Best foods to eat in Italy: The 15 dishes you must try

You know Italian food, right? You know about the pasta and the pizza and the cured meats. You know about the cheese and the pastries and the coffee. You know what to expect.

Except, you don't. Because when you arrive in Italy, you realise things are different. Food here is extremely localised. What's good in Rome is not necessarily good in Florence. And the cuisine is far more varied than the set of standard dishes you find in restaurants back home.

To get the best out of your Italian eating extravaganza, it pays to know the regional specialties, the foods to enjoy, and the ones to ignore. If you're heading to Italy, then lucky you – here's what you'll be eating.

Antipasti

Due to restricted space we've had to cram a lot of extremely good food into one heading: antipasti. The food that comes before the main meal. The appetiser. The teaser. And when that teaser includes olives, artichokes, pickled or grilled vegetables, anchovies, fried calamari, mortadella, prosciutto, salami, bresaola, culatello, and any number of amazing breads, you almost don't need anything else.

Eat it: Anywhere, before a meal

Spaghetti carbonara

The king of Roman pasta dishes, a creamy, peppery mix of eggs, pecorino cheese and crispy guanciale (cured pigs cheek) stirred through al dente pasta. Rome's other great contributions to pasta sauce involve the steady reduction of ingredients: "gricia" is cheese, pepper and guanciale, while "cacio e pepe" is simply cheese and pepper.

Eat it: Salumeria Roscioli, Rome (salumeriaroscioli.com)

Cottoletta alla Milanese

Though Milan's most famous product is probably osso bucco, the dish that is closest to most locals' hearts is cottoletta, a crumbed veal cutlet fried in butter. Diet food it ain't, but whether it's served on its own, as is tradition, or topped with cherry tomatoes and rocket, as is the new style, this is one tasty meal.

Eat it: Osteria Brunello, Milan (osteriabrunello.it)

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Porchetta

Take one enormous pork loin, wrap it in a pork belly, marinate it in garlic, herbs, orange peel and fennel, roll it, tie it, and then throw it in the oven to cook low and slow for the good part of a day. The result is porchetta: sliced thinly and served in fresh bread, it's one winning meal.

Eat it: I Porchettoni di Pigneta, Rome

Tagliatelle al ragu

The dish you know as spaghetti Bolognese doesn't exist in Italy. You'll find pale imitations in tourist-focused restaurants across the country, but in Bologna it's called tagliatelle al ragu – long, flat ribbons of pasta served with a sauce of minced meat simmered with sofrito, milk, and a tiny amount of tomato, topped with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. There's almost nothing better in the world.

Eat it: Trattoria Anna Maria, Bologna (trattoriaannamaria.com)

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

If you think one kilogram of steak is too much, then you've come to the wrong place, my friend. In Florence the steaks are served huge and rare, accompanied by napkins and little else. These whopping lumps of cow can be divided among several diners, or devoured by one hardy soul.

Eat it: Il Latini, Florence (illatini.com)

 

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Orecchiette alle cime de rapa

In Puglia, the sun-drenched province on the heel of Italy's boot, the favourite pasta is orecchiette, or "little ears". These ears are traditionally served with a sauce of cime de rapa, or turnip tops, with onions, anchovies and chilli to form a simple yet delicious beginning to any meal.

Eat it: Boccon Divino, Lecce (bocondivinolecce.com)

Pizza Margherita

This is not quite the ultimate in pizza simplicity – that would be the "marinara", a pizza of just dough and tomatoes. But the margherita, topped with tomatoes and mozzarella de bufala, is absolute perfection, the ideal mix of salty, creamy and umami on a thin but chewy base. If you're eating it outside of Naples, you're not getting the real thing.

Eat it: L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Napoli (damichele.net)

 

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Cheese

Where do you start? There are so many cheeses produced in Italy, some regionally specific, some widespread, all delicious. As a rough guide, keep your hungry eye out for: burrata, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, asiago, gorgonzola, marscapone, pecorino, ricotta, scamorza, and taleggio.

Eat it: Anywhere and everywhere

Arancini

Though there wasn't room for risotto on this list, there is space for risotto's best friend: arancini. These Sicilian delights are balls of leftover risotto that are mixed with cheese and sometimes peas, or mince, or other fillings, then crumbed and deep-fried. The Roman adaptation, suppli, is delicious, though for the real thing you have to go to Sicily.

Eat it: Pasticceria Savia, Catania (savia.it)

Ragu di Cinghiale

If you were a Tuscan farmer – or more specifically, a Tuscan farmer's wife – you would undoubtedly have an age-old family recipe for ragu de cinghiale, or wild boar stew. This is rustic, bold country food, a rich mix of boar meat slow-cooked with tomato, aromatics and spices, often served with pappardelle pasta.

Eat it: Bel Soggiorno, San Gimignano (ristorante-belsoggiorno.it)

Pasta con le sarde

While spaghetti alle vongole – pasta with steamed clams – is popular across Italy, the country's finest seafood dish might just be pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian specialty of fresh-caught sardines mixed with fennel, anchovies, raisins, pine nuts and toasted breadcrumbs and stirred through spaghetti. Eat this at a table overlooking the Mediterranean and it will all make sense.

Eat it: Al Mazari, Syracuse (almazari.com)

 

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Tortellini en brodo

Another specialty of Bologna that sounds fairly simple – tortellini parcels floating in a delicate broth – and yet as with some much of Italian cuisine, is far greater than the sum of its parts. Tortellini en brodo is traditionally a winter dish, though you can usually find restaurants serving it year-round.

Eat it: Al Pappagallo, Bologna (alpappagallo.it)

 

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Pastry

Though there are hundreds of pastry varieties served across Italy, here are a few favourites: sfogliatelle, a lobster-tail-shaped pastry from Naples that's filled with sweet cream or ricotta; cornetti, the ubiquitous croissants also filled with flavoured cream; Bigne di San Guiseppe, lightly fried pastries once again filled with cream; and cannoli, tubes of deep-fried pastry that are… ahem, filled with sweet ricotta and cream.

Eat it: At any bar

Gelato

Gelato is justifiably world famous, though there are plenty of shops in Italy selling pretty average attempts at it. For the real deal, look out for gelato that isn't brightly coloured (real pistachios are not neon green, for example), and that won't stand up in tall towers (adding preservatives will do that). And stick with simple, traditional flavours.

Eat it: Giolitti, Rome

 

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See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Italy

See also: The ultimate food-lovers' guide to Italy's best restaurants

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