Italian Food Culture: 11 Iconic Dishes of Italy

Italian food culture
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No matter where in the world you call home, it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ve indulged in Italian cuisine at some point or another. Italian food culture has influenced every part of the globe, packing a punch with fresh Mediterranean ingredients, homemade breads and pastas, olive oils and rich meats. Mhmm…this is the land of pizza, arancini, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, caprese – we could go on and on until there’s no water left for the mouthwatering!

However, in Italy, food isn’t just about satisfying hunger. it’s also a way to connect with friends and family, to meet and mingle and enjoy each other’s company while cooking and dining. It’s nothing short of an ancient art; a ritual that binds the Italian people together from north to south, from mountains to sea.

This guide to Italian food culture will delve into the world of cuisine on the fabled Boot of Europe. It will reveal the secrets of the local cooking by focusing in on 11 iconic dishes that we think sum up the tasty land surrounded by the Med. It’s got quintessential favorites – pizza, of course! – and some of the lesser-known staples that adorn the menus of Roman trattoria and Tuscan agriturismo alike.

Neapolitan pizza

Neapolitan pizza
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It’s virtually impossible to talk about Italian food culture and not mention pizza. In fact, pizza is such a significant part of Italian life that there is a set of unspoken rules on how to make and eat the now-iconic dish. One: Toppings aren’t really allowed; it’s just cheese and basil in these parts. Two: Use Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, buffalo cheese from the Campania region. Three: Make your passata from San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

Following all those gives you the original Neapolitan style of pizza. It’s original because Naples claims to be the birthplace of pizza, and it’s now protected in both national and EU law – the dish is an official Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) and even listed as UNESCO dish of cultural heritage. How much more authentic can you get?

The Neapolitan style’s great rival is the Romana style of pizza. That’s the more common type made up in the Italian capital and regions like Umbria and Tuscany. It’s characterized by a richer buffalo cheese, herby tomato sauce, and crispy-thin crusts that are often charred in the wood-fire oven. Both are must tries during your Italian travels!

Lasagna

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A classic comfort food, no matter where in the world you are, lasagna will no doubt put a smile on your face and leave you happily full.

Technically, lasagna refers to the wide, flat pasta that forms the layered dish. However, it’s certain if you order lasagna off a menu, you’ll be getting the perfectly cheesy, meaty, and hearty dish we all know and love. Originally, lasagna was a poor man’s food in Italy, consisting mainly of baked noodles. Then, once the upper class of Emilia-Romagna took hold of the recipe and added meat sauce into the mix, its fame quickly spread, giving us the meal we know and love today.

You can find all sorts of different varieties of lasagna throughout Italy. In northern Italy, lasagna is made with egg pasta, classic Bolognese sauce, béchamel sauce, and DOC Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This creates a thick and creamy dish. In Naples, on the other hand, lasagna tends to be much meatier, with ricotta, provola, and pecorino cheeses placed throughout.

Ravioli

ravioli
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Ravioli iis thought to date back to sometime around the 14th century, when folks first decided to start augmenting the humble pastas of old Italy with fillings and extra flavors. While originally ravioli referred to all varieties of stuffed pasta, over time, the term became more associated with the small, square-shaped packets that were filled with herbs and cheese. As it was a largely vegetarian meal, it quickly became a Christmas eve go-to, and even today, you’ll see families enjoying this tradition.

There are all sorts of different types of ravioli to sample on your travels through Italy. However, some of the most common include the Latium style from Rome, where the dough packets are filled with a mix of spinach and ricotta cheese, all infused with a touch of nutmeg and black pepper. That’s often served either with a simple topping of pecorino cheese or with a light tomato sauce.

Like pizza before it, ravioli are now a staple of Italian food culture that have been exported all around the globe. They’re available in supermarkets around the UK, in the eateries of Little Italy in NYC, and even have Turkish and French versions that make use of different spices, cheeses, and meat fillings.

Artichokes alla Romana

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Anyone Rome bound in the late winter or the spring with a hankering to sample some of the delights of Italian food culture simply must dig into a plate of Artichokes alla Romana. These are one of the trademark dishes of the capital, and have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.

