If there’s one cuisine that I could eat forever, I would have to say it’s Italian. The pastas, the pizzas, the different flavor profiles – I love it all. Nobody does tradition and simplicity quite like the Italians. Since they place such a high value on the quality of the ingredients, Italian dishes are pretty easy to make as well! Grab a napkin (because these dishes will make you drool) and enjoy this compilation of traditional Italian dishes to try next time you’re in Italy!
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Table of Contents
Best Traditional Italian Dishes
Arancini are Sicilian rice balls that southern Italians often eat as a street food or antipasto. Chefs will typically use arborio rice, tomato sauce or some kind of meat ragù, and peas, although the ingredients sometimes vary.
As the fillings will sometimes vary, so do the shapes and sizes. Arancini are typically fairly large, sometimes the size of a baseball! They are usually round, however, eastern Sicilian chefs make arancini in a conical shape, inspired by the beautiful Mount Etna.
Photo & Contribution: Linda, La Dolce Fit Vita
Perhaps the most characteristic food you might encounter while in Venice is baccalá mantecato, the real deal for all seafood lovers. Most describe the dish as whipped fish, but that doesn’t do it justice at all! While it is indeed codfish (not salted) that has been whipped, the consistency is of a rich cream-like mousse, and it does not taste overwhelming of fish. In fact, the taste is rather delicate – think of a more sophisticated, textured cream cheese with accents of seafood.
The recipe has just a few ingredients. True to Italian cuisine, it is very simple. However, mastering a great baccalá mantecato is no easy feat. There are techniques studied as to how to whisk the fish to achieve the perfect, butter-like texture. In fact, the recipe calls for absolutely no butter or cream- the secret is letting the cod soak in water to let it soften.
Garlic, lemon, and laurel are added to the water while it soaks. This allows the fish to absorb the flavors. Olive oil, salt, and pepper are added to complete the flavor profile.
The best way to have baccalá mantecato is to eat it along with some nice warm polenta and pair it with a great glass of white wine or prosecco. You can find it at virtually any restaurant in the Venetian Lagoon.
bistecca alla fiorentina
A staple of Tuscan cuisine is undoubtedly Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a simply-seasoned steak that comes from Florence. In the traditional Italian dish, the steak comes from Chianina cattle, an ancient Tuscan breed. Chianina cattle are renowned for their tender and juicy meat.
This preparation, like many other traditional Italian dishes, is incredibly simple and requires the use of quality ingredients. So, aside from the cut of meat itself, all you’ll need are salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, and sage.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina uses a T-Bone cut with filet on one side and sirloin on the other. The dish always includes the bone! The steak must be fairly thick – three-ish fingers thick, to be exact! The key to this simply prepared dish is that the meat develops a char on the outside while the inside stays red, juicy, and barely warm – al sangue (rare).
Bucatini all’Amatriciana is one of those dishes that’s so shockingly simple, you’re absolutely amazed at the complexity when you taste it. As a result, it’s jumped onto this list of traditional Italian dishes you must try!
This dish uses bucatini, a long, spaghetti-like noodle that’s slightly thicker than spaghetti. The pasta has a hole running down its center – buca literally means ‘hole’ in Italian.
Guanciale (cured pork cheek), tomato sauce, and extra virgin olive oil are the other components that make up this wonderful comfort dish. While there are a number of variations (including the use of onions, chili seeds, or black pepper), the traditional version from Amatrice is as simple as it sounds.
cacio e pepe
Photo & Contribution: Jessie, Pocket Wanderings
Originating from Lazio, Cacio e Pepe is an exceedingly popular pasta dish that has received worldwide renown. Its wonder lies in its simplicity. In local dialect, it quite literally translates to ‘cheese and pepper’. It may not sound like much, but Cacio e Pepe is the ultimate comfort food and a true Italian favorite.
The ingredients are spaghetti or tonnarelli, black pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese. It may sound simple, but the key to a perfect Cacio e Pepe is all in the method. The chef must execute great precision with water temperature and timing. When done right, the result is a decadent dish of smooth, creamy pasta.
