As much as I wish I could whisk myself away to Italy, rent a picture-perfect red Vespa, and embark on a road trip from the tippy top of the country all the way down to the bottom of the "boot," I don't see that fitting into my schedule any time soon.
With 20 distinct regions—each with their own unique geography and culinary traditions—from the north to the south, it would take months (years, really) to fully explore the country in all its delicious glory. But that doesn't mean we can't explore right in our very own kitchens!
The only thing that's standing between you and sweet, ricotta-filled cannoli from Sicily, creamy spaghetti alla carbonara from Lazio, and rustic acquacotta (a hearty bread soup) from Toscana, is your stove. So go ahead, cook—and eat!—your way through Italy.
Not sure where to start? We tapped Emiko Davies, a Florence-based food writer, cookbook author, and expert on all things Italian, as our handy guide. Consider her illustrated map above your primer and inspiration, and the region-by-region guide below—featuring many of the classic recipes that Emiko has shared with Food52 over the years—as your gateway to every delicious dish. Mangia!
Up in the top northeastern corner of Italy lies the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, which shares a border with Austria and Switzerland. This region shares many culinary traditions with their Swiss and Austrian neighbors, so you'll find ingredients like sausage, yogurt, and polenta throughout, as well as dishes such as goulash, strudels, and spätzle in certain areas.
A comfort food favorite during the winter is the canederli (also known as knödel) below. "Sometimes thought of as a (more substantial) cousin to gnocchi, canederli are made of cubes of stale bread held together with milk and eggs," Davies explains in her article on the dish. It's often flavored with speck: a cured, smoked ham local to the region that's thinly sliced and similar to prosciutto.
If you're in the northern Italian region of Lombardia (or Lombardy, to Americans), you're not very far from the capital of Italian fashion: Milan. This is a "beautiful and mountainous area, where the food is hearty and strictly local," writes Davies in her description of the region's popular winter dish, buckwheat pasta with potatoes and Swiss chard.
Here, people tend to use ingredients like rice, polenta, beef, pork, and butter when cooking. It's also famous for its two versions of mostarda, a traditional condiment made from candied fruit and mustard essence. The first, from Cremona, is made from whole, mixed fruits that are candied, spiced, and eaten with boiled meats. The second, shown below, is from Mantua: It's prepared with spiced, barely-cooked quince or apple and is often served with local cheeses.
Up in the northwest corner of Italy, bordered by France and Switzerland, is Valle d'Aosta. Aside from it's hearty cuisine, this region is known for its breathtaking scenery, including the iconic, snow-capped peaks of Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso. Dishes traditional to the region include seupa di gri, a barley soup with vegetables, potatoes, onions and pork, and minestra di castagne e riso, a thick porridge made from rice and chestnuts. You'll also find an abundance of cheese in this part of Italy, particularly fontina, which is used to make fondue (yes, they have fondue here!), as well as flavor risottos, soups, and polenta.
Also in the north, the Piemonte (or Piedmont) region sits at the foot of the Alps, bordering both France and Switzerland. This region is known for its rich and savory cuisine, hazelnut desserts, wines like Barolo and Nebiolo, and of course, the famous Alba white truffle, Tartufo Bianco d’Alba. During the wine harvest in the fall, there's an annual culinary tradition where locals and friends get together around a bubbling pot of bagna cauda: an "aromatic and heady" combination of "mountains of garlic, slowly cooked with plenty of olive oil and anchovies," says Davies of the dish. "Autumn vegetables, raw and cooked, are dipped, one after the other, into the warm sauce, while glasses of young red wine are clinked."
Up in the northeastern corner of Italy, bordering Austria, Slovenia, and the Adriatic Sea, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is home to some of the most renowned vineyards (producing white wine) in the country. It's also known for its traditional holiday treat: the gubana, which is most famous in the town of Udine. With a characteristic snail-shell shape and scents of cinnamon, raisins, orange zest and vanilla, "it's not surprising that this cake has more similarities with cousins in Croatia and Slovenia than any cakes or sweet breads in other Italian regions," writes Davies in her article on the traditional holiday pastry.
