Italy, the land of amore, Vespa’s and, of course, great food. Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Dishes are often kept simple, showcasing high-quality, fresh ingredients. Ingredients are best sourced locally, and there is a strong farm-to-table connection. The traditional recipes are passed down through generations. Ask any Italian person who cooks the best food, and the answer will likely be “my mother.”
Although some dishes are eaten all around the country, each region in Italy has its specialties and local varieties. These specialties are based on the local produce and cooking style. Enjoying the food in Italy goes far beyond trying every pasta dish on the menu. Food can be an immersive experience in Italy. If you want to know more about Italian cuisine and food culture, here are the top 10 food experiences to have in Italy:
1. Take a cooking class
After trying the food in Italy, you won’t be able to go without. So why not learn how to cook all those delicious dishes yourself? That way you can take a bit of Italian cuisine home with you and delight your friends and family. You can find cooking classes in any Italian city, but the biggest selection is in tourist hot spots such as Rome and Florence.
Some teach you specific skills such as pasta or pizza making; others focus on local traditional dishes. Cooking classes are a fun activity to do with friends, family, or a significant other. But cooking classes are also a great way to meet other travelers and make new friends. Check tour sites such as Viator, Tripadvisor, and Airbnb experiences for classes at your destination.
2. Visit a local farmers market
To cook Italian dishes, you’ll need Italian ingredients. There is a reason everything tastes so good in Italy, and that reason is all the fresh produce. Especially in the summer, you won’t believe the flavor of the fruit, tomatoes, and vegetables. The Italian sun turns everything to flavor bombs. Although supermarkets in Italy tend to have great food selections, local farmers markets are even better. This is where the locals shop.
Like all places in Italy where groups of people converge, expect it to be loud and chaotic. A lot of Italian markets have both an outdoor and indoor space. Outside is where you find the fresh produce and sometimes clothing, home equipment, and other goods. The indoor space is for meat, fish, cheese, and deli products. This is where you find delicious hams, tasty seafood, and beautiful cheeses.
Immerse yourself in the smells, sounds, and sights of a local farmers market. Walking through the stands and negotiating about prices with the vendors is a quintessential Italian food experience.
3. Take a vineyard tour
No Italian meal is complete without a glass of Italian wine. Viticulture was first brought to Italy by the Greek in around 800 BC. Now, Italy is the biggest wine producer in the world. You’ll be amazed at the quality of even cheap house wines in restaurants.
Different grapes fare well in different regions, so there is a large variety of wines in Italy. Generally speaking, the north mostly produce lighter white wines, the south heavy reds. The best Italian wines have a DOC label, which signifies a regional product. The production of these wines is closely monitored and has to adhere to strict rules.
One of the most famous regional wines is Chianti. The Chianti region lies in Tuscany, close to Florence. Because Florence is such a tourist hot spot, many people choose to spend a day in the Chianti countryside. The vineyards there cater to the tourists by offering tours of the grounds, the factory, the cellar and, of course, a wine tasting. Some tours combine several vineyards and transportation to and from the city. You can also drive yourself as many vineyards allow private visits and walk-ins.
4. Visit the Balsamico Museum
Few Italian foods are as typical as balsamic vinegar. Unlike other types of vinegar, balsamic is sweeter and thicker. Making traditional aceto di balsamico takes a lot of time and patience. Grape must is cooked down to a syrup and aged in wooden barrels. As the vinegar ages, it evaporates and thickens. Every year, part of the vinegar is added to a smaller barrel to fill it back up. A full set of traditional balsamic vinegar barrels contains 8 barrels of different types of wood.
The making of balsamic vinegar used to be a task for the women, and they were often given a set of barrels upon marriage. Each wood gives a distinct flavor to the vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena has to age at least 12 and maximum of 25 years. A single set of barrels produces about a liter of vinegar a year. As a result, this balsamic vinegar is quite expensive. Lower quality balsamic vinegar can be mixed with regular vinegar and doesn’t have to age as long.
The highest quality balsamic vinegar comes from Modena. At the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilamberto, you can learn all about this fine art. The guided tour teaches you about balsamic vinegar and includes a tasting of a 12-year-old and 25-year-old vinegar. Be sure also to visit the nearby gelato shop which has a balsamic vinegar ice cream.
