Last Updated on September 9, 2021 by

Are you a foodie heading to Italy soon? This Italian food guide by my friend Marco from Travel-Boo will show you the best dishes to try in Italy.

Italian food has no shortage of world famous landmarks, and many people will already be familiar with classic Italian dishes like pizza margherita and spaghetti bolognese. 

There is however far more complexity and diversity to Italian gastronomy than just these classics. Italy offers a diverse array of traditional dishes and regional specialties, along with a uniquely Italian approach to preparing and serving meals.

Carry on reading this guide for an overview that will introduce you to some of the main features of Italian cuisine including best dishes to try in Italy and the most popular Italian drinks.

best italian dishes to try - italian food guide

Italian Food Guide

Traditional Italian food culture is slow, simple, and based on fresh, seasonal produce. While fast-foods and ready-meals can be found in Italian supermarkets, it is still far more normal for people to cook at home from scratch and eat together as a family. Overall, Italians eat fewer processed foods than in many comparable countries.   

Breakfast – prima colazione is generally small, typically comprising a milky coffee (latte or cappuccino) and a simple bread roll or cornetto (croissant-like pastry).

Lunch – pranzo can be the main meal of the day and lunch breaks for workplaces and schools might extend from one to two hours, allowing time to either travel home, or for a full meal to be served in a restaurant. If you’re busy, or time is short, a panino (Italian sandwich) or slice of freshly baked pizza may be taken for a fast lunch on the go.

As with lunch, an Italian dinner – cena is generally slower-paced than in the US or northern Europe. It may be a larger or smaller meal, depending on whether the main meal was already eaten earlier in the day. Dinner involves a similar selection of foods to those eaten at lunchtime.

In general, mealtime in Italy really is a family affair and time to connect with loved ones over a range of tasty Italian dishes.

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Italian Meal Courses

Classic Italian meals can be structured and served in seven or more courses, but Italian restaurant menus will often be arranged around five of these, namely: antipasti (appetizers), primi piatti (first dishes), secondi piatti (second dishes), contorni (vegetable side dishes) and dolce (desserts).

  • Antipasti: translating as “pre-pasta”, this appetizer course can be served hot or cold, as a single item or as a buffet. It may include cured meats, cheeses, olives, raw or cooked vegetables, and other small savories.
  • Primi piatti: the first dish, often vegetable-based and more substantial than the antipasti, is where you will find pasta, risotto, polenta, and soups.
  • Secondi piatti: the second dish usually consists of meat, chicken, or fish and is served in a relatively small portion. Historically, most families would have filled up on cheaper antipasti and primi piatti courses before the more expensive meat or fish dishes were served.
  • Contorni: these vegetable side dishes or accompaniments are served either with the second dish or after them and usually on a separate plate. Aubergine parmigiana, Tuscan baked beans, and fried zucchini flowers are examples of classic contorni.   
  • Dolce: desserts may be served at the end of the meal, perhaps with a sweet dessert wine or espresso. You might instead choose to finish with fruit and cheese as an alternative.

most popular italian dishes - meat in matera seafood salad - best traditional italian dishes

Of course, Italians do not eat like this every day at every meal! On a regular day, Italians will likely only order or prepare a single course (either a primo or secondo piatto with a vegetable or salad side dish) for their lunch or dinner.

At a big family gathering or on other special occasions you may find a more formal structure to the meal with five courses being served, or even more, if fruit, cheese, salad, and after-dinner liqueurs are added into the mix.


Popular Italian Dishes

Italian Appetizers (Antipasti)

Bruschetta

Bruschetta is a traditional Italian appetizer that’s nowadays popular throughout the world. This classic appetizer consists of a grilled slice of bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The most popular way to prepare bruschetta is with tomatoes and basil, while others also like to add mozzarella cheese and cured meat on it.

In Tuscany it is called fettunta and it is usually served without toppings, to taste the first oil of the season. In the Abruzzo region of Italy, they tend to serve it with a salame and call it ventricina.

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aperitif in milan - rome food guide

Bresaola

Cured meats are popular Italian appetizers and often feature on antipasti boards and buffets. Many people will be familiar with prosciutto, salami, and pancetta but there are other cured specialties to be enjoyed in Italy. Bresaola, for example, is a distinctive and strongly-flavored type of aged, salted meat from Valtellina in the Lombardy region of the Alps valley.

While beef is the most common meat used to make Bresaola, it can also be prepared from lean cuts of venison, pork, or even horsemeat. Served in very thin slices, dark red-purple Bresaola is made by defatting, salting, and seasoning a cut of beef with cinnamon, juniper berries, or other spices, and then aging for up to three months.

