Eating & drinking in Italy is high on the list of everyday life in every family. Yes, you could almost say that communal dining is almost celebrated in traditional Italian families. On Sundays and public holidays, but especially at celebrations and festivals, the meal can take 4-5 hours. Then “dolce far niente”, “mangiare e bere” are all the rage. You will find these topics in our culinary travel guide:
- La cucina italiana – The Italian cuisine
- Culinario italiana – Culinary in the regions from north to south
- Exceptional dishes
- Bevi in Italia – Drinking in Italy
- Coffee culture
- Uno dopo l’altro – Eat right like the Italians: Everything in sequence
- Formaggio e salsiccia italiano –
- Italian cheese and sausage specialties
- Where can you find the best Italian specialties?
- Tips for going to a restaurant
Italian cuisine – La cucina italiana
Numerous Italian specialties have established themselves in this country as well as all over Europe, including overseas. Just think of pizza, pasta, spaghetti Bolognese or ice cream. Italian cheeses, such as mozzarella or Parmesan cheese, can be found in local supermarkets, as can mortadella and salami. Last but not least, olive oil from Italy and balsamic vinegar can be found in almost every Austrian and German kitchen. Not to forget: At Christmas we also eat good Italian panettone.
Culinary in Italy – Culinario italiana
- Northern Italy
- Central and Southern Italy
Creating a single culinary travel guide for Italy would hardly make sense, as Italian food differs a lot from north to south, from east to west, and sometimes even from mountain village to mountain village. Of course, it looks different in the cities, where you can get more than just regional dishes, than in smaller towns, which still value tradition.
Since the north has always been richer and has been influenced by neighboring countries, their menu is also more diverse. In the south there are numerous fruits and vegetables that should not be missing from any of the meals there.
South Tyrol – Alto Adige
In South Tyrol, Alto Adige in Italian, the traditional menu is more oriented towards Austrian and Hungarian cuisine. Typical dishes here are different dumplings, dishes with bacon, Schüttelbrot and apple strudel. In Törggelen, a tradition of the wine press, the Törggele meal consists of sweetness, grape must and chestnuts.
In the north of Italy you can find meat dishes made from beef or veal, which is due to the fact that there are many herds of cattle here.
Italian food here is based on risotto, i.e. rice. The famous Barolo, a dry red wine, also comes from northern Italy. We know and love the Bolognese sauce from Bologna, which is served with spaghetti. The cotolette milanese, a breaded and roasted veal chop, is native to Milan, and this is where the panettone comes from.
Central and Southern Italy
The further south you go, the more original the Italian cuisine is. The tomato plays a key role in this: it can be found in sauce, as a topping, vegetable addition or salad. Fish and seafood are on the menu near the coast. Because of the great heat, there is little pork and minced meat in the very south, as it spoils quickly. Rather, poultry and lamb are preferred.
First and foremost, however, Italian food means a lot of vegetables such as eggplants, artichokes or zucchini.
The most famous Italian delicacy in this region is pizza. Once more poor people’s food, the flatbread originally from Naples has spread all over the world. In the east, in Abruzzo, people like to eat arrosticini all’abruzzese, grilled lamb skewers.
Italian specialties from local families in Campania are fried zucchini flowers, whole fried anchovies and donkey sausage.
On the islands
Fish and seafood are often preferred on the islands of Italy. In terms of meat, priority is given to lamb, game and chicken.
In Sicily in particular, vegetables are used a lot because they grow very well there. For the same reason there are many sweets (dolci), such as cakes or pastries, with real Sicilian almonds.
Strangely enough, the inhabitants of Sardinia eat comparatively little fish, rather they prefer game, especially wild boar. Sardinians still often breed pigs and sheep, the meat of which is of course also on their menu. A Sardinian specialty is the grilled suckling pig on a spit.
As everywhere in Italy, dishes in Sardinia include Mediterranean herbs, some of which grow wild on the island. The myrtle is particularly popular.
General information about Italian cuisine
In almost every region, pasta is served in all possible variations and shapes. The best known are the spaghetti, the tagliatelle, the fusilli, the farfalle, the fettuccine, ravioli and the lasagne. Gnocchi, small, egg-shaped particles made from potatoes, are also available in different recipes.
Wine – mostly from the region -, water – usually spring water or from the tap – and one of the different types of coffee are part of every meal, large and small.
Of course, different regional cheeses as well as sausages – also known in this country – are used. Panini, grilled sandwiches with different toppings, are considered a quick snack between meals.
Exceptional food in Italy
Some Italian specialties are such that our palates have to get used to them or we don’t even like them in the first place. Just a matter of taste!
These somewhat unusual dishes include zampone di Modena, a stuffed pork foot, and braised horse or donkey meat. In the south people used to eat self-caught songbirds. Fortunately, this is prohibited today, but roast pigeons are still considered a delicacy.
