Italy's Best Food Cities

29 Sep 2021

Italian food is eaten and loved all over the world, but there's nothing quite like unwinding in a backstreet Naples trattoria, a sunny plaza in Verona, or on a terrace by the Adriatic on a warm evening. And taking a stroll around food markets in Italy is a great way to seek out delicious local produce and get a glimpse of local life.

Here are some of Italy’s best cities for food, and the local cuisine you should try there.

 

Florence

Ice cream in Florence

Florence is one of Italy's culinary hotspots, and a fantastic array of fresh Tuscan produce goes into creating some of the city’s signature dishes. These include antipasti like crostini neri — chicken liver paté served on toast. Talking of bread, Florentine bread tends to be saltless, which works well, as the food it's served with is usually bursting with flavour.

Other local dishes include crespelle alla fiorentina, a kind of crêpe stuffed with ricotta and spinach that's usually covered with béchamel sauce, tomato sauce, and parmesan cheese; then baked until golden brown. Florence steak, bistecca alla fiorentina, is another famous local dish — it’s served thick and flame-grilled — fish lovers can still find joy in this inland city thanks to baccalà alla fiorentina: salted cod with tomatoes, onions, and rosemary.

This is also the origin of bread-based other foods. Panzanella, a salad that includes stale bread, is a staple of Florentine menus. And in colder times, go for papa al pomodoro, which saves you the effort of dipping your bread in to tomato soup by including it in the ingredients.

You're spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat; Florence is full of trattorias, restaurants, and gelaterias, plus enotecas selling Tuscan wines. Another great place to look for local flavours is Mercato Centrale (Central Market), a cast iron-framed market building full of butchers, cheese sellers, fishmongers, and greengrocers, as well as a top floor section with places to grab a snack or meal.

 

Venice

Rialto Market, Venice

Thanks to Venice's location, seafood is an integral part of the city's cuisine. Among the local dishes to sample is moleche, small crabs that are collected in the short period between shedding their old shells and growing new ones. They’re covered in batter and fried whole, giving a crunchy texture on the outside that contrasts with the soft interior. Other dishes to try include fegato alla veneziana, a Venetian take on liver and onions that's served with polenta.

A great place to eat in Venice, and get close to the locals, is a bacaro. Bacari are like Venetian tapas bars; they serve cicchetti, small affordable plates to accompany wine served by the glass. They can include polpette (fried meatballs), sandwiches such as crostini, panini, and the triangular tramezzini, plus seafood, and baked, pickled, or stuffed vegetables.

You can also head to the Rialto Market, close to the bridge of the same name, which has a fruit and vegetable area (look out for artichokes grown on Sant'Erasmo island), and a fish market, where you can watch fresh seafood being unloaded from boats on the adjacent Grand Canal.

 

Naples

Pizza in Naples

Think of food from Naples and pizza usually comes to mind. Neapolitan pizza is famous the world over, and there are many varieties that originated in the city. One of the most simple and best known is marinara, which despite its name contains no seafood (it was actually a traditional staple eaten by fishermen), but is topped with tomato, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. One of the other great foods of Naples is the calzone — it's folded so you can even eat it on the move, and is stuffed with all manner of ingredients like meat and cheese.

Pasta dishes from Naples include spaghetti alla puttanesca, which is a simple dish made from ingredients Neapolitans would have knocking around their kitchens, including tomatoes, capers, olives, garlic, and anchovies. Even the salads are simple, but packed with flavour, such as caprese salad, which consists of tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil. For a slice of local life — and pizza — head to Pignasecca market, near the central Via Toledo and said to be the oldest market in Naples, where you can pick up fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables, and grab some street food such as fried anchovies and calamari.

 

Rome

Saltimbocca veal

When it comes to food, the Eternal City has something for all tastes. Dishes of local origin include saltimbocca alla romana — veal that's wrapped with prosciutto and sage, then cooked in wine and butter. There's also carciofi alla romana, a dish of stuffed artichokes, and trapizzino, a pocket of pizza bianca that's crunchy on the outside and filled with ingredients like meatballs and eggplant parmigiana. Anther Roman invention is pizza al taglio — pizza sold in rectangular or square slices.

Rome has some fantastic foodie neighbourhoods to explore. Not far from the Pantheon, the busy squares of Piazza Navona and Campo de' Fiori are full of places to eat and drink, although many are aimed at tourists. Head away from the two piazzas, though, and you’ll discover hidden gems where the locals eat. The Testaccio area, between Piramide Metro station and the Tiber, is home to coffee bars, patisseries, delis, and pizzerias, as well as Testaccio Market, where you can pick up local produce and street food. Mercato Trionfale, near Vatican City, is Rome's largest food market, and sells fresh fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables, plus handmade pasta, honey, jam, and much more.

