They say the fastest way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, and I couldn’t agree with this statement more. With such a rich social, civic, artistic and cuisine history, it’s easy to get pulled in many directions when visiting Italy for the first time. This delicious food guide to Italy will teach you about the best dishes to try in Italy by region.
If you’ve never been to Italy before, I recommend letting the food guide you, because you will see so much beauty and history no matter where are in Italy. You might as well take it in with all your senses! (Not to mention that walking around all day will help you build quite an appetite!) Let’s start in the collar/top of the boot, and work our way down.
Sharing the Alps with Switzerland and Germany, Piedmont is the Northwestern most region of Italy. It is lush with greenery, and booming with busy metropolitan areas like Milan and Turin. Most importantly, it is the birthplace to the Slow Food movement (Bra, Italy).
You don’t have to be in Bra to get the support of artisanal food production (see what I did there?), but in Piedmont more frequently look for a little snail icon in the window of an eatery. If they are part of the Slow Food International, you can be sure that their menu will be planned based on the local agriculture and seasonal harvest. As the name implies, the slow food mentality is in opposition to fast food, and with the flavors and specialties in this country, you’ll want to take as long as possible to enjoy every bite.
The Piedmont region is famous the world over for its world-class chocolate and hazelnuts. (Nutella began in Alba.) Within Turin, you can sample some chocolate made by some of the best chocolatiers in the world without much pomp and circumstance.
The best chocolate to try is the gianduiotto, creamy chocolate made with hazelnut and cocoa that is about the size of a spoon. It’s made with the same mixture used in gianduja, hazelnut chocolate spread that is sold as oval bars (shown above) and as a spread.
Apertivo is like American happy hour, mixed with Spanish Tapas, on steroids. Typically for less than ten euros, you will be given access to a buffet fit for the God Jupiter. Milan and Turin love to endlessly debate who truly invented the modern-day apertivo, however we’ll leave it to you to decide who does it better.
In Turin, we strongly recommend the apertivo at Fluido in Turin, which is a true Torino institution. Locals love to spend the night eating, drinking, and dancing the night away along the Po within Turin’s most beautiful parks. In Milan, we heartily recommend La Hora Feliz for one of the most hearty apertivos in the city.
Piedmont is the source of many of the world’s truffles and some of Italy’s best red wines. Truffle lovers flock to Piedmont in fall to experience the region’s many food festivals, including the Douja d’Or Asti and the famous Alba International White Truffle Fair. (We haven’t even touched on the world-class wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco!)
Region: Emilia Romagna
One of the northernmost regions of Italy, ER is known as Italy’s food capital. If you’re going to eat your way through the land of food, best to start here.
Bologna is the capital of ER, and home to the oldest university in the world (founded in 1088 A.D.). It’s also one of the largest universities, with over 100,000 students in attendance. The city is very much alive and rich in knowledge, food knowledge being one area of expertise.
The bread in Bologna is no doubt going to disappoint you at first bite, but there’s a very good reason for this. The bread in this area is intentionally simple because its purpose is to sop up all the rich, delicious sauces this area produces.
Bolognese sauce is a meat sauce traditionally made with a combination of beef and pork, and a tomato base. Anywhere you go to get their signature sauce will probably be incredible, but the best homemade tagliatelle (flat noodle perfect for holding the hearty sauce) al bolognese I had was at Al Papagallo. If you want to sit outside you’ll need to get a reservation (another beautiful view of the passers-by near Due Torre), but the exposed brick inside is a wonderful backdrop for one of the best meals you’ll have in your life. This has been hands down one of the top meals of my life so far.
If you are someone who enjoys a happy hour cocktail paired with small bites, you have to hit up Aperitivo somewhere in the University area (Via Zamboni, just northeast of the Due Torre). If you don’t have the chance to experience aperitivo in Piedmont, I recommend heading to Lab 18. Fresh carved meats, pasta salads, pizzas, salamis and hard cheeses, a gallon-sized bowl of ricotta, to name just a sample of their offerings. You can easily make a full dinner out of this experience or simply whet your appetite for more delectables later in the night. I recommend finding a place outside for the view!
