The ultimate challenge of dining in Italy? Confronting the undeniable reality that trying everything is probably impossible. With a limited number of meals at your disposal and a finite stomach capacity, you’re up against an infinite array of Italian dishes that are deemed absolute musts.
Read along for our pick of the 16 most iconic foods to eat in Italy that you should prioritize making time (and stomach space) for. Taken together, they sum up the heart and soul of the various cooking traditions that exist around the country.
A list of the most iconic foods to eat in Italy wouldn’t be complete without the humble pizza. Easy, cheap, and filling, pizza has long been a common snack or meal, especially in Naples where tomato sauce was first added.
In 1889, during Queen Margherita’s kingdom tour, she requested a dish she saw her subjects eating. An entrepreneur served her a mix of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil, what we know today as the iconic Margherita pizza. Its colors mirror the Italian flag and Naples’ history with the Queen, and the city asserts its pizza birthright due to Margherita, though not all agree with this claim.
Today, there are essentially two types of pizza to choose from in Italy: Neapolitan-style pizza, or Roman-style pizza.
- Neapolitan-style pizza: This pizza has a thick, fluffy crust and tends to be a little smaller in diameter because the dough hasn’t been rolled out as far and it’s more filling.
- Roman-style pizza: This has a paper-thin crust and just the slightest crunch (you don’t want it to be soggy!) It’s larger in diameter but typically lighter and less of a gluten bomb.
You can’t go wrong with either, though the common rule of thumb is: When in Rome, do as the Romans do, i.e., eat Roman style pizza. When in Naples, naturally, do as the Neapolitans do.
Smoked eggs from the rat of the sea. Wait, what?
Don’t be put off by this description of an Italian delicacy—the other way to describe bottarga is “Sicilian Caviar.” In August and September southern Italians take the roe from gray mullets, salt it, press it, and then leave it to air dry for six months. The result is a solid hunk of eggs the color of amber and blood oranges that, when sliced and eaten or grated over pasta, blossoms into a gloriously savory, smoky, and briny bouquet.
Though essentially a poor man’s answer to preserving seafood in the days before refrigeration, it is now considered one of the most sought after and luxurious foodstuffs in Italy, right up there with truffles (more on those later). We recommend it grated over pasta, or simply sliced thinly and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
Like most Italian dishes, the origins of lasagna are hotly contested, but we can at least say that its stronghold is in the region of Emilia-Romagna, where it transformed from a poor man’s food to a rich meal filled with the ragù, or meat sauce.
Traditional Italian lasagna wasn’t made with tomatoes (remember, those came over from the New World in the 16th century); only ragù, béchamel sauce, and mozzarella or Parmigiano Reggiano—or a combination of the two. Even today, only a bit of tomato or tomato sauce is used in a traditional ragù, unlike most Italian-American dishes, which go heavy on the tomato sauce.
Though you can find lasagna throughout all of Italy, there’s nothing like trying the hearty dish in Emilia-Romagna with homemade noodles, fresh ragù, and a generous dollop of regional pride.
A bistecca fiorentina, or Florentine T-bone steak, covers all of the characteristics of Italy’s best dishes: a specific cut of meat from a specific cow prepared in a very specific way all within the confines of a specific region—Tuscany.
In the case of the enormous bistecca fiorentina, it’s a T-bone steak cut thick (at least 5 centimeters) from the loin of a Chianina cow raised in Tuscany. It’s cooked for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness, until the outside is cooked and the inside remains very rare. No sense in asking for a medium-well done steak here—the meat is too thick to even think about it!
Despite all the dogma, there are some variations on the Florentine steak. For one, the meat isn’t always from a Chianina cow these days. Many Florentines are okay with the addition of new breeds but others believe that the enormous size and muscle of the Chianina makes for the best T-bones.
Keep in mind that this dish is best enjoyed in Tuscany, either in Florence or the countryside, and it’s also meant to be shared! When ordering, know that bistecca alla fiorentina is priced by weight; for two people you’re typically looking at 1-2 kg (or nearly 2-4 pounds).
