efining Italian regional cuisine is a challenge. The country’s cooking traditions and recipes are informal, adaptable and can change from town-to-town, often within neighborhoods and families. Most have evolved over centuries.
As a result, each of the country’s 20 regions offer not only own well-known local dishes but a rich gastronomical subset. As intriguing as travelers, gourmands and food scholars might find these riches, they’re of little help in attempting to define regional cuisine
Like its Mediterranean counterparts, Italy was profoundly affected by history’s twists and turns. The Celts, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Lombards, Arabs, Normans, Austrian, Spaniards all left their mark on the peninsula. Middle Eastern influences, for example, helped tilt Sicily toward sweets. French and Spanish visitors left their mark in Campania, which offers peasant dishes, seafood, pizza and pasta. Puglia makes original use of seasonal foods and raw fish. The kitchens of Lazio are known for their bizarre offal offerings. Tuscany boasts wine and oil supremacy while Emilia Romagna and Lombardy revel in abundance (risotto, ossobuco, cheeses and hearty stews). The Piedmont covets its truffles and prizes a long restaurant tradition. The list goes on.
Whenever friends visit me in Rome, I always recommend they dine at least once in the home of an Italian. The Bologna-based Home Food project, sponsored by a number of regions, the Italian ministry of agricultural politics and the University of Bologna, is working to produce of list of local homes and kitchens available to visitors.
The idea is to help teach foreigners about Italian food traditions and to show them the way that home-cooked cuisine makes a difference in Italian life, with meals bringing people together. The expression “Mangiare insieme sette chili di sale” (“Eating seven kilos of salt together.”) is a wonderful way of saying that friendship can be based on sharing countless meals.
Here’s a region-by-region look at the country’s food rainbow. It’s not at all comprehensive but can give a first-time visitor a taste of things to come.
Valle d’Aosta/Vallée d’Aoste
- Favorites: Here you’ll find Fontina cheese, the basis for the regional version of fondue. Hearty soups, wild game and stewed or roasted meats are also popular. Wines include Chambave Muscat, Blanc de Morgex et La Salle, and Enfer d’Arvier.
Piedmont (Piemonte)/includes Turin
- Favorites: White truffles shaved over anything, from risotto to fried eggs. There’s also bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) and several dipping sauces, creamy risotto, Carne all’Albese (veal tartare), Bagna Cauda (warm and punchy garlic and anchovy dip); posh chocolate. Wines: Barbaresco, Barbera, Barolo, Brachetto d’Acqui, Gattinara, Grignolino, Freisa d’Asti (not the sparkling variety), Moscato d’Asti, Nebbiolo, and Roero Arneis.
Lombardy (Lombardia)/includes Milan
- Favorites: Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal schnitzel), Risotto alla Milanese (creamy and made with saffron,) ossobuco (veal shanks), bresaola (cured beef served sliced paper thin), and pizzoccheri (whole grain fettuccine) There’s also sbrisolona (crumbly shortcake), polenta and Panettone (typical Christmas cake). Wines: Valcalepio, Franciacorta and Oltrepo Pavese.
Veneto (includes Venice)
- Favorites: Lots of fish, including baccalà (stewed cod), Sarde in Saor (sardines in escabeche marinade) and all kinds of mollusks. Also, fried polenta and Fegato alla Veneta (liver sautéed with onions). Wines: Amarone, Recioto Valpolicella, Bardolino, Raboso, Soave, and Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. Let’s not leave out cocktails: Spritz and Bellini.
- Favorites: Canederli (dumplings made with leftover bread; very similar to matzo balls) and Carne Salada (a kind of aromatic corned beef). The wines, including Teroldego Rotaliano, Müller Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, and Lagrein, pair wonderfully with tasty cheeses and spicy speck. Juicy apples and stiff grappa often close a meal.
- Favorites: Prosciutto San Daniele and Frico (a soft Montasio cheese omelet which can also be baked into a crisp wafer) as well as hearty soups. Among the wines: Ribolla Gialla, Refosco dal Penducolo Rosso, Schioppettino, and Verduzzo di Ramandolo. Plenty of aromatic grappas.
- Favorites: Pesto sauce, of course (made with ground fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil); cheese-loaded focaccia al formaggio; seafood, soups and terrace vine wines, including Rossese di Dolceacqua, Ormeasco di Pornassio, Pigato, Ciliegiolo, Granaccia di Quiliano, and sweet Passito Sciacchetrà.
- Favorites: Welcome to the land of a thousand pastas, including Tagliatelle, tortellini, tortelli, and cappelletti. It’s also the home of Parmigiano cheese and many salumi, including Parma ham and mortadella. Look for flatbreads piadina and tigelle. Zampone and cotechino (pig’s trotter) go with sauces such as meaty ragù and friggione (made with slow simmering onions and tomatoes). This is the home of balsamic vinegar. Wines: Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Pagadebit wines.
Tuscany (Toscana)/includes Florence
- Favorites: For starters, soups: Ribollita, Pappa al Pomodoro, pasta e fagioli, zuppa di faro, and a bouillabaisse-type fish stew called cacciucco, made with 12 sea ingredients. There’s panzanella (a salad made with leftover bread, tomatoes and onions), grilled Chianina (beefsteaks), sausages and rosticciana (roasted ribs). Cinta Senese is pork salumi. Wines: Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Nobile di Montepulciano, Sassicaia and Tignanello. Follow a meal with almond biscotti and vin santo.
- Favorites: Torta al Testo (flat bread baked on a griddle over hot coals), ciaramicola (spongy engagement cake) grain soups, and black truffles. Salumi and cheeses complement the region’s wines, including Sagrantino di Montefalco, Malvasia Colli Amerini, Torgiano Riserva, Lago di Corbara, and Orvieto.
- Favorites: Olive all’Ascolane (Ascoli’s typical stuffed olives), ciauscolo (seasoned spreadable pork sausage, soft enough to be spread on bread like paté), stewed meats, and fresh seafood. Wines: Conero, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, Colli Pesaresi, Rosso Conero, and Verdicchio di Matelica.
Lazio (includes Rome)
- Favorites: Fried foods of all kinds, including artichokes, cod fillets and supplì (fried risotto balls). Lazio is also home to many famous sauces: Amatriciana (tomato sauce peppered with guanciale, pecorino, peperoncino), carbonara, cacio e pepe (simple cheese and pepper sauce for pasta), and gricia (tomatoe-less amatriciana). There’s also saltimbocca (veal cutlets laced with prosciutto and sage), puntarelle (curly endive dressed with punchy garlic dressing), and fava beans (paired with pecorino cheese). Rome specialties include trippa (tripe), stewed oxtail, and pajata (cooked intestines of unweaned calves). Artichokes (fried, stewed and mixed with fava beans), lettuce, peas and guaciale in typical Vignarola. Wines: Aleatico, Cesanese del Piglio, Colli Albani, Colli Lanuvini, Est! Est!! Est!!! and Frascati.
- Favorites: Arrosticini (spit-roasted sheep’s meat skewers), wild boar sausages and huge mushrooms. Also, lentils, saffron, hand-made chunky pasta made on the chitarra (a wooden frame tightly strung with music wire that actually looks more like a harp than a guitar). Also, chickpeas and assorted cheeses, including canestrato. Wines: Controguerra, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
- Favorites: Calcioni d’Isernia (puffy deep fried dough pockets stuffed with ricotta and provolone), salumi, homemade pasta and festive sweets, including peccellate (pastry dough ribbons slathered with cooked must or marmalade). Wines: Pentro di Isernia and Biferno.
Campania (includes Naples)
- Favorites: Pizza. After all, this is its homeland. The region also offers a vast variety of seafood, including crustaceans, mussels, octopus and paranza (small assorted fried fish). Spaghetti is made a million ways, whether in tomato and basil sauce or the complex Genovese (slow simmered beef and onions). Many hearty soups, including pasta e patate (thick tubetti mixed with diced potatoes) and molten smoked mozzarella (another local specialty). Don’t forget braciole (aka involtini). Desserts include Babà and Sfogliatelle and Delizie al Limone (lemon sponge tarts). Wines: Vesuvio Lachryma Christi, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, Taurasi, Piedirosso (also known as pere ‘e palummo), Solopaca, and Sant’Agata dei Goti. Italy’s best coffee and shots of Limoncello close the meal.
- Favorites: Fave e cicoria (garbanzo bean purée with sautéed chickory leaves), orecchiette pasta tossed with spicy sautéed broccoli rabe, and Bari’s own riso, patate e cozze (layered with rice, potatoes and mussels, dusted with pecorino cheese). Taralli are ring-shaped boiled and baked crackers. Raw seafood is eaten straight from the shell and the region has its own olive oil. Wines: Primitivo di Manduria, Aleatico, Negroamaro, Salice Salentino, and Locorotondo.
- Favorites: Diavolicchio (“little devil”) is the fiery red chili pepper that laces many local dishes and lampascioni are the hyacinth bulbs many mistake for onions. Also, Fusilli alla Mollica (hand made hollow pasta seasoned with olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs), roast lamb and pork, and ciaudedda (the local vignarola. Wines: Aglianico del Vulture, Matera, and Terre dell’Alta Val d’Agri.
- Favorites: ‘Nduja (spicy chili pepper-laced sausage), Tropea red onions, and stuffed eggplants with pecorino. There are also plenty of olive oil-preserved vegetables, such as sun-dried tomatoes and eggplant, as well as excellent seafood and roast meats, mainly pork. Look for treccia, a braided loaf of home-style bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, and Caviale dei Poveri (poor man’s caviar), anchovy eggs preserved in spicy peperoncino olive oil. Wines: Melissa, Cirò, Bivongi, Donnici, Lamezia, San Vito di Luzzi, Savuto, and Arghillà.
- Favorites: Dessert masterpieces include ricotta-based cannoli also, cassata, gelato, granita, and Frutta Martorana (pastries shaped and painted like miniature fruit). Savory specialties: Arancini (risotto balls stuffed with sauces and stews), panelle (chickpea flour fritters), Pasta alla Norma (tomato sauce, fried eggplant, basil and salty ricotta), Pasta con le Sarde (sardines, wild fennel, breadcrumbs, raisins and pine nuts). Seafood stars tuna and swordfish steaks. Wines: Nero d’Avola, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Bianco d’Alcamo, Contessa Entellina, Malvasia delle Lipari, Mamertino di Milazzo, Salaparuta, Sciacca. Another Sicilian tradition is dessert wines and liqueurs: Marsala, Passito di Pantelleria, Mandarinetto (same procedure as Limoncello, but made with mandarin oranges) and Liquore di Ficurinia (dialectal shift on the word fico d’India, which is a prickly pear/cactus pear.)
- Favorites: Malloreddus is a kind of wheat gnocchi seasoned with wild fennel and tomato sauce. Roast suckling pork is popular on the island, along with seafood. Try sebadas (fried cheese pockets drizzled with strawberry tree honey) and sheep’s milk pecorino cheese. Wines: Vermentino di Gallura, Cannonau di Sardegna, Carignano del Sulcis, Mandrolisai, Monica, Vernaccia di Oristano, Barbagia, Ogliastra, Planargia, and Trexenta. Liqueurs: tawny Mirto (myrtle liqueur).