Well known for its contributions to the fields of art, architecture, and fashion, Italy has had a profound influence on the rest of the world. In the eyes of many, however, the country’s most outstanding achievement is its food.
With a rich history dating back thousands of years, Italian cooks have perfected utilizing the highest-quality ingredients to make simple dishes that are packed with flavor. On your next visit to Italy, there will be no shortage of amazing dishes to try, the only problem will be making enough room for all of them.
In no particular order, here are a dozen of the most famous foods in Italy.
It would be impossible to discuss Italian food without mentioning the country’s most famous dish, pizza. While bread has been topped with various ingredients for centuries, the modern version we know today was invented in the Italian city of Naples around the 18th century.
For a pizza to be considered truly Neapolitan, a very strict set of guidelines must be followed with regard to the way it’s prepared and the ingredients used. The dough must be made of wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, water, and salt.
Tomatoes used for the sauce can be either the Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio or San Marzano varietals. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana or Fior di Latte cheese are the only two acceptable kinds of cheese.
The dough can be rolled no thicker than 3 millimeters prior to cooking and must be baked for 60-90 seconds in a wood-fired oven at 905 degrees Fahrenheit. It is then served to be eaten with a fork and knife.
Aside from Neapolitan, there are several different versions of pizza eaten throughout the country, most notably the Roman style of the famous food. Enjoyed as a street food, it is served by the slice and made with a thicker dough that is often eaten by hand.
With origins in the 13th century, pasta is a staple of Italian cooking that has become deeply embedded in the identity of the country. With over 300 shapes and varieties of pasta available, there’s no end to the different dishes you can find throughout the country.
Usually made from a dough of wheat flour that is mixed with water and eggs, the end product can then be formed into different shapes or sheets. If made commercially, the pasta is usually dried and packaged to be sold at the local supermarket. Fresh-made pasta is often produced at home and meant to be consumed right after it has been prepared.
Some of the most popular shapes consumed in Italy include spaghetti, linguini, penne, rigatoni, fusilli, and tagliatelle. These can be combined with an endless variety of sauces and ingredients that are local to each region of the country.
In Rome, 3 pasta dishes stand out and are known as the “Roman Holy Trinity of Pasta”. The first dish is amatriciana, a spaghetti with a cured pork jowl similar to pancetta, tomatoes, and Pecorino Romano cheese.
The second dish is cacio e pepe, another spaghetti creation with two kinds of cheese, Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano, that is generously topped with salt and pepper.
The list is rounded out with carbonara, once again using spaghetti, the same two kinds of cheese as in cacio e pepe, cured pork jowl, and egg yolks for added creaminess.
Often confused for pasta, risotto is actually made of rice that is slowly cooked with a broth made from vegetables, fish, or meat.
While there are many different ways to prepare risotto, one of the most common includes sauteeing uncooked rice with onion, butter, and white wine. The broth is then slowly added while stirring until the rice is soft and tender. Parmigiano Reggiano is then added as a final touch for a bit of added creaminess.
The first recorded recipe for risotto dates back to 1809 in the northern Italian province of Vercelli. This was the first recipe to suggest slowly adding hot broth to rice that had been sauteed in butter and onion, similar to the way most Italians make it today.
One of the oldest foods on our list, focaccia is suggested to have pre-Roman origins with the Etruscan civilization that inhabited modern-day Italy over 2,000 years ago.
The most famous version of the bread today is focaccia genovese, made of a dough of flour, yeast, salt, honey, and olive oil. It’s then allowed to rise for several hours and then topped with olive oil and coarse sea salt before being baked until golden brown.
Although it is often eaten plain at breakfast alongside a cappuccino, the bread can be enjoyed at any time of the day. It can even be stuffed with ham and cheese if you’re in search of a heartier and more filling meal.
Originating in the southern Italian island of Sicily in the 10th century, arancini are balls of rice filled with meat or cheese that are coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.
They get their name from the Italian word for “orange,” aranciu, because of their shared shape and color with the fruit. Some of the most popular fillings include al ragu, minced meat cooked with tomato sauce and spices, mozzarella, and ham.
Another dish that can be mislabeled as pasta, gnocchi is actually a dumpling that is made of wheat flour, egg, salt, and potato.
The first recipes for gnocchi have been found dating back to the time of the Roman empire when soldiers would often mix a semolina dough with eggs creating a dish similar to the gnocchi we know today.
In the 16th century, potatoes were introduced to Europe and slowly found their way into gnocchi recipes.
To make modern gnocchi, potatoes are boiled, peeled, and then riced and added to a mixture of flour and egg. The ingredients are combined into a soft dough that is then rolled into a long rope shape. The rope is cut into 1-inch pieces that are then boiled in salted water until cooked and ready to eat.
Popular versions of the dumpling include the addition of a sauce such as butter and sage or pesto.
Getting its name from the Roman word bruscare, meaning, “to toast,” bruschetta is another Italian food that can be traced back to Ancient Rome. Olive growers of the time would often use a piece of bread to check the quality of their freshly pressed oil. This practice grew in popularity and thus the famous dish was born.