Additional ingredients, such as bacon, mushrooms or parmesan, can be added to the dish. However, that no longer makes it Cacio e Pepe, which is best kept in its original form. It is elegant in its simplicity and a real Italian classic. It’s a must-try for anyone visiting Italy – once you’ve tried it, you’ll want it again and again.
Caponata is a traditional Italian dish that uses eggplant, bell pepper, onion, olives, tomato sauce, capers, pine nuts, and a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Originally, it was first made in Sicily and has since gained global popularity.
To make a traditional Sicilian Caponata, firstly you’ll want to dice all of your ingredients to be roughly the same size. Lightly cook the vegetables and olives, then add the tomato sauce, a splash of balsamic vinegar, capers, and crushed pine nuts. Let it simmer a while until its consistency is fairly uniform and the sauce thickens.
The version that comes from Palermo has the added ingredient of octopus, while another version includes asparagus and fish roe. However, these are not part of the traditional recipe.
Caponata is like a hearty Italian salsa. It tastes great at room temperature on some crostini or grilled bread. As such, it makes a great summer or fall appetizer.
cappellacci di zucca
Photo & Contribution: Helga, ShegoWandering
The region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy is known to be the “Italian food valley”. This region, though it’s packed with amazing places to visit, it’s famous for the many amazing traditional Italian dishes that each town and village claims as its own. As all others, Ferrara has its own local traditional dishes, and one of the most famous is the Cappellacci di Zucca.
Cappellacci is a type of stuffed pasta, which is very similar to the tortellini, but in size it’s much bigger. In Ferrara, they stuff the cappellacci with pumpkin, which makes it absolutely amazing on its own. However, the dish has an extra ingredient at serving to make it extra special. Cappellacci di zucca is served with the traditional (Bolognese) ragù, while you’ll also have to add grated parmesan cheese. The parmesan, as well as the ragù originate from the region of Emilia-Romagna, the food valley.
If you’re visiting Ferrara, always try to find local osterias’ (a type of traditional Italian restaurant) to get the best local cappellacci di zucca. One of the top places you can go for this amazing dish is definitely the Osteria degli Angeli.
Carpaccio is a dish of beef, thinly sliced or pounded thin. It is served raw, typically as an appetizer. It was invented in 1950 and has been growing in popularity ever since.
If you’re making carpaccio at home, serve with lemon, olive oil, shaved Parmesan, on a bed of arugula. For a special treat, you can use a light drizzle of white truffle oil.
Giuseppe Cipriani, proprietor of from Harry’s Bar in Venice, invented the dish in 1950. Cipriani created it for the countess Mocenigo when he learned that her doctor had recommended that she eat raw meat.
Cipriani named the dish for Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian painter who was known for the iconic red and white tones of his work. This was due to the resemblance of the red meat marbled with the delicate white lines of fat.
Today, there are many popular versions of carpaccio using different types of meat or fish. Popular variations include tuna, veal, salmon, or venison. Still, the classic beef carpaccio will always be the original.
Contribution: Claire, Tales of a Backpacker
Cicchetti are the Venetian version of tapas and an example of food in Venice you absolutely have to try. These small dishes or snacks are designed to be enjoyed with a drink in a cozy bacaro bar and are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Order your cicchetti with an ombra, a small glass of local wine which is cheaper than the standard glass of wine you would usually get.
There are lots of different kinds of cicchetti to choose from, varying from slices of baguette bread with a topping of fish, cheese or meat, to snacks such as deep-fried green olives stuffed with meat, or seafood like grilled king prawns.
Different bacari bars have their own specialities, displayed behind glass-fronted counters to tempt the clientele. The best way to try a variety of cicchetti is to visit several bars, order a drink and choose a selection of cicchetti from the display.
Most cicchetti dishes cost €1-€3 each so you can enjoy a few before going to dinner, or if you want a light meal then it is easy to eat your fill without spending all your cash! Don’t expect to sit down to enjoy your food though, the best bacari bars will be full to the brim, so you’ll either be standing near the bar, or spilling out onto the street.
