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From fried brains to ‘sexy’ cakes: The Italian foods you might not expect in Italy

Italy may be known worldwide for pizza and gelato, but some delicacies loved by Italians are a lot less appetising to foreign visitors, as reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

From fried brains to 'sexy' cakes: The Italian foods you might not expect in Italy
Visitors can find more than they bargained for at a traditional Italian food market. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Tagliatelle, lasagne, spaghetti alla carbonara and gelato are the iconic foods foreigners visiting Italy can’t wait to indulge in. They symbolize Italian cuisine worldwide and everybody knows them. 

There is this widespread belief that Italian dishes are mostly sophisticated recipes, beautiful to look at as if out of a glossy gourmand magazine.

But there are many peculiar foods newcomers will be amazed – if not shocked – to find in Italy.

We eat baby rabbits and piglets in all sorts of ways. Roman coniglio alla cacciatore (rabbit cooked in wine, the huntsmans’ way) and Sardinian porceddu are local specialities, even though just the thought will put many people off. Piglets in many Sardinian towns are still cooked the old way, skewered on bonfires with a crunchy outer skin sweetened by drops of their blood. 

I know from experience Brits and Americans do not eat rabbits, which are pets for them just like cats and dogs. For Italians, they’re succulent meat. 

I discovered this culinary clash at high school, when during pyjama parties I would see cute bunnies scurrying across the floor and tell my friends my mom made delicious rabbit dishes. I was accused of being a ‘cannibal’.

Alpine restaurants serve deer and chamois cold cuts and fillets, which I have tasted and must admit are delicious. Finding Bambi on your plate can be quite shocking for travelers visiting Italy for the first time, likewise finding horsemeat delicacies in some regions.

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

In Rome locals adore pajata which looks and is quite gruesome: the interior of a calf’s intestine, full of white soft excrements given the baby has only fed on its mother’s milk. When I go to the butcher’s shop near my house I see customers buying portions of coratella (cow heart, liver, brain) and bovine tongues. 

In Tuscany all menus feature paté di fegatini, little chicken livers spread on bruschetta or crostini, alongside trays of fried brains, livers of various animals and cows’ stomach, or lampredotto. The ‘boccone del prete’ (the priest’s morsel) is the most sublime part of the chicken: its rectum.

In some deep rural areas in Puglia, farmhouses make sanguinaccio for breakfast like their ancestors did: mixing dark melted chocolate with fresh pig blood from their pigsty.

When it comes to fish, Sardinia’s bottarga cured roe sack is the most bizarre. It is eaten both grated like parmiggiano or as sliced pieces of dried ovaries on salads, bruschetta and spaghetti. 

Last time I visited the Aeolian islands I tasted paccheri pasta with the eggs of minnole, little fish fresh from their mother’s belly, cut open by fishermen at the morning market. Sicilians have a knack for diving into the water and coming back up with a handful of sea urchins which they cut open with a knife and eat raw. I tried one but the pungent taste doesn’t agree with my palate.


Veggies are also tricky. Even what most foreigners would consider to be weeds, brushwood or simple grass is eaten in Italy.  My granny had a saying: non si butta niente e tutto fa brodo, (nothing is thrown away and it all makes broth – ie. it’s all good). 

Romans on weekends go hunting with gloves for wild nettles in the countryside to sprinkle on a dish of pasta or make a pesto-like sauce. They’re also very fond of ugly looking prickly zucchini that grow in abandoned fields, which are dubbed gratta-culi (ass scrapers) as local lore tells us picnickers who go looking for an open-air toilet could get their buttocks pricked. 

On southern islands restaurant menus feature algae dishes with finocchietto marino (sea fennel that grows on rocks on the water surface). In remote Abruzzo villages farmer sell crema di mugnoli, huge broccoli leaves pressed into pasta sauce.

Abruzzo’s mugnoli. Photo: Borghi piu belli d’Italia

My family loves pizza with fiori di zucca or fiori di zucchina (pumpkin and zucchini flowers), while my father’s favorite veggie is called barba di frate (friar’s beard) or agretti, with long thin foliage resembling the hair of a long beard.

In Val di Comino, north of Naples, people forage for a type of small spinach called orapi, which grows underneath fertile goat dung, making it particularly tasty – and expensive at restaurants. My Tuscan aunt used to roam the prairies for mallow flowers and boraggine (borage) to make omelettes. 

There are also shockingly sexy deserts that might seem to clash with Italy’s deeply Catholic traditions, but which in fact aren’t blasphemous at all.

