Italian regional food: 25 of the best dishes
(CNN) — It’s not news that Italy is home to some of the best food in the world, but what might not be so well known is that Italian food is highly regional.
That means that every area — and, often, every town — has its own gourmet specialties, so that outside the touristy restaurants, you’ll find a whole different cuisine wherever you go.
Here are some of the highlights of the different regions that you might want to try.
This extraordinary dish was created in Genoa, where it’s had a place in the recipe books since the 1800s. Don’t try and translate the name — you’ll get lost in a whirlwind of references to castrated roosters and fast days. Instead, just sit back and enjoy this unique, unexpected dish. The cappon magro is a seafood salad, piled up in layers like a lasagne. It starts with a kind of biscuit base rubbed in garlic, and then is layered gradually, with white fish plus vegetables like potatoes and green beans (and a green sauce between each layer), then topped with items such as shrimp, anchovies and hard boiled eggs. Forget pesto — this is Liguria’s finest creation.
Penne alla norcina
Penne alla norcina has pasta, cream and sausages, all mixed for a delicious dish.
Norcia, in Umbria, is so famous for its delis that “norcino” is used as the name for a pork butcher throughout Italy. Its most famous export is this dish, in which pasta is swirled in cream, topped with a classic Norcia sausage (which has been cooked with onion and white wine before being crumbled over the pasta), and has local pecorino dusted on top. It’s more delicate than the description sounds, and totally delicious.
You can’t go to Bologna without eating tagliatelle al ragu; but go during carnival time and you’ll find an even sweeter option. Tagliatelle fritte are literally fried tagliatelle — then dusted in sugar, making for a high-carb treat, with orange and lemon peel providing the flavor. This is a seasonal dish, so look out for it on menus if you’re around at Carnevale, or buy some from Atti, which sells excellent pastries and sweets.
Coda alla vaccinara
Coda alla vaccinara is the best oxtail you’ll ever taste.
Stewed oxtail doesn’t sound too good — unless you’re in Rome, where it’s turned into an art form, as part of the capital’s long tradition of cooking with the “quinto quarto” or fifth quarter — in other words, offal. Oxtail isn’t offal, of course, but it’s not a prized cut. Here, chunks of tail (a tough meat) are slowly braised for hours in a tomatoey sauce, with glugs of wine.
One of the typical dishes of Basilicata, in the Italian south, this is a flavorful lamb stew, in which the meat is combined with local vegetables — like spring onion, tomatoes and rosemary — as well as chili pepper, the south’s go-to way to spice things up. Originally this was an Easter dish — people couldn’t afford to eat meat year-round. But now that they can, it has become popular year-round as a secondo, or main course.
They may be islanders, but the people of Ischia — in the Bay of Naples, northwest of Capri — are contadini, or farmers, at heart. That explains why their signature dish is rabbit stew — a dish said to date back 2,500 years to when the island was overrun with the animals. The meat is put in a casserole and stewed with tomato (which arrived in Italy rather later than the dish’s origins), garlic and wild thyme, which grows abundantly on the island.
The seada combines sweet and salty.
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When it comes to the healthiest diet around, Sardinia’s comes high up the list. Here, people eat seasonal, fresh food, snack on local cheese, and use lots of honey instead of sugar. This, the island’s classic dessert, brings it all together: a seada is a deep-fried semolina dumpling, filled with soured pecorino and lemon peel, and drizzled in honey. It’s surprisingly delicate.
Italy is a country of panini — bread rolls that are grilled as sandwiches. This is the take on the theme by the Salento peninsula — the southern tip of the Puglia region. But this isn’t just any bread roll — it’s round, large, slightly flat and super fluffy inside. It’s usually filled to order with local ingredients from capocollo meat to tiny lampascioni onions. The whole thing is then toasted.
Arrosticini are meat skewers with a catch.
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Italians don’t tend to eat in the street but they make an exception for arrosticini, which you’ll find grilling in food trucks at every single event in the central-southern region of Abruzzo. This is a land of shepherds, so these mini kebabs are Abruzzo’s most famous snack: chunks of mutton or lamb put on a stick, interspersed with bits of fat to make them juicy, and then grilled over coals. Don’t throw away the foil they’re wrapped in — they’re so juicy they might otherwise ruin your clothes.
There are sandwiches, and then there’s the panonta: a huge, multi-layered affair that easily subs as a main meal, let alone a main dish. Originating in central-southern Italy — regions like Molise and Abruzzo — it takes multiple layers of bread, dunks them in oil that’s been used to fry bacon (panonta is a contraction of pane unto, or “greased bread”), and is then layered with ingredients. In Molise, these tend to be sausage with cheese, peppers, parsley and even frittata. The town of Miranda is particularly well known for it.
Bagna cauda is a warm dip of anchovy and garlic.
Fondue fan? Take it up a notch when you visit the Piedmont region with a bagna cauda. Translated as a “hot sauce” from dialect, it’s originally from the low-lying parts of this mountainous region — which are close to the border with Liguria, hence the fishy flavor. Anchovies and garlic are the main ingredients in this dip, served warm, over heat — although the vegetables you dip into it are more often than not raw. This is as historical as it is strongly seasoned — it’s thought to date back to the 16th century.
Polenta taragna is swirled with cheese.
Polenta — essentially ground and cooked cornmeal — is a love or hate dish of northern Italy, but polenta taragna is a different story. Originally from Valtellina in the Lombardy Alps, it’s a mixture of corn and buckwheat (the latter makes it a darker color) swirled with molten cheese — including fontina, though it depends exactly where you find it. Super filling, it’s delicious by itself, though is often served with meats to warm you up in winter. Not up for a mountain jaunt? You’ll find it in Brescia and Bergamo, the cities south of Valtellina.
