There’s a lot more to Italian cuisine than pizza, pasta, and wine. With a national identity closely linked to food and each region claiming its own unique specialities, food is an essential part of travelling in Italy. A trip here leaves no doubt about why Italian cuisine is revered worldwide.
Italy is hugely proud of its produce, with several abbreviations that signify the quality of food and produce, like DOC, DOCG, and IGT. The most recent and widespread recognition system is called DOP, which translates to Protected Designation of Origin.
By finding these products or spotting them on a menu, you can be sure that you are eating the freshest locally grown and packaged products.
Food is enjoyed over a long time in Italy. While quick on-the-go lunches are common in the city, evening meals are often eaten late and can go on for several hours.
Many restaurants in tourist areas will include a service charge (servizio) of around 10%, so always check the bill before tipping. If you received good service rounding up to the nearest euro note is fine, rounding up to the nearest Euro for things like drinks, and light meals is also common practice.
The coperto is a charge to sit at a table, it can also sometimes be charged for bread or water - whether you touch it or not. Coperto can apply anywhere but is only really common at higher-end restaurants or in the main squares in touristy destinations.
These charges are required to be listed on the menu by law, so it’s easy to check before you order. Even at lower-end restaurants, the waiter will usually ask if you would like acqua naturale (still water) or frizzante (carbonated) - this is generally bottled and charged.
There is no expectation to leave your table in Italy, so unless you ask for the bill you could be waiting there all night! Simply catch the waiter's eye and ask “Il conto, per favore” (the bill please). Service really isn’t rushed in Italy, so take your time and do as the locals do, eat, drink, and chat the night away.
Coffee culture in Italy is different to anywhere else in the world. It’s generally only acceptable to order milk with coffee before lunch, Italians do not drink cappuccinos or lattes (ordered as a ‘latte macchiato’) in the afternoon or evening and you may well get a funny look if you order one outside of tourist areas.
Espresso is the go to drink for many, order simply by asking for ‘un caffè’ for a single espresso or "doppio ristretto" for a double shot and drink it right at the bar - seating and table service is often charged and espresso is a quick drink so you won’t need to hang around.
Breakfasts are often simple in Italy, with a sweet pastry and a milky coffee. Workers rise early to avoid the heat of the day, and breakfast is generally available from 7am onwards.
There are plenty of options when it comes to lunch, with restaurants opening from around midday. Eating outside of these hours can be tricky in rural areas or the southern regions like Sicily, where many businesses close between around 1pm and 6pm everyday (regardless of whether it's summer or winter).
You may want to consider takeaway lunches to save on the costs of paying to sit at a table. There are some amazing sandwich shops like All’Antico Vinaio in Florence, takeaway pasta joints like Dal Moro's in Venice, or pizza by the slice like at Pizza Zizza in Rome.
If you want to rest and sit down for a meal during the day there are many trattorias and osterias that offer a menù del giorno (menu of the day) for under €15.
Dinner usually consists of multiple courses, starting with Aperitivo: some light bites and a spritz at around 6pm at a local bar. The main meal starts later on with Antipasti, cured meats and cheeses and maybe some bread, then comes the Primi pasta dish.
The Secondi is what most would consider the main attraction, usually a meat or seafood dish with a side salad (Insalata) or vegetables (Contorini). For afters there’s a choice of Formaggi E Frutta (cheese and fruit) or Dolce (dessert) which is always followed by a shot of espresso or digestivo like limoncello or grappa.
The list of foods to try when travelling in Italy is almost endless. As we mentioned earlier, dishes are very regional in Italy, but some firm favourites span the entire country.
A favourite inside and outside of Italy, spaghetti alla carbonara is usually made with Guanciale (cured pork cheek), eggs, parmesan and pasta - there’s no cream unlike in some foreign recipes.
Other top pasta dishes include bucatini all'amatriciana, made with bacon, tomato, chilli and pecorino cheese, and spaghetti cacio e pepe with pecorino cheese and black pepper. Of course if you’re in Bologna, tagliatelle al ragù widely known as bolognese (pasta with white wine, tomato, oregano, beef and pork belly) is a must.
