Basil-topped pizza, and paper-thin linguine served with homemade sauce, and cone after cone of gelato... are you hungry yet?
In Italy, a homemade meal is synonymous with a warm welcome, and the famous dishes the country is known for are so good, they’re worth the flight. “In Italy, we loved the homemade pastas, rich tomato sauces, fresh seafood, and the WINE,” said traveler Donna Marie. We couldn’t agree more.
Wondering what to eat in Italy? Check out a handful (or mouthful!) of regional dishes you’ve just gotta taste on a Food & Wine Tour of Italy, and some of the top Italian places to eat at. Fair warning: There are carbs ahead.
Say it in Italian: Pizza margherita or pizza Napoletana
While you really can’t go wrong ordering pizza anywhere in Italy, the city of Naples lays claim to what is arguably some of the best. This classic pie is made with a simple dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s no coincidence that the green, white, and red ingredients of a traditional margherita pizza match the colors of the Italian flag—it was invented in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889, after all. And, while we wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the most popular food in Italy, it’s up there!
What really makes this dish shine is the simplicity and freshness of the ingredients. Everything from the San Marzano tomatoes to the type of flour used in the dough matters. Each pie is then cooked in a blisteringly hot stone oven for just over a minute—that’s it!—and comes out as one of the best bites of your life. There’s good reason why this dish comes to mind when talking about famous Italian food. Simply put: Nobody does pizza like Neapolitans do, and you haven’t really seen Naples until you’ve had a slice.
“I had Naples on my travel bucket list for the pizza alone,” said staffer Jamie. “I couldn’t believe how good it was once I finally tried it at our welcome dinner on the Naples, Sorrento & Rome tour. The fact that I tasted it while traveling with my family made it that much better.”
Where to get the best pizza margherita in Italy:
If you’ve never had a fried rice ball in Sicily, you’re gonna want to fix that immediately. Arancini are handmade with slightly varied ingredients and preparations on different parts of the island, but are often filled with meat ragù and peas, or ham and mozzarella. The ball (or cone) of risotto is then rolled in breadcrumb and dropped in the deep frier. What’s not to like about a warm, cheesy ball of goodness?! It’s one of the top Italian dishes for a reason.
While Italians usually prefer sitting and truly savoring a meal, arancini are snacks that you can enjoy while you explore. “Sicily is a land of incredible street food, where taste and freshness can be enjoyed on the go,” said staffer and Italy native Giada. “Arancini are where simplicity reaches the highest levels of complexity and taste.” See the rest of Giada’s expert tips for what to know about Sicilian cuisine >
Where to get the best arancini in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Insalata Caprese
Did you know that a simple dish of sliced tomatoes, basil, cow’s-milk mozzarella cheese (fior di latte), and a generous drizzle of EVOO could knock your socks off? This four-ingredient salad is proof—and just like all the most popular foods in Italy, the secret is in the super fresh, locally grown ingredients. “Insalata Caprese takes its name from the island of Capri,” said staffer and Italy native Marco. “It is the perfect light summer lunch, when the basil and the tomatoes are picked fresh from the garden.”
Of course, this is a dish that you could easily whip up in your own kitchen, but we’d suggest flying to Capri for the real thing! You’d be hard-pressed to recreate the Italy-fresh flavors of a Caprese back home, where the tomatoes weren’t ripened on a sunny Mediterranean island, and the mozzarella wasn’t made on a farm down the road.
Where to get the best insalata Caprese in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
If you’re asking yourself, “What food is Italy famous for?” there’s really no right answer—but we do know that Bologna is one of the best places in Italy for foodies. It’s nicknames “La Grassa,” or the fat one, thanks to its indulgent culinary traditions, and tagliatelle alla bolognese is a shining star on that list. Saying it’s one of the best Italian dishes ever is an understatement!
Picture this: hand-rolled ribbons of long, flat pasta tossed in a ragù sauce made with meat, wine, and tomatoes. Swoon. This signature dish is even better topped with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese made in nearby Parma. Order a nice glass of vino rosso to go with it, and you’ll be golden—and you’ll also be planning your return trip to Bologna, the meal is that good!
While the most important thing is to get this dish to your table STAT, how you order tagliatelle alla Bolognese matters. “Want to sound like a true Italian?” asked Federica, owner and chef of Podere San Giuliano in Bologna. “Don’t ask for Spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. It doesn’t exist! It’s a bad copy of tagliatelle with Bologna’s ragù.” Make this at home with Federica’s recipe for Bolognese ragù >
Where to get the best tagliatelle alla Bolognese in Italy:
English translation: The soup’s name means “reboiled”—it dates back to when poor farm workers would reheat it so it lasted multiple days.
