Tradition and history of the most famous Italian dishes in the world!
“Macaroni, you provoked me and I’ll destroy you!”
This is how Alberto Sordi, in one of the most famous scenes of “An American in Rome”, begins resigned to the fact that the flavours of home always prevail!
This says a lot about Italian-ness, which is not a question of origin because logically, tomatoes, corn, coffee, peppers, potatoes and many other imported foods would be cut off from this label. The “typical Italian food” acquires connotations that go beyond what is peculiar, characteristic, referring precisely to a “type”. Is there a model that represents us in the world?
I would say it is more of a modus operandi: it is that constant ability to enhance traditional methods while remaining stubborn in innovation. Every region, city, town or village in Italy claims its own traditional cuisine, that is, its own way of cooking a dish. Going into even more detail, if you asked an Italian what his or her favourite cuisine is, he or she would mostly say that it is that of his or her own home, or better still, his or her mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen!
This is because food in Italy is a matter of feelings, of sharing with family and friends, a bit like in the scenes of “Eat, Pray, Love” where Julia Roberts rediscovers table time. Perhaps it is thanks to this spirit of sharing that some dishes belonging to our tradition are now everyone’s food, such as Pizza, the world’s best-loved comfort food and the first most eaten food, and along with it the ragu on Sundays, Panettone at Christmas, Tiramisu. Popular foods of Italy that are widely shared throughout the world but which identify us because they are strongly linked to festivities that mark the time we spend with family.
Below, you will find a list of Italian dishes, more or less well known, that will be useful for travellers hungry for knowledge or Italian enthusiasts. You will find curious hints, anecdotes or ideas to make a traditional Italian delicacy together with someone special, rediscovering the care needed both in the kitchen and in love!
Discover the most popular Italian food… Not to be missed!
Revered all over the world, Pizza is a proudly Italian invention and, to be precise, Neapolitan. “Pinsare”, in Latin, means to crush and this is the etymological derivation of the term that sees this dough of flour, water and yeast become the basis for high-quality ingredients. The Neapolitan pizza par excellence has high edges, but there is also “pizza alla pala” or “pizza in a pan” for large parties. The one dedicated to Queen Margherita of Savoy by Raffaele Esposito featured tomato, mozzarella and basil: a reminder of the patriotic tricolour that has been popular since 1889. In a classic pizzeria dinner, there is always indecision over the choice of special pizzas that leave room for the pizza chef’s creativity (within the limits of common sense, so no pineapple) but in the end, everyone will always choose their favourite.
LASAGNE & TAGLIATELLE
These two timeless Sunday dishes of Italy are famous all over the world. They derive from the traditions of Emilia, according to which hand-rolled egg pasta is almost a religion. Lasagne sheets of pasta filled with red or white meat sauce are truly the essence of tradition. Obviously, there are several variants, including the best-known lasagna Bolognese, the Neapolitan lasagna with meatballs between layers or the entirely vegetarian lasagna, stuffed with pumpkin or simply with Pesto Genovese.
Like lasagne, tagliatelle is a pasta shape made from a sheet of pasta that is rolled on itself and cut with a knife to be porous enough to catch any type of sauce well. In the tables of Italians, those with meat sauce are most popular, but there are many versions.
PASTA CARBONARA & PICI CACIO E PEPE
Carbonara, the sacred monster of Roman cuisine, is one of the most (badly) copied dishes in the world, and perhaps it is appropriate to say that this pasta does not admit of extravagant interpretations! The same goes for other famous first courses such as Amatriciana, Cacio e Pepe or Gricia. The premise is necessary because in these cases, by changing ingredients and methods, the result changes a lot. For pasta Carbonara, few ingredients: eggs, pecorino romano cheese, black pepper and guanciale (pork cheek) with the favoured long pasta shapes. In the Cacio e pepe recipe, long pici pasta (with greater thickness and porosity) are perfect!
