Dishes You Cannot Leave Italy Without Eating

1. Pesto alla Genovese

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What makes it great

Like many Italian specialities, pesto (from the Italian pestare, to crush or grind) has long outgrown its original home, the port city of Genoa. And like many Italian specialities, its culinary genius lies in its simplicity – just basil, garlic, sea salt, Parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil.

Where to try it

In its regional home, Liguria, and better still, in Liguria’s capital, Genoa, preferably as trofie al pesto, the regional pasta of choice, with a sauce that also contains green beans and red potatoes. Antica Osteria di Vico Palla (, in the old port, and in business since the 17th century, is a great place to start sampling.

2. Ribollita

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What makes it great

Ribollita means “reboiled”, a reference to the fact that in the impoverished past this rich, rustic Tuscan soup of cannellini beans, cavolo nero, carrots, celery and more, was the reheated minestrone of the previous day, but with the addition of stale bread and other inexpensive leftovers and ingredients. Few soups are heartier or tastier.

Where to try it

Za-Za (trattoriazaza), in Florence’s old market square, offers a wonderfully rich and comforting version of ribollita, and in portions so gargantuan that you won’t need to eat again for days.

3. Tiramisù

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What makes it great

This “pick-me-up” dessert is another now ubiquitous Italian dish, with several cities and regions claiming its invention, the most persuasive case being made by Venice. What’s not to like about a dangerously sweet and calorie-laden confection of coffee, cocoa and creamy mascarpone?

Where to try it

Venice has as many versions of tiramisù as it has restaurants and pastry shops. Visit I Tre Mercanti for one of the best (they make it on the hour, every hour), but follow up with a trip to Alle Testiere , just by way of comparison…

4. Tortelli di zucca

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What makes it great

For all the Italian staples that are now widely renowned outside Italy, there are many regional dishes such as tortelli di zucca that are scarcely known outside their home towns – in this case Mantova (Mantua), a glorious artistic and historic jewel between Venice and Milan. Tortelli are large parcels of pasta; zucca, or squash, is the filling, a combination that in Mantua’s classic pairing – with burro e salvia (butter and sage) – provides a delicious contrast between the slightly too sweet squash and the sharper tang of the sage.

Where to try it

Osteria dell’Oca ( is a homely and no-nonsense little restaurant for tortelli and other local specialities, with Aquila Nigra (aquilanigra) one of several more upmarket choices.

5. Risotto alla Milanese

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What makes it great

In central northern Italy, on the plains of the Po river, pasta often takes second place to rice, usually in the shape of risotto, and in the case of Milan, as risotto alla Milanese, whose beauty lies in its golden colour and delicate, saffron-infused flavour.

Where to try it

The Trattoria Milanese (Via Santa Maria 11; 02 8645 1991) has been serving locals with local food in the old historic centre of Milan since 1933. Its risottos are as good as any and should be paired with another of the city’s specialities, ossobuco alla Milanese.

6. Cacio e pepe

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What makes it great

Rome’s classic meat dishes involve what the Romans called the quinto quarto, or “fifth quarter” of the animal: in other words, the bits that really might not otherwise be eaten – offal of every kind, tripe, brains (cervello) and the like. If you don’t have the stomach for this kind of thing, then go for one of Rome’s many distinctive pasta sauces, such as cacio e pepe (spaghetti, tonnarelli or similar served with a sauce of black pepper and salty pecorino romano), whose simplicity, like the quinto quarto, dates from the days when poverty was the Romans’ culinary mother of invention.

Where to try it

Cacio e pepe is suddenly everywhere on UK menus, but in Rome it’s been around for ever, and is still a staple of old family-run restaurants – sadly a dying breed – such as Le Cave di Sant’Ignazio-Da Sabatino (dasabatino), which has outside tables on a pretty little piazza a few minutes from the Pantheon. If you want try the offal, then head for Checchino dal 1887 (

7. Tartufo nero

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Lovely mountain-ringed Norcia was one of several towns in eastern Umbria damaged by earthquakes last year, but it’s back on its feet, with its status as one of central Italy’s great gastronomic centres still firmly in place. The black truffle, or tartufo nero, is its star turn – most of the truffles sold across Europe come from the region around the town – adding a delicate and unique flavour to risottos, omelettes, pastas and other dishes.

Where to try it

There are truffle dishes galore at the refined one-Michelin-star Vespasia (, part of the five-star Palazzo Seneca hotel, or at the earthier Granaro del Monte ( just across the road.

8. Pizza

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What makes it great

Do we really need to spell out the joys of pizza?

Where to try it

In Naples, of course, its birthplace, either in Da Michele (, in business since 1870 (it serves just margherita and marinara pizzas) or Brandi (brandi), a little touristy to be sure, but the birthplace, in 1889, of the margherita itself, created for Italy’s first queen and designed with ingredients that echoed the colours of the Italian flag – red (tomato), green (basil laves) and white (mozzarella).

9. Orecchiette alla pugliese

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Orrecchiette – literally “little ears”, after their shape – are a wonderfully chewy, rough-textured pasta that feature in several signature dishes of Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian boot, most notably orrecchiette con le cime di rapa (with turnip greens). They are also often paired with broccoli or, more challengingly, with a sauce of carne di cavallo (horse meat).

Where to try it

Osteria del Tempo Person ( in Ostuni, one of Puglia’s prettiest villages, has long been a touchstone of Pugliese cooking, and comes with the bonus of a superb grotto dining room that provides a memorable setting for any meal.

10. Caponata

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What makes it great

Sicily has a wealth of specialities you’d happily eat for a lifetime: arancini (small rice balls), granita (crushed, flavoured ice), cassata (ricotta, pistachios, candied fruit), pasta alla Norma (a sauce of aubergines, ricotta and more), pasta con e sarde (pasta with sardines), but let’s plump for caponata, a rich, sweet and sour creation of aubergines, tomatoes and other seasonal ingredients found in different variations across much of the island.