When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and that includes indulging in copious amounts of Italian cuisine - it's what holidays are for, after all. With each region offering up a masterclass in its own local delicacy, you'll be spoilt for choice by authentic tastes across the rolling hills and historic cities of Italy in this gastronomical adventure.
Gelato in Rome
Who says you can’t start with dessert? This dense and creamy treat is the perfect indulgence to enjoy as you amble about the sun-soaked piazzas of Rome. Often roped in with ice cream (cue the audible gasps of many a gelato-lover), gelato is more of a cousin to the American-style treat. Made with butterfat, and yet somehow, miraculously, less fattening, this refreshing dessert is a must to sample when you hit the cobbles for some culture. Whether it be colourful and quaint gelaterias set in stone walls, tottering carts in the streets or big air-conditioned shops - gelato will always be close by. Slowly churned with (a lot) of milk and sugar, but with no eggs in sight, gelato is unhurriedly mixed at a much slower rate than ice cream, to give it that dense texture.
It can be served either in a tub or nestled in a deliciously crispy waffle cone. Peep over the counter to see the rainbow of intense flavours that are said to melt on the tongue and then dissipate, leaving your tongue clean. Indulge in tart lemon, sweet strawberry, punchy pistachio or even black olive, although I’m not quite sold on that one yet. Affogato, however - which is a scoop of gelato covered in espresso - sounds just the ticket.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence
For meat lovers, this tender dish can be found studded across the eateries of Florence as a local speciality. Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or Florentine Steak, is a juicy staple in Tuscan cuisine, and in casual terms, is a rather magnificent T-bone steak (bistecca literally translates as beef-steak). It's a rustic and elegantly simple dish, and with the whopping size of the cut, you can tuck into one with friends and family - although you might not want to share!
Bistecca alla Fiorentina starts as a 2-3 inch-thick, high-cut T-bone or Porterhouse steak, which traditionally would come from the ancient Tuscan cattle breed, 'Chianina' from Chianina Valley. That might not always be possible, but good quality, marbled meat is essential here. The cut is then cooked on a hot grill fed by embers - usually from olive or oak trees, but charcoal will work too. The steak itself is quite simple in its preparation. Some chefs say to rub the meat with olive oil before grilling and salt it halfway through, but, as with most delicacies, that can often be hotly debated! What is agreed, however, is it should be served with a well-browned crust on the outside, but be juicy, rare and bloody on the inside.
Complement the steak with a fragrant Chianti and some rustic Tuscan sides; garlic potatoes and braised artichokes work well, or perhaps some cannellini beans or tender broccoli with a little seasoning? Whatever you supplement your bistecca alla Fiorentina with, you're in for a tremendous treat.
Risotto in Milan
A quintessential Italian dish, risotto is romantically said to have started Italian life in Milan in the 16th century, hence the famous Risotto alla Milanese. Order a bowl and you'll be presented with a bright yellow, creamy risotto, infused with fragrant saffron, butter, crumbly Parmesan and finished off with... bone marrow. Perhaps not what you'd immediately expect, but it's fundamental to the traditional Milanese recipe. You’ll find risotto more so in the northern region of Italy, although it's available absolutely everywhere, with areas such as Lombardy and Vercelli famous for their paddy fields.
I recently enjoyed a risotto dish involving a giant cheese wheel, with the top layer set alight and flambéed and the risotto tossed in the melted cheese. It was, as I suspected, delicious, and got me thinking about making it myself, but perhaps on a smaller scale! Creamy, but never runny, and always served al-dente, the flavour combinations you can use for a risotto dish are seemingly never-ending. With a fairly simple base of rice, butter and broth, there’s plenty of scope for chefs to embellish, so if you're trying it out for yourself, there's room to get creative. Why not try an Amalfi fresh prawn recipe, bulked out with courgette and a pop of those famous zesty lemons? Or perhaps a Porcini mushroom and white wine combination, with soft shallots and butter? Once you've mastered the base of a good risotto, the world is your oyster!
Pizza in Naples
Perhaps the most iconic staple in their vast pantry, authentic Italian pizza can, in fact, be as identifiable as a region. Prepared in a wood-fired oven, Italy's national dish can be enjoyed in so many ways, it'll make your head spin!
Enjoying a doughy, chewier crust? That’ll be Naples’ Neapolitan Pizza Margherita (in fact, named after Queen Margherita), smothered in a red tomato base, creamy white mozzarella, with a sprig of basil to give you the colours of the Italian flag. Did you know, that 'proper' Neapolitan pizza is actually guaranteed as a traditional speciality? It's known as a specialità tradizionale garantita, which means its ingredients, preparations and even the shape are regulated to authentic standards.