It’s simple stuff: Take a couple of fresh artichoke hearts, boil them up with lemon rinds to add some flavor, then mix in a combo of garlic and butter before submerging in white wine and braising for about half an hour.

The finished product should be dripping in a rich concoction of herbs and reduced wine, infused with the zest of lemons, and oozing Italian olive oils. You can get these in pretty much any self-respecting Roman osteria or tavern, and they’re definitely best when in season around February and March.

Arancini

arancini balls
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If you’ve ever taken a bite into an Arancini ball, you’ll know just how decadent and addicting these tasty appetizers can be. The inside of arancini combines risotto mixed with butter and parmesan, all of which is then dipped into flour, egg, and breadcrumbs before being lightly deep fried in olive oil. The result is a perfectly crunchy outside and a flavorful, soft risotto on the inside.

In Italy, you’ll find a mind-blowing variety of arancini. Along with the classic risotto-filled balls, you’ll also find arancini filled with ragu sauce, ham and mozzarella, different mixes of vegetables and cheese, and even new takes on this classic, like carbonara filled arancini. The name itself comes from the Italian word for “little oranges”, and the dish is thought to have originated somewhere on Sardinia, where the arancini are slightly larger like the fruit itself.

These days, it’s generally accepted that the best place to sample arancini are at the street stalls of cities like Palermo or Catania, where they’re sold by hawkers in old-school alleyways and open-air marketplaces from morning until night.

Ribollita

ribollita italian food culture
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Meaning “reboiled,” ribollita is another hearty Italian meal with humble beginnings and deep traditions. There are many varieties of this tasty soup, but the main ingredients always include cannellini beans, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions. Plus, the most important ingredient: Leftover bread.

This part of Italian food culture dates back to the days of servants and masters, when servants would cook any leftovers in boiling water and thicken the soup with bread. Over time, this flavorful soup made its way into more and more family homes and became a go-to meal for all classes. Whenever someone was hungry, the soup would simply be reboiled, creating a thicker and tastier soup each time until it was gone.

In current times, you’ll tend to find Ribollita on menus as a first course, especially in Florence. In autumn, the flavors are at their best when harvests are in full swing and vegetables galore are added to the soup. Just be careful, as even a small portion can fill you to the brim.

Caprese salad

caprese salad, italian food culture
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Made with tomato, mozzarella, sweet basil, and olive oil, this simple classic is refreshing, delicious, and relatively nutritious. You’ve likely had some version of it before but may not have realized its origins are deep-rooted in Italian food culture. 

No one is quite sure when the salad first came to be, but its name suggests it originated from the Isle of Capri near Naples. It is believed it was first invented to celebrate the colors of the Italian flag, with green, white, and red ingredients in full display. Now, throughout Italy, you’ll find this dish usually served as an antipasto (starter) rather than a side, and it can be eaten at any time of the day, any time of the year.

Caprese doesn’t have to be just a salad, either. Around Italy, you’ll also find Caprese pizza, pasta, and sandwiches – all made with the four key ingredients. Plus, you’ll also see variations of the salad itself. Sometimes pesto is used in place of olive oil, balsamic vinegar may be added, and to make it more of a salad, rocket or romaine lettuce may be used to bulk the dish up.

Eggplant parmigiana

eggplant parmigiana
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Unlike many of the other dishes on this list, eggplant parmigiana’s origins are highly debated around Italy. Even today, there’s no definitive answer. Some claim that Arabs brought it over from Persia and the east sometime in the 15th century, because of the link between old Sicilian word for Persia is “parmiciana“. Others think it was a home-grown southern Campanian dish with influence from the Moors and North Africans.

Either way, Eggplant Parmigiana has become a classic in Italian food culture and can now be found in every part of the country. No matter where you are, the ingredients are the same: Fried slices of eggplant layered with tomato sauce, basil, garlic, and a mix of pecorino, mozzarella, or caciocavallo cheese. The result is a gooey and indulgent pie that strings with melted cheese and has just a touch of zing and spice to it. Best served with a fresh green salad.

