Italian cuisine is one of the most popular in the world, and yet, so many people are only familiar with the basics. Of course, a simple wood-fired pizza always hits the spot, and spaghetti with basic tomato sauce and meatballs is a staple in a lot of households. But it doesn’t stop there.
From the coastal mainland regions lining the Adriatic Sea in the east, the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, and the Ionian Sea in the south, to the landlocked northern regions of Lombardy, Trentino, and Piemonte, each Italian territory contributes something unique to the national cuisine. Every region has its signature dish and offers up a tasty menu of starters and snacks, mains and sides, and of course, sweets. The result is a diverse gastronomical culture that entices travelers from around the globe.
Though our minds automatically jump to carbs when we think Italian food, there are actually endless dishes where meat, seafood, or vegetables reign supreme. Ingredients like polenta, sage, and pine nuts tend to make their way into dishes from the north of Italy while garlic, olive oil, and tomato serve as the pillars of the south. And some dishes throw away these guidelines to bring you something totally random, but just as delicious. Check out these 25 authentic Italian foods to try when you’re finally sick of pizza.
25 Antipasto Platter
No Italian gathering is complete without a good antipasto platter. Some cultures snack on creamy cheese platters or flatbreads and dips, but Italians turn straight to the antipasto.
Filled with cured meats, cheeses like mozzarella and provolone, olives, and pickled vegetables, this platter can be found on nearly every Italian dinner table.
Guests can graze throughout the evening, plus it’s easy (but expensive, if you want to get quality meats and cheeses) to make your own. As for carbs, you should always include plenty of crusty bread on the side.
24 Roasted Peppers
Many regions of Italy have their own spin on roasted peppers or “peperoni arrostiti sotto olio." These are served along with the antipasto platter in many cases, but they can hold their own, too.
Made simply with roasted bell peppers, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and sometimes basil and oregano, this tasty treat is divine as a topping on bread. In some Italian cities and villages, they’re eaten over bread and goat’s cheese or buffalo mozzarella. Now that’s a good way to get your veggies in!
23 Bruschetta Topped With Sausage
Bread topped with other ingredients seems to be a trend in Italian cooking, and the universal favorite manifestation of this would be the simple tomato bruschetta:
Bruschetta is a tasty combo of tomato, olive oil, salt, oregano, and garlic spread on either toast or fresh bread.
In Calabria, they have their own version known as “bruschetta con la ‘nduja." “’Nduja” is a spicy, spreadable salami unique to the southern region. It's often included atop plain bruschetta to give it a flavorful kick.
You can’t call yourself a fan of Italian cuisine without trying this beloved Sicilian street food. Arancini come in many forms, but the basic recipe calls for rice balls filled with ingredients like meat, cheese, peas, and other vegetables that are coated in breadcrumbs and then deep fried.
You can find them in ball shapes or in traditional cone shapes, and luckily, they’re now available beyond the streets of Sicily. If you don’t want to make your own, you can buy them frozen from many supermarkets.
21 Vegetable Soup
A lot of cultures have their own take on vegetable soup, and with its hearty minestrone, Italy is no different.
There are a couple of different ways to make this winter favorite, which was traditionally a way to use up as many vegetables as possible while creating a rich meal that could feed families for a few days.
You can find Italian minestrone with or without pasta or noodles, and it’s usually made with a thick tomato base which gives it the rich red color.
20 Lentil Soup
For a soup that’s still comforting but a little less well known outside Italian families, check out “minestra di lenticchie." Another winter favorite that stops tummies rumbling, the basic Italian lentil soup calls for the holy trinity of carrot, onion, and celery, as well as lentils, tomato, parsley, and beef stock.
You can throw in some pork bones for added flavor, too. Lentil soup is usually served as a starter at lunch, or as a lighter meal in the evening.
19 Meatball Soup
Yes, the Italians love their soups. There are several ways to make a traditional meatball soup or “brodo con polpettine di carne." Ground beef is the most popular, but some people like to make their meatballs with ground chicken.
Breadcrumbs and egg also go into the meatballs, which are then cooked with carrots and celery, peeled tomatoes, beef bones, olive oil, and parsley.
