Rich and full of flavor, Italian food is a culinary adventure for everyone. From the rustic dishes of the cucina povera (poor man’s kitchen) to the decadent delights of the cucina principesca (prince’s kitchen), to the alta cucina (haute kitchen) that is popular at different times. There’s always something coming out of the cucina Italiana that you’ll love.
Italian dishes may just be so lovable because it’s almost always made from scratch using fresh ingredients. From simple pizzas to not-so-complicated pasta, to antipasti (appetizers) and desserts, here are some traditional Italian foods that you’ll love!
Best Italian Appetizers
1. Arancini & Suppli
Arancini or arancine are snacks made from rice flour and stuffed with a mince-based ragu, mozzarella cheese, and peas. The arancini are shaped like balls and deep-fried. Originating in Sicily in the 10th century, this dish is often conical in Sicily to represent Mount Etna.
Suppli are cylindrical versions of arancini that are popular in other parts of Italy. You’ll find them stuffed with minced meat, giblets, mozzarella orprovatura cheese, and tomato sauce, and deep fried.
Bruschetta is an Italian antipasto or starter dish that’s quite similar to garlic bread. Toasted bread is topped with garlic and olive oil, and sometimes also includes beans, veggies, meat, tomatoes, basil, and cheese.
Although bruschetta originated in 15th century Italy, it can be traced farther back to Ancient Rome when olive farmers would sample newly pressed oil with slices of bread.
Italy produces many varieties of cheese, and there are over 45 Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin) cheese in Italy. The DOP symbol guaranteed that a particular cheese is an original product of Italy.
Some of the must try cheese include the Fiore Sardo, Gorogonzola, Provolone, Grana Pardano, Pecorino Romano, Castelmango, Asiago and Fontina.
If you like sushi, you’ll love carpaccio. Invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in Venice in 1950, the dish soon gained popularity across Italy. Cipriani named the dish Carpaccio after the famous painter.
It’s made of thinly pounded or thinly sliced raw meat or raw fish. The Carpaccio is served with vinegar or lemon, salt, and pepper. The perfect appetizer for any meal!
5. Caprese Salad
Simplicity that reaches new heights, this Caprese Salad brings the freshness of summer to your plate.
Made of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, sweet basil and olive oil, it’s a really light salad that’s named after the island of Capri where it may have originated.
A type of veal cutlet popular in Rome, the Saltimbocca or Saltinbocca means ‘jumps in the mouth’.
It’s made of veal that has been rolled around sage and prosciutto. The original version called saltimbocca alla Romana is cooked in butter and white wine.
In some versions, the ingredients are not rolled up but left flat and pinned together with a toothpick. Enjoy this as a starter!
Italian Main Dishes
Do you know the difference between anelloni, anellini, and anelli? Or between spaghetti, spaghettini, and spaghettoni? The anellini and the spaghettini are the smaller versions of the anelli and the spaghetti, while the anelloni and the spaghettoni are the larger versions.
Think that was easy to remember? Try this…
Did you know that there are over 350 types of pasta?
Bucatini, ziti, torchio, cavatappi, creste di galli, fiori, penne, riccioli, the list goes on!
Thankfully, Italian pasta sauces are a little easier to remember than Italian pasta dishes.
But which Italian pasta dish should you try?
These are our favorites but try all of them if you get the chance!
Spaghetti carbonara – A creamy dish made with Parmesan cheese, eggs, pepper, and olive oil with cured meat such as pancetta or guanciale.
Boscaiola – Using porcini mushrooms instead of chicken or meat, this dish literally translates to ‘the woodcutter’s wife’!
Four-cheese ravioli – Usually made with ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan and pecorino cheese, this dish is pure comfort food!
Fettuccine al burro – Also called Fettuccine Alfredo, this cheese and butter pasta is a simple symbol of Italian deliciousness.
Spaghetti alla vongole – Spaghetti and clams.
Cacio e pepe – Creamy and peppery, the cacio e pepe is made with the simplest ingredients, cheese and pepper.
Pesto alla Genoese – Pounded pine nuts and Parmigiano cheese combine to create this pesto sauce.
8. Lasagne or Lasagna
Okay, we know lasagna is a pasta, but it deserves a place all of its own on this list!
The ultimate pasta dish, lasagna is truly comfort food! Flat sheets of pasta are layered with ground meats, cheese, tomato sauce, and spices, and baked before being cut into squares and served. Lasagne originated in Naples and was first recorded in the 14th-century cookbook Liber de Coquina.
The traditional lasagne di carnevale is filled with meatballs, boiled eggs, different cheese and a Neapolitan ragu sauce. Other versions of lasagna are made with Bolognese sauce or Bechamel sauce.
Originating from the Northern Italian region of Lombardy, risotto is a rice dish cooked with a meat, veg or fish broth till it becomes creamy. There are many popular variations of risotto that taste delicious.
Risotto ai funghi – Made with porcini or portobello mushrooms.
Risotto alla Milanese – Originally from Milan, this risotto is made with beef stock, lard, cheese and saffron.
Risotto alla zucca – Pumpkin and cheese risotto.
Risotto al nero di seppia – Black-colored risotto from the Venetian region that’s made with cuttlefish.
A staple food across Italy, polenta is a dish made from cornmeal and cheese that originated in Central and Northern Italy. A substitute for rice or porridge, polenta goes great with barbecued or grilled meat and vegetables.