 

Milan

Pastries in Milan

Milan doesn't always get credit as a food destination, but many of Italy’s best-known dishes come from the city. Northern Italy is a major rice producing region, and one local dish that's taken the world by storm is risotto. Risotto is said to have been created in the 16th century, when a local glassmaker added some saffron to rice to give it colour. Today, risotto alla milanese is one of the city’s signature dishes, and in addition to arborio rice and saffron, it contains butter, beef marrow, onion, wine, parmesan cheese, and broth.

Other dishes associated with Milan include cotoletta alla milanese (veal Milanese), which is similar to schnitzel, and trippa alla milanese, a hearty soup containing tripe, beans, vegetables, and tomato. The famous cake panettone comes from the city, while Gorgonzola, the town that lends its name to the famous blue-veined cheese of northern Italy, is within the Greater Milan area.

As befits one of Italy's biggest cities, and a centre for industries including finance and fashion, there are all kinds of places to eat in Milan, from Michelin-starred restaurants to fast-food joints, neighbourhood trattorias to market stalls. Seek out the pastry shops for breakfast; in Milan, they’re more than mere bakeries, they are chic, fashionable places in which to start the day with a caffeine and energy boost.

 

Bologna

Tortellini

Bologna, capital of Emilia-Romagna region, is one of the best food cities in Italy, with a slew of tempting dishes originating there. Among them is tortellini, pasta stuffed with a meat mixture, plus its larger variants tortellino and tortellacci. There’s also tagliatelle, the long, flat pasta that's served with the local ragù to create tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese. However, this Bolognese sauce bears little resemblance to what's usually dolloped on top of spaghetti at dinner tables around the world. Whatever you order to eat in Bologna, you can wash it down with a glass or two of Emilia-Romagna's fizzy red wine, lambrusco.

For a fascinating foodie experience, head to the Quadrilatero, an area close to Piazza Maggiore, with its old, narrow lanes full of market stalls and cafés. Here, you can shop for ingredients to take home — it's a great place to sample Emilia-Romagna foods like parmigiano reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto ham, and truffles, as well as mortadella, a sausage that originated in Bologna and contains pork (and pork fat), black pepper grains, and sometimes pistachios and berries.

 

Palermo

Cannoli

The Sicilian capital is a vibrant city where dining and shopping for food allow you to get a glimpse of local life. You can grab delicious street food and fresh seafood, and discover excellent restaurants serving cuisine influenced by many civilisations that have invaded Sicily. To fuel your sightseeing in Palermo, look out for arancini: deep-fried rice balls stuffed with ingredients that can include meaty ragú, vegetables, cheeses, and mushrooms — fillings vary from place to place. You can also find snacks including chickpea fritters, potato croquettes, the local sfincione pizza, and barbecued seafood. Great places to pick up street food in the city include the bustling Mercato del Capo food market, as well as the Kalsa neighbourhood.

One of Sicily’s signature dishes is pasta con le sarde: spaghetti with sardines, fennel, and sultanas — it’s one of many dishes on the island influenced by the Arab occupation. Local sweet dishes include cannoli — tubes of fried dough with a creamy filling that usually includes ricotta — and granita di mandorle, an almond granita that's commonly eaten for breakfast with a brioche roll and coffee.

 

Bari

Taralli

The southern Italian seaport of Bari is a great place to sample Puglia's cuisine, which includes fresh Adriatic seafood, and meats such as lamb and pork. Among the local dishes is orecchiette cime di rapa, which is orecchiette ("little ears") pasta with cime di rapa, a green that has a slightly bitter taste, plus grated pecorino cheese and crushed red pepper. Another traditional Bari dish is riso patate e cozze, which contains mussels stuffed with garlic and breadcrumbs, plus rice and potatoes.

Look out too for taralli, a ring of baked dough similar to a pretzel, which can be served sweet with a sugar glaze, or savoury, flavoured with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, fennel, pepper, or chilli. Puglia is also home to some of the best red wines in Italy, including primitivo. A great place to eat in Bari is the busy seafood market, where you can grab inexpensive plates of squid, oysters, sea urchins, and more, then sit at a table and watch the fishermen and vendors going about their work as you eat.

Nick Elvin contributed to this post.

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