Ahhh, gelato. A frozen treat that is surely on everyone’s Italy Bucket List when visiting the Bel Paese. Probably one of the best-known food items on this list, for those who don’t know – gelato is a frozen dessert similar to ice cream. In general, gelato has a slightly lower fat content than most other frozen desserts.
The most distinguishing factor of gelato is its consistency and texture, which is what sets it apart from ice cream. The key to this is the air content – gelato typically consists of 70% less air with more flavor, giving it its trademark qualities.
The most popular flavors of gelato are vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, and stracciatella. While you’re in Italy and looking to pick out the best gelateria (gelato shop) to visit, look at the colors of the gelati they have on display. The best gelaterie will have natural or soft looking colors – i.e., the pistachio will not be a bright, neon green.
There’s nothing quite like enjoying a cold gelato while wandering the streets of Rome taking in all of the epic Italian landmarks of the city.
gnocchi alla sorrentina
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina comes from its namesake region in Campania, Sorrento. With only a few ingredients, this is another traditional Italian dish that highlights quality over quantity.
Gnocchi are small, potato dumplings that taste best when made by hand (and with love). The sauce of Gnocchi alla Sorrentina is a hand-made tomato sauce, fresh basil, and creamy mozzarella. The resulting flavors culminate in the ultimate comfort food, satisfying and warm.
It’s the number one dish you must try on a day trip from Naples to Sorrento.
Photo & Contribution: Pauline, Beeloved City
Granita is a semi-frozen dessert that originated in Sicily. Made of water, sugar and fruit or nuts, it’s one of the most refreshing things to eat in Southern Italy.
Although you may find it similar to gelato and sorbet, it is very different. The texture is crystalline and it’s not made with cream.
It’s a particularly popular snack in Catania and its province. You can find it in every café in the city. You might not always see it, as it’s often stored in the freezer at the back but the granita is everywhere. Locals always eat with a brioche. The server will ask whether or not you want one. Say ‘yes’, it’s a delicious combo!
As any frozen desert, it’s particularly popular in summer. If you go to the beach, you will find it in all beach bars.
The most popular flavors are chocolate, coffee, pistachio, almond and strawberry. People around the world know the province of Catania for producing the best pistachios. The soil from Mount Etna is particularly fertile and pistachio trees can grow there. All pistachio dishes are very popular in this part of Italy but when it comes to granitas, it definitely sets the standard!
Photo & Contribution: Emily, London City Calling
Orecchiette is a variety of pasta which is typical of the Puglia region in southern Italy. The name means ‘little ear’ which comes from the unique shape of the pasta which resembles a small ear.
This style of pasta is traditionally made by hand. The pasta itself is made by rolling a long piece of dough which is then cut into small sections. Next, a butter knife is used to flatten each piece. Last, it’s folded over the thumb to create the unique curved shape.
Orecchiette is incredibly popular in the Puglia region. In fact, there’s an entire road in the city of Bari known as Strada delle Orecchiette. Here, you can find local women making the pasta at small tables on the street each day.
Almost any restaurant in the region showcases orecchiette. Most restaurants serve it with a hearty tomato or meat ragù. Occasionally, however, you can find lighter vegetable orecchiette dishes as well.
ossobucco alla milanese
Ossobuco is a specialty of Northern Italy hailing from the Lombardy region. The dish consists of veal shanks slow-braised with vegetables, white wine, and veal stock.
It’s traditionally served with gremolata and saffron risotto or polenta, depending on the variation. The best part of this dish is the bone marrow that is retained in the hole of the bone. Ossobuco is served with a demitasse to scoop out the smooth marrow.
Photo & Contribution: Roxanne, Faraway Worlds
Panforte is a Tuscan delicacy which translates directly to “strong bread”. Often described as fruit cake, it’s more like a solid, chewy wedge of candied fruit, honey and nuts, flavored heavily with spices. Originally, panforte comes from Siena, the beautiful walled city in Tuscany.
In Siena, there are records of local monks and nuns being paid with peppery, honeyed bread as early as the 13th century. Then, it was called “panpepato” (peppered bread) as the medieval version was heavily peppered.
Nowadays, you can buy imported panforte straight from Siena. It’s often delicious, not to mention, it’s what most Italians eat (as long it’s eaten relatively fresh). Of course, for the freshest version, you can make your own version of Siena’s famous fruit cake instead.
Most traditional recipes tend to include candied citrus, melon or figs, with a mix of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and pepper. Or, try something more modern with chocolate and cherries or whatever flavors you like best. Regardless, panforte is surprisingly easy to make. And a small slice is a lovely, festive accompaniment to a cup of coffee or dessert wine.
Photo & Contribution: Linn, Easy Way to Vegan
One of the most widespread, easy to make Italian traditional foods is Penne all’Arrabbiata. In English, Arrabbiata means angry, which comes from the spiciness of the chilies used. This flavorful pasta dish is made with only a few ingredients that together become incredibly mouthwatering. With only olive oil, tomato sauce, chili, garlic, and fresh basil you have one of the most popular Italian pasta dishes.
Penne all’Arrabbiata originates from the Lazio region which surrounds Rome, but some say that it all started in the south where they grow nice, spicy chilis. Nonetheless, regardless of where it comes from, Penne all’Arrabbiata is something you will find all over the country and most restaurants will make it for you even if they don’t happen to have it on their regular menu. Italian homes will often add extra chili on the table for those who want it extra spicy.
Could any list of traditional Italian dishes be complete without pizza!? While there’s no need to describe what a pizza is, as it’s one of the most popular food items worldwide, it’s worth noting that modern pizza originated in Napoli, Italy’s pizza capital. Pizza is so special, in fact, that in 2017 UNESCO included it on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
When ordering pizza in Italy in a restaurant, pizza is served unsliced and is meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. At many bakeries in Italy, pizza is ordered by the slice and cut into squares.
In Italy you can find some fun variations, including potato pizza or pizza with radicchio and gorgonzola.
Porchetta is a savory, fatty, and juicy boneless pork roast that originated in central Italy. First, the butcher debones the pig and then skillfully arranges with liver, wild fennel, garlic, rosemary, or other herbs. The fat and skin are left as-is and it then roasts for over eight hours. Because of this, porchetta holds high esteem throughout all of Italy and boasts significant cultural relevance.
You can find porchetta all over the country, though it’s most prevalent in the center. It’s a common street food or often used in panini (sandwiches), especially during festivals or outdoor markets.
prosciutto e melone
Photo & Contribution: Shobha, Just Go Places
Prosciutto e melone is one of the best ways to eat prosciutto (cured ham slices) because the sweetness of the melon complements the subtle saltiness of the prosciutto. The thinly sliced prosciutto melts in the mouth along with the melon to create a flavor burst of sweet and salty tastes.
Prosciutto is made throughout Italy but the best prosciutto comes from San Daniele del Friuli, a small town wedged between the foothills of the Dolomites and the Adriatic Sea. This unique location gives it a natural capacity to cure ham very well which has been recognized for thousands of years. The San Daniele prosciutto eaten today has been made in the same artisanal process that has been used for centuries. San Daniele prosciutto also has a highly coveted DOP designation which protects its name from being copied outside of the area.
Also due to its location, San Daniele prosciutto is made in smaller quantities than Parma ham which is more widely known outside Italy. There are other small differences between San Daniele and Parma prosciutto which gives subtle differences to their respective tastes. Both San Daniele and Parma make delicious prosciutto that accompanies melon delightfully.
ragù di cinghiale
Cinghiale (wild boar) may seem like a more adventurous meal, especially if you’re visiting Italy from the Americas. However, cinghiale is a game meat that has been widely cooked and served in Europe for eons. It’s a very common game meat, and the hunt for wild boars is still a common practice today, particularly in countries that don’t have as widespread a large-scale factory farming industry.
Wild boar are still quite prevalent in the forests of Tuscany – there are even annual festivals held to celebrate the esteemed animal. Ragù di cinghiale, a traditional Tuscan dish, is like a rustic version of pulled pork on steroids, traditionally served over pappardelle pasta.
Wild boar is slightly more gamey than pork, but leaner and with a higher protein content. Especially if you are against factory farming practice but not ready to give up the satisfaction of eating meat, ragù di cinghiale is sure to satisfy.
Ribollita is a hearty, Tuscan bread soup that sticks to your ribs and satisfies your soul. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Ribollita has many variations in its ingredients, but always starts with old bread, white beans, and a rainbow of inexpensive vegetables.
It has peasant origins, similar to many dishes in Tuscan cuisine. Some sources date it back to the Middle Ages when peasants would take the old, food-soaked bread from the lords and re-heat it with old soup. The name Ribollita means re-boiled, so making this from scratch would be a bit inaccurate.
Risotto is another traditional Italian dish that relies on its simplicity. Originating in Northern Italy, risotto is a rice dish that is cooked with broth to give it a creamy consistency.
You can make risotto with any type of broth, be it vegetable, fish, or meat. It’s usually made with onion, butter, white wine, and parmesan cheese as well.
The key to making risotto at home is to stir it constantly. Seriously. The more you stir, the creamier the consistency, giving it an almost soup-like feel. This is another Italian dish that has received world-wide acclaim and there are endless possibilities in terms of the ingredients.
Saltimbocca is a flavorful dish made with veal, prosciutto, and sage. Its name literally means ‘jump in your mouth,’ and once you try it, you’ll understand why. Traditionally it’s made rolled-up, and cooked in a dry white wine and butter, however, it’s sometimes left to cook flat.
While many traditional Italian dishes, though simple, are incredibly time-consuming to prepare and cook, saltimbocca is not one of them. You can easily make this at home in just 15 minutes!
Photo & Contribution: Claudia, Strictly Sardinia
Sa Panada – commonly called Panada – is one of Sardinia’s most popular dishes. Traditionally from the small town of Assemini, many other villages on the island have developed their own version of the dish.
As the name recalls, Panada comes from the Latin “panem“. This typically refers to a dish where a variety of ingredients (usually some sort of meat and potatoes, once they made it here from the other side of the world) are wrapped in a dough and baked in the oven.
The idea is very similar to that of South America’s empanadas – though Sa Panada from Sardinia has a different shape. Nowadays, you will find large traditional Panade that are meant to be eaten as a main course during a family meal; as well as small individual Panade typically found in buffet dinners or aperitifs.
There are different varieties of Sa Panada. The most traditional version uses potatoes, lamb or eel and sundried tomatoes and some chopped garlic and parsley. Vegetarian versions use eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers or – more traditionally – artichokes.
Photo & Contribution: Joanna, The World In My Pocket
Sfogliatella is one of the best pastries that the city of Napoli has to offer. This small dessert was invented in a convent in the heart of Napoli, and comes in two different versions: made with puff pastry or with shortcrust. The more popular one is made with puff pastry, but they are both delicious and worth trying because of the different textures.
The filling of the sfogliatella is a mixture of delicate ricotta cheese, semolina, eggs, sugar and candied citrus peel. Sometimes, a pinch of cinnamon is added too.
The name of this delicious pastry, sfogliatella, translates as “shell”. This is because the shape of the sfogliatella resembles a shell, with delicate layers of puff pastry one on top of the other.
While you can buy sfogliatella pretty much at every bakery in town, the best is sold at Sfogliatella Mary, located at the entrance of the Galleria Umberto I. The sfogliatella here is so popular that very often you will receive it straight from the oven. You can also taste some really good sfogliatella if you join one of the food tours in Napoli which will take you on a gourmand journey around the old town.
spaghetti alla carbonara
Photo & Contribution: Greta, Greta’s Travels
If you’re looking for traditional and delicious Italian dishes, you have to add spaghetti alla carbonara to your culinary bucket list. Originating in Rome, this pasta has become popular all over the world, and it’s easy to see why.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara contains guanciale (pork jowl) and a sauce with egg and pecorino cheese. The chef adds the hot, cooked pasta in a bowl to the raw egg sauce while stirring vigorously. The raw egg step is crucial, since it’s what keeps the creaminess of the dish. If you cook it in the pan, however, the egg will scramble.