While on the topic of Tuscany, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention this hearty soup which has become so popular that even Campbell’s sells their own version of it.
This vegetable soup is thickened with bread instead of meat, because that’s what was cheaper and more readily available for hundreds of years in the desperately poor Italian countryside.
In Tuscany, the dish is considered a special treat in autumn, when the vegetables used are at their most vibrant and the soup explodes with an intense savoriness despite the absence of meat (at least in the traditional versions). Often eaten as a first course instead of pasta in the trattorie of Florence, this is one hearty stew that shows off the immense, and often untapped power of great produce.
This corn concoction—which is nearly identical to the grits eaten in the southern states of America—was originally made from whatever starches were handy, including acorns and buckwheat. However, the introduction of corn to Europe in the 16th century saw it become the dominant ingredient of polenta.
Although it lacks the diversity in shapes and textures that pasta has, polenta is the perfect accompaniment to a wide range of meats, especially stewed meats, and it is arguably one of the most comforting foods you can eat when the temperatures drop in cities like Milan, Turin, and Venice. Look for it as a type of purée, or fried into fritters. It also pairs wonderfully with the next dish on our list: ossobuco.
The world-famous ossobuco alla milanese is a bone-in veal shank, cooked low and slow until meltingly tender in a broth of meat stock, white wine, and veggies. Traditionally, it’s accompanied by a gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, and parsley) but that’s optional, and served along with polenta. Although the Milanese like to claim this meaty masterpiece, there are so many varieties found throughout the Lombardy region.
Despite the popularity of ossobuco (which literally means ‘hollow bone’), it’s not always common to see it on restaurant menus because it needs about three hours of cooking time. If you do encounter it during your travels, definitely don’t miss the opportunity to try it as it’s truly one of the most iconic foods to eat in Italy (at least one of the most iconic meats)!
Rounding out the holy trinity of Italian starches is rice, which is often eaten as the creamy, luxurious risotto. Ironically, Italians aren’t huge rice eaters, what with all the pasta and the polenta, but they are the largest producers of rice in Europe. While southern Italy is often called the country’s bread basket, Northern Italy, especially Lombardy and Piedmont, are its rice bowl.
It’s fitting then, that the Arborio and Carneroli varieties grown in the vast rice paddies of these regions are turned into one of Italy’s most iconic dishes by being mixed with stock and stirred until they form a velvety semi-soup that perfectly conveys the flavors of anything cooked with it.
The most famous type of risotto is probably the saffron-infused risotto alla milanese, which was invented, according to legend, by the workmen building the Milan Cathedral who were using saffron to dye the stained glass windows and figured they would also throw it into their rice. Other classic versions of the dish include risotto al nero di sepia (with cuttlefish and ink) and risi e bisi (with pancetta and peas), both of which hail from Venice.
It’s possible to go to Italy and never eat anything besides pasta. And if there’s one bucket list pasta that everyone should try at least once, our vote goes to carbonara, a Roman speciality.
This classic dish is deceptively simple: spaghetti, eggs, pecorino cheese, cured guanciale, and black pepper. But despite its simplicity, it can take a lifetime to master (and a good version will change your life!). There are many imitations (thickening the sauce with cream or using bacon instead of guanciale) but we suggest avoiding those.
To ensure you’re getting the real deal, take advice from Italians and seek out the best carbonara in Rome with a local seal of approval. If you can find an authentic carbonara, you’ve successfully found one of the most iconic foods to eat in Italy. Well done!
Ah, truffles. This pungent, elusive fungus is one of the most expensive and coveted foods in the world—and Italy is one of the few countries where they can be found in abundance! Grown only in the wild, they’re found by hunting the forests and mountains of Umbria and Piedmont with dogs or pigs trained to smell them underground.