Bresaola has an EU PGI designation (“protected geographical indication”) which means it can only be produced by master butchers who are certified and based in the Lombardy region.

best dishes to try in italy

Peperonata

You will also find a wide range of vegetable-based options to choose from amongst Italian antipasti, whether raw, grilled, pickled, or cooked and served in oil. Peperonata, a rustic dish traditionally from Calabria in south of Italy, is a simple, colorful stew of ripe peppers cooked slowly with tomato, garlic, onion, and herbs.

Served at room temperature, peperonata can be eaten by itself or used as a topping for crostini, bruschetta, or other antipasti bread items. Local variations of peperonata also exist. For example, Peperonata alla Napoletana includes olives, and in some parts of Sicily, potatoes may be added too.

peperonata - classic italian dishes


Italian Pasta

Tagliatelle al Ragu alla Bolognese

Ragù served over silken egg tagliatelle is one of the signature dishes of Bologna, the food-loving capital city of Emilia-Romagna. When I was walking the Path of Gods, from Bologna to Florence, I got so hooked to the tagliatelle al ragu that I ate it almost everyday. It was just that good!

A good tagliatelle is freshly made from scratch, and the ragù is prepared in traditional steps, using authentic Italian products. This is a simple dish that many of us make at home, but when you taste a truly outstanding one in Bologna, you’ll see the difference.

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tagliatelle al ragu - best italian dishes to try

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara is a classic Roman pasta dish known and loved in many countries. It could already be at the top of your list of dishes to try in Italy but you may find that the true Italian version of this recipe is somewhat different and significantly better than anything you have eaten before…

Carbonara sauce is prepared with egg yolk, guanciale (a type of seasoned pork meat, fried to crispness for this recipe), and Pecorino Romano cheese, producing a smooth, golden sauce with crispy, flavorful bites of meat. Authentic carbonara recipes include no milk or cream at all. 

The precise origin of the carbonara dish and its name are unclear. It might relate to a dish originally eaten by the Carbonari (charcoal burners), or to a 19th-century secret society of this name. Other more modern suggestions place the origin of pasta carbonara at the end of WW2, or perhaps as a popular dish from the Restaurant Carbonara in Rome.  

spaghetti carbonara - best foods to try in italy

Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia

Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia, or spaghetti with squid ink, is one of the most visually dramatic seafood dishes you are likely to stumble across in Italy. It is also one of the most popular in northern Italy, and very common in Venice, as well as being a Sicilian classic.

To make this dish, squid is cooked in a sauce of its own ink, white wine, and seasoning, and then served over spaghetti, linguine, or similar pasta. The black color, salty taste, and tendency to stain the mouth of the eater, all make this a truly unforgettable Italian seafood experience.

black squid ink spaghetti - italian food guide

Gnocchi alla Bava

Gnocchi, Italian potato dumplings, are a type of pasta traditionally more associated with the north of the country but also found in different forms in dishes across many other Italian regions. While gnocchi can be cooked quickly, by boiling and serving with a simple burro e salvia (butter and sage sauce) and salad, there are also many more substantial dishes with gnocchi at their heart.

Gnocchi alla Bava is a rich and hearty gnocchi dish from the mountainous Val D’Aosta and Piedmont region bordering France and Switzerland. In its traditional form, the dish consists of buckwheat gnocchi cooked in a sauce of cream and fontina cheese.

Fontina PDO is a semi-cooked cheese, produced with cow’s milk from Valdostana herds. With a soft, elastic texture and sweet and delicate flavor, Fontina gives Gnocchi alla Bava a distinctive character and taste.  

gnocchi - classic italian dishes


Italian Pizza

Pizza Margherita

Simple but ridiculously delicious, Pizza Margherita is undoubtedly the Italians’ favorite pizza. The Neopolitan pizza is made with just a few ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and extra-virgin olive. But it lets its fresh ingredients speak for themselves. 

It’s said that the famous pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito invented a dish called “Pizza Margherita” in 1889 to honor the Queen of Italy, using toppings are tomato (red), mozzarella (white) and basil (green), ingredients inspired by the colors of the national flag of Italy.

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pizza margherita - best italian dishes

Pizza Capricciosa

Pizza Capricciosa is one of the most popular Italian dishes for good reason. It’s made with the most typical Italian staples, including mozzarella cheese, Italian baked ham, mushroom, artichoke and tomato.

The Capricciosa is on every pizzeria’s menu, and it’s as traditional as it gets. According to legends, the pizza was named after the pizzeria that invented it, La Capricciosa in Rome, back in 1937.  

must try foods in italy - pizza capricciosa

Calzone

My personal favorite type of pizza, Calzone is characterized by its half-round shape, made by folding a full-sized pizza in half. Hailing from 18th century Naples, calzone literally means pant leg. The calzone’s original purpose was to be a pizza which can be consumed while walking or standing.