Rigatoni con la pajata
The idea of pajata might not be your cup of tea — it’s the intestines of an unweaned calf, with the semi-digested milk still inside it. They’re then boiled, which turns the milk into a kind of cheesy cream inside the intestines. Romans, however, swear by it — especially in this dish, in which the pajata is stewed in tomato sauce, before being paired with classic Roman thick-tubed pasta, rigatoni.
Zampone is a typical Christmas dish in Italy.
Enter an Italian supermarket in the run-up to Christmas and you’ll see boxes and boxes of what look like pig trotters. And indeed, they kind of are. This is zampone, a staple of the holiday food menu — a pig trotter filled with pork meat. It’s usually accompanied by cotechino (a similar, highly spiced meat, only stuffed into the pig’s innards) with mashed potatoes and lentils on the side — the lentils are said to bring luck for the new year.
Carpa in porchetta
Venice’s raisin- and pine nut-stuffed donuts are only available during carnival season.
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A frittella is a donut; but a frittella veneziana, otherwise known as a fritola, is a whole other thing. This was perhaps the most famous sweet snack of the Venetian republic: fried balls of dough stuffed with pine nuts and raisins and dusted with sugar, made during the Carnevale period for centuries (in the 17th century they were sold by people called fritoleri; now you’ll find them in every bar). They’re sweet but not too much so; if you want something sweeter tasting, try one filled with whipped cream or boozy zabaglione.
Couscous alla trapanese
Sicilian cuisine is a gumbo of the different cultures to have ruled over the island across the centuries, and this is one of the dishes to have emerged from its complex history. Originally a north African dish, couscous was brought over to Sicily with the Arab conquest of the island — but the interweaving of the two cultures continued with the fishing communities of Sicily and north Africa. The Sicilian southwest — especially around Mazara del Vallo but also Trapani — have longstanding links with Tunisian fishing communities. Trapani’s couscous is cooked in a cuscuzeira, or pan, rather than a tagine; and it’s paired with fish, rather than meat.
Casoncelli are a delicious filled pasta from Lombardy.
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Emilia-Romagna is the region best known for its filled pasta, but these — otherwise known as casonsei — give it a run for its money. They’re from the Lombardy region, which is better known for its rice than its pasta — hailing from the mountains above Bergamo and Brescia. Think of it as a slimmer, almost half moon-shaped ravioli, filled with a mixture of ground meat with breadcrumbs, cheese and egg to bind it. A vegetarian version loses the meat and amps up the filling with nutmeg and broth. Rather than being topped with sauce, they’re usually served plain with butter and sage.
Take a wiener schnitzel, amp it up to something rather more decadent, and you have this, Bologna’s signature secondo, or main course (also known as a cotoletta bolognese). A veal cutlet is breaded and fried, but then has prosciutto and parmesan cheese layered on top, before being cooked so the cheese melts and creates the cutlet’s own sauce. It’s also known as a cotoletta alla bolognese — and unlike spaghetti Bolognese, calling it this won’t get you roasted by locals.
Passatelli is a kind of “pasta” made with breadcrumbs and cheese.
Of all the hundreds of permutations of pasta, this is one of the most intriguing — it’s made with breadcrumbs, rather than flour, along with eggs to bind it and parmesan to give it flavor. The dough is cut into thick, almost worm-like round strips. Because they’re already strongly flavored, passatelli are usually served simply in broth, but you can also find them in a “dry” form with sauces. They hail from southern Emilia-Romagna and the northern Marche region, in the Pesaro and Urbino province — though today they are popular across the wider regions.
The fishermen of Lake Iseo hang out their sardines to dry in the sun.
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On Lombardy’s Lake Iseo, sardines are unlike those you’ll find anywhere else. That’s partly because they’re not strictly sardines as we know them — they’re a type of lakefish called agone, though locals call them sardines (and they taste like them too).
They’re netted by the fishermen of Monte Isola, the island in the middle of the lake, and then hung on hooks to dry out in the sun. It’s a tradition that supposedly dates back over 1,000 years ago, to when the Santa Giulia monastery in nearby Brescia demanded a catch of dried sardines every year. Today, you can see the fish drying as you walk along the coastal road outside Monte Isola, and then eat them at the waterside restaurants — the dried ones are traditionally served with polenta.
A “Pantelleria-style kiss,” this dessert is more delicious than racy. Similar to a cannolo siciliano — not surprising, since the island of Pantelleria, where you’ll find this kiss, sits between Sicily and Tunisia — it’s essentially two small, deepfried waffles pressed together, with chocolate chip-filled ricotta stuffed in between. The waffles are usually ‘stamped’ from a mould shaped like a snowflake or a flower.
Moeche are tiny shell-less crabs that are fried during the season in Venice.
Visit Venice in the late spring or early fall and you’re in luck — not only will there be (marginally) fewer tourists, but you’ll be in the right season for moeche. Venetian dialect for “soft,” these are tiny lagoon crabs which shed their shell and are caught in the couple of days between sloughing off the old and having the new one harden. “Moecanti” fishermen harvest them on Burano, Giudecca and Chioggia, at the southern end of the lagoon; they’re usually fried, and eaten whole, often alone, but sometimes with polenta.
The region of Emilia-Romagna is famous for its piadina flatbread, but go a little further south, to the city of Urbino in the Marche region, and you’ll find the piadina’s better-tasting sibling. The crescia sfogliata dates back to the medieval period, and is still super popular thanks to Urbino’s status as a university town. It’s a flatbread, similar to the piadina, but more flakey — and it’s something that leaves a little grease on your fingers, since it has lard in the mix. Tasting super buttery, where the piadina can be a little dry, it’s typically filled with a sandwich style mix of deli meats, cheese and/or vegetables.