We want to let you in on a little secret: There’s no wrong time to visit Italy. Sure, warmer weather awaits during the summer, but what off-season travel might lack in high temperatures it makes up for with fewer people crowding the very best attractions. But for food-loving travelers, the best reason to time an Italian vacation for winter (and the surrounding months) is that you’ll get to try Italian dishes that are otherwise unavailable during peak summer season.
That’s what we love about off-season adventures. You get small crowds, but big flavors. Read on to see which Italian dishes you should order during the off-season.
You know we’re all too happy to travel for Italian food, but the purest expression of Italian cooking relies on farm-fresh ingredients. This can mean some seasonal foods found in Italy will only be prepared during key months that don’t align with the major travel season. We’re talking hearty stews loaded with fresh cabbage and pastas topped with generous shavings of white truffle that you can only order during the colder months. And did you know that the true season for artichokes (or carciofi in Italian) is actually early spring? Yes, you can get them in Rome year-round prepared in a variety of ways, but imagine how much more delicious a plate of carciofi alla Romana is when the artichokes have just been plucked from the earth?
Come October, most regions of Italy are still fairly warm, but mountain towns in the north may start to see the first signs of flurries. And that’s also when richer, warmer dishes begin to show up on many restaurant menus.
In autumn, many Italian cities are perfumed with roasting chestnuts. Major piazzas from Rome to Turin are dotted with street vendors who will try to catch your eye with piping-hot chestnuts. Many destinations around the country stage what’s called a castagnata, local festivals dedicated to the chestnut season.
Fall is also a great time to look for pumpkin-flavored dishes. Chefs throughout the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy regions especially will be stuffing their pastas, like tortellini and ravioli, with zucca (that’s Italian for pumpkin) to add a warming richness to meals that feel perfect for when evenings get a little cooler.
Another ingredient that starts to sprout around Italy in autumn are porcini mushrooms. They are found and foraged in late summer and through most of fall all over the country, whether you’re on our Grand Tour of Italy or the more dedicated Food & Wine: Flavors of Tuscany & Umbria tour. These delicate yet flavorful fungi are equally versatile, topping pasta, risotto, and polenta dishes. And in some restaurants, you may find them as a yummy side dish, too, often sautéed with just a bit of salt and olive oil.
An iconic food item that can deliciously crown just about any Italian dish out there—from pasta to pizza—is white truffle. A dog-led hunt in Alba is truly one of the highlights of our Food & Wine: Northern Italy & the Italian Riviera tour, and this is best experienced in the fall when white truffles are at their most plentiful. Then, settle into a nearby restaurant and discover all the ways that Italy’s top kitchens are incorporating truffles into exciting recipes. Who knows? You might even get them to put a couple of shavings atop a scoop of gelato.
Italian food to try during the off-season can sometimes look similar to peak-season items (pasta, pizza, risotto) topped with fresh-now ingredients, but when winter rolls around, mealtimes in Italy take on a cozier, heartier atmosphere. And lesser-known Italian dishes are the stars of the show.
If your winter-in-Italy fantasies include cozy evenings in Bologna carb-loading with a bowl of pasta drenched with savory bolognese sauce, you’re absolutely right. It’s an iconic recipe that you shouldn’t miss when you’re in Emilia-Romagna, but there’s plenty more to tuck into.
There are some foods in Italy that are infrequently served, unless you visit during the coldest months of the year. For example, in the Lombardy region, while you’re exploring Milan and its surroundings, try a cassoeula, a richly flavored casserole loaded with cabbage, a wintertime ingredient that makes this dish so nutritiously fortifying. It’s typically prepared with different cuts of pork, too, and is best paired with a creamy polenta and a potent bottle of red wine. There might not be a better way to warm up on a chilly day with your travel mates than with that combo!
And in Tuscany, winter’s the time for a bowl of the humble ribollita, a quintessentially regional soup packed with seasonal Italian produce like kale and potatoes then further thickened with some day-old bread. We’ve picked out some of the best places in Florence to try the ribollita, especially if you’re on our New Year’s Eve in Florence with Venice & Rome tour.
If you don’t want anything super robust or just need a refreshing break from heavier dishes, a lot of fabulous Italian fruits and vegetables are available during winter, too. We mentioned kale, but crunchy pink radicchio makes for a beautiful salad, and you can toss that with slices of blood orange; some of the best in the world are harvested in Sicily so make sure you get your fill on our A Week in Sicily: Palermo, Syracuse & Taormina tour, during which you can also try some of the island’s most beloved dishes.
And of course, if your Italian holiday coincides with Christmas, you’ll have to sample one of Italy’s most celebrated cakes: Panettone. This Milanese delicacy—a sweet, dome-shaped loaf baked with raisins and citrus peels—is only available during the holiday season.
As the frost starts to thaw and days get longer and warmer, foods in Italy are transformed in the spring, too. Heartier, heavier meals give way to Italian dishes that feature lots of veggies.
April is truly the best time for artichokes. Yes, you can order it all over whenever you want, but unless they are in-season (like they are in April), you’re likely getting the frozen stuff. If you’re doing our Rome: The City Experience tour in early spring, tender, deep-fried carciofi alla Romana should be a frequent part of your meals. These are so addictive that no one will fault you for having a plate of it multiple times a day.
Asparagus will also be in season in early spring, and many restaurants in Italy will feature these delicious green stalks with pasta and over risotto. Or, you may just get it sautéed or grilled then drizzled with olive oil and topped with grated parmesan. In Sicilian cooking, asparagus may be cooked with the day’s catch of swordfish or tuna.
If Panettone is to Christmas, then the colomba is to Easter. This fluffy, buttery, dove-shaped cake has been around for centuries, and depending on which region of Italy you go to, the legend might be different. And not only that, but the varieties of colomba cakes out there represent the culinary traditions of where you’re having it. The standard version is flavored with almonds and oranges. In Piedmont, they might add hazelnuts, whereas bakeries in Emilia-Romagna might include cherries. Finding your favorite is going to be part of the fun.