I know I really talked up the food in Amsterdam, but guys: the food in Italy is even better. My expectations for Italian food were, understandably, very high, and I was not disappointed.
The one thing that surprised me a little was the pasta. I LOVE pasta; we have some pretty excellent Italian restaurants even in Minnesota, and I’ve had pastas at home that were to die for. I was so excited for pasta in Italy.
But…it mostly just tasted like pasta back home. I guess you can’t really improve on perfection. I did discover pesto and risotto while I was in Italy, but we have those back home too. (If you’ve had the best pasta of your life in Italy, let me know in the comments!) After a couple evenings of regular-tasting spaghetti and fettuccine, I decided to dedicate the rest of my time in Italy to trying foods that weren’t quite the same back home.
Based on that, here’s my list of foods you absolutely must try when you visit Italy.
Of course coffee.
I wasn’t a coffee drinker before I went to Italy, and now I am. I came back home and was confused as to why Starbucks tasted burnt. It’s because Italian coffee is just a thousand times better.
In Rome, our hostel gave us a coupon for something like a €2 cappuccino and croissant at the cafe around the corner, so we went there for breakfast every morning. I’d only had coffee once or twice before—the first coffee I’d ever had was straight black—and was firmly convinced I didn’t like it. But my travel buddy insisted, “Lucy, this is the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. You have to get one.”
So I did, and the rest is history.
I tried mostly cappuccinos and espressos when I was in Rome and Naples and have since settled on lattes (with plenty of sugar) as my favorite coffee drink.
I’ve been to gelato places outside Italy, but they can’t really beat the original.
I’m a big fan of fruity flavors like strawberry and banana (can’t go wrong with strawberry), but also make room for classics like stracciatella (vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips) and pistachio.
To see my top-recommended gelato places in Venice, Rome, and Naples, check out my post on the best ice cream in Europe.
3) Neapolitan pizza
The absolute best food I tried in Italy—honestly the only thing I would actually go back for—was authentic Neapolitan pizza in Naples, Italy—the city where pizza was invented.
Maybe this is different outside America, but Neapolitan pizza isn’t a huge thing here. We mostly eat American-style pizza (think Pizza Hut) with a thick, sturdy crust—the kind you cut into slices and eat with your hands. I was kind of baffled by the idea of eating a pizza with a fork.
Neapolitan pizza has a floppy crust, so you can’t pick up a slice very easily. A well-made one isn’t soggy, though. It usually has some kind of sauce and then toppings.
Here is a revelation for you: white sauce pizza (pictured below). I got this kind twice in Naples; it has a cream sauce, and the toppings include mushrooms, spinach, thin slices of ham, and different types of cheese.
My travel buddy got a calzone at the same restaurant; it was also phenomenal and was the size of someone’s head.
Pizza places in Naples also have the best appetizers, like mac and cheese fried in dough. Naples had the most prominent street food culture of the cities I visited in Italy; you could order the appetizers at a stand outside the restaurant if you didn’t want to go in and sit down.
Beyond the delicious croissants we had in Rome, there were a number of other uniquely Italian pastries that we found as street food and in cafes throughout the country. The pastries were often sweet and had cream, ricotta, or some other kind of filling inside.
The syrupy babà and crispy sfogliatelle are delicious pastries specific to Naples. We found many bakeries with other types of chocolaty or creamy treats like cannoli, zaletti cookies, and fornarina al cioccolato in Venice—including the bakery right below the apartment where we were staying.
Especially in coastal towns like Venice and Naples, seafood regularly appears in markets and on the menu in restaurants. As a Minnesotan, the sight of freshly caught saltwater fish was unfamiliar and intriguing.
I’m not the biggest fan of seafood other than in sushi, but if you like fish, I would highly recommend trying some in Italy, since it is so popular there! I can definitely vouch for buying fresh food at the markets—everything I got there was delicious.
Finally, this coffee-flavored dessert, one of several gelatinous or custardy treats that they tend to serve in a cup like pudding, is another must-try in Italy. Maybe it’s so good because they use Italian coffee?
What are your favorite Italian foods?
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