You're probably familiar with the region of Veneto, located in the north east and stretching from the Dolomite Mountains to the Adriatic Sea, thanks to its capital: Venice, a city famed for its canals, Gothic architecture, and the fact that it's slowly sinking. Known more for its bustling tourism than its local cuisine, Venice actually has a rich food culture, including risotto and the lesser-known cicchetti: little morsels similar to tapas, often served in small, standing room-only bars known as bacari.
These bites include dishes like baccala mantecato and crisp polpette di carne (crumbed meatballs), washed down with a traditional Venetian aperitif: an effervescent, brightly hued spritz cocktail made with Aperol or Campari, prosecco, and soda
A crescent-shaped region located in the northwest, Liguria is a part of what's known as "Italy's western Riviera," according to Davies. The region's capital is Genoa, but you'll also find scenic Mediterranean fishing villages and towns like Cinque Terre, Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure here, as well. "This Torta Pasqualina pie—made with fine, almost transparent layers of dough and filled with chard, creamy ricotta and carefully eggs—is one of Liguria's iconic dishes, next to pesto of course," Davies says.
The capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region in northern Italy, is Bologna: a historic, vibrant city with an 11th-century university and traditional medieval architecture. Here, you'll find a classic dish that's as loved in the United States as it is throughout Italy: lasagne. "The classic Emilian lasagne is probably the most emblematic of all lasagne recipes and involves the staples of the region's cuisine: fresh egg pasta (plain or green pasta made with spinach, known as lasagne verdi), full-flavored beef and pork ragu, bechamel sauce, and the region's favorite cheese, Parmesan," writes Davies in her explanation of the dish.
Ah, Toscana—aka, Tuscany. Located in central Italy, this regions's capital, Florence, houses some of the world's most important Renaissance art and architecture. It's also home to the iconic rolling hills and valleys, wine and olive oil vineyards, and sunflower fields that have made it a destination for countless tourists and American romantic comedies. In Tuscany, the cuisine is characterized by simplicity—most menus include bread, cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, and meats like wild boar. A classic dish is acquacotta, a rustic soup of stale bread, wild chicory, potatoes, and fresh tomatoes.
Also centrally located, Umbria borders the neighboring regions of Tuscany, Lazio, and Le Marche. Often referred to as "the green heart of Italy," this region is best known hilly, medieval towns, picturesque forests, and abundance of foraged truffles. Umbrian cuisine is similarly rustic to that of Tuscany—dishes you might encounter while visiting include this thick, hearty farro soup, or a simple black olive panino.
An eastern Italian region situated between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, Le Marche is a place where meat lovers will feel right at home. On the coast, an abundance of fish and seafood are available, while inland, pigs are used to produce sausage and ham. Olives all'Ascolana, deep-fried olives stuffed with a meat filling (like a combo of pork, beef, and chicken), come from a province in the central part of Le Marche, but have become popular in bars throughout the country. Most often, they are part of an antipasto course, or are put out to nibble on during aperitivo (to accompany a Negroni or spritz, of course).
If you've been to Rome, Italy’s capital and the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, then you've been to the region of Lazio. Here, you'll come across a number of familiar pasta dishes utilizing ingredients that traditionally might have been found in a shepherd's backpack, according to Sara Jenkins: guanciale (unsmoked bacon from the jowls or cheeks of the pig), found in pasta alla carbonara or pasta alla gricia; pecorino cheese, used in cacio e pepe; and salt and pepper, used in pretty much every single one of these dishes.
East of Rome lies the region of Abruzzo, known for its stunning Adriatic coastline and nature reserves in the rugged Apennine Mountains. The cuisine in this region is eclectic and tough to pin down, since it draws on both pastoral and coastal culinary traditions. One dish popular in the region requires very little fuss: arrosticini, long, thin skewers of lamb (similar to kebabs) that are famous in this part of Italy. Another regional specialty is scrucchiata, a sweet yet sugarless grape jam with a recipe that's been passed on by word of mouth for generations.
