A Taste of Italy: What's Your "Flavor?"
Italian cuisine is much like the Italian language—there is a national language that everyone speaks, but each region also has its own dialect used to speak to one another. Similarly, as you travel through Italy, you'll notice how each region has specific dishes and ingredients that they are best known for, yet there are basic staples such as pasta, cheese, and olive oil used by all.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy’s regions created their own culinary identities that still exist today. We think of risotto in Lombardy, pizza in Campania, and seafood in Sardinia, for instance.
These regional specialties contribute to gastronomic delights for a foodies' paradise. In fact, according to research reported by Roberta Garibaldi of the University of Bergamo, some thirty percent of Italian tourists are “food tourists” for whom food or drink activities are a prime motivator in choosing a destination.
All Italian cuisine follows the same philosophy: simple recipes with fresh ingredients. And although gastronomic influences have been passing back and forth through the country for centuries, in general, the following is broadly representative of what guests are likely to expect while traveling and tasting throughout Italy.
Of those highlighted below, which of the flavors would you enjoy most?
Flavors in Northern Italy:
Thanks to its mountainous terrain and proximity to Switzerland, Austria, and France, the wonderfully rich repertoire of the northern Italian regions loves the land. Prime cattle country is reflected in cuisine with butter-based sauces and stews and soups with beef in the winter.
Salami and other salted, preserved meats such as prosciutto are delicacies here, and cheese has been a staple for centuries. Sheep, goats, and cows that graze at the foot of the Italian Alps produce the milk that goes into Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, asiago, and Gorgonzola cheeses. Fun fact: Gorgonzola cheese began in the town of the same name, but its origins are widely debated. According to folklore, Gorgonzola was created by mistake. A young cheesemaker, who was in love with the daughter of the boss and distracted, mixed two different curds. The result: this renowned cheese with its distinctive blue veins and pungent smell.
The Veneto region is known for its desserts, with the mouthwatering classic tiramisu on the menu. Made typically with coffee and almond liquor, plus sugar, mascarpone cheese, egg yolks, and savoiardi biscuits all topped with cocoa powder, the literal meaning of tiramisu in Italian is "pick me up," or "cheer me up."
Rice is much more popular in Lombardy than pasta. There is a wide variety of risotto dishes for each region and season. The well-known Risotto alla Milanese is made with saffron, while risotto primavera is made with spring vegetables, and other risotto types are made with mushrooms and truffles. Risi e Bisi is a traditional pea risotto-like dish from the cities of Vicenza and Venezia. This incredibly creamy risotto is simply made with fresh peas, butter, Parmesan, and a few cubes of bacon which are sautéed to give an initial burst of flavor. A true Italian risotto should be creamy, yet not runny, and cooked to a consistency Italians call all'onda, which translates as "with waves."
Itinerary highlights of our Flavors of Northern Italy program include an intimate cooking demonstration to learn secrets of slow-cooked, Amarone-infused risotto, a private visit to an award-winning producer of balsamic vinegar, and a tour and tasting at a family-run, artisan cheese shop.
Flavors in Central Italy:
This is where tomatoes and olive oil begin to replace the butter and cream of the north. The food of central Italy reflects the agricultural treasures provided by the warmer climate. Local grape varieties also enjoy their time in the sun, ripening to juicy perfection.
In Tuscany, roasted meats and velvety olive oils are staples in cuisine, such as the epicurean gem bistecca alla Fiorentina. This area is also known for its wild game such as boar, hares, pheasants, and other birds. Seafood dishes are popular too, with the fish stew cacciuccio alla Livornese.
Tuscans love to describe their cuisine as “peasant food.” While that might not exactly be the case, there is a marvelous simplicity to it, and you'll find meals to be rich in flavor, hearty, and filling. Tomatoes and white beans are featured in several of the region’s signature dishes.
Meals are served accompanied by a regional bread that is white, plain, and unsalted. This tradition dates back to the 16th century when there was a tax put on salt, changing the way locals thought about baking bread. The bread is used to soak up all the leftover juices from your plate, which gives the bread flavor.
The center of Italy is also famous for truffles and mushrooms, which can be found in particular in the region of Umbria. Visitors to central Italy find some special pastas which are homemade: paste fresche, maccheroni, and spaghetti alla chitarra, for instance, always seasoned with sauces containing meat and game.
Arguably, Chianti is the perfect food wine, with fans extolling the romance of a tart, spicy, herbaceous Chianti paired with prosciutto or pasta with red sauce. This wine is produced in Tuscany in the famous area of "Chianti" inside the provinces of Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato, and Sienna. While today we know Chianti as one of the deepest and most complex red wines, did you know it may have started out its life as a white wine? Early records seem to indicate that Chianti was a white wine as late as 1398.
Central Italy has a rich specialty farming tradition, with many crops that are difficult to find elsewhere, including farro, an ancient grain domesticated by the Romans. Join us for our Flavors of Chianti tour and discover the slow food movement, a practice dedicated to sustainable farming and agritourism.
Flavors in Southern Italy:
Southern Italian cooking features a lively Mediterranean taste. Peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes thrive in the warm climate and form the basis for beloved dishes, including eggplant parmigiana. The Neapolitan pizza margherita combines some of the best offerings of southern Italy with fresh tomatoes, creamy mozzarella cheese, and a few leaves of peppery sweet basil. It's here too that seafood reigns, that cannoli was born, and where breakfast may be a frozen coffee topped with whipped cream!
As a major trading port for ancient Italy, the island of Sicily boasts a unique blend of mainland Italian cooking with influences from Arabia, Spain, and ancient Greece. Sicilians add citrus, raisins, almonds, and exotic spices that set their cuisine apart. The Spaniards’ influence, most notably saffron, is found throughout the south and also in Milan and Sardinia where they once ruled.
Sicily has a varied landscape. The city of Catania is on the volcanic side, where it’s difficult to grow as many fresh ingredients and food is heavily influenced by neighboring Greece. On the side of Palermo, there’s a big Arab influence and couscous is served in lots of restaurants.
Blessed with the Mediterranean at their doorstep, Sicily serves fresh mussels, squid, octopus, sardines, tuna, anchovies, and swordfish as main courses in restaurants. Historically the South is also known for shepherding, so lamb plays a more prominent role in the diet here than in some other areas of Italy.
If you see risotto on the menu in Sicily, it will most likely be a seafood risotto. The main use of rice in Sicily is in arancini. These rice balls are a staple, and may be filled with ragu, peas, mozzarella, chicken liver, tomato, or other fresh ingredients that are available.
See Sicily with Orbridge for a special visit to Benanti, an award-winning winery, and enjoy a unique cooking lesson followed by a vineyard visit and wine tasting. You'll also have the opportunity to hone your culinary skills with a hands-on cooking class of traditional Sicilian fare alongside a celebrated chef at Villa Britannia. Create a variety of mouth-watering dishes and amass the best travel souvenirs—great memories and new kitchen abilities that require no space in your suitcase!
Italian food is an essential part of understanding the country. Every area of gastronomy tells the tale of the geography, climate, soil, people, animals, and history of the land. For a delicious, informative adventure, look no further than our "Flavors" programs in Italy.