Ferrara is less than a 45-minute train ride from Bologna, and well worth an afternoon trip. Keeping with the theme of rich hearty sauces, Ferrara adds root vegetables to the table; pumpkin, specifically. The small city is very walkable, and I recommend spending an afternoon there and getting cappellacci di zucca (big pasta dumplings filled with pumpkin) with either bolognese or butter and sage sauce at Trattoria Da Noemi.
If you are looking to check out the Ferrari museum, you’ll want to head over to Modena (and get some balsamic vinegar while there). I like to warn people about the Ferrari museum because I did make that mistake the first time I visited. Don’t worry, the cappellacci makes it well worth the trip.
In the Northeast region of Italy, Veneto encompasses one of the most iconic cities in Italy: Venice. Sinking at a rate of 1-2 mm a year, you have to make a point to see one of the great wonders of western civilization. Because Venice is known for so much besides food, it might be hard to find a good spot to satiate yourself.
I fully endorse checking out cicchetti, which is something they are known for. Cichetti is similar to aperitivo, but the portions are lighter and designed for a more casual experience. Like in Bologna, purchasing a drink at a cichetti bar (or in the early evening hours of many bars) comes with a selection of cichetti (quantity and quality depends on the venue) around 4 or 5pm and going until 7 or 8pm.
Everything is a quick walk in Venice, but if you stay near the train station I recommend stopping for your cicchetti at Al Timon. For the purchase of a drink, you can select a generous amount of baguette slices topped with various combos of meats, cheeses, jams, and olives. Everything comes in/on plastic, so you can take your bites and libations just outside to the canal, or find a dead end in any direction to sit in your own little spot on the water to enjoy the sunset and small bites more intimately.
Heading down the boot, 5-7 hours by train from Venice will take you to the middle of Italy in Umbria. Umbria borders Tuscany (which is Italian wine country and deserves its own book, so that’s for another time), and is known as the “green heart” of Italy.
Smack dab in the middle of Umbria you’ll find Perugia. Perugia is the birthplace to the little hazelnut-filled kisses called Baci. If you are planning your Italian Food Tour during the fall, I highly recommend scheduling your Perugia stop around the Annual Eurochocolate Festival.
A ticket to this event is like if Costco was the size of a small Italian village, and all the samples were chocolate-themed (AKA, my happy place). You will stroll through old piazzas with chocolate sculptures being erected, all while enjoying artisanal infused chocolate candies. There’s plenty of savory food being sold, too, but if you have a sweet tooth this is a must-do while in Italy.
If you aren’t planning a fall trip, check out one of the tours offered by the Perugina (the company that makes Baci) Chocolate House. Like most anywhere in Italy, Perugia takes their food focus into hyperdrive and you will never get a chocolate experience like this anywhere else.
Lazio is the central-western region of Italy. Most notably it’s home to the capital of Italy, and the foundation of modern society: Rome. You can’t go to Italy without going to Rome — it would be like going to the US for the first time and bypassing NYC— and there’s just so much to see in the city with all the history of the roman empire that you will undoubtedly work up a big appetite no matter how many days you spend in the ancient and current metropolis.
Rome is very much the NYC of Italy; there are lots of overpriced, tourist trap restaurants with pictures of foods on sandwich boards, flashy signs in windows that tout “Best <Insert Italian Dish Here> In Rome,” and most importantly hole-in-the-wall restaurants that look like nothing special and hold all the riches your stomach could ever desire.
I found the gem Il Pastaio Di Roma on TripAdvisor and I’m so grateful I did. This is fast food in the absolute best sense of the word; all their fusilli pasta is made in house (there’s a window into the kitchen where you can see it being made as you order), it is served with your choice of sauce (usually 3-5 options), and there’s seating for maybe 12 people in the place. It is very much designed for a quick bite, but you’ll want to take the time to savor the flavors, for sure. The best part of the whole experience: each order of pasta was so affordable! We ordered one of each: Pesto, Carbonara, and Amatriciana.
