Italians may be nationalistic when it comes to World Cup Soccer (2018, ouch!) but when it comes to food, region trumps country. Every region of Italy, from the Alps to the toe of the boot, has a cuisine for which it is famous – and justly proud.
Italy’s regional tendencies, whether they’re arguing about who has the best food, soccer team or Roman ruins, are rooted in the fact that Italy has only been Italy, or the Repubblica italiana, since 1946. Prior to that, it was very loosely united as the Kingdom of Italy from 1870. Prior to that, Italy wasn’t Italy at all. It was a collection of kingdoms, city-states and Papal States that didn’t necessarily share a common language or identity, and which were at turns shaky allies or warring enemies, depending on political expediency.
Given that Italy’s identity as a unified nation is still relatively young, it’s no surprise that regional loyalties run deep, especially when it comes to that most sacred of subjects: food. Every region thinks its cuisine is the best – and every region is right.
There’s no better way to try the best of Italy’s regional specialties than by going right to the source. Here’s a look at the one dish you have to try in eight of the most popular regions of Italy.
Rome/Lazio: Pasta & more pasta
In Rome and its surrounding region, Lazio, you’ll encounter two pasta dishes as robust and hearty as Romans themselves: spaghetti alla carbonara (with sauce made of pecorino cheese and guanciale (pork cheek), with an egg whisked in at the finish, and spaghetti cacio e pepe (made with cheese and black pepper). Skip those touristy places with long menus featuring photos of their food, and instead sample one of these Roman classics at a simple trattoria.
Naples/Campania: Pizza, duh!
Naples is synonymous with pizza – so much so that Neapolitan pizza making just got awarded UNESCO world heritage status. After all, this is the city where it was invented. Like so much of Italian cuisine, pizza started out as poor people’s food, and it’s still one of the cheaper meals you can eat in Italy. Neapolitan pies or slices are thicker than their Roman counterparts, and are most famously served up at Da Michele, Sorbillo, or Brandi (where the ubiquitous pizza Margherita was invented in 1889), and thousands of other joints vying for the title of “best pizza in Napoli.”
Sicily: Fresh cannoli
When you arrive on the island of Sicily, you might be tempted to skip dinner and go straight for dessert, and really, who could blame you? This is the place that invented cannoli, an Italian confection quite possibly as well-known as tiramisu. A cannolo is a tube of fried pastry shell filled with a sweet ricotta cream, dusted in powdered sugar and sprinkled with chopped almonds, pistachios or candied fruit. The sign of a good cannoli shop? Rows of hollow shells, waiting to be filled to order. Avoid shops with stacks of readymade cannoli. Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto in Taormina makes the most famous cannoli in the land.
Bologna/Emilia Romagna: Lasagna with Bolognese sauce
Even the most diehard regionalist will concede that Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s cradle of gastronomy. From prosciutto from Parma to balsamic vinegar from Modena to the finest Parmigiano cheese, this north-central region produces the ingredients for some of Italy’s most beloved recipes. It’s also the best place to sample lasagna Bolognese, stacked high with layers of pasta, béchamel sauce and rich, meat-based Bolognese sauce, or ragu. Calories be damned – you only live once!
Umbria: Cucina povera
Umbria is Italy’s only land-locked region, and perhaps for that reason, its culinary traditions are especially earthbound. Porcini mushrooms, game meats and wild-sourced greens dominate here, and simple trattorias pay homage to cucina povera (poor people’s cooking) with age-old recipes composed of simple ingredients. Typical of these is ombrichelli (also called umbricelli), a thick, hand-rolled pasta made from flour and water, and served with a sauce hearty enough to stand up to the pasta’s chewiness. Try several varieties at cozy Trattoria del Moro in Orvieto.
Tuscany: Bistecca alla Fiorentina
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Tuscany may be every traveler’s dream of Italy, but it’s also a meat-lover’s dream come true. Even if you only eat meat once in a while, Tuscany is the place to indulge in a bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick-cut steak of Chianina beef that usually weighs in at an artery-busting 1-2 kilograms. Cooked over an open flame, it’s seared on the outside and very rare on the inside—we’ve even had a waiter refuse our request to give ours a few more minutes on the fire—and dressed with olive oil and salt. Expect to spend €50 and up for this monster cut of meat, and look for places with the hearth ablaze and slabs of raw meat on display – it’s all part of the experience.
Milan/Lombardy: Risotto alla Milanese
The Moors first brought rice to Italy in the 1200s, and it found a ready habitat in the flat, humid river plains of Lombardy, in northern Italy. Gastronomically, the region has more in common with central Europe than with southern Italy, and dishes favor butter over olive oil, and meat and cheese over tomato sauce. Risotto in all its varieties is a menu star in Lombardy restaurants, and risotto alla Milanese is perhaps its most elegant form. Made with butter, white wine, beef broth or marrow and parmesan cheese, plus saffron – from which it gets its vivid yellow color – it’s creamy heaven on a fork. Try an upscale version at Ratanà in Milan.
Genoa/Liguria – Pesto alla Genoese
Liguria, the crescent-shaped region of the Italian Riviera, has the best of both worlds. Its long coastline means seafood figures prominently on Ligurian menus, and its fertile terrain ensures that olive oil, nuts, herbs, fruits and vegetables are never in short supply. In the region’s capitol city of Genoa, pesto alla Genoese is the must-try dish. Originally ground with a mortar and pestle – hence the name pesto – but now more commonly blitzed in a food processor, its few, bold ingredients include fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, cheese, pine nuts and coarse salt. Its an uncooked sauce, served fresh over pasta or gnocchi, or sometimes used as a base for soup.