The Tuscany region is another one of the top places to eat in Italy, and if you happen to swing by Florence during the chillier months, then there’s no better dish to try than ribollita. This filling Tuscan soup is full of all the good stuff: cannellini beans, veggies galore (“Black cabbage is the key ingredient,” said staffer and Italy native Fabrizio), and chunks of stale, unsalted Tuscan bread that soften in the broth. (Yes, even this Italian soup has bread in it! Italy is a carb-lover’s paradise, that’s for sure.)
“Sitting down to a bowl of this hearty soup is one of the best ways to warm up on a fall or winter day in Florence,” said staffer Jamie. “There’s something so comforting about the simple, Tuscan flavors. It’s a little like minestrone soup, but the bread that’s added makes it really delicious.”
Where to get the best ribollita in Italy:
Origin: The Italian Riviera
Say it in Italian: Trofie al pesto
This pasta dish (yes, more pasta!), is one of the most famous meals in the Liguria region of northern Italy. It’s made with short, rolled trofie pasta tossed with pesto alla Genovese—and sometimes, potato and green beans are added.
Honestly, anything with pesto alla Genovese is worth tasting in northern Italy. This D.O.P.-protected pesto is made from basil grown in Genoa (hence the name), pine nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, among other goodies like extra virgin olive oil. It’s great stuff, we tell you, and no Italy food guide is complete without a mention.
The trofie in Liguria are often made with a portion of chestnut flour, too. Chestnut trees have always flourished on the region’s hilly terrain, and were often used in breads and pastas until wheat flour became easy to import. But, as a nod to tradition, locals in northern Italy sometimes use chestnut flour in traditional dishes, and trofie al pesto is one of them. See what and where to eat during free time in northern Italy >
Where to get the best trofie al pesto in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Risotto allo zafferano (or risotto alla Milanese when made with beef bone marrow)
If you’re gonna eat any type of rice dish in Italy, make sure it’s risotto. And if you’re gonna eat risotto in Milan, make sure it’s risotto allo zafferano! This is one of the best foods to eat in Italy, and is made from short-grain rice like Arborio or Carnaroli, which is slowly simmered in a beef broth, and tossed with saffron. That’s where the lovely yellow color comes from.
According to legend, Milan’s famous saffron risotto came to be in 1574. A glassmaking apprentice who used saffron to color the stained glass of Milan’s duomo decided to sprinkle some in a batch of wedding rice, and this culinary staple was born.
While risotto hails from the Lombardy region where rice grows abundantly, it’s worth trying anywhere in northern Italy. “This dish is super creamy and comforting—I tried it in San Gimignano, where saffron is a specialty, and it was by far my favorite dish in Italy,” said staffer Paula.
Where to get the best risotto allo zafferano in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Spaghetti alle vongole
Seafood is another thing that Italians do very, very well. (No surprise there!) The country has a long coastline that winds its way around the length of the boot, which means that the freshest fish is hauled into ports from Genoa to Venice to Sorrento. But, if you’re a seafood lover, Naples is one of the best places to eat in Italy.
While all things seafood are worth trying in Napoli thanks to its position on the Bay of Naples, one dish you can’t pass up is spaghetti alle vongole. It’s made simply—like so many great things in Italy—with spaghetti, fresh clams in their shells, garlic, parsley, chili pepper, and (sometimes) cherry tomatoes. It has the bright, briny flavors of the Mediterranean all in one dish—and goes well with a cold glass of white Falanghina wine.
Where to get the best spaghetti alle vongole in Italy:
English translation: The name means “cheese and pepper”—we’re sure you can guess what’s in it!
Wondering what to eat in Rome? Well, look no further then cacio e pepe. If this famous Italian food had a catch phrase, it would surely be “quality over quantity.” With just three ingredients (four, if you count starchy, salted pasta water), this indulgent Roman meal proves that good products go a long way.
You might be wondering, “Is the dish really only made with cheese and pepper?!” It sure is. The magic happens when thick pasta like bucatini is tossed in a “creamy” sauce made with sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano cheese, ground black pepper, and a splash of starchy water that the pasta was cooked in.
And let us just say: This no-fuss recipe is off-the-charts delicious, and is one of the best foods to eat in Italy. “Cacio e pepe is like the most adult version of mac and cheese that you should enjoy with one (or two) glasses of a tasteful white,” said staffer Adam. “With just a few simple ingredients this dish is proof that the simple life is the best life. I tried it in a restaurant called Tutto Qua in the more residential Monteverde neighborhood. Just thinking of eating that in Rome again in that very neighborhood makes me want to travel!”
Where to get the best cacio e pepe in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Orecchiette con cime di rapa
When talking about the best Italian dishes, we were sure not to leave the country’s boot heel out. Here in the Puglia region, the sea (and fresh seafood) is just a stone’s throw away, there’s a rich farming tradition, and chef’s rely on a mode of cooking called “la cucina povera,” which translates to “the poor kitchen.”