Lazio is known for both carbonara and amatriciana, so make sure you get a dish featuring those while you’re in town. Carbonara is an egg-based sauce, with lots of pecorino cheese and pancetta. It’s not what I would call “lite fare,” so make sure you’re hungry and ready for a heavy meal when you try it. Amatriciana is a tomato-based sauce that also has a pork known as guanciale (similar to bacon or pancetta), and the theme of lots of pecorino cheese is continued in this sauce as well. I recommend Il Pastaio for your lunchtime break on a long sightseeing day in Rome.
Some might think it’s criminal of me to give a tour of the full country of Italy and I’ve yet to mention gelato. Let me preface this next section by saying that any and all gelato I have eaten in Italy has been incredible. It’s the perfect light snack on a hot day of walking, it’s refreshing when you need a palette cleanser midday, and there’s nothing more romantic than walking back to your hotel hand in hand with your love…gelato.
You could eat gelato for every meal, every day, for 1 year in Rome and still not know every gelateria they have to offer. That being said, on my most recent visit to Rome for 5 days I visited one spot twice, and you’ll soon understand why. Gelateria della Palma is nestled down a narrow street (you will pass 3 gelaterias within 3 blocks depending on how you approach it, keep going!) that is not too far from the Pantheon or Piazza Navona. The decor and uniforms are reminiscent of an old-timey soda shoppe in the US, and most importantly they offer 150 flavors of gelato!
Make sure you notice the flow of traffic and mind the other patrons while you’re looking at flavors, because there isn’t a lot of room to window shop, and once they’re ready to serve you, you better be ready to order! There is seating (table service is cost extra), but I recommend grabbing your order and continuing down the path to ancient art and architecture with your scoops in hand.
Heading directly south from Rome you’ll find yourself on the southwest coast of Italy where Naples and Pompeii are located. Since Pompeii hasn’t had any culinary offerings since 79AD, I’m going to focus on Naples and probably the most important contribution Italy has made to cuisine in the history of man: Pizza.
There’s at least half a dozen pizzerias in Naples that claim the First Margherita Pizza, so I’m not going to end that dispute here, but I will tell you that the place I went to was phenomenal and a must-eat if you make it down to the bottom of the boot. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba makes a damn near perfect margherita pizza.
True to legend, all their pizzas are made to order in a wood-burning oven, and total time from into the oven to onto your plate is less than 5 minutes. Plan on waiting in line, as they don’t take reservations. You’ll be asked by the host how many people in your party and asked to wait in earshot for your table. You can order a variety of pizzas, but food historian in me needed to taste the OG.
Since pizza is one of the foods you could easily turn into a tour theme in and of itself, after you try the one at Port’Alba, use True Neapolitan Pizza Association’s website to guide you the rest of the way through the city (or even the world). Naples has a rich history of being a port city into Italy for many countries and conquests, so besides its deep influence of what we know of traditional italian culture and cuisine, you’ll find some French and Greek influence on their plates, too.
Editor’s note. One of the most underrated regions of Italy for food and visiting is Calabria. Many bypass this hilly Italian province in route to Sicily. If you’re a lover of spicy food, you must make a stop in Calabria for stunning views without the crowds of more famous Sicily–and the food naturally.
I was lucky enough to make a Calabrian friend who cooked for me using her grandmother’s homemade ‘Nduja. Nduja is a spread made with sausage and chili peppers that will give your food a real kick. You can add it to most parts of your meal, especially the pasta, to add that authentic taste of Calabria to any meal.
You’ll find several varieties of cheese that are uniquely Calabrian, including caciocavallo cheese. This protected cheese made from sheep or cow milk looks like a teardrop when hung is specifically made in Calabria as well as few other regions of Southern Italy. The variety from Calabria that is most famous is Caciocavallo di Ciminà. It is made only within the village of Ciminà with a limited number of producers!