A Gourmet Guide to Italy's Foodie Hotspots

Italian cuisine needs no introduction. The legacy of unembellished pasta dishes and Neapolitan pizza is insurmountable, but nothing can prepare you for a bite of the real thing. The taste of Italy both embraces stereotypes and breaks them, as each culinary hotspot is a world of its own with little in common to the next. Still, you’ll find two general rules to eating in Italy: that less is more, and that most foods taste better when they’re fried.

It’s hard to believe that Italy is one of the easiest destinations to be gluten-free — but the rumours are true. Celiac disease is taken seriously thanks to the Italian Celiac Association, who have been around since 1979. Their free app can help you to find gluten-free friendly restaurants, street food options and supermarkets wherever you go in Italy. But rest assured that education on celiac disease is advanced and widespread, and so you shouldn’t have much trouble here.

Table at a Venetian restaurant.


If its status as the Renaissance City wasn’t already impressive enough, did you know that gelato was first made in Florence?

Dozens of flavours have spawned since gelato’s invention in the 1560s, but for a taste of the original, go to the gelateria Badiani and order their trademarked flavour. Named after the inventor of gelato himself, the list of ingredients inside Buontalenti are minimal: milk, cream, sugar, and eggs. The result is so velvety and sweet that it fulfils any gelato fantasies all by itself. But why not add an extra scoop of pistachio (the go-to flavour in Italy) or their signature ‘La Dolce Vita’?

If there’s one more thing that Florence knows how to make, it’s sandwiches. You could easily spend a whole week here getting by on just schiacciata: a Tuscan flatbread that’s crispy on the corners and fluffy inside. Florence’s most famous stop for schiacciata is, without question, All’Antico Vinaio. In 2014, it became the most reviewed venue in the world on TripAdvisor. So, you can imagine the queues. It’s worth waiting for, but if you want to know where the locals go, it’s Pino’s.

Although Florence can be quite flexible when it comes to food prices (check out the Central Market to see what we mean), we recommend saving up for an upscale dinner. Whether you’re dying to try a thick and rare of Tuscan T-Bone steak, or to go truffle menu hunting, it’s worth splurging a little extra for. For the full experience, pair it with a glass of Chianti or Moscato. You’re in Tuscany, after all.

Two schiacciatas: a Florence specialty sandwich.


Sun-drenched Sicily is already a fantasy for most — and that’s without accounting for its culinary prowess. Tied with Naples as the champions of Mediterranean street food, the number one way to experience what Palermo has to offer is by visiting the markets. For the most personable experience, consider booking onto a Palermo street food tour such as the ones offered by Streaty.

The platters of fish feels inviting rather than overwhelming, as you can order anything from breaded swordfish to stuffed sardines as well as shrimp or octopus. While Palermo has all the usual meats you’d expect at a market or on a menu, don’t be afraid to order the more unconventional items. It’s waste not, want not in Palermo, as dishes like pani câ meusa and stiggihiola, typically contain veal lung, spleen or lamb intestines. You can’t say it’s not unique.

Despite this, vegetarian travellers will feel right at home in Palermo —  especially when ordering a bowl of pasta alla norma at a restaurant. But you don’t have to skip out the street food fun if you’re a vegetarian, either. From cazzilli (elongated croquettes) to panelle (chickpea fritters) and arancine balls, there’s platefuls of food that you can try fresh off the grill. The fried goods pair well with a hot or cold bowl of caponata: a variety of Mediterranean vegetables chopped together.

Just make sure you leave enough room for cannoli: Sicily’s top dessert. These small fried pastries are typically filled with ricotta and topped with shaved pistachio, but you’ll find so many different varieties sold at Palermo’s bakeries.

Street food market in Palermo, Sicily.


You’ve heard of tapas; now get ready for cicchetti! These tiny-bites are usually served on top of a toasted bruschetta-style bread and sell for around €1 each. This could be anything from melted blue cheese to cold meat, but the most famous topping is easily Baccalà Mantecato: creamy salted cod.

You’ll find stops for cicchetti throughout the whole city, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is to go street food strolling from one place to the next. But if you’d prefer an all-in-one experience, try either Arcicchetti Bakaro, or Cantine del Vino già Schiavi for a more local feel.

Aside from pre-meal apperitivo drinks — a way of life throughout all of Italy, but Venice especially — the best way to round off your meal is with a light dessert. Tiramisu was actually invented in Venice, and so it’s only right that you visit Tre Mercanti for a short but sweet portion. It’s made fresh every hour and while this place can get pretty crowded, it’s worth waiting in line for. If you don’t enjoy the taste of coffee, you can try one of their other flavours: like Nutella or pistachio.

Apperitivo and seafood pasta served in Venetian restaurant.


The world’s best pizza is a subjective title, but an argument can be made for Naples. There’s hundreds of tourists hoping to get a table inside L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele everyday: where Julia Roberts’ character in Eat Pray Love (2012) raves about the quality.

Outside of the Hollywood spotlight, you’ll find hundreds of pizzerias — and it can be a little overwhelming trying to sort out the good from the bad. If you’re after a more authentic experience, check out Verace Napoltena Farmnella. Established in 1892, it’s one of Naples’ oldest pizzerias. The staff use an one hand rolling technique: a marker of tradition and passion for their creations. If you’re seeking out the spirit of Naples, you’ll find it here.

If you think you’ve already seen the best of Italian street food, think again. No city has mastered the effortless yet engineered charm of casual bites quite like Naples. If you cannot eat a full pizza everyday (what an amateur), then stick to just the one slize folded into a wallet shape: aka, pizza portofoglio. Or spice up the base by deep frying and stuffing it — a pizza fritta, not to be confused with calzones unless you want to anger a few Italians.