But, the region’s food is anything but poor. Rather, ingredients are never wasted, and each dish celebrates simple, local products—and orecchiette con cime di rapa is the perfect example. This might not be the most popular food in Italy, but it’s a regional classic that should be on your foodie bucket list.
The word “orecchiette” means “little ears,” and this pasta is a type of circular, dented noodle that does a good job of scooping up sauce. Tossed with a sauce made with garlic, anchovies, and broccoli rabe (which are turnip tops), this dish is a winner in all categories.
Where to get the best orecchiette con cime di rapa in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Bistecca alla Fiorentina
Did you know a steak could be famous? Well, let us introduce you to one of the most important (and delicious) culinary highlights in Florence, Italy: the very large, rare, T-bone steak cooked simply over hot coals. And by rare, we mean rare—this isn’t a steak that you want to order overcooked. The fact that the thick cut is grilled over high heat means two things: The outside will be crusted and caramelized, and the inside will be red.
The cut of super flavorful meat comes from prized Chianina cows, which are a Tuscan breed that have been bred in the region for centuries. Needless to say, the dish has become a point of pride, and we can’t imagine a Florentine chef would be thrilled if it was ordered well done! Florence is one of the best food cities in Italy, after all, and locals take each plate seriously.
Word to the wise? If you want to give this regional product a try on tour in Florence, come hungry—it’s usually served family-style, and could easily feed a few people.
Where to get the best bistecca alla fiorentina in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Tortellini en brodo
If top Italian dishes are what you’re looking for, we know the bite for you: tortellini! These small, meat-and-cheese-filled dumplings are most often served en brodo, or in a simple broth, and are practically synonymous with the city of Bologna. You’re sure to find them on almost every menu, especially if you’re on tour in Bologna during a special holiday.
“I happened to be in Bologna during the Feast Day of San Petronio, which is a citywide holiday to honor Bologna’s patron saint,” said staffer Jamie. “The day of the festival, I wandered into a restaurant and discovered that the bowl of tortellini soup I ordered was a special part of the celebration, too. Tortellini are a Bolognese creation, and they’re time consuming to make. So, chefs lovingly fold these tiny dumplings for days leading up to the Feast Day in a sort of reverence to their saint and their heritage.” Read more about connecting with heritage in Bologna >
Where to get the best tortellini en brodo in Italy:
Say it in Italian: Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Tomato, basil, mozzarella… ah yes, this sounds familiar. While signature, sun-ripened ingredients like these can be found throughout Italy, it’s worth trying every single one of their regional incarnations.
What sets gnocchi alla Sorrentina apart is the gnocchi, a type of potato dumpling, which are then baked in tomato sauce with fresh mozzarella, and toped with fresh basil. It’s comfort food, for sure. But, since it doesn’t have a creamy sauce or meat, it’s a lighter, warming dish that’s delicious even on sunny days in Sorrento. If simple, classic ingredients are your thing, this is one of the best Italian dishes to try.
Where to get the best gnocchi alla Sorrentina in Italy:
We could go on and on about the countless savory dishes you should taste on tour in Italy—everything is a must-try because it’s that good. But, Italians also know a thing or two (or ten!) about sweets.
That’s especially true on the island of Sicily, where sweetened, shaved ice called granita and marzipan-coated cassata are calling. While there are tons of good things to taste, no dessert is more inherently Sicilian than cannoli. To make these famous pastries, a sweetened, sheep’s milk ricotta filling is piped into a fried shell, and then the ends are dipped into everything from crushed pistachios to shaved chocolate to candied fruit.
“Tasting an authentic cannoli was a must on my tour of Sicily,” said staffer Emily. “From the creamy ricotta filling to the crunchy outer shell, there’s so much to love about these signature pastries. Be sure to try a pistachio-flavored one! The green nut is popular all throughout the region and reflects the area’s multicultural cuisine.”
Where to get the best cannoli in Italy:
Origin: Somewhere in Italy—although the exact location is up for debate!
Every good guide to Italian food needs a nod to gelato, and those of you who have tried it on any of our Italy tours know why: because it’s delicious, and can be found on almost every corner, and you’ll have a hard time stopping at just one cone. Authentic Italian gelato is made from milk, cream, and sugar, plus mix-ins like fruit, nuts, or chocolate.
What’s the different between ice cream and gelato, you ask? Gelato isn’t made with eggs. It’s also made with less cream than ice cream, so has less fat, and is churned slower, so has less air. That makes for a super dense, creamy confection. “I still dream about the caramel gelato I had in San Gimignano,” said traveler Anna after her tour of Venice, Florence & Rome.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best gelato isn’t always super impressive to look at—it’s usually served from covered, stainless steel containers. Some gelaterias in touristy areas sell shiny, puffy, brightly colored gelato that’s piled very high, but those versions are made with artificial thickeners. The taller the gelato, the less authentic it is—the good stuff doesn’t need to advertise from afar.
Where to get the best gelato in Italy: