Italian Food Culture: 14 Dishes and Desserts You Must Try in Italy

Steve Cummings

Eating food in Italy

There are many things that Italians are passionate about – football, wine, and food. It is more than just sustenance or getting the right vitamins and minerals. Food is a way of life. Have you ever been to a traditional Italian meal with an Italian family? It is organized chaos, complete with lots of tasty dishes. 

When you visit Italy, you should try as many authentic Italian dishes as possible to have the best and most memorable experience. Make sure you try as many different types of Italian food as you can. 

But where to start, what to eat, and how? The following article will guide you to 14 classic Italian dishes you want to try before leaving the country.

1. Pasta 

unlimited pasta
credit: depositphotos

Although noodles existed in Asia and China long before they started appearing in Mediterranean countries like Italy, pasta has undeniably become a genuinely iconic Italian product since then. Italy's national dish is widely recognized as spaghetti Bolognese or ragu alla Bolognese, one of the world's most famous Italian dishes. 

Although this is enjoyed elsewhere, and you may even have a go-to recipe, there is no experience like having ragu alla Bolognese made by an Italian with fresh Italian ingredients in an Italian home or restaurant. Make sure you cross this off your to-do list before you leave.

Other pasta-based famous Italian dishes include ravioli, cannalone, and carbonara. 

2. Pizza

credit: depositphotos

Pizza is another of the most famous Italian dishes that must be tried while visiting the country. Everyone in the US has attempted pizza at least once in their life. There is a vast difference between the deep dish and various types of pizza that you get Stateside compared to what is available from the average pizzeria in Napoli or elsewhere in Italy. Pizza may be a throwaway dish, but it is a work of art worth savoring in Italy. 

The most popular type of pizza is Pizza Napoletana, or Neapolitan pizza. Whether traveling to Naples or not, ensure you have at least one of these pizzas. It's authentic Neapolitan pizza. Remember, you won't get chicken or pineapple on pizza in Italy. It's frowned upon and just not done.

3. Gnocchi

Credit: Depositphotos

If you are looking for the best Italian dishes other than pasta or pizza, there are quite a few options. Gnocchi is one of the most delicious. A potato dumpling dish, gnocchi originates from the north of the county, where it has a colder climate that is better for growing and harvesting potatoes. It dates back to at least the 17th century when Spanish explorers came to Italy from South America with potatoes and introduced them to locals. 

Like other authentic Italian pasta dishes, gnocchi is usually served with some sauce and a fresh grating of parmesan cheese. As you might suspect, there are different versions of gnocchi depending on where you are in the country.

4. Panettone

If all this savory food makes you want something a little sweeter, one of the best classic Italian desserts is undoubtedly panettone. Originating from Milan, panettone is a type of sweet bread often served at Christmas and during New Year. However, there are plenty of places where you can find it in different parts of the country at other times of the year. It is dome-shaped, leavened with yeast, and has a very airy and light feel. It is not overly sweet and has a buttery and rich flavor. Regarding fillings, there are many choices, including lemon peel, candied orange, and dried raisins. You can also find chocolate panettone. 

5. Risotto 

black risotto
credit: depositphotos

Still looking for Italian main dishes other than pasta and pizza? Why not try risotto? Thanks to its flat landscape and humid weather, Italy is the perfect place to grow the short-grain arborio rice used in risotto. The traditional risotto originates from the country's north, Milan, and is made with rice, broth, wine, butter, and parmesan cheese. This is then topped with either pumpkin, mushrooms, or seafood. 

It is as nourishing as it is filling and warming, and it is perfect for cold weather, though it can also be enjoyed during spring and summer.

6. Arancini and Suppli

While trying many of the great mains, you should also try some authentic Italian side dishes. One in particular that stands out is Arancini. This originates from Sicily, where the Arabs ruled through the 10th century. However, the first documentation of arancini was in the 19th century.

Initially, they started as sweets with sugar, ricotta cheese, and spices. However, the current savory form was used when the New World exported many exciting new ingredients, including tomatoes, to Italy. Balls of rice are stuffed with ragu and tomatoes and coated in breadcrumbs before being fried to a golden crispiness.

Although the classic version is arancini con ragu, which features mozzarella, rice, and tomato sauce, there are many different varieties, depending on where you are in the country.

You can buy these little balls of culinary heaven in market stalls, restaurants, and bars. Suppli is a particular version found in Rome pizzerias and offered as a starter or antipasti.

Compared to arancini, suppli are oblong-shaped and made from rice and tomato, and they contain a big piece of mozzarella at the center. 

7. Aperitivo and Prosciutto 

Credit: Depositphotos

Prosciutto is one of the most famous Italian foods, dating back to pre-Roman times. Cato the Censor first referred to the astonishing flavor of this air-cured ham in Parma in 100 BC. Back then, the legs of the pig were left out to dry and covered in a little bit of oil, so they aged without spoiling. 

This cured ham is served both cotto or crudo, cooked or uncooked, and cut into thin slices. 