Drinking in Italy – Bevi in Italia
When you think of Italian cuisine, wine comes to mind spontaneously. Correct! Italy is one of the most famous wine-growing regions in Europe. This applies to both red and white wine. From the simple vino da tavola, the table wine, to the exquisite drop, there is everything. In Austria we know the red wines Chianti, from the area around Siena and Florence, Valpolicella from Veneto, as well as the Barolo from Piedmont. In recent years, Prosecco, a light pearl or sparkling wine, has grown in popularity. Chardonnay from Trentino / Friuli makes the race among white wines.
Drinking in Italy also means that there is always water on the table. Pure tap or spring water is drunk especially in the south. If you order in the restaurant or buy in the shop, you can choose between Acqua con gas, i.e. carbonated mineral water, or Acqua senza gas, still water.
Aranciata, an orange lemonade, is popular among the non-alcoholic beverages – in addition to water and Coca-Cola.
Of course, people in Italy also drink beer, la Birra, but far less than in Austria and Germany. In addition to the many foreign beer brands, there are few local varieties.
Italians like to drink a small liqueur or something similar in between or after a meal. The most popular are the limoncello from southern Italy, which is made from lemons, the amaretto with the flavors of nut and marzipan, the grappa and the slightly bitter tasting aperol or the campari. Both are drunk as an aperitif or as a cocktail.
Coffee culture in Italy
The numerous coffee varieties are special Italian delicacies. Eating & drinking in Italy is synonymous with a coffee in between or at the end. But be careful: coffee is not just coffee!
If you order a coffee, you get an espresso. This is always and everywhere drunk just like that in between. A caffè ristretto is even stronger, while the caffè americano, which is made with hot milk, is more like what we mean by coffee. The cappuccino, an espresso with frothed milk, can also be found in Austria and Germany. In Italy, however, it is never decorated with cocoa powder. Caffè latte is a milk coffee with warmed milk and is often drunk for breakfast in Italy. Espresso macchiato is espresso to which milk froth is added. A special insider tip is the Caffè corretto, an espresso with a shot of grappa.
Eating & drinking in Italy takes time and has tradition
The Italians know how to enjoy. This also applies to Italian food and to drinking in Italy. As a rule, the main meals, which are usually eaten in the evening, last several hours, as they consist of starters – the antipasti -, two courses and a dessert and a final espresso with often a liqueur. Only the pizza is considered the only course. Beer is often drunk with her.
Here is a small culinary travel guide regarding the long odyssey through good Italian food, whereby it can only be a minimal selection of the diverse range of Italian specialties:
Colazione, the typical Italian breakfast, consists of a caffè latte, a cappuccino or a caffè and a cornetto, biscotto or brioche, i.e. a dry particle that is often dipped into the coffee. Spuntino is called a snack in between. This can be panini, i.e. open, often warm sandwiches, or a pizza al taglio, a piece of pizza. The real main meal is rarely served as pranzo, i.e. lunch, rather it is taken in the evening as a cena and usually consists of several courses.
Eat right like the Italians: Everything in sequence – Uno dopo l’altro
Eating right like the Italians means following the right order. It is by no means irrelevant whether the noodles come before or after the meat.
a. Antipasti (starter)
Proper eating and drinking in Italy starts with a plate full of antipasti, with different variations. Antipasti are usually eaten cold. Some typical Italian specialties here are:
- Antipasti della Casa, a starter plate with different Italian specialties, depending on the tradition of the house
- Antipasti del Mare, an arrangement of mussel, scampi, fish or calamari specialties
- Antipasti all’Italiana, a plate with various sausage and cheese specialties as well as dried meat
- Calabrese, mozzarella and tomatoes with olive oil and basil
- Carpaccio, thin, dried beef ham slices with olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese
- Crostini or bruschette, small, toasted slices of bread with mostly tomatoes and basil and a drop of olive oil. Sometimes they are also served warm.
b. Primi piatti (1st course)
Often served as a main course in our country, the “Primi” is the first course in food and drink in Italy. Italian delicacies are noodles – also known as pasta -, rice dishes or gnocchi. Minestra and polenta have also established themselves in northern Italy.
The following Italian dishes are most often served as primi piatti:
- Pasta, a pasta dish such as spaghetti Bolognese or spaghetti carbonara, i.e. spaghetti with tomato and minced meat sauce or with cheese, bacon and egg
- Tortelloni or ravioli, filled pasta with cheese, vegetable or meat filling
- Risotto, soft-boiled rice porridge with – depending on your taste – seafood, mushrooms or cheese. It is mainly eaten in the north.
- Gnocchi, small dumplings made from potatoes, semolina and flour, with different sauces
- Polenta, a corn semolina that is mainly eaten in northern Italy and was once a poor man’s food
- Minestre, various soups. There are mainly vegetable and tomato soups.
c. Secondi piatti
The second course is called secondi piatti. It is fish or meat with only a few side dishes, such as potatoes, vegetables or salad. Meat and fish are mostly offered grilled.
