So, last week I wrote a post on sweet treats that you should indulge in when visiting Italy. I thought I would follow up with a list of savory foods that, in my opinion, are must tries when visiting Italy. Obviously, you might not be able to try them all during your visit as it depends where you will be traveling as many dishes are quite regional. While this list contains some obvious choices, I encourage you to try the authentic version. You will be amazed at the difference when you try them in the spot where they originated.
Canederli originate in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region in the North and is made using leftover bread. It’s mixed with eggs and milk to create a golf ball-sized dumpling similar to the German knödel. Often, speck (smoked, raw ham typical of northeastern Italian cuisine), cheese, and spices are added to boost up the flavor. They are then boiled in beef or chicken broth and you can serve them either “dry with a little melted butter, or in a shallow pool of broth. They are really the perfect winter comfort food after a long day of skiing.
Osso Buco Milanese
If there’s one meat dish you must try when in Milan or the surrounding area, let it be osso bucco. It’s hard to go wrong with veal shanks braised slowly in white wine and vegetables, served with a tangy, garlicky gremolata. Some variations include tomatoes (and it’s good, trust me), but the traditional version is cooked without. And don’t forget to scoop out the rich, buttery marrow from inside the veal bones. I know some of you are thing gross, but it really is the best part of the dish. I would suggest trying it at Antica Trattoria della Pesa if you are in Milan
Bottarga isn’t so much a dish as it is an ingredient: it’s salted, cured mullet roe and is a delicacy of both Sardinia and Sicily (widely known as “the caviar of the south”). Because of its rich, briny, salty flavor, it’s used in many dishes grated over linguine, shaved atop bitter greens, or sliced with buttered bread or crostini.
In August and September southern Italians take the roe from gray mullets, salt it, press it, and then leave it to air dry for six months. The result is a solid hunk of eggs the color of amber and blood oranges that, when sliced and eaten or grated over pasta, it adds a delicious savory, smoky and briny goodness to the pasta.
The king of Roman pasta dishes, a creamy, peppery mix of eggs, pecorino cheese and crispy guanciale (cured pigs cheek) mixed with pasta brings these super simple ingredients into a masterpiece of a dish. Many Italians will tell you that it takes a lifetime to master which might be an exaggeration, but when you taste the real deal, it will change your life. There are many imitations – namely, those that thicken their sauces with cream or use bacon instead of guanciale, but these substitutes, while delicious, will change the original taste of the dish. This pasta dish is a Roman specialty, but even in the capital there are still plenty of restaurants that can and do get it wrong. The best way to ensure you are served an exemplary and authentic version is to get a recommendation from a local. You are not looking for simply a good restaurant, but a restaurant that specifically serves a great carbonara. One restaurant that I can recommend in Rome is Il Miragio. If you go to my Where to Eat Section, there is a post about this restaurant.
Take one enormous pork loin, wrap it in a pork belly, marinate it in garlic, herbs, orange peel and fennel, roll it, tie it, and then throw it in the oven to cook low and slow all day.
‘Nduja (en-DOO-yah) is a spicy pork, pork fat, and hot pepper spread from Calabria. It’s one of my favorite things to spread onto toasted bread or sometimes even in pasta. Though it comes from Calabria, it’s pretty easy to find it outside of the region elsewhere in Italy. Traditional ‘nduja can come in a loaf or sack form (similar to salami) though it’s pretty impossible to slice since it’s so soft. ‘Nduja also comes in jar form which is much easier to find in supermarkets and specialty food stores
Unfortunately, I think it’s still not permissible to import ‘nduja into the U.S., so you should think twice about sticking a jar in your suitcase to bring home. Instead, indulge in it while you are visiting Calabria.