PASTA WITH PESTO GENOVESE
The scent of fresh basil pounded in a mortar is intoxicating and, alas, has nothing to do with what you perceive when opening one of the more commercial jars found in the large-scale retail trade. Already Columella, in the early centuries A.D., spoke of “Moretum”, a recipe akin to the modern version of Pesto Genovese that calls for basil, extra virgin olive oil, Vessalico garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and salt. It is often paired with trofie, but in Italian homes it is often eaten with spaghettoni or pennette. Children love it!
Originating in Ascoli Piceno, Ascoli olives are the opening dish for lunches and dinners in the Marche region, even though they are widespread throughout Italy among fried foods. Known in brine since Roman times, they originated in noble houses as an anti-waste recipe for unused meat. It is the Oliva Ascolana Tenera variety containing a mixture of minced meat, which is then breaded and dipped in boiling olive oil. Did you know that the “Ascoliva festival” dedicated to these traditional Italian foods is held in Ascoli in August?
If you happen to be in Rome on a Thursday, the dish of the day is gnocchi alla romana, traditionally made with semolina. But how many variations exist of this famous Italian food? On international restaurant menus, gnocchi alla sorrentina, topped with tomato and stringy mozzarella cheese, are the most popular, but the basic dough varies from region to region. They started out as small round shapes of flour, water and egg but with the arrival of potatoes from America, the use of potatoes in the dough became widespread. In Siena they are called the “gnudi”, in Piedmont the “Dunderet” but also “gnocchi alla bava”; in Lombardy they call “malfatti” those that have spinach inside, and in Sardinia they season their “malloreddus” with sausage and saffron.
TORTELLI AND TORTELLINI
Also Tortelloni, Ravioli, Cappelletti, Anolini… There is a world of knowledge behind stuffed pasta! They know it well in Emilia Romagna, where fresh egg pasta has been masterfully made for centuries. Investigating the dispute between Modena and Bologna over the parentage of the tortellino would be a challenge lost at the start. One of the main differences lies in size: Tortelli (or Tortelloni) and even Cappelletti are larger than Tortellini.
The original recipe for tortellini is registered with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce and mentions pork loin browned in butter, prosciutto crudo, mortadella di Bologna and Parmigiano Reggiano among the filling ingredients. Watch out for the broth, which requires beef and chicken. In short, you don’t mess around with these recipes and there is little room for experimentation. Ravioli, on the other hand, have round or square shapes and can have different fillings. To their category belong Agnolotti, the famous ones from Piedmont’s Plin or Cappellacci di Zucca from Ferrara. Stuffed pasta always makes a feast and remains one of the best ways to involve friends and family in the kitchen.
SPAGHETTI ALLA CHITARRA
Sounding like maccheroni with tomato sauce, these are “square” spaghetti named after the typical Abruzzese kitchen tool, called “chitarra”. In Teramo they like to make them with pallottoline, small meatballs that enrich the chitarrine, just like the international “spaghetti and meetballs” so loved by the Americans.
TAJARIN WITH WHITE TRUFFLE
In the Piedmontese Langhe, the preparation of tagliolini is a challenge for the arms that work the pasta dough by hand, due to the massive presence of egg yolk that characterises them. Their thickness does not exceed 3 mm, and in Piedmont, the combination with local foods, including the precious truffle, makes it possible not only to enjoy an excellent dish but also to involve the loved ones in an intriguing truffle hunting experience. Near Alba, you can find the white truffle and many other types, which are also hidden in the undergrowth of the Apennines, in Umbria, Tuscany or Le Marches.
Originating in Southern Germany from peasant cuisine, Canederli have been prepared in Trentino Alto Adige for about 900 years, witness the 1131 fresco depicting a “canederli eater” at Hocheppan Castle in Appiano, near Bolzano. These are large balls of stale bread that, in the Tyrolean version, include speck or bacon in the dough, while they are called “Käse-Knödel” if they include alpine cheese. They are served in broth, with gravy or even sweet, while the very tasty Trentino version includes luganega in the dough. Impossible not to eat them in the winter months, perhaps between a mulled wine and a stroll through the Südtirol Christmas Markets!
It is difficult to find one version of this typical dish throughout the country because every household has its own recipe.
