Although it’s been months since my family trip through Italy, friends and family still ask me about my trip and what my favourite places were to eat at. Since I have gone to Italy twice now and explored quite a few regions of the country on my most recent trip, I’d like to share with you my food highlights! Starting in Milan and making our way down to Sicily & Naples, here are some highlights from the various regions of Italy and the different specialty dishes of each city.
Milan maybe known for their fashion, but they are also known for some of the best meat dishes of Italy, including Ossobucco – generally a stewed veal shank in meat sauce, and La Cotoletta alla Milanese, Milanese-style breaded veal cutlets fried in butter.
As well, when visiting Milan’s Navigli neighbourhood, try one of the various bar/restaurants that offer a happy hour Aperitivo buffet, where you can buy a drink (alcoholic or non) and receive a free buffet of various food – it’s not the best quality but is a great deal after a long day of walking! On our visit, we tried Manhattan Navigli, which offered one of the largest and best selection of Aperitivo in the area for 11 euros, which included an alcoholic drink of choice from their menu.
Venice – a city built and connected only by canals, and surrounded by water from the Adriatic Sea lagoon it is situated on, is obviously famous for its seafood. But beware – not all seafood you eat will be local so ask at the restaurants in advance of ordering what their special / locally fresh catch of the day is. I love walking through the streets of Venice – my favourite food is to grab some to-go pasta and sit on a canal and enjoy the gondolas and speed boat taxis driving up and down the canal shuttling people around the city. They have delicious squid ink pasta and deep fried calamari fritti cones!
The city known for its tortellini bolognese, Bologna is just a couple hours out from Milan or an hour out from Venice. We love this small university town – it’s a foodie heaven and fairly affordable for eating! Known for their fresh tortellini, we hunted down Mercato di Mezzo (an indoor food market) and its surrounding areas for the best eats to bring back to our AirBNB and cook ourselves. We found a small shop that sold a variety of tortellinis, cheese and deli meats. Bologna is famous for its mortadella deli meat as well so make sure to pick up some of that to go with your cheese. Fresh balls of mozarella and burrata can be purchased for $1-2 euros. Stuffed tortellinis comprise of basic meat filled, mushroom filled, truffle filled, and more! Make sure to book a place with a kitchen if you want to sample the variety of different ones for the most affordable and authentic experience, or find yourself a small tortellini cafe so you can try them out by a local Bologna chef – the bolognese meat sauce is the most known sauce to go with the tortellinis!
Rome is normally the first stop for many first time travellers to Italy, being the capitol city of the country. When in Rome, what to eat? Pasta, pizza, gelato are the go to’s! Signature Roman pasta dishes include the Cacio e Pepe (pecorino romano cheese and black pepper sauce) and Spaghetti alla Carbonara (guanciale, bacon or pancetta, eggs, pecorino romano cheese, and black pepper sauce). We loved ordering various pastas and serving it family style so we can each try a variety of different dishes.
For pizza, my favourite in Rome has to be Alice Pizza (not just because it shares my name, but it’s a solid pizza shop known for its pizza by the weight). Pizza by the whole pie is known all over Italy and most famous in Naples, so in Rome, try something different! I first came across Alice Pizza years ago near the Vatican. A long line up of people waiting to order and weigh out their pizza, I was sold on its thin and crispy crust and lots of different toppings! Now, I’m back and I’ve found it’s all over Rome, and they even have one in Philadelphia, USA. Come to Alice Pizza and you will always receive the freshest slices of square/rectangular shaped pizzas cut to what size you want, weighed out, and to-go on a plate or cardboard box. Try their zucchini and eggplant cheese pizza or their proscuitto and mushroom pizza. Toppings are fresh and flavourful!
When in Florence, hit up the markets to bring home some food products as souvenirs. They are reasonably priced and you can find a large selection of truffle products (oils, salts, etc), cheese (most will pre-package for shipping – check with your country to make sure it’s allowed, for Canada it is!), spices, and more. We ventured to a local market called Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, less crowded, less tourists, where we stocked up on jars of pre-packaged truffles, cheese, and spices. Note – in this indoor market, a vast majority of the workers don’t have a good grasp of English – come with someone who knows Italian or be prepared to look for help if you have questions. However, it will provide you with better prices than at the more popular and touristy Mercato Centrale.
At Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, make sure to look for the small little food stand at the back of the market that sells freshly cooked pasta and stews. A famous and popular local dish is the Trippa alla Fiorentina – a tomato based tripe stew, slow-cooked with tomato, onion, parsley, and celery and served either on or separate with a crunchy bun. You can tell what stand it is by the line up during lunch hour!
The most popular food known to people when they hear Sicily is a dessert – cannolis! A staple Italian pastry originating from Sicily, this dessert is now served in a number of Italian restaurants in Vancouver and across North America. Cannolis a tube-shaped pastry shells filled with a creamy filling made of ricotta. Many places use nuts such as pistachio in it too.
Granita is another popular dessert originating from Sicily. Similar to an Italian ice or sorbet, it’s a coarser and more crystalized slushie, usually made of citrus flavours such as lemon granita. Some places use fresh fruit juice to make it, while others use syrups. These are great on hot summer days in Italy!
7. The Amalfi Coast – Sorrento
Sorrento is the land of lemons and citrus fruits! Situated on the Amalfi Coast, south east of Naples, lemons, oranges, blood oranges, and more are grown in this region. I was told by our tour guide you will see two noticeable differences in lemon sizes – one is a giant lemon and the other is a smaller lemon similar to what you see in North America. The giant lemons are called Citron, and is grown for its rind – used to make marmalade, jams, and dried citron snacks. In particular these lemons are used to make Limoncello – most famous in Sorrento. Make sure to stop at a limoncello factory to see how they make this staple Italian dessert drink!
Whether you have time to go into Naples or just staying on the Amalfi Coast in Sorrento or Positano, make sure to stop and pick up another pastry favourite of mine – Sfogliatella – crispy flaky pastries filled with ricotta and candied fruit. This pastry originates from Naples and goes well with a cappuccino or espresso.
Of course you can’t visit the Amalfi Coast or Naples without stopping for pizza. Pizza – originally created in the 1700s in Naples, can be found everywhere in Naples and Amalfi Coast – with its most famous as the margherita pizza – comprised of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil – the colours of the Italian flag. Neapolitan pizza style is known to have more sauce than cheese so the crust is crunchy and the middle is a bit soggy. As such, the pizzas tend to be smaller in size and at nicer restaurants eaten with a fork and knife.
Are you hungry yet? Next time you’re in Italy make sure to seek out these delicious staples in each city/region! I’m sure I’ve missed quite a bit – but that’s for you to discover.
Share with us what you’re favourite Italian dishes are that you’ve tried on your travels!