The Italian cuisine is known and loved all around the world – pizza, pasta, mozzarella or parmesan cheese are only four of the most beloved Italian treats. But there is also a huge variety of delicious dishes and ingredients that a tourist most likely will never get to see or taste.
That’s why HTD invited Irene (29) from Austria* to share with us not only which of those specialties you should definitely not miss at your next Italy trip, but also where you can find these delicacies and how to prepare some of them on your own!
* Irene has studied Italian at the university of Vienna and lived and worked in the North of Italy for almost three years. She has traveled big parts of Italy and acquired profound knowledge of this beautiful Mediterranean country’s culture and cuisine .
Each of Italy’s 22 regions has quite a number of hidden gastronomical treasures and for Italians some of them are simply “everyday food”. For this reason you might not find them in big tourist places, as those dishes are simply nothing special to them and as they just grab them at any local market. But for non-Italians they are exiting to discover as most of them have very unique tastes. Let me introduce you to a selection of 10 dishes and share with you where and when to get them best. Next time you’re in Italy, make sure to ask for them and to have a try!
What you should consider
Most of the Italian meals are regionally or seasonally bound and even “too cheap or easy” for a regular restaurant. It can also easily happen that you enjoy one of these dishes in one town and already some kilometers further down the road, you won’t be able to find it anymore as they prepare their own specialties. But it may also occur that you’re simply not there at the right time! As every country, Italy has quite some dishes that are made only for special occasions like Christmas, Easter, Carnival and so on, and if you don’t happen to be in Italy during this period, you will have no chance to taste any of them. And even if you’re lucky to find yourself at the right place at the right time, you may still need to look for them. Thus the best thing you can do, is to ask locals where to find them!
What you shouldn’t miss
01. Cremina di caffè (Coffee cream): Italians drink their coffee in many different ways. One of their most popular ways is: black with some sugar (“espresso”) and maybe with a teaspoon full of milk (“macchiato”). Cremina di caffè is that very yummy (egg yolk based) cream the Romans put into their espresso instead of milk and sugar.
Of course, you can prepare it yourself too, but before you keep on reading the recipe, let me “warn you” that it needs quite some patience and practice, especially as you – most probably – won’t like to enjoy this delicious coffee with a burnt hand, right? So how to prepare it? What you need first, is an Italian coffee machine (la moka), which is filled with water in the lower part and where the coffee will come out in the upper part. Now fill in the water as usually, put the machine on the stove, but only use the first drops of the coffee which are coming out (those are usually a little more intense and bitter than the rest of the coffee; and in this moment please follow this advice in order not to burn you hand: Be careful not to cant the machine too much, as the boiling water might come out in that moment too. And with the exception of the handle, don’t touch the machine without protection, as it will be extremely hot in this moment). Now put this first coffee aside in a cup and start stirring it heavily with a little bit of sugar and some egg yolk until it’s creamy. Please consider that you will be able to prepare a lot of cream with only one egg, so repeat the above-named procedure with the moka another two-three times and invite your friends over to enjoy this delicious coffee with you!
If you don’t have a moka (yet) and if Rome is anyways one of your next destinations, you can have it together with other sweet treats that this bar offers: at Caffé di Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82, Roma, right in the city center of Rome. Enjoy!
02. Pasta “cacio e pepe”: A very simple, yet delicious Roman pasta dish: Spaghetti with cacio – a roman sheep cheese – and black pepper on top of it. Absolutely delicious, but to be found only rarely on tourist menus, because of its simplicity, I guess. Here is a fun video (also for hearing-impaired cookers) on how to prepare this pasta!
03. Farinata: Farinata is known all along the west coast of Northern and Middle Italy, and in the area around Sassari in Sardinia. Farina means flour in Italian, but this dish has nonetheless various names, depending on where you are: Farinata, Fainá (Genoa), Cecina (Tuscany), Fainé (Sardinia), where it’s often mixed with other ingredients.
It is probably one of the oldest dishes that is still being enjoyed today. Earliest documents of this simple delight are dated back to ancient Romans and Greeks. Story tells that it was discovered by accident when a ship, loaded with barrels of olive oil and chickpeas flour, was hit by a heavy storm, so that the barrels fell and that their content got mixed with the salty seawater. When this kind of weird mash was served, some of the sailors refused to eat it and left it in the sun. But when they returned later, driven by hunger, they found it dry and liked its taste that much, that they brought the idea to the harbor of Genoa.
This is how farinata looks today: It’s a thin (1-4 mm only), oven roasted “bread” made from chickpeas flour, olive oil and salt. Different regions also mix in different ingredients: in Tuscany they like to add tomatoes, whereas they add onions or anchovies in Sardinia. One way or another, it is a simply a yummy dish you shouldn’t to miss out! As a sort of “street food” the best locations to look for it, are small places along the seaside that sell “food to go”.
04. Arrosticini (= little grilled meats): The name is key! This awesome way to eat lamb is primarily used in the mountains of the Abruzzo region where they grill small lamb sticks over fire. The funny thing is that they prepare them so tiny!-But once you start eating, you’ll realize how good they are and you will end up eating 20 or more of them! But don’t worry, I have seen Italians “eating up” to 40 pieces and more … so don’t be shy!
