A culinary journey from north to south to discover the most iconic Italian food
“Italy is an incredibly beautiful country, you must visit!” – That’s no news; I bet you’ve already heard it thousand times! But did you know that Italy is actually the perfect destination for every type of holidays you can think of? Believe me, whatever your ideal vacation is, you can definitely find it in Italy.
If you are a sea lover, you can choose among hundreds of beautiful beaches with crystalline sea. Check the top 10 beaches to visit in Italy: https://www.languagesalive.com/top-10-beaches-to-visit-in-italy/
Do you love nature? The countryside and the mountains are just stunning.
Are you into bar hopping and clubbing? No worries, you can do that mostly everywhere, especially in summertime.
Are you interested in discovering the culture, history, architecture and art of the country you are visiting? No need to say, Italy has plenty of destinations that can be perfect for you.
Are you a foodie and when travelling in a foreign country all you want to do is to live exciting culinary experiences? Well, welcome to Italy – or better to say: welcome to foodies’ Heaven! Italy is definitely the right place for you (and this is the article you were waiting for)!
As we all know, in the last two years it’s been extremely difficult to travel abroad but now that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is definitely time to start planning your next trips and weekend escapes!
If you live in the UK, it takes no time to fly to any Italian destinations…you can even escape the gloomy British weather for only 24 hours to just enjoy a proper coffee and have a tasty meal! (Been there, done that. You caught me red handed!). I really hope that this article is going to tickle your curiosity to the point that a plane ticket is already on the way!
A great destination for foodies
It is fair to say that biodiversity is one of the many Italy’s true treasures. Over 58,000 animal species and 7,000 varieties of edible fruits and vegetables have been registered, including 1,200 native grape varieties and 538 olive cultivars. These are incredible figures bearing in mind that Italy is a pretty small country, covering only the 0.20% of the Earth’s surface.
With such a variety of natural products, there is no doubt that Italy is the best destination for someone into food and looking for special ingredients and dishes to taste. Every geographical area, every region, every single city – or even small town – is characterised by specific products, hence different ingredients and typical dishes.
It is for me impossible to make a comprehensive list of all the incredible traditional food that you can find in Italy, so I’ve decided to be extremely selective and feature just five iconic Italian cities and their unmissable five most iconic traditional dishes! I will take you to a culinary journey from the North to the South of Italy, discovering what food is about in Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Noto
Milan – Risotto alla milanese
Our first stop is in Milan, in Lombardy. Milan is a cosmopolitan and elegant city, characterised by an unusual mix of historical and modern architecture. The city is known as the economic heart of Italy as many headquarters of the financial industry are based here, as well as for its thriving fashion industry and its fast-paced and quite international lifestyle.
In terms of hospitality, in Milan you can find an endless choice of coffee shops, bars and restaurants that offer a rich variety of traditional and more contemporary/alternative options. Milan and the Lombardy region offer many traditional dishes: among the others the cassoeula, a stew of pork meat and cabbage normally served with polenta and the classic Italian Christmas treat panettone.
If you’ve never heard of it before, panettone is a cylinder shaped sweet bread loaded with candied citron, lemon zest and raisins. Of course, many other traditional dishes could be mentioned, but in my opinion nothing says more Milanese than the golden Risotto alla Milanese.
The first recipes mentioning this dish appeared in cookbooks starting in the 1800s. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, rice was only cooked in boiling water. The first change took place in 1779: for the first time rice was sautèed in butter and wet with broth; later, a pinch of chopped onion was added as well.
The recipe for ‘riso giallo in padella’ first appeared in a cookbook in 1809, but it is only in 1929 that the Milanese chef Felice Luraschi finally named the dish ‘Risotto alla Milanese Giallo’. This recipe includes rice, fat, beef marrow, saffron, nutmeg, stock and grated cheese. Yes, it is exactly as creamy and tasty as it sounds!
Florence – Ribollita
It is now time to leave the fast-paced Milan and continue our culinary trip in Florence. There would be so much to say about this stunningly beautiful city. Called ‘La Culla del Rinascimento’, Florence is such an elegant city full of history, architecture and art. If you get lost in its beautiful vicoli (alleys) you will feel like you are living in a Renaissance painting!
As much as the Florentines care about their history and artistic heritage, food is one of their biggest concerns and Tuscans in general are very proud of their products and traditional dishes. Salame, prosciutto, finocchiona, bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine beefsteak), pappardelle al cinghiale (ribbon pasta with wild board), schiacciata all’uva (flat focaccia with grapes), crostini toscani (sliced bread with a chicken liver patè) cantucci con Vin Santo (almond biscuits with sweet wine), just to name a few.
But I would like to focus on a pretty special dish that can be only found in Florence and its outskirts: the ribollita.
Ribollita (meaning ‘reboiled’) is a hearty potage made with bread and vegetables. There are many variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans, lacinato kale, cabbage and inexpensive vegetables such as carrot, chard, celery, potatoes and onion. Like most Tuscan dishes, the soup has peasant origins. It was originally made by reheating (reboiling) the leftover vegetable soup from the previous day.
Some sources date it back to the Middle Ages when the servants used to put together food-soaked bread trenchers from the lords’ banquets and boiled them for their dinners.