A good culinary travel guide names the following cuisine in Italy with regard to the secondi piatti:
- Ossobucco, a knuckle of veal
- Saltimbocca alla Romana, a veal schnitzel with ham and sage
- Arrosto means any kind of roast, such as beef, veal, lamb, pork or rabbit
- Involtini are meat rolls.
- Scampi, small sea crabs or, more precisely, Norway lobsters, are served with garlic and grilled.
- Calamari, squid, or just squid rings, come in different forms.
- Tonno, the tuna, or Pesche Spada, the swordfish, are also served grilled.
d. Dolci, Caffè e Aperitivo (dessert)
Finally, after a good meal and drink in Italy, there is dolci, i.e. sweets. It is by no means an insider tip that Italian desserts are not only sweet, but often very sweet.
The following are Italian delicacies with regard to desserts:
- Tiramisu, a dessert originally from Veneto, made from sponge fingers, mascarpone with egg and cocoa powder.
- Zabaione, a wine foam cream with Marsala, a Sicilian fortified wine
- Crema catalana, which actually originates in Spain, unlike the French crème brûlée, also contains corn starch and is heated in the pan.
- Panna cotta consists of cream and gelatine and is served with syrup or fruit compote.
- There are cakes in Italy in all possible variations. Italian almond or lemon cakes are popular, as are the panettone from Milan, which is particularly eaten at Christmas. A kind of insider tip is the Cassata siciliana, a creamy layer cake with ricotta cream and decorations made of marzipan. An extremely sweet but also delicious specialty from Sicily.
- Gelati, or ice cream, or sorbets are also considered desserts.
- Caffè is the crowning glory, either directly in connection with the dolci or enjoyed extra. We have already informed you about the different coffee varieties under the point “Bevi in Italia – Drinking in Italy”.
- An aperitivo, an aperitif, is becoming less and less of a “dessert” on the liquid culinary drinks menu in Italy. Liqueurs or a bitter are popular.
- The following spirits are preferred:
- Grappa, a pomace brandy
- Limoncello, a lemon liqueur
- Campari Soda, a bitter mixed with soda
- Aperol Spritz, a cocktail made from Aperol, Prosecco and soda water
- Martini, a cocktail made from gin and vermouth, with prosecco or soda
- Cinzano, an Italian vermouth, also with Prosecco or soda
- pure bitter liqueurs such as Fernet Branca or the lesser-known cynar made from artichokes
Italian cheese and sausage specialties – Formaggio e salsiccia italiano
In Italy there are said to be over 400 types of cheese, some of which are really traditional and some of which are also known to us. A culinary guide knows how to tell you about spicy hard cheeses as well as different types of fresh cheese. Even today, many of the cheeses are often made in family businesses.
Best known here is Parmesan cheese, a hard cow’s milk cheese with an 800-year tradition, which is mostly grated over pasta dishes. Gorgonzola, a blue cheese from northern Italy, and ricotta, a cream cheese made from cow or sheep’s milk, are also typical Italian cheeses. There are many Italian delicacies with cheese, but the real mozzarella di Bufala Campana from the Campania region is a real insider tip.
The best-known and most popular sausages are salami and mortadella, as well as the famous Parma ham.
Dove? – Where can I get the best Italian specialties?
Real Italian specialties can be found in the family’s home kitchen, mainly in smaller towns such as the mountain villages of the south or in Sicily or Sardinia. As a “normal tourist” you won’t get there on a trip to Italy. However, you will also find opportunities in the various restaurants in the country. Here is a small culinary guide to localities in Italy:
- In a bar, you take your breakfast, have a coffee, wine, or something else, talk, and leave again. In the evening you can enjoy your aperitivo in the bar. The further south you go, the less you meet women in bars. In villages, there is also a tabacchi bar, a sales point for tobacco products, stamps, sweets, and parking tickets. And here’s another insider tip: A coffee while standing is cheaper than sitting at a table.
- Bars with the label “Tavola Calda” sell snacks for in between meals.
- Wines and small dishes are offered in an osteria.
- In the pizzeria there is of course pizza, and very rarely pasta. Since the pizza is prepared in a special oven, there may be waiting times. You can often watch the pizzaiolo, the pizza maker, at work here.
- A trattoria is a simple eatery that is mostly run as a family business. Here you have the best chance to get to know the culinary arts in Italy and to get Italian delicacies on your plate.
- Ristorante is the name of the classic eatery, where the food sequences are adhered to.
Restaurant etiquette for Italy
- In a Ristorante, you wait until the waitress assigns the guest a seat.
- “Coperto” – place setting – and “Pane” – bread – appear on the bill of a Ristorante at 1.50 € to 2.50 € per person.
- Water is often placed on the table for free in a carafe or with coffee in a glass.
- If you want to pay, call the waiter with “Il conto, per favore”.
- The demand for separate invoices for each individual participant in a group is considered uncultivated.
- When leaving a restaurant you have to take the bill with you, as the tax authority, the Guardia di Finanza, carries out checks and if there is no proof of a paid bill, you can be accused of tax evasion as a co-defendant.