5. Try an olive oil tasting
Although olive oil is produced in many parts of Italy, one region takes the crown, Liguria. Liguria is famous for its cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. This olive oil has a bright green color and incredible flavor. Many olive farms allow visits and organize tasting for you, where you can try different varieties of olive oil.
The OliOliva festival celebrated the new harvest with olive products and, of course, food. If you want to learn more about this liquid cold, visit the Museo dell’Olivo in Imperia.
6. Eat authentic pizza in Naples
Sure, you can eat great pizza all over Italy. But the undisputed best place to eat it is Naples. Pizza, as we know it today, was invented in Naples, and it does taste the best there. Some say it’s the minerals in the water; others say it’s the quality of the tomatoes, either way, this is pizza heaven. Traditional Neapolitan pizza is made from hand-tossed dough with a thin crust and only a few toppings, either marinara or Margherita, baked in a wood-fired oven.
The margarita pizza was invented in honor of Queen Margharita in 1889. The green basil, red tomato, and white mozzarella represent the Italian flag. Although many toppings have been created since, the Italians, and especially the Neapolitans, still prefer a simple pizza. Aside from this traditional pizza, Naples also has a “pizza fritta.” This deep-fried calzone is a popular street food.
There are amazing pizzerias all over the city. One street, Via Dei Tribunali, is even nicknamed “pizza street”. Here you’ll find one of the best pizzeria’s in Naples: Sorbillo. Another beloved pizza place is Da Michele, made famous by the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”. They only serve marinara, and margarita pizza and the lines sometimes wrap around the block.
7. Visit a Parmesan cheese factory
The Emilia-Romagna region is home to some of Italy’s most popular dishes: tortellini, lasagne, and parmesan cheese. Parmesan cheese, or “Parmeggiano Reggiano” as it is officially called, is one of the most iconic Italian cheeses.
The cheese can only be made in this part of Italy according to very strict guidelines to earn the name “Parmigiano Reggiano.” Around Parma, Modena, Regio Emilia, Mantova, and Bologna, you’ll find many dairies producing this delicious cheese. Some of them offer guided tours through the factory. On these tours, you’ll be able to see and learn how the cheese is made and ripened. Most tours also include a delicious tasting of parmesan cheese of different ages.
8. Tour a pig farm
Even with the rise of big factory farms, you will still find plenty of small family farms in Italy. Partially due to strict quality control, a lot of livestock farming is extensive and small scale. Pork is big business in Italy, for beloved products such as salami and ham. One of the best-known examples is prosciutto di Parma. This type of cured ham is produced in the area around Parma and aged at least 12 months.
The rules and regulations around Parma ham are stringent. Although most farms are not open to the public, they sometimes allow a visit if you call ahead. Because Parma ham is so well known, there are also guided tours available for a peek behind the scenes.
9. Eat authentic gelato
Everyone loves ice cream, but no one does it like the Italians. Italian gelato is denser, creamier, and richer than other ice creams. The frozen dessert was first invented in 1600 by a Sicilian chef.
Making gelato is both an art and a science. Although there are plenty of gelato factories, the best gelato comes from small artisan shops. If you are looking for delicious gelato, always go to a shop that advertises gelato artigianale. This means that the ice cream is made fresh daily, by hand. Good gelato contains only fresh ingredients and no artificial flavorings. Traditional gelato shops don’t pile their ice cream up in mountains, instead, they keep it in submerged metal containers with a metal lids.
There are two types of gelato: cream and fruit. Fruit gelato is made without cream, milk, or eggs. Vegan gelato is also on the rise, often made with soy or rice milk.
You will be able to find fantastic gelato everywhere in Italy, but most Italians will agree that the very best gelato comes from Sicily.
10. Go truffle hunting
Some food requires more effort to produce than others. Truffles are a big part of traditional Italian cuisine, especially in central Italy. Unfortunately, truffle cannot be farmed. It only grows in the wild, and finding them isn’t always easy. This is why truffles are so expensive.
The Italian province of Umbria is the biggest producer of truffles. Here, truffle hunting is a family business, and these locals known the woods inside and out. Originally, pigs were used for hunting for truffles, but they cause too much damage. Truffle hunters now train dogs to find the elusive mushrooms. To meet popular demand, some hunters will now take tourists out with them to find this “black gold.”