In the end, one of our biggest takeaways from Italy was something that we’ve come to know right at home: Food matters. Food in Italy takes center stage, and eating in Italy will make you wonder at the standard American diet. Read on for more about authentic Italian food and what to expect when you visit.
Check out these 30 things to know when visiting Italy, too!
Certainly my family is making an attempt to eat differently. But while we talk of “skipping the junk” and changing our habits to achieve a better, healthier way of eating, it seems to be innate in Italy. There is no junk. Or at least, there’s very little. Local food is readily available pretty much everywhere you look.
Interestingly, though, you don’t see a lot of organic food – or at least it’s not labeled as such.
One thing we noticed: Those of us who are typically wheat intolerant had no trouble at all with the pasta and pastries we ate in Italy. Curious, no?
Eating in Italy Means Eating Local
We traveled primarily by train during our trip, which gave us a chance to see the countryside, and in many cases people’s backyards. And nearly every one had a garden. Rows of artichokes and kale. Tomato plants stretching out of their handmade trellises. Beans vining along the fence. And beyond the vegetable garden, larger yards had a small vineyard and olive trees.
On the few days that we traveled by car, we noticed the same thing: Homes had gardens.
But we also spotted numerous roadside gardens, unused space that had been seemingly reclaimed to grow food in Italy. Guerrilla gardening in the Italian countryside? (Let me pause here to offer thanks to my husband who patiently pulled over at least five thousand times so I could look at just one more garden.)
Of course, these were rural areas where there was space to grow, even if it was just a small garden. In the more urban locations we visited space was at a premium, but even so, window gardens overflowed from upper stories. City dwellers were not consigned to crappy food just because of their location, though – no food deserts here.
Italian cuisine — whether served at the Italian restaurants and eateries that pepper every small town or in Italian homes — is comprised of fresh food.
In every town we visited, markets popped up seemingly daily. Some were outdoors. Others were inside big warehouse spaces. Business hours for these markets were hard for us to pin down, but the local residents somehow knew exactly when to be there.
A person could survive on the fresh market fare alone. Produce (gorgeous fresh produce), cheese, cured meats, butter, honey, bread, vinegar, fresh pasta, wine, and fresh butcher shops. We had a very hard time refraining from buying more than we could eat in our short time in each locale. Eating in Italy was an absolute delight!
I asked our host at our first stop just how much of the produce we see grows locally. “Everything,” he told me. “Except for things like bananas and pineapple, it’s all grown in Italy.” And even at that, another of our hosts explained that growers in the warmer regions are experimenting with growing tropical fruit.
Different parts of Italy each have their own specialty.
- Risotto is a rice dish that is prominent on menus in the north of Italy.
- This stuffed eggplant recipe hails from southern Italy; it’s a simple, rustic dish that would be more likely to be served in Italian kitchens than public eateries.
- Balsamic vinegar originated in Modena, and there are plenty of options to choose from when you stop in this city.
- Polenta is commonly available in northern Italy.
If you have a chance to visit different regions of Italy, be sure to ask about the area’s specialties!
Food in Italy — at the grocery stores
There are grocery stores in Italy, of course, and some even qualify as a recognizable supermarket. But generally speaking, the quality of food far exceeds what their American counterparts offer. America has aisles of packaged cereal, power drinks, Lunchables, and a small “gourmet” section. The few grocery stores we shopped at in Italy carried much more “real food.”
I quite literally just stood in the dairy/produce section of one store with wide eyes (and possibly an open mouth), ogling the extensive options until my husband ushered me along. The fresh pasta section rivaled our cereal aisle in size. Prepared marinara sauce? Hardly any. But there was a huge selection of tomato products, roasted and pickled vegetables, and herb sauces. Many of these were offered in glass rather than plastic.
We survived our first few jet-lagged days on eggs scrambled with roasted vegetables and garlic preserved in oil topped with Parmesan cheese; super simple fare but it was delicious, not to mention incredibly inexpensive.
In addition to grocery stores, there are specialty shops galore, some in store fronts, others utilizing space at the fresh market. Pasticcerias for pastries, the forno for breads, the gelateria for gelato, and the prosciutteria for, well, prosciutto. There were shops dedicated to freshly made dried pasta, bulk dried beans, tea, and olive oil.
The people of Italy take their food seriously. They savor it over leisurely evening meals. They indulge in fresh pastries that somehow far exceed the quality of even our best bakeries.