Pizza comes in just about every shape and size in Italy, and is a popular lunchtime snack that can be bought by the slice (pizza al taglio) in places like Naples, Rome, and Florence.
Further south Pizzolo, a kind of pizza sandwich in Sicily is filled with Caciocavallo cheese and Parma ham, while Sfincione is another twist on traditional pizza with a thick base and crumbly cheese top.
Another Sicilian export is arancini. Small orange egg-like balls are usually stuffed with mozzarella, ragù (meat sauce), tomato and peas.
In fact in Sicily, home of the arancini, you can get just about anything inside one, and they are always fresh and delicious. In Rome, something similar is popularly known as suppli - made with arborio rice and filled with melted mozzarella.
When it comes to cheese Italy has it all, one of the most famous is Parmigiano Reggiano, a cow's cheese that’s produced in the northern provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna.
There’s also Gorgonzola, a pungent blue-veined cheese that’s produced in Lombardy and Piedmont, Provolone from Lombardy and Veneto, Asiago from the northern provinces, and of course the delightfully fresh Mozzarella.
Gelateria are almost as common as coffee shops in Italy, and really there’s nothing better to eat on a hot summer's day.
Whether you’re visiting a prime spot like Suso’s in Venice or a hidden Gelateria down a backstreet in Matera, you really can’t go wrong with Italy's favourite Dolce (sweet).
Some Italian wines like Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Prosecco and Asti need little introduction. But venture outside of the world-famous exports and you will find delicious Italian wines like Brunello, Vermentino, Sciacchetrá and Nero D’Avola.
While some sweet wines and sparkling reds can be a bit of a surprise if you haven’t translated the label correctly at the supermarket, any meal is improved with a carafe of house wine at a restaurant.
It’s true what they say - you will never be served bad wine in Italy!
Region by region, there are some specialities you can’t miss.
In Northern Italy there’s the decadent Tiramisu, the refreshing Aperol Spritz, and the tangy balsamic vinegar of Modena. There are also tantalising cold meats like mortadella from Bologna and prosciutto (cured ham) from Parma.
In Tuscany, wild boar reigns supreme with the signature dish of pappardelle al cinghiale, a ribbon pasta with a decadent wild boar sauce. Other highlights are the thinly sliced bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak) in Florence and ossobucco con risotto alla Milanese (Milanese veal shank and marrow in a saffron risotto) in Milan.
In Southern Italy pizza has its home in Napoli (Naples), where you can try just about every combination of toppings on thin-crust bases cooked in pizza ovens throughout the city. Wash all of that buffalo mozzarella down with a zingy Limoncello from Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast.
Seek out one of the oldest cheeses ever produced named Caciocavallo in the quiet region of Molise, try Orecchiette pasta, or ‘small ears’, from Puglia, and enjoy the spicy sausage ‘Nduja from Calabria.
In Sardinia, don’t miss Porchetta or Porceddu, a roasted suckling pig served on a bed of myrtle leaves. Other specialities include Pani carasau, a crispy bread that’s baked in a wood-fired oven, Pecorino cheese and Cassola - a vermentino wine soup with mussels, clams and octopus simmered with olive oil, garlic, onion, parsley and chilli peppers.
In Sicily, fresh lemons and olives cover the hillsides and food is never far from peoples minds. Along with the lunchtime staple of Arancini, snacks like cannoli, a sweet pastry wrapped around ricotta cheese, and granita al pistacchio (a type of sorbet) are unmissable delights.
For dinner try dishes like Caponata, a rich aubergine ragout, and Pasta alla norma with tomato sauce, fried eggplant and ricotta salata cheese.
Espresso - €1.20
1 litre of milk - €1.20
Sandwich or light lunch - €5
Dinner for two with drinks - €50
Pizza - €6 to €8
Aperol Spritz - €5 to €10
Planning a trip to Italy? Read our Italy travel guides.
Last Updated 9 September 2023