A bistecca fiorentina, or Florentine T-bone steak, covers all of the characteristics of Italy’s best dishes: a specific cut of meat from a specific cow prepared in a very specific way all within the confines of a specific region. In the case of the enormous bistecca fiorentina, it’s a T-bone steak cut thick (at least 5 centimeters) from the loin of a Chianina cow raised in Tuscany. It’s cooked for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness, until the outside is cooked and the inside remains very rare. No sense in asking for a medium-well done steak here, the meat is too thick to even think about it! This is a dish to be eaten exclusively in Tuscany – either in Florence or the countryside. It’s also meant to be shared! When ordering, remember that bistecca alla fiorentina is priced by weight; for two people you’re typically looking at 1-2 kg (or nearly 2-4 pounds). It really is the most delicious piece of meat that I have ever put in my mouth!
While on the topic of Tuscany, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this hearty soup filled with vegetables and beans. This is truly a peasant dish in all its glory. Historically, the Italian countryside was poor and based on a subsistence agrarian economy and meat was not easily available to people. So, people tended to eat a lot of stews that were full of vegetables and thickened with stale bread instead of meat. In Tuscany, ribollita is considered a special treat in the autumn, when the taste of the harvest vegetables are vibrant and exploding with flavor. Today, this dish is typically eaten as a first course instead of pasta. So, when in the Tuscan countryside, be sure to order this delicious and hearty stew.
While southern Italy is often called the country’s bread basket, northern Italy, especially the Lombardy and Piedmont regions, are its rice bowl. In fact, Italy is Europe’s largest rice producer with the Arborio and Carneroli varieties grown in the vast rice paddies in the Northern regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. So, it makes sense that one of Italy’s most iconic dishes from this region is risotto. The most famous type of risotto is probably the saffron-infused risotto alla milanese, which was invented, according to legend, by the workmen building the Milan Duomo (cathedral) who were using saffron to dye the stained glass windows and figured they would also throw it into their rice. So, give it a try if your in Milan.
I simply love arancini (the singular being arancino). I don’t think they are particularly well known outside of Italy so you must try one or two or three when in Italy. They are essentially large rices balls about the size of orange hencle the name (the Italian word arancia means “orange”). The center is filled with a savory mixture. Although they can be filled with a myriad of fillings the two traditional ones are either a meat ragu sauce with mozzarella and peas or mozzarella or provola and proscuito. The outer layer of the rice ball is covered in a crunchy breadcrumb crust and they are fried in oil. These golden deep fried filled rice balls are also called Sartù, Arancina, Supplì or rice frittata (each with a slightly different shape) depending what southern region you are in. The Arancino has been a part of traditional Southern Italian cuisine for several centuries. In the Campania region, the arancino was first introduced into the Kingdom of Naples by the Aragones who called them, simply, “rice balls”. It seems that the term Arancina was first coined in Sicily, where several regions and provinces claim to be the homeland of the dish. There are even those who claim that Milan’s signature dish of Saffron Risotto is nothing more than a poorly executed arancina that fell apart on a plate – the Milanese, of course, don’t agree.
Cacio e Pepe is a pasta dish that hails from Roman cuisine. “Cacio e Pepe” means “cheese and pepper” in several central Italian dialects. This pasta dish couldn’t get any simpler as it includes only black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese and pasta. That’s right, there is no cream! When preparing the dish, the pasta is tossed with an emulsified sauce of the cheese and pepper that is bound together by the starchy pasta cooking water. So, when in Rome don’t forget to indulge in a plate of Cacio e Pepe.
This is a Sicilian eggplant (aubergine) dish that is essentially a cooked vegetable salad made from chopped fried eggplant seasoned with with capers and other veggies in a sweet and sour sauce. Every place has their own twist; some versions include green olives or roasted red peppers, carrots, pine nuts, raisins or toasted chopped almonds. Like ratatouille, its Provencal cousin, caponata is mostly eaten at room temperature and usually served with some good, crusty bread. When Sicilians talk about caponata, they can become rapturous. “He who has not eaten a capontina (a variation of caponata) of eggplant has never reached the antechamber of the terrestrial paradise,” as author Gretna Falzone writes. I could not agree more!
As always, Buon appetito!