The important distinction is this: when people say “Parmigiana”, they automatically refer to aubergines arranged in layers like window sills, which in Sicily they call “Parmisciane”. Precisely because the term evokes an arrangement of things, you will also speak of courgette Parmigiana, pepper Parmigiana, but NEVER “chicken parmigiana”.
Does Parmigiano Reggiano go there? Certainly, but also caciocavallo, pecorino or mozzarella in Naples. Tomato sauce is unavoidable and schools of thought on frying aubergine are increasingly fierce against tradition. What makes it unique is its timeless goodness!
In Italy, when asking for a focaccia, you can find different preparations depending on the region. The dough of this focaccia will always be very soft and with the classic flattened shape. In the focaccia Barese, we will find tomato and olives and the thickness will be greater than in the Ligurian variants, including the focaccia di Recco, which is much thinner and not directly filled. Many preparations are widespread throughout the south, but also in central Italy, the typical Umbrian “torta al testo” can be referred to as focaccia. Preparing them at home takes time but is a joy even for the youngest children, who can try their hand at discovering the traditional cuisine of Italy.
MILANESE RISOTTO AND OTHER VARIANTS
The culture of rice has led Italy to be the first country in Europe for areas dedicated to it. Among the most prized risotto varieties, we can find Vialone Nano, Arborio or Carnaroli, which carry the flag for Italian risotto recipes. Among the most popular Italian dishes in the world, there are the world-famous Risotto alla Milanese with hints of saffron, Risi e bisi from the Veneto region where peas are exalted, but also Piedmont recipes such as Panissa from Vercelli or Paniscia from Novara. Seafood risottos are very popular on the islands and coasts, as opposed to those that exalt woodland flavours such as mushrooms and truffles. Every risotto has its reason, the important thing is that it is made to perfection!
It is street food and it is “fast food” in the sense that you don’t see it in time that you have already eaten it!
13 December (today Arancina Day) sees this preparation linked to the feast of Santa Lucia, when this delicacy was traditionally prepared.
You can find it in any café in Sicily, at any hour, and it is a strictly fried ball of rice with a variety of toppings, although the traditional versions are those with butter or meat. To be clear on the issue and not to be mistaken, in the Catanese areas ask for an arancino, which has a more conical shape on one side, while in the Palermo area ask for an arancina, even if the taste doesn’t give a damn!
This could be the Roman cousin of the Sicilian Arancina and, if made really well, it “goes down a treat”. Here, too, rice with red meat sauce envelops a stringy heart of mozzarella cheese that will spin from one end of this delicious Roman street food to the other. The supplì made its first appearance after the Napoleonic occupation: it was created as a street food and evolved as a food to be shared in an evening in the alleys of the capital.
A peasant dish from northern Italy, polenta tells the story of the poverty in the countryside between 1700 and 1800. Maize, after the Colombian exchange, was appreciated by the peasants who had the intuition to treat it like all other cereals known at the time, and so “Italian-style”, they replicated the Roman puls with it, making polenta.
Accompanied by cheese, as in the Piedmontese “grasa” version with Fontina or in the Veneto “concia”, it is a truly delicious Italian dish. It is also tasty with fresh mushrooms, with tomato sauce, soft, roasted or fried and can be a main course on a winter evening or can accompany main courses. Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino Alto Adige but also Emilia Romagna are the regions where you can find this popular Italian food so closely linked to the territory. The traditional cooking method involved the direct fire of firewood from the fireplace over a cauldron (preferably of non-tinned copper) until, at the end of cooking, it was poured onto the round tafferia, the wooden chopping board, and then cut on the wire. One of the richest versions is “varesotta lombarda”, with beans, pork rind, bacon, cabbage and carrots.
Some people abroad might think that “fiorentina” is the breed of beef, but in fact the fiorentina cut has that typical T shape and is the section of the loin that includes fillet and sirloin. On thickness, it is agreed that it should not be less than 4 cm, while on cooking, traditionally it should be eaten rare after searing on 5/7 minutes on each side and 15 on the bone, but everyone has their own taste here! It is certain that a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil enriches the bite.
