The Essential Guide to Italian Dishes — And Where to Find Them
Italy is a vast sea of delicious cuisine — but it doesn't need to feel unnavigable. Use our map to pinpoint the most iconic, important and truly unmissable regional dishes.
The Only Map You Need
Who doesn't dream of a trip to Italy? For the scenery, the museums ... okay, for the eating. But consider this: If Italian food is twice as delicious in Italy, then it's twice as good as even that if you seek out specialties in their region of origin. Here is a map to the best meals of your life, whether you're planning a trip or simply window shopping.
Milan: Osso Buco and Risotto alla Milanese
Osso buco, a stewed veal shin, and risotto alla Milanese, which gets its bright yellow hue and perfume from saffron, represent a perfect confluence of Milanese cooking — a love of offal and transforming lowly cuts of meat into deliciousness, and the pervasiveness of rice here, not pasta. While there is much debate about whether this is the proper risotto to serve with the meat (some locals claim a more delicate plain risotto, seasoned just with cheese, is a better partner) it sure is hard to argue when alternating bites between the two.
Though a relatively modern recipe, dating to the 1960s, the true origin of tiramisu is often debated. What is known, however, is that mascarpone, the sweet, creamy cheese, that is a key ingredient, originated here, and that there is a strong love of coffee, the starring flavor, in the Veneto town of Padua. Put it all together in a fluffy layered dessert that tastes like exactly what you should be eating in an outdoor café in Venice's Piazza San Marco, and the case feels all but open-and-shut.
Parma: Tortellini in Brodo
In this picturesque tiny town that can boast about being the home of two Italian masterpieces — Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma — another signature culinary achievement is utter devotion to making intense meat broths and homemade egg noodles to float in them. Filled pastas are a particular specialty (tortellini's brethern tortelli, cappelletti or anolini might just as easily be on the menu); note how the delicacy of the noodles shows the filling right through them. Regardless of what they're called, when you see filled pasta in broth on the menu around these parts, order it.
Genoa: Trenette with Pesto
At its core, pesto is a sauce of peasant's ingenuity, that historically was truly found all over Italy. A few inexpensive and plentiful ingredients (fresh, fragrant herbs and nuts) were pounded together with a mortar and pestle along with some more expensive ones (fine cheese and oil), a preparation that stretched the latter but carried an intense flavor. But the region of Liguria, and its capital city of Genoa, are perhaps the most associated with the dish, as superlative, fragrant basil and high-quality olive oils are abundant here. The most common way of serving it is over trenette, the Ligurian version of linguine, along with boiled sliced potato and green beans, tossed right in there with the noodles.
Bologna: Lasagne al Forno
The Emilia-Romagna region is considered capital of Italian culinary refinement by many, and in Bologna, its capital city, there is a single dish that manages to capture many of its famed elements: lasagne al forno or, if you're outside of the area, lasagne Bolognese ("forno" just refers to the oven that the dish is baked in). The refinement of the homemade egg pasta made in this area is legendary, and of course, that is the only kind of pasta anyone here would dream of using. The sauce, the city's famed ragu, contains beef and pork simmered in milk, often with hints of spices like nutmeg, a nod to the city's history as a spice trade crossroad. And finally, it's not piles of ooey-gooey mozzarella cheese that binds this lasagna but a layer of besciamella, or béchamel, which enhances the richness without destroying the delicacy of the dish.
Florence: Bistecca alla Fiorentina
What makes a Florentine steak so particular? Walk into a steakhouse here, and you might be reminded of that dinosaur-sized cut of meat hooked onto the Flintstone car. It's that big — steaks here are often cut as thick as 3-inches, and the preferred cut is the already-huge porterhouse (don't worry, typically one steak will be divided among a crowd). But it isn't just the spectacle or the luxury of excessiveness that makes this steak so special. Whereas pork is king in most of Italy, in this area chianina cows are the preferred livestock, an ancient breed known for its huge size and excellent marbling.
