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The one pasta dish you have to try from each of Italy’s regions

We don't know about you, but we can't imagine anything better than travelling Italy from top to toe, sampling the culinary delights of each of the places you stop at along the way.

The one pasta dish you have to try from each of Italy's regions
Freshly made spaghetti carbonara in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

But menu panic is a common pitfall for the uninitiated. If you're searching for authentic Italian food, you'll often find there's no translated version of the menu (sometimes there won't be a menu at all, but just a nonna or nonno reeling off the list of dishes on offer).

READ ALSO: How to decipher Italy's mind-boggling pasta menus

Many dishes known overseas, such as fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti bolognese, don't actually exist in Italy, except when restaurants are catering for tourists. And the cuisine varies a lot from place to place, so if you simply order the only thing on the menu you've heard of before, you might end up underwhelmed.

To eat like the locals do, try a regional specialty, which will be prepared with extra love and high quality fresh ingredients. Here are our top picks, with one from each of Italy's 20 regions. Foodie roadtrip, anyone?

Abruzzo: Maccheroni alla chitarra

This long, thin pasta shape is made using a special tool invented in 1890 and called a chitarra, which ensures the maccheroni have a porous texture so that sauce adheres well. You'll find it served with thick sauces based on tomatoes and meat, typically lamb ragu, with meatballs added in some parts of the region. Note: outside Abruzzo, the same dish is called spaghetti alla chitarra to avoid confusion with the short tube-shaped pasta also named maccheroni.

The maccheroni and the chitarra. Photo: fugsu/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Aosta Valley: Pasta alla valdostana

Though pasta doesn't dominate the menus in Italy's smallest region as much as it does further south, when they do cook it, they do it well. This creamy recipe uses Fontina, a cheese known for melting extremely well and often used in fondue (Italian fondue is even more decadent than the Swiss variety, with butter and cream added). Eaten with or without added ham, it's the perfect comfort food after a day on the slopes. Or whenever, in our opinion.

Basilicata: Fusili con la mollica 

In contrast to the Aosta Valley, pasta has a long, long history here. In fact, the region can boast that it's the first place in Italy with records of the foodstuff. Because it's historically been a poor area, Basilicata's dishes are typically simple, and they often contain the region's hot peppers. In this recipe 'mollica' refers to the soft inside part of bread, which is cooked up with tomatoes, onions, and red wine to make a tasty sauce.

Calabria: Pasta con le sarde

Eaten most often in Calabria and Sicily, many types of pasta can be used for this dish but you'll usually see long, thin tube shapes. The sauce combines sardines, anchovies and herbs including fennel and saffron. 


Photo: Marcello Paternostro/AFP

Campania: Spaghetti alle vongole

Sticking with a seafood theme, classic spaghetti with clams is popular throughout the country, but we recommend sampling it when you're by the sea. The sauce is simple, featuring wine, garlic and chilli, making it a perfect light lunch or 'primo' course.

Emilia-Romagna: Cappellacci di zucca

Stuffed pasta is the name of the game in Italy's culinary capital, with local specialties including lasagne verdi (a variant of the classic dish using spinach sheets), meat-filled tortellini in broth, and cannelloni, the cousin of lasagne. But if forced to pick one stand-out dish from the area, we'd recommend cappellaci di zucca, small pasta parcels (the name literally means 'little hats') stuffed with pumpkin or squash and served with a simple butter and sage sauce or local ragu. Head to charming Ferrara where this autumnal dish has its origins.

READ ALSO: Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy's favourite food

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia: Gnocchi di susine

The menus in this region are typically light on pasta and heavy on dumplings, so gnocchi are a good compromise between the two. This sweet version of gnocchi is a treat found in Trieste and the rest of the FVG region as well as in other countries that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Elsewhere they're usually a dessert whereas Italians sometimes list them as an entree, but whenever you choose to enjoy them it's sure to be a unique pasta experience.

 

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Lazio: Cacio e pepe

Literally meaning 'cheese and pepper' in the local dialect, this dish of just a few ingredients packs a flavoursome punch. Pecorino cheese and pepper are combined with the cooking water to make a sauce that coats the long, thin pasta, and it's a must-try when in Rome.