Carbonara is usually made with spaghetti, but other types of pasta are occasionally used. Still, the type of pasta they serve it with is usually a good indicator of how genuinely Roman the restaurant is!
One of the best places to have Carbonara in Rome is Salumeria Roscioli. Originally a butcher shop, Roscioli developed to turn into a wine shop and restaurant. Here you are sure to have Carbonara with the highest quality guanciale. Wherever you have it, trying Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a must on any Rome itinerary.
strangozzi al tartufo nero
Strangozzi al Tartufo Nero is a traditional Italian dish that comes from the region of Umbria. Both of the key ingredients in this, strangozzi and black truffles, hail from the Umbrian hills.
Strangozzi is an Italian wheat ribbon pasta whose name literally means ‘shoestring-like’. The noodles are typically a little thicker than spaghetti and more rectangular in shape.
There are some local legends that the name is also derived from the verb ‘to strangle’. There was also the strong desire to overthrown the Pope in Umbria (and elsewhere) in the Middle Ages. Some say rebels used the shoestrings to strangle the priests.
Strangozzi usually teams up with another Umbrian gem, tartufi neri, in order to create a perfectly savory and mouth-watering pasta dish. If visiting Umbria, try your hand at truffle hunting, an unforgettable experience to have in Italy!
Supplì are a traditional Roman ‘street food’ that are abundant in the Italian capital city. They are little balls of fried goodness that never fail to satisfy. Since they are a common street food, you can take these little babies with you anywhere. Be sure to have napkins handy.
Supplì consist of arborio rice, tomato sauce, and a small piece of mozzarella cheese. They are shaped into a little ball, dipped in egg and then rolled in bread crumbs. The whole thing is then fried and served piping hot.
They are often confused with Sicilian Arancini, which are popular in many Italian restaurants in the U.S.A.. However, there are some key differences and supplì are far less prevalent in the states than their Sicilian counterpart. Suppli tend to be smaller with little variation in ingredients while arancini tend to be larger and their fillings vary.
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, because these are eaten by hand. When one is split into two pieces, the hot cheese is drawn out in a stretchy string, resembling a telephone cord. Because of this, they have come to be known as supplì al telefono.
Pizzerias throughout the region of Lazio is where you can find suppli, served as an antipasto.
tagliatelle al ragù
Commonly referred to as Bolognese, Tagliatelle al Ragù is how it is commonly called in Italy.
Tagliatelle is a flat, ribbon pasta. It’s similar to linguine, but its ribbons are wider. This pasta variety is traditionally used so that all of the bits of sauce stick to the noodle.
The Ragù is a meat-based sauce typical to the region of Bologna. The sauce is usually prepared with a mixture of beef and pork, and a soffrito of celery, carrot, and onion.
The Americanized version is usually more of a creamy tomato sauce with meat added to it, but this bears little resemblance to the traditional dish, as an Italian Ragù is dairy-free.
tortellini in brodo
Photo & Contribution: Lori, Travlin Mad
When it comes to trying some of the most traditional foods in Italy, there’s no better place than the region of Emilia Romagna. Some of Italy’s most iconic foods produced in Bologna and other cities of Emilia Romagna include prosciutto, Parmigiano reggiano cheese, and traditional balsamic vinegar.
One of the most famous dishes made here is actually a clear soup — Tortellini in Brodo, a dish that’s simple on ingredients but big on complex flavor and texture.
Tortellini is perhaps the most famous pasta of Emilia Romagna. It’s a small pasta purse made from egg pasta and filled with a mixture of pork, cheese, and spices.
Tortellini is made by hand in local pasta shops called sfogline, where these small purses are stuffed, twisted around the pinky finger, then dried. Chefs make tortellini in various sizes (with various corresponding names). They will simmer the smallest tortellini in a clear broth to create one of Bologna’s most flavorful soups of pasta in broth.
Traditionally eaten sprinkled with a teaspoon of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the salty addition adds the crowning touch to the dish — a must-try in Bologna!