The smells of Italy are intoxicating. Even in gritty urban areas where car horns cry out and scooters zip past, the sweet and spicy aromas are the only thing you’ll think about.
Enjoy heaps of homemade tortellini in Bologna, grab a cone of fried seafood in Venice, and linger in front of bakery windows in Naples wondering if there is room for one more dessert – even though you’ve already had two or three that day. In Italy you will eat, but what you eat should depend on where you are.
The country offers much more than pasta drowned in tomato sauce, and the American plate of spaghetti and meatballs does not exist on Italian menus. Instead, search out regional specialties that showcase the abundance of land and sea from north to south.
Bring your stretchy pants and eat pasta, lots and lots of pasta. While some come to the Eternal City in search of ruins, artwork, or religion, I came to eat. And while I often travel solo, the best part of being in Rome with a group was the ability to pass plates around with friends so that we were all equally satisfied and stuffed on as many dishes as possible.
If you want to plan your day around food, start off with an espresso, but skip the croissant. They aren’t that good. Instead, save the calories for lunch and dinner.
Dig into plates of cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper), twirl your fork around strands of spaghetti alla carbonara (there’s no cream in the real deal), or dive into a richly satisfying bowl of bucatini all’amatriciana (red sauce with pecorino cheese and guanciale).
Head to the cobbled alley neighborhood of Trastevere to rub shoulders with locals and dine at unpretentious eateries. Da Enzo is a favorite hole-in-the wall. You’ll need to queue for a table, but the wait is worth it for homey service, freshly-made pasta, and another classic Roman dish, carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes). While in the neighborhood, also stop at one of the city’s best gelato shops, Fior di Luna.
The Renaissance capital of the world, Florence is full of stunning architecture and priceless artwork. Yet even with a million-dollar atmosphere, the food is surprisingly humble and based on traditional peasant meals.
If you want to dine on a budget, stick to a local menu. White bean soup in winter and panzanella salad in summer are a must. Those with daring taste-buds should bite into a lampredotto sandwich (tripe topped with spicy sauce).
For a quick but delicious option, head to the Mercato Centrale – a foodie’s paradise in the form of an upscale food court. Here you’ll find pasta, snacks, pizza, and Florentine specialties, including focaccia-style sandwiches overstuffed with meat and cheese. The prices are reasonable and there’s ample seating.
Want to splurge? Fungus lovers must try tagliatelle with porcini and truffles. The rich pasta dish can be found all over the city, but is at its best when truffle season peaks in fall. Meat lovers, grab a friend or four and feast on Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a giant T-bone steak served rare. The price is per kilo, and the steaks average 1-3 kilos (2 – 6 pounds).
Sure, you’re full, but don’t forget about the sweet stuff. Gelato was invented here, and it’s where you’ll find some of the smoothest frozen treats in Italy. Try Gelato La Carraia which uses locally-sourced and organic ingredients, or Venchi which boasts a chocolate fountain of dreams.
Venice’s magical labyrinth of small streets and canals makes it one of the top destinations in Italy. However, there are still plenty of mom & pop restaurants that serve up local fare. For the best meal, step away from the Grand Canal and head towards the back streets.
Skip the pizza – a ban on most wood-fired ovens on the island make it one of the worst places in the country for a traditional pie. Instead, devour cicchetti (Italian-style tapas). Choose from small bites of fresh fish, cheese, and deep-fried goodness paired with an Aperol Spritz for the perfect canal-side lunch.
Bring cash, as many of the bàcari (small bars) don’t accept credit cards. For a satisfying meal on the go, Acqua e Mais serves up the city’s best street food, including fried seafood, polenta or veggies in a paper cone. Best of all, it’s just steps away from the hectic Ponte di Rialto.
Want a sit-down dinner? Walk past the prixe-fix tourist menus and head to restaurants that offer traditional Venetian fare including seafood risotto, vermicelli al nero di sepia (vermicelli with black squid ink), or risi e bisi (rustic rice and pea soup).
Take a gelato break at Grom boasting traditional flavors, or Gelateria Il Doge for classic and creative offerings.