Liguria: Trenette al pesto

Another simple dish, but this pesto pasta is a world away from the dish made using a supermarket jar of the green stuff. Trenette is similar to linguine, a flat pasta that perfectly holds the basil-based sauce created in Liguria. Make sure you're getting true pesto genovese, which must be made using specific high quality ingredients and using a marble mortar and wooden pestle.

READ ALSO: Ten golden rules for making pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker

Lombardy: Pizzocheri alla valtellinese

This recipe originated in the town of Valtinella, and combines pizzocheri (think short buckwheat tagliatelle) with cabbage and potatoes. It's a winter dish, perfect for curling up with on chilly nights, with a generous dose of cheese and butter bringing it all together.

Marche: Vincisgrassi

Vincisgrassi is part of the lasagne family, but the ragu contains a bit of everything: mushrooms, pork and beef are the stars but it can also be a way of using up other odds and ends of meat such as chicken giblets and cock's comb. Records of the recipe date back centuries, with legend stating that a chef added a mix of extra ingredients to a classic ragu in order to impress a visiting general. The bechamel sauce is often infused with truffle oil to add that final fancy touch.

Molise: Cavatelli alla molisana

There are many reasons to head to Molise, a region of Italy most foreigners have never heard of, and one of them is the food. The name cavatelli means 'little cavities', and the shapes are similar to a shell, rolled up to form the cavity that traps the accompanying sauce. One of the sauces traditionally eaten with them is tomato-based, with sausage, carrots, and onions. 

Piedmont: Agnolotti al plin

Agnolotti are a type of ravioli, and the Piemontese variant — believed to be one of the very first stuffed pastas, created to celebrate the end of an historical siege — is one of the best. The name 'al plin' comes from a local dialect term meaning 'to pinch', in reference to how the small pasta pockets are created. They're always filled with meat: rabbit, beef, pork, and in the Monferrato region donkey, and served in a simple broth or sage and butter sauce.

Puglia: Sagne Ncannulate

Puglia is a great region for a foodie holiday, and the local pasta specialty of sagne ncannulate are a must-eat. These long spirals are typically served with a thick tomato sauce including plenty of garlic and basil, and are a common Sunday dinner dish.

Sardinia: Fregola ai frutti di mare

The name of these teeny-tiny pasta balls (very similar to cous cous) translates as 'breadcumbs', and they're usually eaten with seafood caught from around the coast of the island. It can be incorporated into all kinds of meals including broths and risottos, but for a classic take on the recipe, look for a simple version served with scallops.

 

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Sicily: Pasta alla norma

Pasta doesn't get classier than this, named after a Puccini opera. Aubergines are the star of the show here, mixed with tomatoes, ricotta, and basil.

Trentino-South Tyrol: Schlutzkrapfen

As with the other northern regions, pasta isn't such a staple here, but we can recommend this local dish, also known locally as Schlutzer. They're a kind of ravioli in a semi-circle shape, packed with ricotta and spinach in the classic version, but also served with plenty of other kinds of fillings.

Tuscany: Tortelli di patate

If you like carbs with your carbs, potato-filled pasta should be right up your street. Tortelli di patate are from the Mugello area, and you can eat them in a simple sauce like butter and sage, or with a hearty ragu. Like in neighbouring Emilia-Romagna, many typical Tuscan pasta dishes are stuffed, so you can also tuck into tortelli with chestnuts, ricotta and spinach, or meat fillings.

 

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Umbria: Strangozzi al tartufo nero

Umbria is black truffle country, and a simple pasta dish with truffles, olive oil, and garlic is one of the best ways to experience the specialty. Stringozzi are long pasta shapes, named after shoelaces because of how they look, and are one of the region's typical pasta varieties.

Veneto: Bigoli con l'anatra

Bigoli is like bucatini or a thicker, hollow spaghetti, and is a favourite pasta in Venice and the surrounding area. It's usually served with duck, as the meat is more readily available than in other regions. It's not one for the squeamish though, as the recipe typically includes the duck skin, fat, and sometimes giblets and liver too.

NOW READ: The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italian restaurant menus

 

 

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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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