There are hundreds of types of bread in Italy, and the best one is the one baked locally that morning, wherever you happen to be staying. But you shouldn’t leave without trying at least a few of the various types that Italy’s robust baking culture has developed over the years.
For example, you might notice that bread in Tuscany has a different taste than it does elsewhere. That’s because it’s made without salt. This is a tradition that originated in feuds between Tuscany and the coastal regions that controlled the salt trade and had no problem cutting off the agricultural region from its supply of the once-valuable commodity. To this day Tuscan bread is best eaten with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs or salt.
Liguria is the home of the world-famous flat bread, focaccia. Reminiscent of a thick pizza dough, classic focaccia is hyper-salty, drizzled with olive oil and basically irresistible either by itself, or made into a sandwich. It’s often served open faced, with toppings like rosemary, zucchini, cheese, and olives.
Off the coast of Italy, in Sardinia, the classic bread doesn’t look much like bread at all, instead appearing much more like a pita. Pane carasau, was named for the word carasare, which means to toast. Unsurprisingly, this bread paper-thin bread it always toasted after baking, giving it its wonderful crunch!
We can’t tell you which style of bread you are going to enjoy the most but we can tell you that you should never turn down the opportunity to taste a new type. From the biggest cities to the smallest towns, you are never far from an Italian bakery, so stop by and pick up a few loaves whenever you have a chance.
Our Sicilian friends will be having some stern words with us for combining their beloved arancino with it’s Roman cousins, supplì, and vice versa but the fact remains that when in Italy you should try at least one type of freshly-fried rice ball. These starch bombs appear in bars, restaurants, and market stalls all over Italy, but if you are going to order one, it helps to know the difference. The Sicilian arancino is often larger, and either conical or circular in shape. In fact, its name means “small orange.” It is typically filled with ragu and some sort of cheese, with optional veggies like peas, mushrooms, or eggplant. You will also find specialty arancini like carbonara, though purists tend to turn up their noses at these newfangled inventions. Supplì are a Roman specialty usually found in pizzerias and as antipasti. They are oblong in shape and traditionally contain only rice, tomato sauce, and a large piece of mozzarella in the middle. Their nickname – “telephones” – comes from the idea that when you break them in half a thin chord of molten cheese should connect the two ends. Although fried balls of rice are prevalent all over Italy (and America for that matter) they are often fried in advance and left under heat lamps. If you want one that’s a cut above the rest make sure it’s fried when you order it – the difference is night and day.
For coffee drinkers, there’s little better than enjoying a coffee in Italy.
Just remember, Italian coffee isn’t like coffee in your local Starbucks. Though some of the dozens of choices might sound similar (latte… anything that finishes in –puccino, etc.) they are rarely what you have been led to believe they are. For instance, if you were to order a ‘latte,’ in Italy you would simply be served a glass of milk.
From a regular “caffè” to a cappuccino, a caffè macchiato to a caffè latte, coffee is ubiquitous in Italy but there is a considerable amount of regional difference. In Trieste, for instance, you can order a caffe triestino to get an espresso with whipped cream on top, whereas in Naples coffee is served strong, creamy and fast. Avoid taking sips of water after your shot (and we do mean shot) of coffee to show your culinary prowess. An espresso after a meal is a very Italian way to settle the stomach, an caffe corretto, i.e., an espresso with a shot of liquor, is even more so.
Of all the coffee-crazy cities in Italy, Trieste has, by our humble reckonijng, the finest coffee and cafe culture. Its long history as a tax-free port brought some of the first coffee beans to the city during Europe’s first coffee craze in the middle ages. Today Italian coffee king Illy has its headquarters there and the city still imports many other brands as well.
No trip to Italy is complete without gelato! If you’re tempted to have a scoop (or two) a day don’t worry, it’s totally normal to eat gelato on a regular basis in Italy, especially in the summer.
Though gelato translates to ‘ice cream,’ it’s not quite the same. By law, gelato has far less butterfat than ice cream: about 4 to 8 percent compared to 14 percent for ice cream in the United States. The low-fat content means that gelato is served a bit warmer and tends to melt in your mouth faster, it also intensifies the flavor and gives it a more velvety texture.
Second, gelato has a much higher density. Regular ice cream has air and water added to increase volume and weight. Unfortunately, these additions also make it less flavorful. This practice is illegal in Italy, leaving gelato (at least, traditional artisan gelato) super sweet and super flavorful. Finally, good gelato isn’t made for long-term storage.
So how can you know if it’s the good stuff or not? When seeking out fresh, artisanal gelato there are a few things to look out for. Before purchasing, check out the color (is it natural or neon bright?), if the fruit flavors are in season (they should be), and if there is an ingredient list on display. Also, check out how it’s stored. Artisanal gelato is slow-churned and often, though now always stored in covered, circular containers. Those heaping trays of wavy-topped gelato might look pretty, but they have also been whipped to adding more air to the product.
If you want to branch out from gelato in the world of Italian sweets, your first stop should be the deceptively simple Tiramisu, which is probably the country’s most beloved after-dinner dessert. This no-bake parfait features alternating layers of soft, sweetened mascarpone cheese and coffee-soaked ladyfingers. Despite its elemental feel (coffee, cream cheese, old cookies) tiramisu is the youngest dish on this list, with most estimates of its creation placing it in the 1960s. It may be simple to make but not all tiramisu is created equal. A good tiramisu features only the highest quality coffee and mascarpone. Cream and egg whites are sometimes added to the mascarpone to give it a lighter texture, and a variety of cookies and cakes can be substituted for the traditional lady fingers. Unless your Italian is particularly strong you will probably struggle to enquire about these things in a restaurant, so the often the only option is to simply order one and see if it’s to your liking.