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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.

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



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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.