In southern regions including in Naples and Sicily locals indulge in so-called zizze di monaca (nun’s breasts) or minne di virgini (virgin’s breasts) that are indeed shaped like women’s breasts, covered in icing and topped with cherries that resemble nipples. 

In Catania these are prepared each winter to honor the martyrdom of Saint Agatha whose breasts were cut off by a cruel ancient Roman official. While In the Sicilian town of Sambuca the minne, slightly different, are a daily treat.

Sambuca’s minne di virgini. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also the sospiri di suora (nun’s sighs), small buns that nod to the extreme ecstatic pleasure one has in eating them. The ‘sighs’ may have a sexual connotation related to orgasm, but even though southerners are very pious they actually think these treats pay homage to spirituality. Ecstasy after all can be a carnal or mystical experience. 

When it comes to food, Italians have no limits.

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Antipasto to amaro: What to expect from every step of an Italian dinner

Whether you're going out to dinner in Italy or have been invited to over to a friend or extended family member's home, here's what to expect from an Italian meal.

Antipasto to amaro: What to expect from every step of an Italian dinner

More humble and less fussy than French cuisine, Italy’s cucina povera (literally, ‘kitchen of the poor’) tradition employs minimal ingredients, prioritising fresh local produce over complex techniques.

But while it might not be as elaborate and formal as its Gallic counterpart, an Italian dinner is still traditionally a multi-course affair, often stretching over several leisurely hours and involving various stages.

If you’re invited into an Italian home for lunch or dinner, you’re likely to find it a fairly relaxed occasion that may include all or just some of the courses listed below – though you can expect it to be lengthy and copious.

As in many other countries, it’s polite in Italy to bring a bottle of wine or dessert to dinner in someone’s house; if in doubt, ask what your hosts would like.

Without further ado, here’s what you can expect from a full Italian dinner.


The antipasto (‘before-meal’) is the starter course.

Its remit is pretty broad, and might include anything from bruschetta to salad to a cheese or meat platter. If you’re in someone’s home, you might be served olives or savoury snacks such as taralli.

While you’ve probably heard of the tradition of the pre-dinner aperitivo drink and snack, this is separate from the dinner itself, and usually takes place in bars or cafes rather than in restaurants or homes.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What time do people eat dinner in Italy?

Primo piatto

A primo is a carb-based dish: almost always pasta, though it could also be risotto, gnocchi or polenta.

In line with the cucina povera, which describes the make-do cooking of poverty-stricken rural Italy in decades gone by, this dish serves to fill the diner up before moving on to a smaller (more expensive) protein course.

Because of this, while you might find small amounts of meat or fish in Italian primi in the form of guanciale in your carbonara or minced beef in your ragù sauce, you won’t be served large quantities of meat with your primo.

Polpette, or meatballs, are a separate second course, and you’ll never come across a chicken-based pasta dish in Italy.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Secondo piatto

The secondo is, as its name suggests, your second main dish – usually meat or fish, though most restaurants will offer at least one vegetarian option in the form of something like an aubergine parmigiana.

If you want to round it out, you can order one or more contorni – side plates of salad or vegetables.

Italian restaurants will provide both primo and secondo options, but these days most places won’t expect you to order both, and it’s fine for one person to order a primo and the other a secondo to arrive at the same time.


Once the secondo is over, it’s time for dessert.

The type of dolce you’re offered will likely vary depending on region, but the list commonly includes cantucci biscuits to be dipped in vin santo dessert wine, panna cotta, a crostata tart, and, of course, tiramisù.

If you’ve got a hankering for gelato, you’re probably best off heading out to one of the many gelaterie that populate the piazzas and streets Italian towns, where you’ll have access to a wide range of flavours.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy


Next comes the caffè, which in Italy is an espresso – definitely not a cappuccino or caffè latte, which are strictly breakfast drinks, though you might get away with asking for a splash of milk and making yours a caffè macchiato.

It might seem unwise to consume caffeine at the end of the evening, but you can always order a caffè decaffeinato (usually shortened to deca), and its effects are at any rate tempered by what follows:


At the very end of the night, you’ll likely be offered a bitter amaro liqueur or some other spirit-based digestivo (some restaurants will bring these for free along with the bill).

This could also be a distilled liquor grappa, or if you’re further south, a sweet limoncello.

Taken straight after or along with your coffee, these after-dinner drinks are known in Italy as an ammazzacaffè – literally, a coffee-killer, for its dampening effect on the caffeine.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of an Italian meal! Now you just have to roll yourself off your chair or sofa and make your way home, where you’ll spend a good portion of the following day digesting your meal.