No matter where in the world you call home, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ve indulged in Italian cuisine. Italian food culture has influenced every part of the globe, with its savory meals packed with fresh ingredients and homemade breads and pastas. Think pizza, arancini, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, caprese and more.
However, in Italy, food isn’t just about satisfying hunger. Instead, it’s a way to connect with friends and family and spend hours on end enjoying each other’s company with cooking and dining.
On top of this, the traditions of Italian food culture date back to the 4th century BC and have rooted themselves deeply into the day-to-day life of Italians. Below, we discover the nine most iconic foods in Italy, and if your stomach isn’t already grumbling, we promise it will be before you reach the bottom.
1. Neapolitan Pizza
It would be nearly impossible and wrong to talk about Italian food culture and not begin with pizza. In fact, pizza is such a significant part of Italian life that there is an entire rule book of unwritten rules on how to eat pizza properly. Only choose a couple of toppings, eat pizza with your hands, and always order one pizza per person are some of the most common unwritten rules.
While there are many local varieties of pizza throughout Italy, the most well-known and well-loved is Neapolitan pizza. This type has a thick, fluffy crust and is covered in San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and a specific kind of mozzarella. Naples claims to be the birthplace of Neapolitan pizza when Queen Margherita toured the city back in 1889 and discovered the delicious dish many of her subjects were enjoying. From that moment on, pizza and the Italians became inseparable.
If you prefer thin crust pizza, Roman-style is right up there with Neapolitan; just be sure not to order it in Naples, or you may get some unapproving stares.
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 – and nowhere in the world does lasagna quite like Italy.
Technically, lasagna refers to the wide, flat pasta noodle. 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 and consisted mainly of baked noodles. Then, once the upper class of Emilia-Romagna took hold of the recipe and added meat sauce to the noodles, its fame quickly spread.
Today, you’ll find different varieties of lasagna throughout Italy. In Northern Italy, lasagna is made with egg pasta, classic bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This creates a thick and creamy dish. On the other hand, in Naples, lasagna tends to be much meatier with ricotta, provola, and pecorino cheese placed throughout.
You may see a trend already starting to happen, another carb favorite, this time in the form of ravioli. Don’t worry, though. Like all forms of pasta in Italy, ravioli is always handmade with the finest yet humble ingredients and cooked to perfection.
The origins of ravioli date back to the 14th century, when stuffed pasta first started appearing. While originally ravioli referred to a variety of stuffed pasta, over time, the term became strongly associated with the small, square-shaped kind and was typically stuffed 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.
If you happen to be in Italy around the holidays, you’ll be in for a treat. While you’ll find common varieties that include meat, cheese, herbs, and vegetables much of the year, Italians pull out all the stops around Christmas. Especially in Northern Italy, you’ll find the most decadent ravioli di Zucca e amaretti, made with pumpkin and almond biscuits.
If you’ve taken a bite into an Arancini ball, you’ll know just how decadent and addicting these tasty appetizers are. The inside of arancini combines risotto mixed with butter and parmesan, and this is then dipped into flour, egg, and breadcrumbs before being fried in olive oil. The result is a perfectly crunchy outside and a flavorful risotto on the inside.
In Italy, you’ll find a mind-blowing variety of arancini along with different sizes. The name comes from the Italian word ‘little oranges,’ which comes from the Sicilian arancini that are slightly larger and resemble, yes, a little orange. Along with the classic risotto-filled balls, you’ll also find arancini filled with ragù, ham and mozzarella, different mixes of vegetables and cheese, and even new takes on this classic like carbonara filled arancini.
You can find these tasty treats in most parts of the world. However, the best will always come from Sicilian street food vendors served as a delicious afternoon snack. If you walk by a stand, we can promise that it will take all the willpower in the world to resist their tempting smells.
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.
Its history in 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. Then the process would start again.
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.
6. Caprese salad
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.
7. Eggplant Parmigiana
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 on how the dish even got its name. Some claim the Arabs brought this dish over in the 15th century from India, and the name originates from the Sicilian word ‘parmiciana,’ which refers to the wooden strips that form a shutter.
Others claim the term simply came from the Persian word for eggplant, ‘petronciana,’ and others believe the dish originated from the Turkish moussaka, which is made of eggplants fried in oil and topped with pecorino cheese.
Either way, Eggplant Parmigiana has become a classic in Italian food culture and can 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.
We’re not talking about chocolate truffles. Instead, 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 and help their trainers spot these well-camouflaged delights. And with prices of up to US$4000 per kilo, it’s easy to see why folks go to such lengths to get their hands on truffles.
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 savory 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 pasta or risotto to test out the taste without costing a fortune. Be careful, though; this is one food you’ll either love or hate.
Another odd-tasting delicacy, bottarga is certainly a required taste. In fact, it’s actually been deemed as the truffle of the sea and has just as strong roots in Italian food culture as the beloved truffle.
To put 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 and 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 change 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.