Italians are incredibly proud of their local gastronomy- and rightfully so! Those of us coming to visit are generally ready to devour every pizza, pasta and tiramisu in sight. However, if you are a tourist looking to eat and live like the locals, you need to know what type of food you should be focused on trying, and the surrounding customs, based on the part of Italy you are visiting.
Italy is a large country with varying climates and terrain and very passionate about sticking to their DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) which basically essentially ensures that products are locally grown and packaged. As such, the local food specialties and traditions vary greatly between the northern, southern and coastal regions.
This is all a long way of saying- don’t just order pizza everywhere in Italy and call it a day! (well, unless you are in Naples of course)
Some of the best advice I received before my first time backpacking through Italy was to take a few minutes Googling the local gastronomy before each stop and prioritize trying that food and drink while there. This list is the culmination of what I learned by eating my way through this deliciously diverse country. Disclaimer, Italy has 20 regions in total, and a robust gastronomical history lies within each, so this is a very high level summary to get you started. Have fun, follow your nose, and ask the server or market vendor what they are known for!
Oh, and pro tip, sometimes the clues are in the names: Caprese originated in Capri, pasta bolognese comes from Bologna, you get the gist. Mangia bene!
Eating Local in Northern Italy
Influenced by their proximity to Switzerland the mountainous, rocky terrain, this region is for meat and cheese lovers- so lay on the parmesan! Rice (usually in the form of risotto) and polenta are eaten over pasta.
Parma ham is taken seriously all across Italy. Used for sandwiches, aperitivos and the stuff of charcuterie dreams.
Milan is the region capital, and as such, the food culture is incredibly rich and decadent. Order risotto a la Milanese, osso busco, and pair with a glass of red or two.
Order whatever peaks your interest, as long as it comes smothered in a meaty red sauce, preferably ragù bolognese.
This city is known for their pesto Genovese, as basil is widely grown in this region. Have it with fresh, crusty bread or over pasta or rice. Just don’t confuse it with pasta alla Genovese- that’s rigatoni in slow cooked meat sauce that if often served in Naples. Hey, I don’t make the rules!
You come to Tuscany to drink wine, duh, specifically of the Chianti variation, but Tuscany also produces some of Italy’s best olive oils, sheep’s milk cheeses, and steaks.
Even the Italians travel to Florence for the steak alla Fiorentina and return home with some fresh Pecorino cheese.
Eating Local in Central Italy
Hereeeee is the pasta mecca you’ve been looking for! The Lazio region is particularly known for their fresh and dried pastas, as well as artichokes galore. This is also the part of Italy famous for the whole roasted pig tradition called porchetta.
Romans love their pasta, specifically spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe or bucatini. Pair with the Artichokes alla Roman or fresh bruschetta. Read more on the best places to try these dishes here.
Eating Local on the Italy Coast
The Campania region includes Pompeii and is known for growing tomatoes, eggplant, figs, and lemons in its fertile volcanic soil. With fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and a lot of bread options, it’s no wonder this became the pizza region. Wash it all down with some freshly made limoncello!
This port city is famously the birthplace of pizza and also known for its calzones. Pick up a frozen granita before or after the meal.
Order all the fresh seafood, especially calamari, or whatever else you see hanging fresh in the window. Crab filled ravioli and spaghetti Cozze E Vongole (with mussels and clams) are the local pasta specialties.
Opt for Caprese salads or paninos, made with buffalo mozzarella- the freshest you can find.
Sorrento & the Amalfi Coast
Limoncello everything! Have it as a traditional apéritif, in a spritz, or as your gelato flavor.
Eating Local in Southern Italy
Fondly known as the boot region, this region is also known for its rich, fertile soil and Mediterranean influence. The locals eat a diet heavy in fish, almonds, olives, and citrus fruits. Raising and butchering your own meat, including lamb, pork, veal, and rabbit, is also common in the southernmost parts of Italy.
Puglia – Heel of the Boot
Think all things EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil), best paired with fresh focaccia bread.
If ordering pasta, go for the orecchiette with broccoli rabe.
Sicily – Toe of the Boot
Sicilians are proud inventors of the meatball, or “polpetti,” usually topped with a spicy tomato sauce.
Blood oranges and other citrus make for delicious spritzes and granitas.