From fine dining and street carts to aperitivo and family-run kitchens, it's no wonder Italian cuisine is world-renowned. You’ve got your pizza and pasta, gelato, coffee and limoncello, but what are some truly authentic and regional specialties that you can dig your teeth into when travelling through Italy?

Well, we’re glad you asked. Here’s some of our favorites from a few of Italy’s acclaimed food regions.

What to eat in Sicily

Caponata is an eggplant vegetable saute

Caponata

A Sicilian staple, caponata is an eggplant dish caramelised with celery and capers and bound together in a sweet and sour relish. It's a perfect starter, piled liberally on top of bread.

Involtini di pesce spada is a swordfish dish from Sicily

Involtini di pesce spada

Sicily loves its seafood – swordfish, in particular. This 'involtini' (roll), is a piece of locally-caught swordfish stuffed with breadcrumbs and either baked or fried. Buonissimo.

Cannoli is a ricotta cheese dessert from Sicily

Cannoli

This indulgent tube-shaped Italian pastry originated in Sicily and comes with a range of fillings, none better than Nutella or crema di pistachio (pistachio cream). A perfect end to a meal, or for a sweet snack on the go.

Watermelon granita

Granita

Eaten at any time of the day, granita is how Sicilians cool themselves down in the unrelenting heat of summer. It’s a sorbet-like mix of ice with flavours like coffee, lemon, raspberry, kiwi and Nutella. In Sicily, the granita is thicker than usual, so it’s eaten with a spoon.

What to eat in Tuscany

Panzanella is a tomato and bread salad

Panzanella

Never throw away your stale bread, just make it into panzanella. This salad is full of classic Italian flavours – tomatoes, onion, basil, balsamic – all tossed together. Works well as a side or as a fresh and light plant-based lunch. 

Bistecca alla Fiorentina on wooden board

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

The mother of all steaks, this Florentine T-bone has true carnivores in its sights. The Bistecca alla Fiorentina comes from a local breed of cow – the Chianina – and is served simply with salt and pepper and some herbs. It’s cooked rare, the traditional way, and melts in your mouth if done well.

Tortelli di patate pasta on plate

Tortelli di patate

Tortelli is a type of pasta similar to tortellini, only bigger! Originating in the northern valley of Mugello in Tuscany, these parcels are packed full of a spiced potato mix, and can be served with a simple burnt butter and sage sauce, or with a hearty ragu.

Castagnaccio slice of cake on plate

Castagnaccio

You can’t go past a piece of cake to finish off a meal. Castagnaccio is one of only a few gluten-free sweets common to Italy – made with chestnut flour and studded with walnuts, pine nuts, raisins and rosemary. Top it off with a sweet wine, such as a vin santo, and you’re set.

What to eat in Lazio (Rome)

Baked artichoke on a plate

Carciofi alla Romana

This Roman speciality has one hearty vegetable at its core – the artichoke. It’s usually a side dish and is made from a rounder and less thorny artichoke called the mammole.

Cured pork meat

Guanciale

Cured meats vary by region in Italy, and one of Lazio's claims to fame is guanciale – a pork cheek product. Similar to pancetta or bacon, it can be sliced thinly, fried and scrambled with eggs or tossed in a salad, but is most known for its use in a traditional carbonara recipe.

Traditional dish of cacio e pepe: pasta with cheese and pepper

Cacio e pepe

Simply meaning ‘cheese and pepper’ in many central Italian dialects, that’s exactly what the sauce is, but it’s not that simple to master. It uses a sharp pecorino cheese – and lots of it – tossed with pepper and a dash of starchy pasta water to bind it all together.

Roasted veal with prosciutto and sage

Saltimbocca

This classic Roman dish is a thin piece of veal wrapped in prosciutto and sage, then cooked to perfection. If you’re looking for all the Italian flavours wrapped into one without being pizza or pasta, saltimbocca may be the ideal choice.

What to eat in Emilia Romagna (Bologna)

Wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano on wooden board

Traditional products

Emilia Romagna is known for some of Italy’s best produce, like balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. You might be able to taste DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) balsamic vinegar in an acetaia in Modena and sample some Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps purchasing the best of the best to take home with you.

Mortadella slices on bruschetta

Mortadella

A staple on any menu in Bologna, mortadella is a large Italian pork sausage, flavoured with spices including whole black pepper, myrtle berries and pistachios. Sliced thinly, it’s a perfect meal starter, and features heavily on local antipasto spreads.

White truffles garnish fresh spaghetti

Truffles

Truffle hunting, anyone? Among other varieties, the white truffles are found growing close to the roots of oak, poplar and linden trees and have a fragrant and robust flavour, perfect paired with a cheesy, creamy pasta sauce.

Bolognese ragu sauce on fresh pasta

Bolognese sauce (ragu)

News just in: Bologna is home to Bolognese. Locally known as ragu, there are different variations, but it’ll usually include beef, pork or veal slow-cooked in a tomato and red wine sauce. Spoon over tagliatelle and shave some parmesan on top, and you’re in heaven.

Vegetarian and vegan options in Italy

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet in Italy is relatively easy compared to other European countries. Italian menus rely heavily on tomatoes, eggplant, potato and beans, so eating your way through Italy will be a plant-based adventure for all travelers.

The main staples – pizza and pasta – have so many variations, many of them vegetarian. Traditional Italian pizza bases are simply made of flour, salt and water. Pasta can be made with or without eggs, so a good phrase to remember is ‘ci sono delle uova?’ (‘Is it made with eggs?’). Many restaurants will mark vegetarian and vegan options on their menus, and if you’re with a local leader, they’ll be able to help you order. Pizzas can also be ordered ‘senza formaggio’ (without cheese).

Now, gelato. The good news for vegan travelers is that Italians have a high rate of lactose intolerance, so most gelatarias will have quite a few dairy-free options. Just look out or ask for gelato ‘senza latte’ (without milk) or ‘soia gelato’ (soy gelato).

Some other useful phrases to learn if you follow a plant-based diet include:

  • Sono vegano/vegana – I’m vegan
  • Non mangio la carne e non mangio i latticini – I don’t eat meat or milk products
  • Senza latte – without milk
  • Senza carne – without meat
  • Senza formaggio – without cheese
  • Avete latte di soia? – do you have soy milk?
  • Ci sono delle uova? – are there any eggs?
  • Fungo – mushroom
  • Melanzana – eggplant/aubergine
  • Fagioli – beans

Click to read what to drink in Italy

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