Let me be honest with you: the first time I tasted ribollita I was a bit sceptical about it…God, I was so wrong! Not only ribollita is delicious, it is also warm and comforting, the perfect dish for a cold day especially if accompanied by a glass of Brunello di Motalcino. This is the best food/wine pairing combination you can think of and possibly one the best meals you will ever have.
Rome – Pasta cacio e pepe
Time to move on. You know how they say: all roads lead to Rome! Roma Caput Mundi, Roma città eterna. Yes, Rome is as eternal as its unique beauty. I do not even start here, there is so much that should be said about this city that I would end up writing an essay! From the magnificent Roman ruins to the characteristic neighbourhood of Trastevere, from the incomparable elegance of the baroque squares and churches to the warmth and kindness of its people.
There are so many traditional Roman dishes worth it the mention, among the others pasta alla carbonara, pizza al taglio romana, porchetta, supplì, maritozzi con la panna and my favourite: pasta cacio e pepe. The clue’s in the name for one of the city’s most iconic dishes: ‘cacio’ is the local word for Pecorino Romano – a salty, aged sheep’s milk cheese, and ‘pepe’ means black pepper. The two ingredients are combined with cooked pasta and a bit of its cooking water, then stirred vigorously to create a smooth sauce. So yummy!
Pasta cacio e pepe could seem to be a pretty simple recipe to replicate: don’t let this mislead you! To make a perfectly seasoned and creamy cacio e pepe you need follow the recipe to the letter and know a few little tricks that can really make the difference. Are going to give it a try?
Naples – Pizza Margherita
Our trip from the North to the South of Italy is getting closer to an end. We are now in Naples and its lively streets, the sea, the melodic music, its fun and generous people.
If you go to Naples make sure that your stomach is completely empty because you must – yes, I said must – taste so many incredible foods: mozzarella di bufala, casatiello, pizza fritta, zeppole, pastiera sfogliatelle…and so many other delicacies! But of course, let’s talk about the most iconic dish, the Queen – actually the Empress of them all: Her Majesty Pizza Margherita.
Pizza Margherita is such a simple dish, made out of a bunch of very simple ingredients: what really makes the difference is not only the quality and provenance of the ingredients but also the expertise put in the preparation. This is the reason why you will not find anywhere else in the world a pizza that tastes better than the proper traditional pizza napoletana.
Fun fact – According to the popular legend, the pizza Margherita was invented in 1889 by Raffaele Esposito, chef at Pizzeria Brandi. The pizza was allegedly created in honour of Italy’s unification, with the three toppings – basil, mozzarella, and tomato – respectively representing the green, white, and red of the Italian flag. The story also claims that Esposito named the dish after the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. This story is most likely fiction, however.
The pizza was probably really served at Pizzeria Brandi, but the use of these three toppings had already been fairly widespread in Naples for decades as described in an 1866 book. It might have been christened ‘Margherita’ at the Pizzeria Brandi, but some sources claim the name could also come from the arranging of mozzarella slices like the petals of a daisy (margherita in Italian).
Noto / Sicily – Granita alla mandorla e brioche
We have now reached the last stop of our food trip, hitting the extreme South of Italy. We are in Sicily, more precisely in Noto, a little town in the province of Syracuse.
Through the ages Sicily has been a crossroads and crucible of Mediterranean culture. The island today is the perfect holidays destination, with a wonderful weather all over the year and a fascinating palimpsest of history and abundant natural wonders, such as the turquoise water of its beautiful beaches and the apocalyptic landscape of the Etna volcano region.
Noto is splendidly set within a rocky plateau overlooking the Asinaro Valley and it can be simply described as the apotheosis of the baroque town planning and architecture, with its monumental, luminous and honey-hued buildings. Such a spectacular and poetic place!
If you thought that in Naples there was far too much to taste, well get ready, because in Sicily the list of delicacies worth it those pounds that you are going to put on is even longer! Everything looks and actually is extremely delicious and for all the types of palate; either you have a sweet tooth or you are more into savouries, Sicilian food has you covered.
Moreover, Sicilians will never allow you to refuse eating their food. Bear in mind that in Italy food is a love language and, if possible, in Sicily it is even more than that!
Influences from Arabia, Africa, Spain (and, of course, Italy) make Sicilian cuisine a veritable melting pot of flavour. There are so many traditional dishes that should be mentioned, but I am just going to list what I tasted when I visited Noto: arancini, caponata, pasta alla norma, pasta con le sarde, sarde a beccafico, pistachio gelato, typical pastries, of course cannoli (many cannoli) and my choice as iconic Sicilian food: granita alla mandorla e brioche.
Granita is a sort of creamy sorbetto and it normally comes in the flavours of coffee, chocolate and almond. You can eat granita at any time of the day but if you want to enjoy it as true local you must have it for breakfast: forget the classic cappuccino and cornetto and dip a soft and warm brioche in your granita. So good and refreshing!
If I close my eyes, I can still taste in my mouth the sweet and aromatic flavour of the almond granita and feel on my skin the warmth of the early morning sun shining on the Noto’s Cathedral Square. Can’t wait to go back!
Heading to Rome and surroundings? Check my post on the 10 most iconic Roman foods! https://www.languagesalive.com/top-10-foods-to-eat-in-rome/ includes my video for making the iconic “fiori di zucca”. Never heard of it? Well, it’s time to discover the real Roman delicacies.
Interested in learning Italian and improve your cooking skills?
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