How to Eat Like a Local in Italy by Region

August 21, 2023

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

Parma ham is taken seriously all across Italy. Used for sandwiches, aperitivos and the stuff of charcuterie dreams.

Italian man shaving fresh prosciutto
Fresh parma ham from the market

Milan

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.

Bologna

Order whatever peaks your interest, as long as it comes smothered in a meaty red sauce, preferably ragù bolognese.

Genoa

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!

pesto pasta genovese in Italy
Pasta with pesto Genovese, not to be confused with pasta alla Genovese

Tuscany Region

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.

Florence

Even the Italians travel to Florence for the steak alla Fiorentina and return home with some fresh Pecorino cheese.

Pecorino cheese in the Florence market
Fresh pecorino cheese in the Florence street market

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.

Rome

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 pasta in Rome, Italy at a cafe at night
Managing to match my nails with some amazing cacio e pepe in Rome

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!

Naples

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.

Pizza and wine in Naples Italy
The famous 8 star Napoli pizza from Da Attilio

Ischia

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.

octopus salad with wine Italy coast
Fresh octopus by the sea in Ischia

Capri

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.

Orange grove with old truck in southern italy
Citrus harvest time outside of Sorrento

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.

Fresh focaccia from Puglia
Fresh focaccia from Puglia, best dipped in more EVOO

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.

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