One of the many reasons why travelers love Italy is its local cuisine, considered a national treasure. It’s no secret that Italy has a true food culture, and locals take each meal and dish combination very seriously. If you don’t want to give Italians a heart attack, avoid ordering pizza with cappuccino for lunch. Read our article to discover the nuances of Italian cuisine.
A traditional Italian dinner typically consists of seven courses: aperitivo, antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce, caffè, and digestivo. Let’s explore them in more detail.
Aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink to stimulate the appetite. Usually, it’s a low-alcohol beverage served with light snacks like chips, nuts, or olives. One of the popular cocktails for aperitivo in Italy is the Aperol Spritz, made with Prosecco, Aperol, and soda or tonic water.
Antipasto includes various appetizers such as prosciutto slices, cheeses, assorted olives, vegetables, bruschettas, and more. These appetizers are usually removed from the table before serving the main courses.
Primo (First Course)
Don’t be surprised if you’re served pasta, risotto, or gnocchi as the first course instead of the soup we’re accustomed to. Pasta is the queen of Italian cuisine, with around 500 varieties. Each region has its own specialty, such as Carbonara in Rome.
Secondo (Second Course)
For the second course, Italians offer fish or meat dishes, accompanied by vegetables or a light salad as a side. Italians take their food choices seriously, even traveling for hours to enjoy seafood by the sea or meat dishes in the mountains, depending on the region.
When you feel like you can’t breathe anymore, it’s time for dessert. Don’t worry; portions are usually small. Recommended Italian desserts include tiramisu, panna cotta, and gelato.
In Italy, coffee means espresso, typically enjoyed after a meal. Drinking any other type of coffee after lunch or dinner is considered unusual, as Italians believe it hinders digestion. Milk-based drinks are acceptable only before 11 am.
A hearty dinner typically concludes with a digestivo—a drink that aids digestion, such as grappa or limoncello. A small glass extends the evening and fosters conversation among guests. Italians believe in savoring food, making these extended meals a national tradition throughout Italy.
5 Main Ingredients of Italian Cuisine
Italian cuisine is considered one of the healthiest and most beneficial in Europe. This is due to both the selection of traditional ingredients and the methods of food preparation. Cooking methods, traditional in Italian cuisine, contribute to the maximum preservation of nutrients and the natural taste of food.
The al dente (“to the tooth”) cooking method is often used in Italy not only for pasta but also for vegetables. Thanks to this, they retain their natural color, crispy texture, and most of the vitamins. Meanwhile, meat and fish are often baked or grilled.
The cultivation of olive trees and the production of olive oil have been practiced in Italy since ancient times. Today, this art is considered a true national heritage. Italy cultivates about 400 varieties of olives, and their oil is always used in the preparation of pasta, sauces, pizza, and other dishes.
An important foundation of Italian cuisine is various herbs, the combination of which gives national dishes a unique taste and aroma. Primarily, this includes basil, recognized as the “king of Italian cuisine.” It is a mandatory ingredient in Pesto sauce, Bolognese lasagna, Caprese salad, and many other traditional Italian dishes. Italian chefs also love to use rosemary, oregano, thyme, fennel, lemon balm, sage, and marjoram.
Most recipes in Italian cuisine are based on fish and seafood: cod, sea bass, salmon, shrimp, scallops, squid, anchovies, oysters. Famous dishes found on almost every local restaurant’s menu include risotto with mussels, pasta with shrimp or cuttlefish ink, baked sea bass, octopus salad, and anchovies in batter. In Italy, people consume less meat, preferring lean types such as veal, rabbit, and turkey. Game dishes like wood pigeon, pheasant, and hare are popular in many regions.
Italians enjoy cooking and eating vegetables, always adhering to the principle of seasonality. For example, April is considered the best time for artichokes, and the tastiest cabbage is harvested after frost, in December. Naturally, the “vegetable” menu in restaurants is largely determined by the season. Favorite dishes in Italy include eggplants with Parmesan, pizza and pasta with zucchini, fried artichokes, ravioli with pumpkin, and grilled vegetable assortments.