A mountainous Italian region with a chunk of coastline on the Adriatic Sea, the cuisine of Molise isn't too different from the cuisine of it's neighbor, Abruzzo. Case in point: agnello cacio e uova, baked lamb with cheese, eggs and peas. "A well-known recipe in Abruzzo and its smaller neighbor, Molise, agnello cacio e uova is a simple stew of lamb cooked until tender in white wine and topped with a mixture of beaten eggs and Pecorino cheese," says Davies in her recipe for the dish. That being said, regional differences do apply. In Molise, for example, "the stew is transferred to the oven to bake, where the eggs set, forming an omelette-y golden crust over the top rather than a sauce."
Known for its dramatic coastline, the region of Calabria is home to Naples—the regional capital—as well as the Amalfi Coast and the iconic Mount Vesuvius. Traditional dishes here are simple and tend to highlight fresh seafood from the Gulf of Naples, as well as locally grown produce like the region's famous Amalfi lemons, tomatoes, spring onions, peppers, artichokes, potatoes, oranges, and fennel. The ingredients in the zucchini spaghetti below are simple, but when combined make a "legendary pasta" that was invented in 1952 by Maria Grazia, who owned a restaurant in the small fishing village of Nerano (located between Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast).
Forming the heel of Italy’s “boot,” Puglia is a southern region known for its sun-bleached, hilly towns and miles upon miles of Mediterranean coastline. The region is a massive producer of not only olive oil, but also of wheat, tomatoes, eggplant, and many other vegetables, as well as fresh-caught seafood like oysters and mussels. A dish traditional to the area is orechiette, or ear-shaped pasta, served with broccoli rabe, garlic, anchovies, and dried Chile peppers. "Dishes like ciceri e tria (handmade pasta with chickpeas and tomato), the internationally-renowned melanzane alla parmigiana, earthy pure di fave (pureed dried fava beans) and vincotto, a dark, sweet and syrupy condiment made of overripe local grapes," are also common to the region, according to Davies.
A southern Italian region primarily made up of forests and mountains, Basilicata locals tend to use a great deal of pork in their cooking, although you'll also come across wild boar and lamb in dishes. The region is famous for troccoli (a pasta similar to spaghetti) and capunti (thick, oval-shaped pasta resembling a pea pod), but is also known for a dish pretty much unheard of in America: sanguinaccio dolce. It's a "southern Italian (particularly Basilicata, Calabria, Abruzzo and Campania) specialty of fresh pig’s blood cooked with dark chocolate and milk into a decadent pudding," writes Davies in her article on the specialty. Though it sounds somewhat unappealing, the pig's blood actually "gives the dessert its fantastic, custard-like texture" and "complements the flavor of the dark chocolate."
Calabria, a sunny region located at the very bottom of mainland Italy, is geographically known for its rugged mountains, dramatic coastline, and many popular beaches. When it comes to food, common ingredients include swordfish, lobster, shrimp, squid and sea urchin, while hot peppers and cipolla rosa di tropea (a type of onion) are added to bring spice to dishes. It's also home to nduja (pronounced en-DOO-ya), a spreadable salami typically made from pork scraps, herbs, spices, and Calabrian chili peppers, for its trademark zing.
Sicily is the largest Mediterranean island located just off the "toe" of Italy's famous "boot" ad its cuisine reflects a variety of outside influences, including Spanish, Greek, and Arabic. You'll find a number of traditional dishes here, from pasta alla norma to arancini. But, one thing you can't leave Sicily without trying is one of their cannoli, described by Davies as "empty, crisp, bubbly, deep-brown tubes of flaky, fried pastry waiting to be filled with ricotta, pastry cream, or chocolate" in her recipe for the sweet treats. They're often dipped in chopped pistachios, chocolate, or candied fruit, before being showered in sweet, light-as-air confectioners' sugar.
The region of Sardegna, or Sardinia, is a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea with over 1,200 miles of coastline. It's no surprise that seafood is the name of the game here, and this clam stew made with fregola is a local favorite."Fregola (known as fregula in the local dialect) is an ancient handmade pasta produced on the island of Sardinia, where it has been made the same way since the 14th century," says Davies in her recipe for the dish. It's made using semolina or durum wheat flour and is best eaten with shellfish, specifically arselle (tiny, sweet clams), in a tomato-based sauce with garlic, parsley, dry white wine, and the clam juice.
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