The modern version of bruschetta originated in the 15th century and today it is prepared by grilling bread that has been rubbed with garlic, olive oil, and salt. It can then be topped with meats, cheeses, or vegetables.
Bruschetta is often enjoyed as a pre-meal appetizer and one of the more popular versions is topped with fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
While the word prosciutto can be used to describe any kind of ham, prosciutto crudo is the proper term for the famous dry-cured ham enjoyed throughout Italy.
Several regions in the country are famous for their version of the cured meat. Notable versions include prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Daniele, and prosciutto Toscano.
The production of these meats is actually regulated under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union. This means not just anyone can make their own dry-cured ham and try to name it something similar to the well-known versions of the food without following the proper procedures.
Strict guidelines, such as the heritage of the pigs used in the making of prosciutto crudo, are upheld to make sure only products of the best quality can bear the name of their respective regions.
A dish made of boiled cornmeal, polenta is another meal that has its roots in the time of the Roman empire. Originating in northern and central Italy, the nutritious staple was considered a food of the poor because it was cheap and readily available. Farmers in these areas would eat the dish daily to support their hard work in the fields.
It’s made today by taking a 3-to-1 ratio of water and cornmeal and stirring the mixture in a round bottom copper pot called a paiolo for a little less than an hour. This results in a porridge-like texture that can be served warm as is or be allowed to cool and harden into a cake.
These days the reputation of this corn porridge has changed completely and it can even be found in gourmet and high-end restaurants. Polenta is enjoyed throughout the country but especially in the northern regions.
It can be used as a side to a meat dish, such as ossobuco, or even made into a savory cake layered with cheese such as Parmesano Reggiano.
A relative newcomer to the Italian food scene, ossobuco is thought to have originated in the area of Milan in the 19th century.
In the modern version of the dish, veal shanks are braised with white wine, tomatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. It’s typically garnished with gremolata, a sauce made of garlic, lemon zest, and parsley, and served with a side of polenta or risotto.
Literally translating to “bone with hole,” ossobuco is easily identifiable by the marrow hole that remains in the cut of the veal shank used to make the dish. The marrow inside is a delicacy and for many is considered the best part of the meal.
Another creation of Italian cuisine hailing from the southern island of Sicily, the cannoli is a decadent dessert enjoyed today by citizens in all regions of the country.
Pastry dough is fried into a small tube shape and then stuffed with a sweet cream made with ricotta. It can then be topped with ingredients such as chocolate chips, pistachio, powdered sugar, or candied fruit.
Although originally eaten as a treat during Carnevale, the dessert is now available and enjoyed throughout the year.
After a delicious bowl of pasta, a popular way to conclude the meal in Italy is to enjoy an after-dinner digestivo. Limoncello is one of the top choices and is an alcoholic beverage made from the zest of Sorrento lemons that are grown in southern Italy, near the Amalfi coast.
Served chilled in small ceramic glasses, winding down with a refreshing limoncello is the perfect way to end your meal.
One of the most beloved products to come out of Italy, Nutella has become a worldwide phenomenon since its release in 1964, currently being sold in 160 countries. Invented in the town of Alba in the northwestern part of the country, the hazelnut spread was originally sold by Pietro Ferrero as a solid block meant to be sliced and placed upon bread.
Pietro’s son, Michele Ferrero, had the idea to make a creamy version of the product that could be sold in jars, and thus Nutella as we know it today was born. It became an instant hit and is one of the most consumed spreads in the world.
Nutella has been such a success that in 2008 Michele Ferrero was named the richest man in Italy worth an estimated 11 billion dollars. The spread is made of sugar, palm oil, hazelnut, cocoa solids, and skimmed milk. It’s claimed by the manufacturer that 52 hazelnuts go into the production of each jar (affiliate link).
Located in the northern province of Bergamo, the town of San Pellegrino Terme is famous for its naturally mineralized water that has been enjoyed by locals for over 600 years. In 1395 the town was formed and quickly became well-reputed for its water that comes from an aquifer at the foot of the Dolomite mountains.
The town would go on to become a popular tourist destination with many fascinated by the unique taste of the local water. Leonardo di Vinci is even said to have visited San Pellegrino Terme in 1509.
In 1899 the Sanpellegrino S.p.A was formed and began to bottle and sell the famous water of the region. Today, S.Pellegrino mineral water is sold all around the world with the company reporting over $900 million dollars in sales in 2021 alone.
They also make a very popular lineup of all-natural sparkling drinks (affiliate link), similar to other Italian sodas, made using fresh fruits. It’s sold online and throughout the US, as well as internationally. And you may likely recall its iconic aluminum foil-covered lids on the top of its cans.
It’s easy to see how Italy has garnered its reputation as one of the greatest food countries in the world. Consisting of regions that each have their own specialties and twists on the beloved cuisine, there is no shortage of things to try the next time you visit this magical country.