We could rave for hours about the pizza of Naples alone, but if you can believe it, there’s other food equally interesting. Cuoppo, a cup filled with various fried fish, almost feels like Naples’ own take on fish and chips and is one of the cheapest foods you could buy here. For dessert, try babà: a sticky sponge cake soaked in rum.

Man pointing at babà: a sweet pastry popular in Naples.


If there’s nothing you’re craving more than a creamy, rich lasagne or a decadent ragù alla bolognese, Bologna is your city. Comfort food is Bologna’s specialty, and the best part is that you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to see what we mean.

Start off strong in Quadrilatero, home to the city’s old market. We highly recommend wandering in and out of delis here, as you can often ask and pay for a small portion of cheese and other delicacies. It’s most enjoyable to explore this area without a plan and to see which options you find most alluring — but if you’d rather work with a plan, check out Via Calzolerie.

On just this street alone, you’ll find three lunch bars that add their own twist to the humble sandwich. The most indulgent sandwich sold at Tigellino has to be the pesto lardo, which can only be described as layers of fatty goodness. The pesto of Bologna is wildly different to that of Liguria, as the ingredients featured in this recipe are rosemary, garlic, and pork fat. All three sandwich shops — Murtadela and Piadineria la Piadeina being the other two — offer vegetarian options, but it’s safe to say that meat eating is a heavy part of Bologna’s food culture.

You’ll find numerous restaurants and old-school establishments like Osteria Broccaindosso offering lasagne on the menu, but you may want to call ahead to see if they’re serving it on that day. Don’t be put off by the green colour of the lasagne sheets, as the mixing of spinach and other vegetables into the dough is customary in Bologna.

Evening in Bologna.


Meet the genius behind the simple pleasure of eating pesto genovese. Pasta with pesto may be a weeknight cooking staple, but in the region home to Cinque Terre, this dish is the first thing you should order. Instead of penne, the pasta shape of choice is trofie: twirly fries-like pieces unique to Liguria.

Liguria has left its stamp on pasta quite literally in the case of corzetti: a thin circle shape imprinted with a special pattern. It’s best served with a creamy walnut sauce — a lesser known culinary highlight globally but a favourite among the locals.

From farinatas (chickpea pancakes) to focaccia and minestrone soup, Liguria is well-catered to grazers and vegetarian travellers. But luckily for fish eaters, Liguria is comprised of serene harbour towns selling fresh catches. The stuffed mussels are worth trying, but you can’t go wrong with a fried mix of seafood, either.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Liguria.


Located on the “heel” of Italy’s boot, Apulia is historically a farmer’s region. Lamb, mutton and horse are the most popular meats to order here, but you’ll find that most menus are secretly vegetarian-friendly.

One of the most traditional dishes you can order here is orecchiette con cime di rapa: a lightweight pasta dish featuring broccoli native to Apulia. The fresh taste counterbalances the deep-fried goodness of panzerotti pockets: stuffed full of mozzarella and tomato sauce.

Pizza is a little less common here because focaccia tends to be the base of choice — though pizzerias are becoming increasingly common in Bari. Apulia’s passion for freshly baked bread cannot be understated — especially in the case of Altamura and their distinct durum-wheat loafs. But if you’re after the stringiest, gooiest mozzarella that you’ve ever tasted, you’ve come to the right place. Once you’ve tried burrata here, you’ll never be the same again.

White dome houses of Alberobello, Apulia.


All taste buds lead back to Rome. Voted in 2023 as the world’s number one city for food, the capital embodies everything delectable about Italian cuisine.

From deceptively difficult to make pasta dishes like cacio e pepe and carbonara, to pizza al taglio (“pizza by the slice”), Roman cuisine has an unembellished appetite. One of the most popular vegetarian dishes here is carciofi alla giudia: Roman-Jewish fried artichokes. Aside from enhancing the vegetables’ flavour, it looks as if it has been gilded in bronze.

Although you’ll find several Neapolitan pizzerias scattered throughout Rome, the tradition is for it to be baked into large rectangles, or for it to be served similar to Naples’ wallet pizza. A trapizzino is a street-food staple featuring fried pizza dough shaped into a triangular sandwich, and then stuffed with whatever savoury fillings you desire.

If you’re gluten free, you don’t have to miss out on the action. Italy is widely accessible to those with gluten and wheat intolerances, but you’ll notice this in Rome especially. Whether you’re craving an carbonara or gelato, eating out in Rome will feel less like a chore and more like an adventure.

Carbonara and wine served at restaurant in Rome.
Header image taken at St Marys Square, Venice.
Starting from Skratch? Here are some links to help you get started:
Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy
Vincenzo’s Plate, HOW TO PRONOUNCE ITALIAN FOOD | Italian Words You Have Been Saying Wrong
Expanding your palate? Get the scoop on where to go next with our Food Guides series.

Best for… Italy Food Preferences

Best for Budget-Friendly Food

  • Florence, Tuscany
  • Palermo, Sicily
  • Naples, Campania
  • Bologna, Emilia-Romagna

Best for Gluten-Free

  • Florence, Tuscany
  • Palermo, Sicily
  • Venice, Veneto
  • Rome, Lazio

Best for Vegetarians

  • Palermo, Sicily
  • Naples, Campania
  • Cinque Terre, Liguria
  • Bari, Apulia

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Hannah Douch
March 5, 2024
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