And restaurants strive for regional cuisine. How regional? Fish is prevalent on the menu at seaside locations, but not inland. If there is fish on the menu at inland restaurants, it’s fresh water fish caught in a nearby lake.
Food in Italy is not trucked clear across the country – or from out of the country. In fact, during the course of our stay we spotted fresh baked goods being delivered both by bicycle and in the little three-wheeled delivery trucks that are commonly used in Italy.
Buon appetito is the Italian way of saying “enjoy your meal!”
The Structure of Traditional Italian Meals
The idea of sitting for a three-hour meal can seem preposterous to Americans who commonly dine and dash. And certainly, Italian people don’t enjoy every meal in this manner, but you’ll likely see some menu offerings structured this way, giving a peek into Italian culture and how important food is.
Apertivo: Kick off the meal with a bubbly drink and little foods to nibble, such as olives or nuts.
Antipasti: This starter course is where the charcuterie platter often comes in. Featuring cured meats like salami and proscuiutto, along with cheese and bread, this could serve as an entire meal for me!
Primi: The first course typically does not feature meat, but may include seafood. Pasta dishes, gnocchi, lasagne, and soup are all possibilities.
Secondi: The heaviest portion of the meal, this would be considered the main course in American households or restaurants. This hearty second course can include chicken, beef, pork, lamb, or seafood.
Contorni: Often a vegetable, this course is served alongside the secondi.
Insalata: Salad served after most of the meal always surprises Americans. Just roll with it.
Formaggi e Frutta: Seasonal fruits paired with cheese is a common way to finish out the meal.
Dolce: What meal is complete without dessert? The options vary, but you might try panna cotta, tiramisu, or gelato.
Caffe: Served after dessert, not with. I made the error of ordering dessert and coffee at a restaurant, and the waitress tsk tsked and told me that’s not how it’s done.
Digestivo: After all that food, your body may need a little help with digestion. It’s common for Italians fo finish with a limoncello.
We often chose just one or two Italian dishes from an extensive menu, as that was sufficient for filling our bellies. There might have been a time or two when the waiter looked down his nose at us, but mostly it was accepted that we’d only want a small portion of the offerings.
Fun Italian Food Facts
If you’re traveling to Italy, it’s likely that Italian food is a big draw for you, as it was for us. Here are some things you might be happy to know before you go.
Pasta in Italy
- Pasta in Italy comes if different shapes and sizes, many more than are available in America.
- Different pasta shapes each have a different purpose. Some varieties of pasta are better for serving with a simple sauce, say letting the flavor of the tortellini shine. Others have a texture that are good for “grabbing” the sauce that it’s served with.
- Fresh pasta is readily available, though large supermarkets do carry dried pasta.
Fun Facts About Italian Pizza
- If you order a pepperoni pizza, you will get a pizza with bell pepper.
- Pizza Margherita is a classic Neapolitan pizza. Legend has it that it was named after the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. Made with basil, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes, this pizza to honor Queen Margherita was intended to represent the colors of the Italian flag.
- The tomato sauce spread on pizza is quite simple, often made with just tomatoes, garlic, and oregano; it’s quite different than the spicier pizza sauce commonly served in the United States.
Bread in Italy
- Florentine bread is unsalted and to my American taste buds, somewhat flavorless. It’s said that this practice harkens back to the Middle Ages, when there was a heavy tax on salt, making it an expensive ingredient. Others say it’s because the food is so flavorful in Florence, it goes better with unsalted bread.
- You will not find garlic bread in Italy. Save that for your summertime barbecues at home.
- Flat bread is commonly used to make “fast food” sandwiches — piadina — that are delicious. Try your hand at making some at home with this recipe.
Food in Italy
My son asked the question that was on all of our minds: “How did we go so far wrong?” The excellent food we were eating in Italy made all of us keenly aware of just how far wrong our food system in America has gone.
And it’s made us redouble our efforts at producing our own food in the space we have, both for our own use and to share throughout our little community. It means more work in the garden (which I love), as well as breaking habits (that part is hard). We like tortilla chips and rice and apples, but these things don’t grow here. Shipping them thousands of miles just so we can have things we like doesn’t make sense, especially when there are locally produced options.
Grazie mille, Italy, for the gentle reminder that we need to get back to the basics.
Originally published in July 2019; this post has been updated.