Tuscans are not quite as mad for pasta as in some other regions. Instead, they are known for their love of bread, which makes its way not only into the hearty soup called ribollita — a combination of kale, beans, and chunks of bread that thicken the broth — but also panzanella (bread salad) and pappa al pomodoro, a tomato-bread soup that's as much liquid as solid. Though ribollita can be adapted to use any vegetable or any kind of kale, it feels like a bonus when you find a version containing Tuscan kale.
Abruzzi: Brodetto di Pesce
This southern region spans mountains and sea, and despite its historical poverty (or maybe because of it, since locals have always had to be creative with the ingredients at their disposal), the area has never been held back from eating well. All along the coast you'll find tomato-based seafood broths, spicy from the area's beloved chile peppers, teaming with fish and sea creatures that were just pulled from the water hours earlier. Perhaps the most famous is the version from the Abruzzese town of Vasto — brodetto alla vastese — where a statue of a sunbather tying her bikini overlooks the sea, underlining the importance of seaside life and living well for the people who make it their home.
Molise: Zuppa di Ortiche
Until the 1960s, Molise and Abruzzo were one region; located side by side, they share a similar topography — mountains on one side, and sea on the other. Thus many features of Abruzzese cuisine — lamb and excellent sheep's milk cheeses, cured pork, and chile peppers — are found here as well. Molise, historically one of the poorest areas of Italy, is particularly known for its ingenious use of foraged wild plants and beans and its superior olive oil. In the spring, sample one of the dishes made with wild nettles, such as zuppa di ortiche — which is likely to get a drizzle of some of that fabulous oil and a grating of local cheese, as well.
Rome: Bucatini all'Amatriciana
There's no end to the dishes linked to this ancient city — the offal-based secondi, the famed artichokes (simmered with garlic — alla romana — or fried to a golden crisp —alla giudea) and the beloved grilled baby lamb chops served with nothing more on the plate than wedges of lemon, for example. But if you look around in a trattoria, you can bet the majority of the people around you will be starting their meals with a bowl of bucatini all'amatriciana, the spicy tomato sauce that gains its signature porkiness from cured pork jowl.
Tell an Italian you're headed to Naples, and here's the very first thing they will say: You must eat pizza. Considered the birthplace of pizza as we know it, Neapolitans are so proud and protective of their version, that in the 1980s, the Vera Pizza Napoletana Association was formed to set standards that must be adhered to in order for a pizzeria to receive certification. Indeed, it's hard to find pizza this good anywhere else — smaller and thinner than a New York-style pizza, yet more yeasty and bready than a Roman crackery-crust pizza. The incredibly fresh tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella that weeps from being just a few hours old is merely icing on the cake — or in this case, pie.
Sorrento: Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Truth be told, gnocchi, or dumplings, are found all over Italy, but there are regional differences, from the polenta or semolina-based version from Rome (alla romana) to the lighter ricotta and spinach ravioli nudi of Florence. But the gnocchi we typically think of in America, pillowy and potatoey, are brought to an uber-decadent level in Sorrento, where they are layered with fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella and baked until bubbling. A taste of this version, and there's no turning back.
Sicily: Pasta with Sardines
Separated from the rest of Italy by a swath of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been a crossroads since ancient times, once inhabited by ancient Greeks and Phoenicians. One consistency then and now is a diet rich in seafood and an ingenuity for using all kinds of fish — small, large, whole, or cooked or preserved in myriad ways to multiply the different ways of eating them. When you order a dish of pasta with sardines today, you are eating like a Sicilian — like a modern one, but with a nod to an ancient one, as well.
Sardinia: Spaghetti alla Bottarga
Even more remote and isolated in the sea than Sicily, you'll find plenty of earthbound delicacies here, such as sheep's cheeses and roasted meats like porchetta (even better if it's been cooked in the ground by a buried wood fire). But it's a good place to sample spaghetti with bottarga, mullet roe that's compressed into a brick and cured, so that it is hard as a piece of cheese and can be grated over food just like Parmigiano. Once again, you have a specialty born out of thrift, that has become an exotic and expensive luxury the rest of the world over.