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Italy on a Plate: Most Popular Italian Dishes, From Traditional to Vegan

Residing in Italy since 2008, I’ve savored the diverse facets of Italian food culture. From classic breakfasts to the nation’s culinary icons, regional delights to timeless traditions, meaty feasts to pasta wonders, holiday specialties to delectable vegan options, Italy’s food story unfolds. Join me on this gastronomic journey through Italy’s heart and soul.

“Parla come mangi.”

This famous Italian saying literally means ‘ speak like you eat’, which is used to invite someone who talks in a complicated way to speak with a simplicity that can be compared to Italian cuisine. 

Typical Italian Breakfast (colazione)

In Italy, breakfast, or “colazione,” is typically a much simpler affair compared to the elaborate multi-course meals seen later in the day. The quintessential Italian breakfast often consists of an espresso or cappuccino paired with a Cornetto, which is the Italian version of a croissant. Unlike the buttery French croissant, a Cornetto is slightly sweeter and may be filled with jam, cream, or chocolate.

This light and straightforward meal serves as a quick, yet flavorful, start to the day, allowing Italians to reserve their culinary extravagance for lunch and dinner. It reflects the Italian philosophy of enjoying life’s simple pleasures, setting the tone for the day with a touch of sweetness and a burst of caffeine.

Cappuccino with a Cornetto
“Cappuccino and cornetto” is the classic Italian breakfast

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Italy’s National Food

Pizza and pasta are widely considered Italy’s national foods, each with deep regional variations. Pizza hails from Naples and is famed for its soft, chewy crust and simple toppings. Pasta is ubiquitous across the country, with styles varying from the meaty Bolognese in the north to seafood-infused versions in the south. Both dishes showcase the Italian emphasis on quality ingredients and culinary tradition.

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Pizza Napoletana
Pizza Napoletana is a style of pizza made with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.

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Most Popular Traditional Italian dishes

Italy is a country renowned for its culinary heritage, and each region offers its own unique flavors and techniques. Here are some of the most popular traditional Italian dishes that have won hearts both in Italy and around the world:

  1. Risotto alla Milanese: Originating from Lombardy, this is a creamy saffron-infused risotto dish.
  2. Polenta: A versatile cornmeal dish popular in Northern Italy, often served as a side or main course.
  3. Lasagna: A layered pasta dish featuring meat sauce, béchamel, and cheese, originating from Emilia-Romagna.
  4. Ravioli: Stuffed pasta that comes in many varieties, often filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables.
  5. Ossobuco: A Milanese specialty made of braised veal shanks, cooked with vegetables, broth, and wine.
  6. Arancini: Deep-fried rice balls filled with meat or cheese, popular in Sicily.
  7. Ribollita: A hearty Tuscan soup made with bread, vegetables, and often cannellini beans.
  8. Spaghetti Alla Carbonara: A Roman classic featuring spaghetti with pancetta, eggs, and Pecorino Romano cheese.
  9. Tagliatelle al ragù: Also known as Bolognese sauce, this meat-based sauce hails from Bologna and is typically served with tagliatelle pasta.
  10. Pizza Napoletana: The classic Neapolitan pizza with its soft, chewy crust and simple toppings like tomato, mozzarella, and basil.
  11. Trofie al pesto: A Ligurian dish featuring short, twisted pasta served with the region’s famous basil pesto.

These dishes embody the essence of traditional Italian cuisine, which emphasizes quality ingredients, regional flavors, and time-honored cooking techniques.

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Ravioli is commonly served with broth or sauce and is a staple of traditional Italian home cooking.

Most Popular Italian Dishes with Meat

Meat plays a significant role in Italian cuisine, with regional dishes showcasing various preparation methods and flavors. Here are some of the most popular Italian dishes that feature meat:

  1. Porceddu: A Sardinian specialty, Porceddu is a suckling pig that’s seasoned with local herbs and slow-roasted over an open flame.
  2. Bollito alla Piemontese: Originating from Piedmont, this dish features various cuts of boiled meats, often including beef, chicken, and pork, traditionally served with a variety of sauces and mostarda (candied fruit and mustard syrup).
  3. Ossobuco: A classic dish from Milan, Ossobuco consists of braised veal shanks cooked in a tomato-based sauce with vegetables, white wine, and broth. It’s often garnished with a gremolata of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley.
  4. Coda alla Vaccinara: A Roman dish, this is oxtail stewed in a rich tomato sauce along with celery, carrots, and onions. The dish is a wonderful example of Italian ‘cucina povera’ (peasant cooking) and is traditionally served with pasta or polenta.

These meat-centric dishes offer a glimpse into the rich and diverse world of Italian gastronomy, where local ingredients and traditional techniques come together to create unforgettable meals.