When and where to find them ? Well, in the “lamb season” around Easter, just follow your nose. 😉
05. Erbazzone: Erbazzone is one of these dishes that, for some to me unknown reason, are strictly limited to more or less one town. In this case it is the little Reggio Emilia in the Emilia Romagna. Only 15km out of town, whatever the direction may be, no pastry shop will prepare it anymore. It is similar to the torta salata, but it still tastes different. As a “poor man’s dish” the main ingredients are seasonal herbs, mostly the greens from local wild chard. Add some parmesan cheese and ricotta, make a thin tart, drizzle olive oil over it and voilà! In the area of Reggio Emilia it’s also easy to find: You can enter every random pastry shop and buy a superb Erbazzone.
06. Pardulas: Pardulas are an extremely delicious Sardinian dessert made with ricotta and lemon zest. Around Easter you can find this sort of “mini muffins” everywhere in Sardinia – at every market, pastry shop, bar or supermarket. During the rest of the year, you will have to look for them. Here again the best way to find them, is to ask locals which pastry shops are still preparing them. But even if you speak Italian very well, let’s hope that they won’t answer in their language – as Sardinian is not simply an Italian dialect, but a different Romance language!
07. Alchermes – Pere affogate all’alcherme (in “Alchermes” drowned pears): Alchermes is a type of alcoholic beverage which is said to have its origins in Florence during the reign of the de’ Medici. In some countries in fact, it is better known as de’ Medici liquor. Its name on the other hand has its origins in the Arabic language: al-qirmiz which refers to “crimson”, the name of the color. This liquor can be used in many different ways: pure but also mixed. The latter way you will get awesome cocktails, especially if you mix for example vodka with different kinds of fruits (mostly pears or peaches) that have been cooked in the liquor before. You simply boil them in Alchermes as long as the fruits absorb all the liquid that had been poured on them before. And if you prefer less alcohol, then just boil eg. whole pears in the above-named way, add some chocolate on the top and enjoy the dessert! Here again the pears are made like the ones you cook in red wine, but this time simply put Alchermes in the pot instead of wine. But you can also add Alchermes as cake-topping – as there are really no limits to your fantasy! Most commonly you will find it however as ice-cream (usually with little pieces of cake mixed in) or with pears cooked in it.
My advice: Just go to a local supermarket, buy a bottle and have first a taste to see, if you like it. Italians often use little amounts of it to color dishes pink, such as cake layers, white chocolate or jelly. But why pink? Well, what is certainly special about Alchermes is that it’s deliciously sweet – and that it has got a very particular color: namely pink, really intense pink!
08. Brasilena: This is a fizzy energy boost from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy. Not only do they drink black coffee all day long, but Italians in Calabria seem to need even some extra energy! Why this assumption? – Because they make a shockingly good, sparkly soft drink called Brasilena, which is a simple mixture of sparkly water, sugar and black coffee, sold in tiny, adorable glass bottles. And the best about it? You should be able to find the ready to go-drink without difficulties in any local supermarket. And once you have tasted it, you can even try to prepare it yourself: Simply look for a coffee that tastes similar to the original one and mix the ingredients according to the right “proportion” you have already tasted. Served ice-cold, it will be just the thing that you have needed to keep on enjoying your hot summer day! But be careful: they seem so tiny, but you should not underestimate that it is still… an Italian coffin drink!
09. Squacquerone: Yes, this delight sounds a little bit as if Scrooge McDuck would have personally made it. But in fact, it is a soft, creamy, very delicate cheese that you can find in the region of Emilia Romagna. It can be eaten in many different ways, but most likely you will find it on a Piadina (flat bread), together with some arugula and prosciutto ham. The home of the Piadina is the Romagna, thus in the triangle of Imola-Ravenna-Rimini and it is here, where it’s best to look for Squacquerone. You may find it in supermarkets too, but the freshest cheese of this kind can also be found in every little shop that sells fresh cheese, like ricotta. It tastes also very good in sweet dishes, accompanied with some caramelized fruit. When you buy it in summertime be careful with transportation – summer in Italy is hot, temperature can easily reach 40 degrees or more and fresh cheese does not conserve very well and goes bad fast.
10. Lampredotto & Ciccioli: And now last but not least for the “brave non-vegetarians” among you: When I first ate Lampredotto, a friend of mine took me to a place, where he wouldn’t tell me what I was eating. So I started guessing that it was something similar to tripe. I wasn’t that wrong! Lampredotto is a “poor man’s dish” from Florence and the fourth stomach of a cow, cleaned, chopped and roasted with some garlic and parsley, served in a little bread roll. For many people only the idea of eating innards is appalling. But don’t be shy! Go ahead and try it, you will be surprised by its delicate taste! Ciccioli, on the other hand, is made of those parts of a pork that are usually not cooked and would be thrown otherwise away. Nowadays, they also add more valuable cuts like the cheeks or the pork belly and press it into a block which is then sliced into thin layers. Ciccioli is a cheap everyday food in Middle Italy, which means that you won’t find it in restaurants (unless it is on a mixed sausage plate). The best places to look for it are local supermarkets, farmers markets or maccelleria (the butcher). It is pre-boiled and you can eat it just like that, as a snack, with bread or a salad.
I hope you have enjoyed my gastronomical trip to Italy and next time you’re in Italy – you already know what to look for! 🙂
HTD thanks Irene very cordially for her Italian culinary hints! We can’t wait to be back to Italy and to go for all these treats! (ger)
Photo credits: Michele G., Irene and ger; editing: ger