Polenta can also be fried or baked and served with various toppings or sauces. Check out my best recipe here.
Ossobuco or Osso Buco refers to the hole of the marrow bone in a veal shank. No wonder Osso Buco literally translates to “bone with a hole”.
A popular dish from Lombardy, Ossobuco is a rustic veal stew made by braising the cross-cut veal shank in a beef broth with white wine, bay leaves, cinnamon and gremolata sauce. The modern version also includes tomatoes, onions, celery, and carrots.
You might also find the modern pork Osso Buco version tasty too! Both versions go best with a creamy risotto.
Back in 2007, the Milan City Council declared the ‘oss buss’ as it’s called there as part of the Denominazioni Comunali, certifying that the dish belonged to that area of Lombardy.
12. Bisteca Fiorentina
The Bisteca Fiorentine, Bisteca alla Fiorentina, or Fiorentine Steak is a traditional dish from Florence, Tuscany. It is said that in the 15th century, the House of Medici would roast veal on the feast of Saint Lawrence (10 August) and distribute it to the people.
When English travelers were offered the meat, they called it beef steak which translated to bistecca in Italian. And the dish has been called bistecca Fiorentine since then.
Typically made using veal from the prized Chianina cattle, the Fiorentine Steak is traditionally served rare.
Parmagiana is made by deep-frying eggplant slices, layering them with tomato sauce and cheese, and finally baking them. Some versions use zucchini or chicken instead of eggplant.
Also called parmigiana di melanzane or melanzane alla parmigiana, both Siciliy and Campania claim to have invented the dish.
Whichever part of Italy you eat it in, parmagiana is the perfect comfort food!
The home of modern pizzas, Italy changed the way the world eats. You can’t go to Italy and not have pizza.
Although some form of pizza existed since the Neolithic ages, the classic pizza Margherita was invented in 1889 in the Neapolitan Pizza Banderi restaurant in honor of Queen Margherita. More pizzas became popular in the late 19th century, and soon became the world’s favorite dinner.
Here are some Italian pizzas that you must try are:
Pizza Margherita – Tomato and mozzarella
Pizza Ai Frutti Di Mare – Seafood pizza with scampi, mussels a,nd squid.
Pizza Pescatore – Fisherman’s pizza made with squid and mussels.
Pizza alla Napoletana – Neapolitan Pizza made with tomato, mozzarella and anchovy.
Pizza Ai Quattro Formaggi – Four cheese pizza usualy made with Mozzarella, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and Ricotta.
Pizza Al Taglio – Pizza baked in a square or rectangular tray, cut into squares, and sold by the slice.
Tip: most pizzas in Venice aren’t the true Italian ones as there’s only one restaurant in town that has a permit to own a stone oven. For the best pizza you can eat in Italy I recommend you head to Naples and surrounding areas.
Best Italian Desserts
This frozen dessert is so different from an ice cream. Made with only 3.25% milk and fruit purees, gelatos are creative and artisanal too.
With flavors like chocolate, almond, chestnut, hazelnut, stracciatella, fior di latte, zuppa inglese, frutti di bosco, mela, malaga, tarocco, liquirizia, granita, and semifreddo; gelatos will take you to frozen heaven!
This dessert made of ladyfingers soaked in espresso needs no introduction! Layers of coffee-soaked savoiardi in a mascarpone cheese with a dusting of cocoa powder are a delight for any dessert lover. Find a restaurant that serves it with Frangelico or Disaronno and you’ll be in dessert heaven!
17. Panna Cotta
Meaning ‘cooked cream’, this dessert of sweetened cream comes from the Piedmont region. Served with a chocolate sauce or a liqueur, or a coulis of fruits like strawberry or other berries, panna cotta is a fashionable way of sampling Italian cuisine.
This shell-shaped pastry is made from multiple layers that looked like thin stacked leaves. It was first created in the monastery of Santa Rosa in the town of Conca dei Marini in Salerno in the 17th century.
The flaky crust filled with soft cream and fruit is a different version of heaven. Alternate fillings and toppings include candied orange, cinnamon, ricotta cheese, honey, cranberries, and custard cream.
A sweet bread made from flour, candied lemons and oranges, and raisins the panettone is a small loaf type cake.
The cup-shaped panettone is originally from Milan’s House of Sforza but may date back even further to the Roman Empire.
The panettone has become so popular for Christmas that according to the Smithsonian magazine Italian food companies produce over 7,100 tons of panettone each year.
Cannoli, or singular cannolo, is derived from ‘canna’ meaning cane or tube. They are crispy tube-shaped desserts are made flaky by adding wine to the dough. They are then filled with a mixture of creamy ricotta cheese and sugar before being topped with chocolate chips, candied fruit, cherries, pistachios, or nuts.
Looking at them, you’ll see why they started off as a fertility symbol during Carnival before becoming a perennial staple in Sicily and other parts of Italy.
Other Italian dishes you should try that almost made it to this list!
Fritto Miso – Mixed fried seafood such as prawns, squid, sole, anchovies, or small sardines.
Foccacia Bread – A yeast-based bread that’s often served with tomatoes and cheese.
Pesto Bread – Bread with swirling layers of pesto sauce.
Minestrone Soup – A hearty vegetable soup that’s popular across the country.
Tartufo – Ice cream with a syrupy center covered with cocoa or chocolate shees.
How many of these iconic Italian foods and desserts have you tried in Italy? Which is your favorite? And which ones do you plan on trying next?