Calzones are typically filled with salami or ham, and cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, and pecorino. In the region of Puglia, calzones are filled with mozzarella and tomatoes, and are known as panzerotti. I had so many panzerotti on my Puglia road trip I lost count!

calzone pizza - best foods to try in italy


Italian Seafood Dishes

Fritto Misto di Pesce

Fritto misto di pesce is one of those popular Italian dishes that differs widely across the country. Depending on the region, fritto misto is sometimes batter-fried, but the simplest method of preparing it is lightly coating the food in flour and quickly deep-frying it in hot oil until it forms a nice golden brown crust.

Along the Italian seaside, it will always include shrimp and squid, and often small whole fish such as fresh anchovies, sardines, baby mackerel, or mullet. We had fritto misto di pesce so many times in Cinque Terre, and absolutely loved it! 

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fritto misto - fried seafood - most popular italian dishes

Seafood Risotto

Whether listed as Risotto ai Frutti di Mare or Risotto alla pescatora, seafood risotto is one of the most popular Italian dishes, especially if you are visiting the coast. I ordered this dish almost every night on our trip to Cinque Terre. You will find many delicious versions of this dish throughout the coasts of northern and southern Italy. Common seafood which might be added includes clams, mussels, scallops, prawns, and shrimps, as well as calamari or baby octopus. 

seafood risotto - must eat italian food

Linguine all’astice

This traditional Italian dish is a specialty from Venice, and Venetians are exceptionally proud of it. You’ll see it on almost every restaurant menu in Venice. It combines linguine pasta with tender lobster meat, where it’s tossed with garlic, fresh ripe tomatoes, and white wine. The sauce is drenched over fresh linguine, and the whole plate is traditionally decorated with shelled lobster.

Italian Food Guide: Best Dishes to Try in Italy


Italian Meat Dishes

Tagliata

Simple and delicious, tagliata is one of Italy’s most popular steak dishes. I have a soft spot for the tagliata and always makes it a point to have tagliata at least once on every trip to Italy. Essentially, tagliata is a boneless piece of grilled beef, served in slices. In fact, tagliata gets its name from the Italian verb tagliare, meaning “to cut.”

One of the most popular ways to serve it is alongside peppery arugula salad with thinly shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had the best tagliata I’ve ever tasted in Matera, a gorgeous rock city in southern Italy.

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beef tagliata - italian food guide

Ossobuco

Meat eaters will find an interesting range of cuts, cures, and general preparations of meat associated with particular regions or cities around Italy. Ossobuco, for example, is a local signature dish in Milan and throughout Lombardy, prepared by slowly braising veal shin steaks on the central bone. (Literally translated it means “bone with a hole”.)

Traditional Ossobuco might be prepared with white wine, vegetables, cinnamon and bay, and gremolata (a green sauce of parsley, lemon zest, and garlic). Modern takes on the dish could include tomato, carrot, and onion. In either case, it may be served with polenta or risotto.

Originally a means of cooking that could soften and flavor a cheaper, tougher cut of meat, modern ossobuco lovers appreciate both the tenderness of the meat and the richness of the marrow in the bone.

ossobuco - famous italian dishes

Polpette alla Napoletane

Polpette are traditional Italian meatballs, found in slightly different forms and served with a wide range of sauces and accompaniments throughout Italy. You are sure to find a polpette dish somewhere to suit your tastes. Polpette alla Napoletane, Neapolitan meatballs, is a simple and popular dish of ground beef meatballs cooked in a tasty tomato sauce.

Don’t, however, expect your meatballs to come with spaghetti or another pasta as is common in the USA and other countries. Remember that in Italy, pasta is normally eaten as a first dish, and meat as a second dish so you are unlikely to be served both together.  

italian meatballs - most famous italian dishes


Italian Desserts (Dolce)

Sfogliatelle

If you feel like something small and sweet after your meal, a few sfogliatelle might be just what you’re looking for. Symbols of the city of Naples, the name means “small, thin leaf”, in reference to the pastry’s texture and appearance. These tiny puff pastries are shaped like shells or lobster tails and may be filled with custard, cream, ricotta, almond paste, or fruit.

Sfogliatelle apparently originated in a monastery in Salerno on the Amalfi coast in the 17th century and was derived from a recipe which a nun had developed in order to use up left-over semolina.

sfogiatelle - italy food guide

Tiramisu

Last but not least, no discussion on the top dishes to try in Italy could possibly be complete without a serving of the classic dessert, Tiramisu. Originating in Treviso in the north of Italy, this rich, decadent and delicious dessert is now found all over the country, and around much of the world.

