Italian food is famous all around the world. Known for pizza and pasta, these are dishes that have captivated the hearts and appetites of many a visitor to beautiful Italia. But there’s so much more to the cuisine than meets the eye.
While these staples are ever present and widely consumed by locals and tourists alike, each region has its own unique take on the classics, with my main eating taking place in Puglia.
So without further ado, here’s some Italian food you definitely need to consume on your next visit. And remember, eating is a social activity here, so grab your friends, family or your significant other and indulge.
This ‘ear-shaped’ pasta is the most famous type of pasta in Puglia. While traditionally eaten with cime de rapa (which literally translates as turnip tops), orecchiette can be paired with almost anything. In fact, one of the most delicious lunches I’ve had in Puglia was a simple dish of orecchiette with tomato sauce. If you visit Bari, the region’s capital, make sure you seek out the lane of ladies making the fresh orecchiette every morning and buy a bag to take home – you won’t regret it.
In Italy, cappuccinos are enjoyed in the morning with a sweet pastry for breakfast. After 11am though, you won’t find an Italian drinking this milky concoction. It’s all about the espressinos and espressos. I’ve only had an espresso a few times, more out of convenience than desire. Just called coffee, this strong shot will almost give you the shakes if it catches you unawares. Luckily, in Italy you’re always presented with a glass of water to drink with your espresso so it doesn’t dehydrate you. A good thing to note, something which actually surprised me when I arrived, but soy milk is widely available even in the small towns of Puglia.
So while you’re sipping your cappuccino, it’s a good idea to grab a pastry too. If you’re standing drinking your coffee like a real Italian, you’ll get the pastry handed to you in a napkin. If you’re planning to sit at a table, you’ll usually get it served on a plate. Cornetto is just another word for croissant and they have become a staple in my diet. I would be a fan of the chocolate pastries, but there’s also plain, cream and even some fruit-infused croissants available.
A typical antipasti, Polpette are smalll bread balls which can be made from meat, fish, potatoes, rice or vegetables. Stewed, baked or fried, you’ll see some variation of Polpette on most menus. I’ve tried meat, rice and cheese-filled Polpette and they have always been fried to get that full indulgent effect.
As there aren’t really any fast food places in Puglia, I like to believe that Panzarotte is the people’s hangover cure (not that Italians ever binge drink). Probably containing about 5000 calories, this is the ultimate indulgence. A deep fried turnover, similar to Naples’ calzone but smaller and using a softer dough, a panzarotte can be filled with a variety of ingredients, though the most common is the traditional tomato and mozzarella.
Anywhere you travel in Italy, and Puglia especially, you’re sure to run into a local food market or two. Make sure you stock up on fruit and vegetables here. I get all my fresh produce from the market on Fridays. With vegetables bigger than I’ve ever seen in a supermarket and strawberries that are so juicy that you devour the whole punnet in minutes, it’s really a fantastic place to buy excellent quality food at amazing prices. Even if you don’t buy anything, the atmosphere is just fantastic, with sellers praising the merits of their produce and locals calling out to each other.
Here in Italy, Focaccia has become a regular feature in my diet and it’s rare I go a week without one. This Italian flatbread shares some similarities with pizza but in my humble opinion, is tastier, especially the southern style made famous in Bari. With hearty dollops of olive oil and fresh tomatoes, this is without a doubt, a food for all hours of the day!
I think it would be fair to say that Aperitvo time is my favourite time of the day. You simply can’t beat a glass of Aperol while sitting out in the sun and munching on the array of snacks that accompany that fantastically orange glass of delight. While you traditionally have your apertivo in the evening, we’ve definitely taken liberties with the ‘it’s 5pm somewhere’ attitude as the weather has improved.
Olive trees define the landscape of Puglia so it’s no surprise to learn that the region produces almost half of the country’s incredible olive oil. Unfortunately, many of the trees this year have been infected by a disease which has greatly reduced the production rates and made things difficult for these passionate farmers. Some locals sell their precious concentration of olive oil to friends rather than the mass produced varieties you find in shops and some restaurants. If you’re a fan of olive oil, Puglia is the place to be and hopefully next year’s crop won’t suffer as much.
I couldn’t possibly end this list without mentioning pizza. While it’s difficult to get a bad pizza in Italy, you can’t beat Naples as I recently confirmed during a visit to the city. In the south, you’ll mainly get thick and soft doughy pizzas (my favourite, don’t you dare hand me a thin crust). You’re looking at more than Margheritas, with local produce at the foreground, from vegetables and cheese to exceptional meat from the Valle d’Itria. The pizzas are all made to order and I’m convinced the freshness of the pizzas is what makes a full one so easy to eat (not that my appetite hasn’t grown while over here). So slice your pizza, pick it up and fold it to really eat it like an Italian.
This list has honestly only skimmed the surface of what you can eat in Italy, or even just Puglia. Other recommended eats include sea urchins (and seafood in general) along the coastal towns of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, a Zeppole pastry (trust me, it’s divine), local wines (I can definitely recommend some locally produced wine from Locorotondo) and of course, cheese and meat from the Valle d’Itria (Locorotondo, Martina Franca and Cisternino).
Whatever you choose to eat in Italy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it. The flavours are fantastic and honestly, it makes me never want to leave Italia.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Named Best Break Out Travel Writer at the 2018 Travel Media Awards, Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.