Food is a critical component of any culture, but in Italy, it’s more than just that… Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, yet until you travel to Italy, it’s impossible to taste the real love and passion Italians pour into their food. It’s an art strongly tied to Italy’s identity, based in fresh, simple ingredients. I spent one summer in college living and traveling through Rome, Florence, and Naples, devouring all the staple dishes (Eat Pray Love-style). So, here are my top picks for the BEST food to try in Italy, if you want the full Italian experience…
It’s on every single dessert menu in Italy! I thought that after a few times I would finally get sick of it and order some other dessert, but that never happened. This coffee-flavored desert with whipped egg and mascarpone cheese is a refreshingly light and dreamy delicacy after a hearty meal. The name tiramisu literally means “cheer me up”, and every bite undoubtedly will!
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Suppli are deep fried balls of rice, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. It isn’t all that fancy, and is actually considered fast food (something very rare in a country known for its relaxed and laid back pace). I discovered suppli during my short lunch break in between classes in Rome, at a small restaurant two blocks away from my university. I spotted many other students ordering them, so I thought I’d give it a shot too. As soon as I bit down into the ooey, gooey, deep-fried yumminess, I knew I was hooked. The perfect taste of Italy on the go!
8. Spaghetti alla Carbonara
I remember the first time I tried Spaghetti alla Carbonara on my way back from the Vatican with a group of friends. I’d never heard about it until then, when my friend mentioned that it is one of the most popular pasta dishes. Carbonara is a sauce made by whisking together egg, parmesan, and bacon then pouring it over hot pasta, flash cooking the sauce. This creamy spaghetti dish is so rich and substantial that you’ll feel inclined to take a siesta (traditional afternoon nap) like a true Italian.
Espresso kicks every other coffees butt. It’s quick, full-flavored, and powerful. Normally served at the bar of a cafe and costing 50 cents or less, many busy Italians start their day with a shot of espresso. Rarely did I have time for a cappuccino or other fancy coffee drink. On school days it was an espresso keeping me going after pulling an all-nighter the day before. It’s more than a drink; it’s a way of life and the heart of Italian culture.
6. Pasta Arrabiata
I could eat this by the ton, and even several years after my time in Italy, it’s still my favorite. Pasta Arrabiata is simple, yet perfect. Arrabiata literally means “angry” sauce, but don’t let that deter you from sampling this famous pasta dish. It’s just spicy enough to please everyone and pairs wonderfully with a glass of wine on a late summer afternoon. I loved it so much that I actually had three portions of it while wine tasting in Tuscany. Don’t forget the freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano!
5. Ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms
Who would think that flowers would taste so good? Zucchini blossoms, or “fiori di zucca” as they’re known in Italy, are a mouth-wateringly delicious mix of crisp deep-fried batter and smooth mascarpone cheese filling. The flavor is incomparable.
My friend who had been to Italy before told me I had to try them, but I struggled to find them on any menu. When I finally did find fiori di zucca listed in a restaurant in Naples, I ordered them immediately. I honestly don’t remember what else I ate because they stole the show that night. It was one of the most memorable foods that I got to try in Italy.
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Gelato was my biggest vice during my time in Rome. I made sure to eat gelato at least once a day, and on certain sweltering summer days up to three times a day! If someone were to do the math, that’s a LOT of gelato.
Dating back to the 1600s, this silky smooth, frozen desert is different from traditional American ice cream as it uses more milk and a lower proportion of cream and eggs (and so it has less fat!). It’s also churned at a much slower rate, making it denser.
I encountered everything from kiwi-flavored to Barbie doll-flavored gelato. I kid you not, while visiting Naples on a weekend excursion, my Italian tour director showed us a place that served Barbie doll-flavored gelato, and no, it didn’t not taste like plastic… more a burst of tropical flavors!
3. Ravioli di Pera
Ravioli in general is delicious, but I’m not talking about Chef Boyardee. I’m talking about handmade ravioli from locally sourced ingredients, filled with sweet pear, and topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar glaze. This sweet and savory combo of flavors will blow your mind. For me, it caused a culinary epiphany.
If you ever have the chance to taste Ravioli di Pera in Florence, or any other dish that initially intimidates you, do it. Travel is the opportunity to get out of your shell and change your outlook on life, including food.
People go to Italy to eat pizza. If you manage to spend any amount of time in Italy and neglect to try their pizza, then why did you come in the first place?! Pizza is a requirement. Not once, not twice, but as many times as you can!
Be sure to try the thin crust variations and the ‘pizza bianca’, as well as any other pizza that sounds unique. One of my favorite experiences was when I went to the original Eataly with five other friends and half of us ordered a pasta dish while the other half each ordered a pizza and we split everything six ways, meaning that I got to try six different menu items including three yet-to-be-beaten pizzas. My personal favorite was one with potatoes and gorgonzola – a strange, yet satisfying combination.
I saved the best for last, which, ironically, was the very first thing I ate after landing in Rome. Burrata is a fist-sized ball of solid mozzarella cheese on the outside with both cream and mozzarella on the inside. The solid outer shell with the soft, creamy inside served warm is phenomenal, extraordinary, exceptional, and all the other adjectives in the English language that exist to describe something amazing.
A drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of fresh, cracked black pepper complete this appetizer. It was the moment that I realized, despite being an enormous Francophile, that Italy has even better food than France. One bite and less than four hours in Rome, I was convinced.
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