For a country that’s around the same size as California, Italy punches well above its weight when it comes to food, with more famous dishes to its name than most continents put together. It’s not surprising that Italy pioneered La Dolce Vita, with a national diet of carbohydrates and red wine, while the rest of us killed the joy of eating with paleo and Dr Atkins.
You can’t visit Italy and not put on weight, so prepare for the inevitable. Pack your stretchy pants and tick off more than just the sites with these must-eat meals.
1. Pizza Margherita
Don’t tell the northerners, but rumour has it that the pizza gets better and better the further south of Rome you go. Test the myth in Sorrento and grab a slice of the Campania region, the Godfather of all pizza provinces. Campania has been in the pizza business for a long time and nobody argues about their status as the pizza capital. Capisce?
Less is always more when it comes to pizza toppings and here it’s all about the Margherita. Nothing says patriotism like a pizza flag – with tomato, mozzarella (and the good chunky stuff no less), topped with basil. The real deal is cooked in a wood oven, seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many charlatans pose with a gas pizza oven.
2. Pasta Carbonara
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was its signature dish, pasta carbonara. Its official ingredients are debated the world over – but here it’s just eggs, pasta, parmesan and pancetta.
Telling an Italian you put cream in your homemade carbonara would be enough to find motive for murder. And adding chicken. Don’t even go there… You’ll find good pasta carbonara all over Italy, but if you want the best, go straight to its carbohydrate core: Rome. Forza Roma!
3. Bistecca Fiorentina
Give the carbs a rest in Florence with a Bistecca Fiorentina – a steak cut so fine it’s fit for a Medici. This is about as carnivorous as you get in Italy – ordering steak by the gram and devouring it rare.
Waste not want not, once you’ve had your steak-fill, head on out to the streets of Florence where you can buy the best leather products this side of the Adriatic Sea.
Once you lay eyes on quaint Assisi tucked into a hillside, you can see why the Franciscan monks set up shop in this walled city. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover this is truffle country, which has to be reason they’ve stayed so long in Italy’s only landlocked region, rather than head to the seaside. Truffled pork, truffled veal, truffled artichoke, you name it, the Umbrian’s have found a way to infuse it with these nobbly lumps of delicious dirt.
You won’t need a hound’s nose to sniff out the truffled goodies either. Strangozzi, a thin pasta layered with huge shavings of black truffle, is their hero dish and you can order it just about everywhere in Umbria.
Until you’ve had five minutes alone with a square of Ligurian focaccia you haven’t experienced bread nirvana. Thick, thin, stuffed, topped – this is one versatile piece of puffed dough. Buy the lot, buy the slice, but whatever you do, make sure you buy it somewhere between the Cinque Terre and Genoa, the spiritual home of the focaccia.
6. Spaghetti alle Cozze
For a country that’s surrounded by water, it stands to reason you can get good seafood all over Italy. For the best, look to the gulf of La Spezia, which acts as a geographical fishing net for chefs to get creative with cooking. Shellfish shines, with spaghetti alle cozze, a pasta dish where the briny seafood flavour of muscles, perfectly complements garlic and oil tossed through spaghetti.
If you’ve wanted to learn that elusive pasta-fork-swirl that Italians make look oh so easy (but you end up with sauce all over your face), there’s no better training ground than a bowl full of spaghetti and muscles.
7. Risotto Nero
Navigating Venice is a bit like heading to outer space blindfolded, especially if you want to go off the beaten track. Plan plenty of stops to prevent travel hunger. A meal is as good an excuse as any to refuel and revisit your map.
It’s fitting for such a pretty city that their signature dish risotto nero (squid-ink risotto) is equally good looking. The squid ink stain on your teeth will be temporary, but the memories of that salty risotto sensation will last a life time. It’s usually eaten as a first course, but it’s so good, you might want to upgrade it from a primi to secondi. This writer does.
8. Pesto Genovese
Considering Genoa sits so close to the water, it’s unusual that its signature dish, pesto, bares nothing from the sea. With no giant basil statue to pose with, you’ll have only your taste buds to remind you that you visited the pesto epicentre of the world.
From layering it through sheets of lasagne, stuffing it into pillows of ravioli or serving it authentically through trofie pasta, Genoa gets pretty creative with their use of basil. The pesto is unusually rich, which the locals pin down to only using the baby basil leaves. Young leaves or not, it’s the balance between pine nuts, sharp parmesan from the north and garlic that will leave you begging for more and unable to eat jarred pesto again.