco (white truffle) found around Gubbio in late autumn. Restaurants like Taverna del Lupo toss fresh, handmade pasta with a little butter and grated Parmigiano, and then sprinkle the grated truffle liberally on top.

A simple tagliatelle dish with truffles and cheese. Photo: Eva50/Depositphoto

Veneto

Seafood is king here and popular dishes include deep-fried crispy crabs and all kinds of fish soups and stews. The most characteristic recipe though might be sarde in saor. This sweet-sour dish is made with fried sardine fillets marinated in vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts.

The recipe was originally a method of preserving fish used by Venetian sailors and fishermen, and though they no longer need to preserve fish in this way, the flavour is so popular that it lives on as a modern-day antipasto.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italy's restaurant menus

This article was originally published in 2018.

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FOOD & DRINK

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

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