Truffles

Italian truffles
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We’re not talking about chocolate truffles, this isn’t Belgium! Nope, we’re talking about the naturally found, earthy, and musky truffle Italians go to extreme lengths to get their hands on. Dogs and pigs are trained to roam the forests and mountains of Umbria, Tuscany, and Piedmont tohelp their trainers spot these well-camouflaged delights. And with prices of up to $4,000 per kilo, it’s easy to see why!

For many, the first taste of a truffle leaves much to be desired. The black truffle, also the most common truffle in Italy, has a distinctive earthy, garlicky, nutty, and shockingly powerful taste, with an even more pungent musky smell. Much more rare is the white truffle, which somehow gives off even more scent and has a gamey flavor. 

If you’re ready to give this infamous ingredient a try, it’s best not to go too big too fast. Instead, opt for a dish with truffle shavings, such as a creamy tagliatelle pasta or risotto to test out the taste without spending a fortune. Be careful, though, becasue this is infamously one food you’ll either love or hate.

Risotto

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No list of the most important dishes in Italy could possibly be complete without a nod to risotto. It’s the most iconic rice dish of all on The Boot, and now comes in all manner of different forms, from the seafood-packed frutti di mare of the south to the saffron-infused richness of the Milanese risotto.

Its origins are actually thought to be in the fashion-mad city of the north: Milano. It’s here back in 1809 that the first recipe for the dish appears. But the actual story goes that a glassblower’s apprentice from northern Europe made a rice dish using saffron for wedding guests and the whole thing sort of caught on from there.

Rissotto is made using a special type of small-grain rice that absorbs plenty of liquid. That allows for a slow cooking method where herbs, spices, and stock are added gradually over more than 30 minutes or more.

Bottarga

bottarga, italian food culture
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Another odd-tasting delicacy, bottarga is certainly a required taste. In fact, it’s actually been deemed as the truffle of the sea…

To put it simply, bottarga is roe (egg sacs) from grey mullets or tuna that has been salted, pressed, and left to air dry for six months. The finished product is a dark orange, solid chunk of eggs that can be sliced to eat straight or grated over savory dishes. If your stomach isn’t grumbling with wanting to try bottarga, we don’t blame you. However, if you forget how it’s made, the smoky, briny, and savory flavors are sure to go a long way to changing your mind…

The most common way bottarga is eaten around Italy is the classic spaghetti alla bottarga, which is simply spaghetti with bottarga grated on top. You’ll also find Italians eating bottarga on olive oil-soaked bread or grated over pretty much anything.

Why is food important in Italian culture?

In Italy, food is much more than satisfying a hungry stomach. Instead, Italian food culture is all about enjoying time with family and friends over a glass of wine and a delicious meal. Italians are incredibly proud of their food and use it as a way to celebrate festivals, holidays, big announcements, and the coming together of family and friends.

What are the traditional foods in Italy?

Italian food is all about fresh vegetables, pastas, breads, and cheeses crafted in different and delicious ways. Traditional foods in Italy include Neapolitan pizza, risotto, lasagna, ravioli, and caprese, and traditional desserts in Italy are rich treats like tiramisu, gelato, panna cotta, and biscotti. It’s also common to drink wine with dinner and enjoy a coffee after dessert.

What is the most important aspect of Italian cuisine?

Italian cuisine has a strong Mediterranean influence focusing on fresh ingredients, herbs, and olive oil. Dishes are simple, and the quality of ingredients plays a much larger part than the complexity of the cooking method. Meals tend to be drawn out and are often used as a way to spend time with family and friends.

What is a typical breakfast in Italy?

Contrary to the hearty meals you eat for lunch and dinner, breakfast in Italy tends to be small and sweet. It’s not uncommon for both adults and children to have cookies and coffee or milk for breakfast. Other typical breakfasts include cereals, bread and Nutella, and bread and jam. Breakfast is also not a lengthy meal and is used more of a way to kickstart your digestive system, as you may still be full for the late dinner the night before.

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