Many recipes also use a small kind of pasta that’s perfect for soups like pastina or risoni.
18 Spaghetti With Garlic And Oil
Known fondly as “spaghetti aglio e olio," this dish is as simple as it gets. Humble spaghetti (this is the most popular kind of pasta used, but you could technically substitute for any kind of pasta you like) is tossed into the sautéed garlic and olive oil.
Sometimes, red chili flakes are added to give the dish a bit of bite. Like many pasta dishes, this one is usually seasoned with parmesan cheese. This quick and easy go-to can be whipped up in under ten minutes.
17 Pasta With Carbonara Sauce
Many restaurants serve carbonara sauce, but an alarming group of them stray too far from the dish’s roots by adding cream.
Though this restaurant-staple sauce is rich and creamy, the authentic version doesn’t have any cream.
Instead, traditional carbonara is made with parmesan cheese, bacon or pancetta, eggs, and herbs and seasonings such as parsley or cracked pepper. Normally, the eggs are mixed in after the pasta has come off the stove (or you’ll end up with scrambled egg in your pasta!).
16 Baked Gnocchi
“Gnocchi alla romana” differs from other gnocchi dishes in that the gnocchi themselves aren’t made from potato or squash and flour but from semolina. The starchy staple ingredient is combined with milk, parmesan, butter, and egg yolks and baked in the oven.
Gnocchi can be served with extra cheese and make the ultimate comfort food on a cold winter night. Some recipes even serve them with a side of tomato sauce. Either way, these tasty traditions are little bites of heaven.
15 Risotto Milanese
In the northern regions of Italy, particularly in Lombardy, rice tends to be used more often than pasta.
Risotto Milanese is one of Lombardy’s most famous dishes and can be enjoyed in restaurants all over the world.
While in the south olive oil would serve as the foundation of the dish, in the north, butter is used instead- as well as cheese and saffron, which gives it the brilliant yellow color. Long-grain white rice is most commonly used and cooked in chicken stock.
14 Chicken Marsala
“Pollo al marsala” is one of many Italian main dishes that strays from the famous carb-loaded style. In this dish, chicken thigh or breast fillets are cooked with the dessert wine known as marsala, cream, and butter.
Other ingredients include capers, mozzarella, and anchovy fillets for an extra salty flavor. The dish is usually seasoned with simple salt and pepper, letting the main flavors "breathe." Some foodies prefer veal marsala over chicken, but for us, the pairing of chicken and cream is heavenly.
13 Roasted Pork
Roasted pork, or “porchetta” is an Italian celebration and street food that has been adapted in kitchens all over the globe by famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.
Increasingly popular with tourists, slabs of roasted pork are sold by Italian street vendors throughout the country.
The boned cut of meat is rubbed, stuffed, and seasoned with ingredients like sea salt, oregano, parsley, rosemary, garlic, and white wine. Best served with roast potatoes, the pork is usually cooked to perfection in a simple roasting pan.
When the name of a dish translates as “jump in the mouth," you just know you’re in for something truly delectable! Traditional Italian saltimbocca is made with cuts of veal that are wrapped in slices of prosciutto and sage leaves.
It can either be marinated in oil, white wine, or saltwater depending on what region you’re in. The salty taste of the cured meat comes together with the earthy aroma of the sage to create a dish that's packed with flavor.
11 Italian Schnitzel
Italian schnitzels or breaded meat fillets are known as “cotolette,” and are traditionally made using veal cutlets.
That said, you can also find many Italian restaurants offering “cotoletta di pollo," or chicken schnitzel.
The breadcrumbs are combined with parmesan and lemon rind for maximum flavor. Chefs coat the meat with the crumb mixture after it’s been dipped in flour and egg. Then, they’re shallow fried in olive oil to crispy perfection. Believe it or not, these are even better the next day, so make them ahead.
10 Codfish And Polenta
Codfish, or “baccalà,” is a delicacy in many Italian regions, often fried and served on celebration days like Good Friday and Christmas Eve. The dish, consisting of codfish and polenta, comes straight out of the northeastern region of Veneto, where you’ll find the scenic cities of Verona, Padua, and of course, Venice.