If you're chowing down on a thinner and crispier base, you’re likely to be dining on pizza in Rome, where stone-milled flours give you that flat crust and extra crunch. Milan will serve you up delicate, mini-calzone called panzerotti - a most appropriate snack for this cosmopolitan capital - and a neat solution for on-the-go snacking. These little pockets can be stuffed with either sweet or savoury fillings and started life in Puglia. Pizza al taglio, which is more of a pizza-by-the-slice, is similar to a foccacia and baked in rectangular dishes, with toppings such as potato and mozzarella and you'll be sure to find this tasty morsel in Sicily. It seems that wherever you go in gorgeous Italy, a variation of the nation's most famous food will be on offer, each with its own unique twist. Order it in a restaurant, or nibble on a slice as a snack, just make sure you try it.
Prosciutto in Parma
Dry-cured and salty, yet sweet, prosciutto graces many a starting platter of affettati misti (meat cold cuts) on an Italian restaurant table. A true taste of Italy, prosciutto is made from a pig or wild boar's hind leg and served in delicate, wafer-thin slices as an uncooked meat. You'll often see an entire leg presented on a stand for a special occasion, to be sliced and served to hungry guests.
It may be uncooked, but this delectable offering is lovingly cured in a process that can take up to two years! An entire leg of ham is salted and pressed, washed and then hung to cure and dry in a temperature controlled room. Most prosciutto will originate from the Italian city of Parma - hence the familiar term 'Parma ham'. These particular prosciuttio di Parma PDO from the Emilia-Romagna region in fact have protected status, with PDO standing for 'Protected Designation of Origin'. Parma ham has an identifiable nutty flavour, which is said to come from the Parmesan whey that the pigs are reared on. Before the ham is considered to be fully cured, it is inspected by a salt master. If they pass the inspection, the hams are branded with the mark of Parma and ready to be distributed across the world.
You can enjoy prosciutto as part of a sharing platter with other cold cuts, such as salami, or perhaps skewered with cantaloupe melon as an appetiser. It can also be cooked to be crispy and enjoyed in a creamy carbonara or how about a recipe of roast salsify with Parma ham and brown butter hollandaise if you're feeling fancy!
Truffles in Piedmont
One of the world’s kitchens' most luxurious delicacies, these heady, earthy delights are fungi royalty. They grow, teasingly, in the dark soil beneath the entangled roots of trees; pines, willows and lindens are your best bet. But most will agree that truffles are worth the hunt - they're actually one of the most expensive foods in the world by weight! You'll primarily find them - both the black and elusive white kind - in Alba, Piedmont. The rolling landscapes of the Piedmont region conjure images of the classic rustic Italian countryside, and provide an appropriately charming backdrop for the thousands of truffle hunters that descend on the town each year.
Not particularity pretty to look at, the knobbly fungi will vary in size - meaning they'll fetch all sorts of prices when they're brought back to be weighed. They have a white marbled flesh, and an earthy and woody aroma will waft from a good truffle, which you could almost say was perfumed. Black truffles are those most commonly hunted and eaten, but the much more elusive white truffle, however, is much harder to find and can actually set you back thousands of pounds to buy. If you feel like going on a truffle hunt and seeking out these elusive little blighters for yourself, you can go on a hunting tour, complete with a trifulau (truffle hunter) and a specially-trained truffle dog. Traditionally, wild hogs would snuffle and push their way through the earth to hunt them out, but today, dogs can do it just as well. The streets of Piedmont are lined with shops with the tubers displayed for purchase too, if you didn't want to get your hands dirty.
Once you've snaffled some of these gastronomic gems, they can be devoured in various ways. Truffle-infused oil or butter is a more affordable way to enjoy them, or perhaps, if you're new to the taste, start off gently by shaving a truffle over a bowl of fresh and buttery tagliatelle. Other recipes include fig, rosewater ricotta and truffle honey bruschetta, while truffle and quail's egg is another favourite.
Prosecco in Conegliano
Forget diamonds; Prosecco is the new girls’ best friend. It seems, at times, that this bubbly beverage has won over the hearts of the world. It’s everywhere - I always put a bottle in the trolley, and it's been reported that Millennial Brits consume a whopping percentage of the stuff. Britain actually accounts for consuming around a third of the 410 million bottles that are produced annually - whoops! But it's sweet, it's cheap and it's widely available - what's not to love?
A sparkling Italian wine from the small northeast region of Vento, Prosecco takes its name from the village of Prosecco, a suburb of Trieste, that originated the Glera grape that Prosecco must contain. 85 per cent, in fact, of a bottle must be of the Glera grape, otherwise it will no longer be classed as Prosecco. But while the sparkling beverage began life here, it's argued that to find the BEST Prosecco in Italy, you need to travel the winding roads to Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. This small spot produces Prosecco Superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) or, in layman's terms, wines held to the highest of Italian standards. A layered and rich bodied Prosecco comes from the vineyards on this region's rocky slopes, which are nestled sleepily at the base of rolling hills. The wine is fermented using the Charmat method, or Metodo Italiano (the Italian method) where the wine is pressurised in large tanks rather than small bottles. This process builds pressure to produce small to medium-sized bubbles and is perfect for sparkling white wine such as Prosecco or Asti. It's then best served in a tulip-shaped glass to enhance the bubbles and enhance its floral aromas. Bellísima!
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