When you are in Italy and looking for an authentic experience, try having aperitivo at least once, twice, or daily. This is something that Italians are passionate about. It acts as a pre-dinner event involving food and drinks. The food may involve cured hams and other meats, olives, mozzarella, and cold pasta. Remember, if you are invited to an aperitivo, you should eat a small amount and not be too greedy, as it is rude. In a buffet situation, the etiquette and rule you should follow is that one drink means one plate or serving of food. 

8. Ossobuco (Veal)

Originating from Milan during the latter half of the 19th century, this veal dish has evolved. Its older form, known as ossobuco in Bianco, was flavored using gremolata, bay leaf, and cinnamon. That is because ingredients like carrots and tomatoes were not available back then.

Ossobuco is another tasty classic Italian dish you should try. It involves slowly braising veal in gremolata, a garlic and lemon sauce, seasonal vegetables, and lots of white wine. 

The classic way to eat ossobuco is with crusty bread that you can use to soak up the juices and marrow. If you have problems from an ethics point of view about veal, it is worth remembering that lamb is generally considered more acceptable and younger than the cows killed for veal. 

9. Lasagne

Credit: Depositphotos

The name lasagna originates from ancient Greece, while the original recipe is from Britain. However, lasagna is now known as one of the most popular Italian dishes. It is made by baking lasagna pasta sheets. The sheets are then layered with vegetables, ground meat, and cheese and topped with different sauces like tomato, ragu, and bechamel. Lasagne is a filling, creamy, and divine meal. 

Depending on the region or city you visit, there are different types of lasagne. The most traditional form is the best. 

10. Italian Gelato

Italian Gelato
Credit: Depositphotos

Among the most popular Italian desserts, the one that stands head and shoulders above all others is undoubtedly gelato. Although the first variation of ice cream originated in China, it did not have cream or milk and was technically sorbet. The people of Naples introduced cream and milk into the mix during the 18th century and invented gelato. You should only consider visiting Italy if you plan to enjoy one, two, or thirty scoops of gelato. Make sure you try different flavors. 

The difference is that gelato is made using milk, as opposed to just cream that is used for ice cream, which gives it its distinctive texture and flavor. It is much smoother and more intense than ice cream. Pistachio is one of Italy's most popular gelato flavors. However, there are many flavors to choose from, so you are bound to find one you like quickly. 

11. Tiramisu 

Credit: Depositphotos

Among the best Italian desserts, tiramisu is another that stands out. This dates back to 1891 and is a creamy but light dish that contains ladyfingers soaked in coffee and lots of mascarpone cheese. 

It resembles a fancy Italian trifle and includes marsala wine in the grown-up versions. 

12. Torrone

There are some traditional Italian desserts that many people outside the country may not be familiar with. Torrone, which first appeared in 1441 in Cremona, is one of these. The story goes that the pastry chefs from the court created it, especially for the marriage between Maria Bianca Visconti and Francesco Sforza. The name comes from the famous Torrazzo tower in the town. 

To the uninitiated, torrone looks like a sticky, creamy cereal bar. It is made with toasted nuts, egg whites, honey, and lots of citrus zest to give it a nice kick. It is found in candy stores and cafes, and while there are plenty of variations, the best type of torrone is the original recipe. 

13. Seafood

fatty fish
credit: depositphotos

Given Italy's large and expansive coastal regions, seafood is widely available nationwide. Many of the most famous Italian dishes contain fish or come in seafood versions. Pasta dishes with octopus, various fish, and shellfish are commonplace. You probably know that anchovies are a popular pizza topping, which people seem to either love or hate. Still, they are a famous delicacy in the country. 

Even if you are not a big fan of seafood, we recommend trying at least one dish with fish or other seafood. 

14. Buffalo Mozzarella

You may have tasted buffalo mozzarella in various classic Italian dishes outside of Italy. Still, unless you have tried it with authentic Italian buffalo mozzarella, there is no chance you have had the best experience. The taste is out of this world. Buffalo mozzarella is made using milk from the water buffalo and has a much softer and creamier texture and more intense flavor than cow-milk versions you may have tried elsewhere. 

It is either part of many Italian side dishes or main dishes or eaten on its own. 

Buffalo mozzarella is the primary type of cheese used as a topping for pizza. 

Final Thoughts

Food is a huge deal in Italy. There is no denying that. Like many places in Europe, especially off the coast of the Mediterranean, food is a communal affair and involves a lot of eating, drinking, and chatting. Restaurants, cafes, and bars are very lively places in Italy. We have provided you with a wide variety of popular Italian dishes you can find in the average eatery or, if you plan on doing some of your own cooking, at supermarkets. 

There is more to Italian food than just pasta and pizza. You should try the gelato if you only try one of the classic Italian desserts.

We have shown you what you can eat in Italy for the best and most authentic experience. We have tried to include the best selection of authentic Italian food, but we may still need to include some. If you believe there are other classic Italian dishes or popular Italian desserts that we should have, let us know in the comments section below. We always aim to ensure our guides are jam-packed with the best recommendations for our readers.

Leave a Comment