Codfish is an acquired taste, but if you like seafood, there’s no reason not to give it a try. Tomatoes, onion, garlic, and parmesan cheese all work to complement that salty flavor.
9 Liver With Onions
We agree that this sounds less than appealing. But liver with onions, or “fegato alla veneziana” is another delicacy straight out of the city of gondolas.
The basic recipe uses trimmed calf’s liver, yellow onion, butter, black pepper, parsley, and most importantly, extra-virgin olive oil.
The flavors of oil, onion, and butter balance the striking taste of the liver beautifully. Every Venetian family has their own take on this recipe, but this universal classic is simple enough for any non-Italian to make, too.
8 Eggplant Patties
Eggplant isn’t the first ingredient that comes to mind when you think of comfort food, but when combined with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, anything is comfort food! Many regions in the south have their own recipe for “polpette di melanzane," but the basic Calabrese version involves boiling peeled eggplant until it's soft and draining the liquid, then adding parmesan cheese, day-old bread crumbs, basil, egg, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Finally, you roll the mixture into patty shapes and shallow fry them in oil. Delicious!
7 Stuffed Peppers
Italians love peppers and “peperoni imbottini” are among their most cherished creations.
Influenced by other surrounding cultures, stuffed peppers in Italy can take many forms.
Some versions call for ground meat, while others use only cured meats like ham or bacon. And some stuffed pepper recipes don’t have any meat at all, instead filling the peppers with rice, cheese, onions, tomato sauce, and peas. Green, red, and yellow peppers have subtly different flavors, so using a combination of the three guarantees an intricate dish.
6 Radicchio And Fennel Salad
Italian cuisine might not be the healthiest on the planet, but they do boast plenty of fresh salads to have alongside their mains. “Insalata di radicchio e finocchio” is a simple winter’s salad packed with crunch and bite, oozing with the strong licorice-like flavor of the fennel and the peppery radicchio.
Sometimes, orange or blood orange can be thrown in for a tangy twist. Only a very simple dressing is needed for this flavorful salad, usually using nothing more than olive oil, pepper, and salt.
When it comes to confectionary, Italians offer more than just Nutella. Torrone is the nation’s go-to sweet treat over winter and Christmastime.
Many regions have their own version of the nougat and together produce an abundance of diverse torrone.
Torrone typically has fewer nuts than the Spanish equivalent turròn, and can be either soft and chewy or brittle and crisp. You can also find versions dipped in chocolate and in a variety of flavors from vanilla and pistachio to citrus.
If there’s one thing Italians get right every single time, it’s the sweet pastries. The common denominator at the majority of Italian functions is that, served alongside the percolated coffee, there will be a tray of custard and cream-filled pastries.
One of the most popular is sfogliatella, which is shaped like a shell or if you like, a lobster tail. The multiple layers of pastry give a crunch just before the sweet custard within breaks free and flows into your mouth.
The Friuli people, from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, bless the rest of the country with many local specialties.
Around Italy’s most important holidays, Easter and Christmas, you’ll stumble across many seasonal cakes, and the Friuli version is Gubana.
This sweet dough is filled with nuts, raisins, and pine nuts before being rolled and cooked. The result is a sweet and nutty cake with a pleasing texture. Many other variations of fruit-and-nut cakes can be found around the country, especially at Christmastime.
2 Ricotta Pie
This ricotta pie is, quite honestly, too good to be true. Made around Eastertime in regions like Apulia, the Italian ricotta pie is basically made with a sweet, spiced crust which is then filled with a creamy ricotta mixture that uses sugar, Italian liqueur, and a whole lot of eggs.
Some recipes throw in chocolate chips or raisins while others use glazed cherries. On top of the filling, excess pastry creates a lattice pattern, making the pie look as good as it tastes.
Sometimes served as a dessert and sometimes as a quick breakfast pick-me-up, zabaglione is a must-have when it comes to the Italian culinary experience.
To make it, simply mix egg yolks, sugar, marsala, and white wine together, then whisk over a saucepan of simmering water.
When it’s warm and forming soft peaks, serve it up in little glasses or bowls. Nowadays you can find fancier versions with added sweet ingredients, but this classic recipe has provided sustenance for Italians for generations.