RIBOLLITA AND PANZANELLA
In Tuscany, recycling in the kitchen was the natural evolution of a process of reusing ingredients in dark times. Examples are Ribollita, Panzanella or Pappa al pomodoro, which have stale bread as their common thread. Ribollita is a hot soup of black cabbage, beans and Savoy cabbage that are simmered several times, over very low heat, adding stale or crusty bread. Panzanella, on the other hand, is a fresher dish, typically summery and also popular in Lazio, Marche and Umbria. It features tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a sort of salad always accompanied by bread.
PAPPA AL POMODORO
A “masterpiece” that came into the limelight thanks to Rita Pavone’s musical interpretation in the glorious 1960s. A further affirmation of the importance of the tomato in popular cuisine, it is a soup made with Tuscan stale bread, tomato, olive oil, salt, and basil in vegetable broth. You can enjoy it around Siena with a good glass of Chianti DOP.
Northern cod preparations are widespread throughout the country and, for the most part, grey northern cod obtained by salting is used. They range from southern versions such as cosentina or lucana style where it is accompanied by peppers, to livornese where it is combined with tomatoes. In the Trentino version it is accompanied by potatoes, but it is also delicious Neapolitan style (also called “in cassuola” with olives and fresh tomatoes). It can be fried after being breaded or simply baked in the oven, or sweet and sour. In the two most famous versions, i.e. baccalà alla vicentina and baccalà mantecato alla veneziana, stockfish (dried Nordic cod) is used. It is soaked for at least two days in cold water, and then traditionally eaten in the cicchetti (small snacks) at the Venetian bacari.
Its name evokes the summer and the Amalfi coast where the island of Capri overlooks. The combination of flavours is so delicate and sincere that it is never to be taken for granted: Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Cuore di Bue tomato, fresh basil leaves with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil: magic is served on the table and bears the colours of the Italian flag.
ARTICHOKES ALLA GIUDIA
In this heart-warming recipe of Roman-Jewish cuisine in February, the “cimaroli Romaneschi IGP” artichokes are first subjected to “capatura”, i.e. the cleaning of the stem and outer leaves, and then cut into a typical rosette shape that will be fried in boiling oil according to a very careful procedure. The result will be a delicious crispy artichoke.
Sweet and sour, like its region of birth. Caponata is a traditional Sicilian side dish that requires bread (generous amounts of bread!) to be eaten. Each capital city in the region has its own version. Basically, aubergines, olives and capers marry the sweet and sour in a tomato sauce base, but in Agrigento they add friggitelli peppers, while a version that is popular throughout the island is one that replaces aubergines with chunks of swordfish. A real delicacy!
PIEDMONTESE BOILED MEAT
Closely linked to the Monferrato area, Piedmontese boiled meat has got a name that reflects the variety of cuts and types of meat that make it up. The dish is certainly regal, but it also consists of less than noble parts of the veal such as the “ammenniccoli”. The cooking process is very long and laborious and it is served with at least seven different sauces, and the side dishes are no less so. At the “Fiera del Bue Grasso” and the “Sagra del Bollito Misto” (Fatted Ox Fair and Mixed Boiled Meat Festival) in Moncalvo, you can enjoy this speciality together with an excellent Barbera d’Asti DOC.
Already in 1957, in his “Viaggio nella valle del Po” (Journey through the Po Valley), the journalist Mario Soldati recounted the importance of this recipe for lower Piedmont. It is about the tastes and customs of times gone by, when work in the fields, especially at grape harvest time, called for strong flavours despite having very few ingredients available. The anchovies are pounded in a mortar and cooked in olive oil and garlic (no more than one per person) to form a sauce served hot at the table with the help of terracotta “fojòt”. Vegetables and polenta thus find the perfect dressing with a pungent but certainly typical flavour.
At the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, you have the chance to eat this typical dish in all its simple goodness (in any Tuscan restaurant, of course). Sautéed celery, carrot and onion, peeled tomatoes and tripe. A dish that together with Lampredotto and Fegatini is part of the great Tuscan culinary tradition.