Additionally, many national recipes include ingredients such as wheat flour, balsamic vinegar, rice, mushrooms, nuts, and wine. Fresh tomatoes and garlic are always used to prepare the signature sauce for authentic Italian pizza.
On par with French cheeses, Italian cheeses are absolute favorites among connoisseurs. Gorgonzola, Parmesan, Mascarpone, Mozzarella – all of them originate from Italy. The country produces about 600 varieties, each with unique taste and aromatic characteristics, used in various culinary applications.
Parmesan – that’s how, in the French manner, the name of this widely known type is pronounced. The famous hard Italian cheese has the DOP quality mark and is protected by geographical origin. Today, only the best cheeses produced in northern Italy can bear this name. The Parmesan production process in dairies is strictly regulated and takes place from April 1 to November 11. The cheese then undergoes a long aging period, which can last from 1 to 3 years. Experts determine the maturity of the delicacy by tapping on the heads with traditional hammers. Parmesan crumbles when cut and is distinguished not only by its brittle structure but also by its piquant delicate taste. The cheese is eaten as a standalone snack and is also added to pasta, pizza, or salads.
Grana Padano is another classic Italian hard cheese. It matures for 9-20 months and has a salty, piquant taste with nutty notes. Since its invention by monks in the 12th century, the recipe for this cheese has remained unchanged. The word “grana” in Italian means “grain,” and the cheese has a characteristic granular structure. It pairs well with red Italian wines and vermouth and is often used in cooking for salads, sauces, and main dishes. Grana Padano is very similar to Parmesan and is considered a direct competitor to the “king of cheeses” – equally tasty but more affordable.
Mascarpone is a soft Italian cream cheese originating from Lombardy. Its history spans several centuries, and over time, it has not only maintained its popularity but also gained fans worldwide, as it is ideal for desserts. It is an essential ingredient in cheesecakes, tiramisu, pastries, and other treats. In Italy, mascarpone is also often used for sandwiches instead of butter, in soups, risottos, and appetizers. The cheese is made from heavy cream, heated in a double boiler, and then acid is added to coagulate the milk protein. The mass is then cooled, placed in a cool room, and hung in linen bags to remove whey. Mascarpone has a delicate taste, 75% fat content, and a creamy consistency.
If you see tender white clumps in brine for sale, it’s mozzarella, one of the most famous Italian cheeses. Originally made from buffalo milk, today it is also produced from cow’s milk and is called fior di latte, meaning “milk flower.” Milk is fermented, heated, whey is separated, and the mass is mixed until a homogeneous elastic mass is formed. The mass is then kneaded like tough dough, periodically heated, shaped into pieces, and placed in a brine solution. The cheese is very tender, juicy, fatty, with a layered structure. It is used in many national dishes, and since it melts well, it is considered an excellent Italian cheese for frying. There are also firm and smoked varieties.
Ricotta is made from whey remaining after the production of mozzarella and similar cheeses. This product is traditional for the southern regions of the Apennine Peninsula and Sicily. It has a sweet taste and can be produced from whey of cow, sheep, goat, or buffalo milk. Ricotta is made by heating the whey to 80-90 degrees. Curds separate from it, which are then placed in special baskets. There are many recipes for making fresh (fresca), aged (romana), smoked (affumicata) ricotta, as well as cheese with the addition of lemon or chocolate (al forno). Ricotta is a popular ingredient in many desserts, cakes, and hot dishes, including lasagna.
Burrata cheese belongs to the “family” of mozzarella. Its history is not very long – it was first made almost a hundred years ago. The cheese is made from cow or buffalo milk and cream. Burrata has a delicate taste, creamy consistency, and is considered a delicacy. Since the hot cheese mass is placed in a bag lined with slices of mozzarella during preparation, burrata is often called “cheese in a bag.” Another important feature is the goldenrod leaves in which the finished cheese is traditionally wrapped, tying the top. This unusual ingredient gives the product a special aroma. In Italy, burrata is often used as a pizza filling and is also enjoyed fresh, sprinkled with salt and black pepper, drizzled with olive oil, skillfully collected with bread to savor the liquid filling. The cheese has a very short shelf life, so it is eaten as fresh as possible.
