The famous food and drink in Italy you need to try

Italian cuisine is loved all over the world, but there's nothing like enjoying the real thing when you're on holiday in Italy. We look at the famous dishes worthy of your attention.

By Saga team

Published 17 May 2024

Italian cuisine appeals to most people, perhaps because Italians pride themselves on the simplicity of their food, relying on the intense flavours of quality produce, rather than complicated recipes.

Dishes in Italy are creative, like the locals themselves, with a few must-try items that come from one of the oldest civilisations in the world.

From fish and shellfish to pasta, cheese, espresso and sweet delights, you will not be short of culinary choice on trips to the city, countryside or coastline in Italy.

The home of pizza is Naples, and the best pizza is found there, but anywhere you eat pizza in Italy will still be the best version you can try.

The pizzas are generally baked in wood or coal-fired ovens and the crust is the traditional hand-tossed thin style.

Top tip: Peperoni in Italy is not pepperoni, the hot spicy sausage meat popular on pizzas in the UK – in Italy, peperoni means red and yellow bell peppers. If you love pepperoni pizza, look for salami on the list of ingredients.

Originating from the north of Italy, risotto is a short-grain rice dish cooked in a broth that usually contains a generous helping of butter and wine. The best thing about risotto is how versatile this dish is; the Italians make the most of the hearty rice base by throwing it together with vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans and cheese.

Eating out in Verona will change any established notions you may have about the humble risotto. In Verona, risotto is king - and never from a packet.

Vialone Nano is a local speciality rice which lifts Verona's trademark risotto dishes into the realm of culinary excellence.

Recommended specialities to look out for on the city's many fine 'osteria' (restaurant) menus include risotto all'Amarone, with an intense flavour underpinned by the regional Valpolicella wine, risotto al radicchio (deriving a sweet taste from the eponymous vegetable), and the peppery pork sausage risotto known as risotto al tastasal.

Try the cuttlefish/squid ink risotto. This unusual dish is made with the ink of a cuttlefish or a squid, boasts a very dark (almost black) colour, and has the distinct flavour of the sea. If you’re a seafood lover, this should be top of your holiday treat list.

If you don't fancy a Veronese risotto regionally-focused meat signature dishes are plentiful, and the local 'bigoli' pasta choices - a larger cousin of your everyday spaghetti - are joy on a plate.

Food tip:

The sweet-toothed among you should try a tempting traditional pandoro Veronese cake to top off your visit to Verona.

Authentic homemade pasta is a universal favourite and two of the most iconic Italian pasta dishes are bolognese and creamy carbonara, topped off with some tempting parmigiano-reggiano (parmesan) cheese.

Bolognese originated in Bologna and it is not actually served on spaghetti but tagliatelle, which is a wider, ribbon-type pasta.

The garlic-flavoured meat sauce is made with beef mince, but the Italians usually throw in a bit of pancetta for that extra smoky taste. Don’t expect any meatballs with this dish, as that was an American innovation from Italians who moved to New York.

If you can try bolognese in Bologna that is the place to go, but anywhere in the north will know how to serve up this dish.

Most importantly, remember not to order ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ on your holiday because it’s called tagliatelle al ragù in Italy!

It has been much disputed where carbonara originated, but all evidence seems to point to Rome. Romans pride themselves on making the perfect carbonara and if you visit this city, it is worth trying their iconic pasta dish.

In the UK, carbonara tends to consist of pasta with a white sauce and bacon; the real Italian dish meanwhile is made with eggs, cream and usually pancetta, a dry cured meat that generally comes in thick diced cubes rather than the paper thin slices you get in the supermarkets here.

Gnocchi are Italian dumplings made from potatoes, flour and eggs, and they are used as a base for pretty much any sauce you can think of. It's popular throughout Italy, but it believed to have originated in the Veneto region where the weather is cool enough for potato cultivation.

Italian food is best when it uses just a few quality ingredients, and our recommended gnocchi dish of choice is pomodoro e mozzarella, (tomato and mozzarella).

This is a simple but delicious dish, usually served with fresh basil and parmesan, and in Venice, they know how to make light and fluffy gnocchi that will have you coming back for more Italian cuisine.

A Tuscan stew that literally means ‘reboiled’, ribollita takes all the best things about minestrone soup and adds a hearty helping of leftover bread to soak up all the flavours.

Made with onion, cabbage, cannellini beans, kale and chard, it forgoes the pasta found in minestrone.

Ribollita has humble origins and is the Italian way of making use of leftovers.

This is the perfect fare if you’re touring Italy when the weather is a bit cooler in autumn or winter – it’s a peasant dish designed to warm you up.

Regardless of what time of year you go or what part of Italy you're in, it’s imperative that you try gelato.

Churned at a much slower rate than ice-cream, gelato has a denser, silkier consistency as well as a lower cream (and therefore fat) content. The only problem is, this delicacy comes in a rainbow of mouth-watering flavours from panna cotta to pistachio – you'll want to try them all.

And because gelato comes in every flavour you could think of, including strawberry, chocolate and lemon, orange and carrot, so it’s a great dessert if you’re out with a group.

Top tip: If you get a chance, try olive oil gelato. It may sound strange but the earthy, slightly spiced flavour of the olive oil makes for a very refreshing treat – you feel as though it’s the taste of Italy itself!

Another dessert for our list, cannoli originates in Sicily. It is a tube-like pastry that is deep-fried and then filled with sweetened ricotta before being dusted with icing sugar.

Cannoli comes in different varieties, and confectioners can be very creative. Try some in a Sicilian pasticceria with a strong Italian coffee.

Top tip: Find cannoli dipped in pistachios, dried fruit, or with chocolate chips running through the ricotta cream.

Stunning Tuscany shouldn't just be feted for its spectacular cuisine and climate, historic city gems such as Florence and Siena and jawdropping landscapes.

The gloriously - and perhaps surprisingly - varied Chianti wines of that eponymous Tuscan region can proudly boast a global fame all their own, and are always worthy of a full and thorough exploration when you visit the area.

Great names and vintages such as Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di san Gimignano and Chianti Classico don't just trip off the tongue, but rest playfully and memorably on the palate when you taste them in their home territory.

A trip to a Chianti winery is never merely one of those bus-them-in, bus-them-out jobs; visits to the very places where these great wines are produced are invariably imbued with all the pride and passion in their world-class produce that's so uniquely, splendidly Italian.

When in Chianti... you simply must set aside some proper time for a leisurely tour of two of the region's superlative wineries.

So there you have it, some of our favourite Italian dishes and desserts to tempt your taste buds as you travel. Find out about our Italian holidays to experience some of the best cuisine in the world.

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