What does tuna have to do with veal? It’s all the fault of Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian gastronomy, who mistakenly translated the dialectal “tonnè”, referring to the way veal is dressed, into “tonnato”. To the recipe, Artusi added tuna, which became part of the “veal dressing” together with capers, anchovies and herbs. It was a must in the 1980s, but is still popular today in Italian restaurants all over the world.
TIMBALLO DI PASTA
The guideline to follow for an excellent pasta timbale does not list ingredients or quantities: all you need to know is that the pasta should be cooked for half the time in water and then embraced by the chosen ingredients and baked in the oven. So it’s off to Sicilian “Anelletti al forno”, “Maccheroni al formaggio” to the more elaborate “Timballo di pasta in crosta” typical of Ferrara. This is a Sunday dish for which every Italian grandmother has the recipe jealously guarded in her pantry!
It is among the Traditional Agri-food Products of Sardinia and its preparation requires patience: cooked on a spit or even underground, “porceddu” is prepared so that it has a crispy rind on the outside and remains soft on the inside and is then flavoured with spices and herbs such as thyme or myrtle leaves. If you go to Sardinia, you will find this recipe in every part of the island.
Tiramisu Day in Treviso, Tiramisu World Cup, Tiramisu Festival… To give you an idea of how international, or rather… Spatial! The original recipe of the Tiramisu Academy mentions mascarpone cheese, egg yolk, sugar, ladyfinger biscuits, coffee and bitter cocoa. Nothing more, nothing less. To venture with chocolate chips on top might already be too much for purists, although, the interpretations of this Italian dessert are truly endless and you can find it in every corner of Italy all year round. The origins are debated between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, but whoever invented it has certainly honoured their homeland in the best way!
Crunchy and mouth-watering, the curly sfogliatella made of puff pastry originated in Salerno in the 18th century. Stuffed with yellow cream, chocolate or ricotta cheese, sfogliatella is a dessert that is popular throughout Italy, but not everyone knows that there is an equally delicious “frolla” variant. The one from Abruzzo keeps its freshness for up to ten days!
Cream, sugar, vanilla and food gelatine. Just a few ingredients for one of the world’s most famous spoon desserts with controversial origins. In fact, its origins seem to be attributed to a chef from Piedmont, but similar recipes can be found throughout Europe, such as the Danish one called “Moos Hwit”. With berries or creamy caramel, it is undoubtedly an evergreen end to a meal.
SICILIAN CANNOLI AND CASSATA
Two typical Sicilian desserts that bring out the goodness of sweet ricotta cheese, as well as being an end to a Sunday meal or on holidays. Although they are world-famous, they cannot be found in every pastry shop in the country. Caltanissetta holds the record for the longest cannolo in the world with its 21 metres of rind and 600 kilos of ricotta, but in every bar and pastry shop you can find various sizes, including the smaller “cannulicchi”. Cassata, for its part, is a riot of colour given by the candied fruits lying on a green bed of sugar paste. A real calorie bomb that can be tasted in the smallest “cassatelle”.
Perhaps only pizza is as universal as gelato! In this, too, the record for exporting this universally loved recipe goes to the Italian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a Palermitan who moved to Paris and opened his Café Procope there, serving ice cream. America also discovered this delicacy thanks to the Italian Filippo Lenzi, while the first ice cream on a stick was born in 1948 with the famous Mottarello. Today, there are many flavours of ice cream that are popular all over the world, but in Italy artisan ice cream parlours work it according to ancient methods of discontinuous whipping that require manual skill and passion.
PANETTONE AND PANDORO
To speak of a feud over two strongly traditional and Christmas-related sweets is not nice, but the truth is that every year there are two parties openly taking sides around the Christmas table: team Panettone with sultanas and candied fruit and team Pandoro! The two variants are very different: Pandoro is from Verona, Panettone is from Milan, but both share the same methodical care and attention in their preparation. In the end, neither is ever missing from Christmas tables and you always end up eating both!
After this long overview that is sure to have inspired a certain appetite, you know what to eat in Italy! The invitation is to rediscover the Bel Paese through its most ancient and authentic flavours.
Enjoy your appetite with the most popular Italian foods! 😋