Truffles in Italy come in two forms, the rare and more aromatic white truffle, or the slightly less aromatic and slightly more common black truffle. They’re undeniably popular and Italian tartufi are one of our all-time favorite fall foods in Italy. They’re commonly sprinkled over pasta, risotto, and omelets, or used in sauces for steaks or other meat dishes.
Truffles grow naturally throughout Umbria, Tuscany, and Piedmont, so you’re more likely to find fresh truffles in local dishes in these areas, but only if you go in the autumn. During any other time of the year the truffles you get will be imported or frozen and they won’t be anywhere near as good.
Insider’s tip: If you make it into truffle country during the fall head to a sagra (celebration) festival such as the famous International White Truffle Festival of Alba in Piedmont held every October and November.
Focaccia (and other bread)
There are a few key things to know about breads in Italy:
- There are hundreds of types of bread throughout the country
- Not all bread is made with salt (like Tuscan bread)
- The best type of bread is the one baked locally that morning
- One of the most famous Italian breads is the beloved focaccia
Focaccia originates from Liguria, a region located in northwestern Italy, along the Italian Riviera. Reminiscent of a thick pizza dough, classic focaccia is salty, drizzled with olive oil and delicious either by itself, or made into a sandwich. It’s often served open faced, with toppings like rosemary, zucchini, cheese, and olives.
Off the coast of Italy, in Sardinia, the classic bread doesn’t look much like bread at all, instead appearing much more like a pita. Pane carasau, was named for the word carasare, which means to toast. Unsurprisingly, this bread paper-thin bread it always toasted after baking, giving it its wonderful crunch.
In Italy, you’ll find bakeries everywhere, from big cities to tiny towns. Don’t miss the chance to grab some local bread, (or Italian pastries and cakes); it’s a simple joy no matter where you are in the world.
Arancini & Supplì (or, delicious fried rice balls)
Our Sicilian friends might not be a fan of us lumping beloved arancini together with their Roman cousins, supplì. But after all, they’re both types of fried rice balls.
So, when it comes to supplì vs arancini, what’s the difference?
- Arancini are bigger and rounder in shape and come in a variety of flavors. In fact, its name means “small orange”, for its resemblance in shape and color to the fruit. Common flavors you’ll find include ragù and cheese, or some with veggies like peas, mushrooms, eggplant, and zucchini. You can also find specialty arancini like carbonara or cacio e pepe.
- Supplì is a Roman specialty usually found in pizzerias and served as antipasti. They’re more oval in shape and traditionally contain only rice, tomato sauce, and a large piece of mozzarella in the middle. Their playful nickname “supplì al telefono” originates from the idea that when you break them in half and pull them apart, a delicate cheese string bridges the gap between the two pieces.
For top-quality, steer clear of pre-prepared fried rice balls left under heat lamps. The contrast between these and freshly fried ones is striking. Whether you opt for the Sicilian or Roman version, both are iconic foods to eat in Italy that you’ll be talking about long after your trip.
For coffee drinkers, there’s little better than enjoying a coffee in Italy.
However, Italian coffee isn’t like coffee in your local Starbucks. Though some of the dozens of choices might sound similar (latte, cappuccino, etc.) they’re rarely what you have been led to believe they are. For instance, if you were to order a “latte,” in Italy you would simply be served a glass of milk.
Read our complete guide on how to drink coffee like an Italian, to learn when, where, what, and how to drink coffee in Italy. From a regular “caffè” to a cappuccino, there’s a considerable amount of regional difference.
Among all the coffee-loving cities in Italy, Trieste has one of the best coffee and cafe culture. Its long history as a tax-free port brought some of the first coffee beans to the city during Europe’s first coffee craze in the middle ages. Today Italian coffee king Illy has its headquarters there and the city still imports many other brands as well.
No trip to Italy is complete without gelato, and it’s totally normal to eat gelato on a regular basis in Italy, especially in the summer (in southern Italy they even eat it for breakfast!). Without a doubt, it’s one of the most iconic foods to eat in Italy.