Literally translated the name means “pick me up”, something which the combination of coffee, alcohol, and sugar should certainly accomplish! Tiramisu is essentially a layering of coffee-soaked Savoiardi Ladyfinger sponge biscuits with egg-enriched sweet mascarpone cream, flavored with a small amount of rum or marsala, and a scattering of cocoa powder.

tiramisu - italian foods to try

Cannoli

Another one of my favorite Italian dishes, the Cannoli are Italian pastries made up of tube-shaped pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta filling. It’s a regional specialty from Sicily, but hugely popular throughout Italy.

In Sicilian language the word cannolu means “short tube”. The cannolu is actually the name of a cylinder-shaped mould used by the mamas to wrap the dough. Originally Sicilian mamas were using sugar cane sections to make cannoli. Nowadays they’ve swapped them out for sterilized metal moulds. 

cannoli - best italian dishes to try

Gelato

How can we write an Italian food guide without including the gelato? Gelato is distinctive from ice-cream anywhere else in the world, thanks to its creamy texture, rich flavor, and deeply-rooted tradition. It’s usually served in small cups or in crunchy waffle cones and you can find “gelateria” everywhere in Italy, especially if you’re traveling Italy in summer.

 gelato gelato in bologna italy - food to try in italy


Italian Foodie Tours

Food lovers alert! If you’re interested in digging deeper and getting to know Italian food beneath the surface, here are some Italian food tours and experiences that we recommend.

Learning to cook in Tuscany

If you think Italian cuisine you’ll probably be conjuring up dreamy images of the rolling hills of Tuscany. The region is known the world over as one of the top culinary destinations in Italy. So, why not take advantage of this and learn to cook Italian cuisine in the heart of Tuscany.

For an exciting hands-on experience, you cannot go wrong with this 5-hour pizza and gelato cooking class tour. You’ll be transported from Florence to a countryside farmhouse where you can get stuck in and learn all the inside tips and tricks to making your very own wood oven Pizza and then thereafter delight in making your own gelato for dessert. Wash it down with a cold beer or a glass of Chianti wine in true Tuscan style.

pizza cooking class in tuscany

Explore Rome’s Vibrant Foodie Scene

It can be overwhelming to decide on what and where to eat when visiting a big Italian city such as Rome. One of the best things to do in Rome is to join a food tour.

This 4-hour Rome nighttime food tour will take you on a journey through some of Rome’s best foodie areas the city has to offer. Whilst being guided by a local food guide, you’ll get to sample around 20 different Roman delights including a balsamic vinegar that’s been aged for 25 years as well as one of the most expensive hams you’ll get to taste in the world. Definitely an unforgettable evening out in beautiful Rome.

rome night tour - rome food guide

Sample Aperitivo in Milan

As the sun starts to set over the chic streets of Italy’s fashion capital, Milan, it heralds in the beginning of ‘aperitivo’ hour. Only fitting then that this is also the perfect time to enjoy this 2-hour private Milan aperitivo tour

Delight your tastebuds as you sample your way through some of the best pre-dinner snacks and drinks that Italy has to offer. From the bubbly Prosecco to the ever-popular Campari Spritz, and Negroni, you’ll also get to taste various bites as you wander through the streets of Milan learning about the culture and foodie scene of the area. 

wine and appetizers - food in milan italy

Learn to Cook traditional fare in Sicily

If you’re planning a trip to the islands, more so to the largest isle in the Meditteranean, Sicily, then you may want to roll up your sleeves and learn how to cook traditional Sicilian dishes that the island is so famous for.

This unforgettable Palermo cooking class and market tour will be the highlight of your visit. Not only will you accompany a local Sicilian chef to the local market to learn about and buy fresh produce, but, you’ll then help cook up a feast that includes 6 Sicilian courses that you’ll sit down to enjoy after. Of course, this is all topped off with a wine-tasting comprising a selection of 6 local wines from Sicily. 

market in sicily - food tour italy


Enjoy Your Italy Foodie Trip!

The end of the main meal in Italy is time for a final espresso, or perhaps a serving of limoncello, grappa, or some other local liqueur as an aid to digestion. Try to sit back and appreciate your food and company in the Italian style without needing to rush quickly away from the table as soon you finish eating.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed reading this overview of some of the top dishes to try in Italy and be inspired to add these to your travel itinerary so you too can delight in sampling them in Italy itself. Buon appetito!

What is your favorite Italian dish? Did we miss out any of the most popular Italian dishes in this Italian food guide? Leave a comment below!


About the Author

Born and raised in South Africa, Marco Santos from Travel-Boo, currently resides in sunny Lisbon, Portugal. With an absolute love for Europe, he is on a mission to rediscover his own Portuguese and European heritage along the way. Marco has set out to blog and share his passion for traveling through and exploring Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe, sharing what he’s learned through his travel blog Travel-Boo.


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