From fresh Mediterranean vegetables, to world-class steaks, cured meats, carefully prepared pasta dishes and delectable wine pairings, there's a whole lot more to Italy than pizza. Here are 11 food and drink experiences you just can't miss on a vacation to Italy.
Everyone knows that sampling Italy’s amazing wine and cuisine is one of the big reasons for planning a trip here.
Sure, there’s a world of incredible history and architecture and culture and gorgeous landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world. But let’s be honest for a minute—the food is simply divine.
If you’re visiting Italy this year and wondering what to try, you can’t go wrong with a slice of pizza. But there’s so much more to tempt your palate (and delight your tummy).
So, before you grab a little pizza al taglio—although there’s nothing wrong with that!—check out these suggestions for delectable food experiences in Italy.
1. Take a morning cappuccino break Italian-style after tossing a few coins in the Trevi fountain.
Coffee is such a quintessential part of Italian culture, it’s hard to imagine not drinking it while you’re there. “Prendiamo un caffè?” is practically a standard greeting here. Just remember, when in Rome, only order coffee with milk in the morning—no true Italian would ever order cappuccino in the afternoon!
And after you’ve enjoyed your cuppa and tossed your coins, why not take a stroll across the Tiber and visit Trastevere, a medieval neighborhood of narrow cobbled streets and magnificent mosaics. Don’t miss the mosaic facade of the Santa Maria in Trastevere church, possibly the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
2. Who needs bacon when there’s pancetta and guanciale?
It’s a well-known fact that everything’s better with bacon, but the Romans really know how to showcase those delicious cured meats.
Why not go for some iconic Roman pasta dishes loaded up with the smoky meat—pasta alla carbonara (bacon, egg, and Pecorino cheese), pasta all’Amatriciana (a spicy dish featuring pancetta), and pasta alla gricia (a purist’s dish with guanciale and Pecorino Romano cheese).
3. You don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t tried bistecca alla fiorentina.
It only requires a few ingredients to create this Tuscan specialty, but when expertly combined—well, the steak is simply heavenly. Start with only the thickest porterhouse (from Chianina cattle, an ancient Tuscan breed), and add fresh olive oil, a little salt and pepper, fresh rosemary or sage if you like, and a bit of garlic. Then cook the steak directly on red-hot coals in true Florentine style.
If you’re planning a tour of Florence, be sure to try this local favorite. It’s usually shared by the table and served with a lovely bottle of aged Chianti.
4. Speaking of Tuscan wines—you have to do a wine tour.
Italy makes more wine than any country in the world, but it’s reasonable to argue that some of the finest are from Tuscany. Why not take a day to explore the gorgeous Tuscan hillsides and sample the local varietals—Chianti, of course, but also the rich and sultry Brunello di Montalcino, and the warm and jammy Montepulciano.
There’s no shortage of picturesque wineries to visit (and plenty of luscious wines to taste), but don’t forget to visit some of the gorgeous old churches of Tuscany. The Monte Oliveto Abbey, a 14th century Benedictine monastery, boasts some lovely Renaissance frescoes—definitely worth a stop.
5. Fancy something stronger? Try a sip of fiery grappa.
Grappa is extremely popular in Italy—about 40 million bottles are produced every year. It’s a type of grape brandy made from the pomace, or skins and seeds leftover from winemaking.
Want to know how to drink it like an Italian? It’s generally done in one of two ways: Either a straight shot from a fancy tulip-shaped glass or added to espresso, which is called caffè corretto (corrected coffee—isn’t that perfect?) You can take a tour of the picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa for an authentic grappa experience.
6. There’s nothing like cicchetti in Venice.
If you love tapas, you’ll adore cicchetti. These small bites are quite possibly the most popular examples of Venetian gastronomy. Cicchetti can be as simple as a petite roll with salami or as complex as an herbed grilled squid. Perhaps the most common—which you’ll find at nearly every bacaro—are baccala mantecato, mouthwatering creamed cod, and sarde in saor, sardines in a vinegary sauce.
Cicchetti are typically served with an ombra, a small glass of wine. Spend a morning touring the Rialto market in Venice and sampling the cicchetti along the way.
7. No true foodie can miss Bologna, the capital of Italian cuisine.
Some may argue that Rome or Florence is the true culinary center of Italy, but Bologna takes pride of place—it’s where lasagna and tortellini were born and it’s home of that classic Italian favorite, ragu’ alla Bolognese.
Tour Bologna on an empty stomach so you’ve got plenty of room to sample the city’s culinary delights. Don’t miss the shops and vendors around the Mercato di Mezzo and be sure to try a panino mortazza (slang for a mortadella sandwich, a local favorite).
8. Sip limoncello at sunset on the romantic Amalfi coast.
No one really knows the true story of how limoncello came into existence, but the Sorrentini and the Amalfitani both claim credit for the lovely lemon-flavored aperitivo. Some say it was invented around 1900 by the owner of a boarding house who had an abundant lemon and orange grove. Others say it was invented in a monastery to “delight the monks” from prayer to prayer.
Regardless of its provenance, no trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the Amalfi coast and an evening looking over the sea enjoying a fragrant sip of luscious limoncello.
9. Sample the speck and prosciutto (and all the other charcuterie) in Parma.
Say “Italy” and everyone thinks pasta, olive oil, pizza, and wine—but the humble gli affettati, or pork charcuterie, deserve a place in the top five. In Italy, prosciutto crudo, a dry-cured ham, and speck, a type of smoked pork, are definitely worth sampling, as are other “hammy” meats like culatello and capocollo.
Don’t forget the other cured meats, the salamis, that round out a charcuterie board: soppressata (usually with red or black pepper), finocchiona (made with fennel and red wine), felino (made with heirloom pork), and ‘nduja (a fiery Calabrian salami concoction that’s spreadable and often used as a condiment).
10. Be sure to dine al fresco at least once a day.
Italians love to eat outdoors—but then again, doesn’t everyone? And there’s really no better way to people-watch and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Italy’s beautiful cities.
Ready to Go?
Now that we’ve whetted your appetite for the finest culinary experiences in Italy, isn’t it time to plan your vacation to Italy this year? Contact us today and find out how easy it is to picture yourself sipping Chianti at a trattoria in Florence. Or if you’re not quite ready to book your trip, sign up for our free email course, “How to Plan Your Perfect Vacation to Italy.”