Though gelato and ice cream are similar, they’re not quite the same. To start, gelato has far less butterfat than ice cream: about 4 to 8% compared to 14% for ice cream in the United States. The low-fat content means that gelato is served a bit warmer and tends to melt in your mouth faster, and it also intensifies the flavor and gives it a more velvety texture.
Moreover, gelato has a much higher density. Regular ice cream has air and water added to increase volume and weight. These additions also make it less flavorful. On the other hand, traditional artisan gelato is super sweet and super flavorful. Another key difference is that good gelato isn’t made for long-term storage.
Finding quality gelato in Italy
When seeking out the best gelato in Italy, there are a few things to look out for.
- Before purchasing, check out the color of certain flavors like pistachio (Does it look earthy colored, or artificial and bright?)
- Look for fruit flavors that are in season (they should be), and consult the ingredient list.
- Pay attention to how the gelato is stored. Artisanal gelato is slow-churned and should lay flat in its container. Beware of giant mounds of gelato—they may look good, but they often indicate lower quality because they’ve been whipped to add more air to the product.
Tiramisu is probably the country’s most beloved after-dinner dessert. This no-bake parfait features layers of soft, sweetened mascarpone cheese and coffee-soaked ladyfingers.
It may be simple to make but not all tiramisu is created equal. A good tiramisu features only the highest quality coffee and mascarpone. Cream and egg whites are sometimes added to the mascarpone to give it a lighter texture, and a variety of cookies and cakes can be substituted for the traditional lady fingers.
Did you know? While tiramisu is undoubtedly one of the most iconic foods to eat in Italy, it’s surprisingly one of the more recent additions, with most accounts dating its creation to the 1960s.
The term “digestivo” or “digestive” does not refer to one drink, but a class of drinks that are enjoyed after a big meal with the aim of settling the stomach and helping you feel not-quite-so-full. Drinking them dates back to the Middle Ages, when people all over Europe believed in the medicinal properties of alcohol mixed with sugar and herbs.
Although the doctors are still out on the medical benefits of drinking medium to strong liquors after a meal, the fact remains that you cannot say you have enjoyed a real Italian meal unless you top it off with a shot of the hard stuff.
Popular digestives include limoncello, grappa, amaro, cynar, amaretto, and if you’re feeling brave, sambuca, which has enough alcohol to make a horse giddy. If you step off the beaten track in Italy you will also discover all types of nice post dinner tipples made from local fruits and herbs. Don’t be shy, they are always worth a sip.
This post was originally published on February 8, 2017, and was updated on September 1, 2023.
by Gina MussioView more by Gina ›
Book a Tour
Pristine Sistine - The Chapel at its Best
Premium Colosseum Tour with Roman Forum Palatine Hill
Pasta-Making Class: Cook, Dine Drink Wine with a Local Chef
Crypts, Bones Catacombs: Underground Tour of Rome
VIP Doge's Palace Secret Passages Tour
Legendary Venice: St. Mark's Basilica, Terrace Doge's Palace
You May Also Like
September 16, 2011
What to Eat in Rome: 25 Traditional Roman Dishes
What to eat in Rome, with all the best Roman foods from pasta carbonara to Roman...
October 18, 2012
5 Best Food Markets in Italy: Campo dei Fiori, Rialto Fish Market & More
One of the most exciting and authentic aspects of Italy's cities are their food...
July 13, 2016
The Only Italian Lasagna Recipe You’ll Ever Need
A properly-made lasagna is a dish of consummate beauty and one of the most beloved Italian food...
October 19, 2012
Guide to Sicilian Cuisine: Arancini, Caponata, Involtini, Sfincione & More
Here's a rundown of the best food to eat in the beautiful...
August 29, 2011
Best Food in Bologna & Emilia-Romagna, The Italian Food Valley
The very best food in Bologna Italy and the rest of...
October 20, 2011
3 Best Eats Near Naples’ Train Station: Pizza, Pastries & More
Even if you only have 45 minutes between trains, you can still taste the best food in...