Gorgonzola is a famous Italian cheese protected by the DOP quality mark. It belongs to the blue cheese category, and its ancient production traditions date back to medieval times. Gorgonzola is made in northern Italy from cow’s milk using enzymes and the spores of the penicillium mold. This method is also used in Germany for the production of the famous Cambazola. After maturation, the cheese has a delicate consistency, a distinctive sharp taste, and a marbled pattern formed by the mold. The young sweet and creamy cheese, which matures for 2 months, is called Gorgonzola Dolce.
Ubriaco and Vento d’estate
In the vicinity of the city of Treviso in northern Italy, they produce the famous Ubriaco, or “drunken,” cheeses. The unusual product’s history began during World War I when Austro-Hungarian troops passed through this region, forcing farmers to surrender their provisions to the exhausted soldiers. Faced with a severe food shortage, local residents attempted to hide food by placing cheese heads in barrels of wine. When the troops left, and farmers retrieved the cheese, they discovered that the combination of cheese and wine aromas was delightful. Their desperate trick turned into a culinary breakthrough. Today, the cheese matures in containers with grape pomace, absorbing the wonderful wine aroma. Cheese makers face the important task of achieving a harmonious balance between the cheese and wine flavors. The finished product has a purple rind, a light wine aroma, and a dry consistency.
Following the same principle, at the family cheese factory La Casearia Carpenedo S.R.L. in the vicinity of Treviso, they produce unusual spicy cheeses. One of them is Vento d’estate, made from goat’s milk. It matures in barrels along with the hay from high-altitude alpine pastures. During maturation, the cheese absorbs the entire bouquet of mountain herbs, acquiring an incredibly rich aroma.
Regional Variances in Italian Tastes
Italy is a remarkable country gastronomically, with unique features in each region influencing food preferences. For instance, Lombardy is known for its signature dishes like saffron risotto and osso buco – braised veal shanks with marrow bone. Freshwater fish from Lake Como and Lake Garda, as well as beef and pork, are widely consumed here.
The culinary symbol of Liguria is the spicy Pesto sauce, indispensable for pasta and the famous minestrone soup. Another important component of the local cuisine is the “blue fish”: sardines, mackerel, and anchovies.
In Veneto, seafood dominates the diet, prepared in various creative ways, always accompanied by pasta and cornmeal polenta. Bacalà (salted cod fillet) and fried pumpkin flowers are particularly popular here.
Piedmont’s cuisine can be considered the most refined. Due to strong ties with France, this region spoils tourists with sophisticated dishes like frog legs and truffles. Simpler fare, such as meatballs (polpette) with various fillings, is also popular.
Campania is the birthplace of pizza. In Naples, two of its most famous varieties, Margherita and Marinara, are made. Historically, the region yields excellent wheat harvests, reflected in its cuisine. Pasta is especially cherished here, with signature varieties like Ziti (long and hollow), Paccheri (wide and short), and Calamari (resembling rings).
Listing all the culinary traditions and peculiarities of Italian cuisine by region would take more than an hour—it’s much more interesting to explore them through personal experience.
Italian Sauce – The Basis of Basics
A distinctive feature of Italian cuisine is undoubtedly its sauces (La salsa), served with pasta, fish, or meat. Their preparation is a true art, and chefs are confident that such an addition to food can change its taste, making it more original, flavorful, and harmonious. In Italy, sauces are considered a separate dish, no less significant than pasta.
Some of the most famous Italian sauces include:
1. Tomato sauce (with tomatoes, herbs, garlic)
2. Pesto (with basil, pine nuts, and olive oil)
3. Carbonara (based on bacon, cheese, cream)
4. Bolognese (meat sauce with tomatoes, onions, carrots, wine, milk)
5. Amatriciana (guanciale, cheese, tomatoes)
However, there are countless recipes, and regional specificity also plays a crucial role. For example, in Sicily, the tomato-based Picchi-pácchiu sauce is known, made with tomatoes, eggplants, onions, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, and basil. This sauce pairs excellently with pasta, fried fish, and stewed vegetables.
Italy is a true paradise for gourmets. It literally tempts travelers, causing a dangerous addiction to delicious food and drinks in just a few days. But how pleasant it is to become a hero of this unique gastronomic adventure!