Italian Dishes with Pasta

Pasta is arguably the cornerstone of Italian cuisine, and each region has its own unique pasta dishes that locals cherish and visitors come to love. Here are some of the most popular Italian pasta dishes:

  1. Trofie al Pesto: A Ligurian dish featuring small, twisted pasta served with fresh basil pesto.
  2. Rigatoni alla Carbonara: Originating from Rome, this dish combines rigatoni with pancetta, eggs, and Pecorino Romano cheese.
  3. Tagliatelle al Ragù: Also known as Bolognese, this dish from Emilia-Romagna features tagliatelle pasta with a meat-based sauce.
  4. Ortellini: Small, filled pasta shapes that are often served in broth or with a light sauce.
  5. Bombolotti all’Amatriciana: A Roman dish featuring tubular pasta with a spicy tomato, guanciale, and Pecorino Romano sauce.
  6. Linguine allo Scoglio: A seafood pasta dish that includes a variety of shellfish and is popular along the Italian coasts.
  7. Malloreddus alla Campidanese: A Sardinian pasta dish featuring small gnocchi-like pasta with a hearty sausage and tomato sauce.
  8. Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe: Another Roman classic, this dish is simplicity at its best, featuring pasta with a sauce made from black pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese.
  9. Agnolotti del Plin: A Piedmontese dish of small, pinched pasta filled with a mixture of meats or cheese and served with a butter or meat sauce.
  10. Malloreddus alla Campidanese: Another version of the Sardinian dish, featuring saffron-infused pasta and a rich sauce.
  11. Culurgiones: A Sardinian stuffed pasta, often filled with potato, cheese, and mint, and shaped to resemble ears of wheat.

These dishes not only highlight the versatility of pasta but also offer a culinary tour of Italy, from the rich meat sauces of the North to the vibrant seafood dishes of the South.

Dishes with Pasta
Dishes with Pasta

Most Popular Holiday Italian Dishes

Italian cuisine shines especially bright during the holidays when traditional dishes take center stage at family gatherings and celebrations. Here are some of the most popular Italian dishes commonly enjoyed during holidays:

  1. Minestra Maritata: Known as “wedding soup,” this hearty dish combines leafy greens and various meats in a flavorful broth. It is especially popular during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
  2. Marche Lasagna (Lasagna Vincisgrassi): Originating from the Marche region, this is a luxurious version of lasagna, layered with bechamel sauce, prosciutto, and mushrooms, and often enjoyed during special occasions.
  3. Ravioli: Filled pasta parcels that come in a variety of fillings and sauces, such as meat, cheese, or vegetables. They are often featured in holiday feasts.
  4. Pasta with Meat Sauce: A universal favorite, pasta dishes with rich meat sauces like Bolognese or ragù are often served during holidays, particularly as a first course.
  5. Chicken Liver Canapés: Known as Crostini di Fegatini in Italian, these are small toasts topped with a rich chicken liver pâté, commonly served as an appetizer during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
  6. Roasted Lamb and Potatoes: Particularly popular during Easter celebrations, lamb is seasoned with herbs and roasted to perfection, often accompanied by roasted or boiled potatoes.

These dishes are often passed down through generations and are a meaningful part of Italy’s culinary heritage, particularly during the holiday season.

Roasted Lamb
Roasted Lamb

“If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant?”

Martin Scorsese

Italian Vegan Dishes

Italian cuisine may be renowned for its cheese, meats, and seafood, but it also offers a plethora of vegan-friendly options that are both delicious and satisfying. Here are some popular Italian vegan dishes:

  1. Bruschetta al Pomodoro: Grilled slices of bread topped with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, and a drizzle of olive oil.
  2. Caponata: A Sicilian dish made of eggplant, tomatoes, olives, onions, and capers, all cooked together in olive oil. It serves as a versatile side or appetizer.
  3. Pasta al Pomodoro e Basilico: This classic dish features pasta tossed in a simple but flavorful tomato and basil sauce.
  4. Pasta Puttanesca: A robust pasta dish made with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic, minus the traditional anchovies to keep it vegan.
  5. Pizza Rossa/Marinara: A simple yet flavorful pizza topped only with tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, and a drizzle of olive oil.
  6. Verdure Grigliate: Grilled vegetables, often seasoned with herbs and olive oil, make for a healthy and satisfying main or side dish.

These dishes showcase the richness and diversity of Italian cuisine and prove that vegan options are not only possible but also incredibly tasty in this food-centric culture.

Pasta Puttanesca
Pasta With Tomato and Olives

Here are some more vegan dishes that you can savor:

  1. Pasta Alla Norma: Pasta tossed with roasted or sautéed eggplant and a simple tomato-basil sauce.
  2. Focaccia: Fluffy, an olive oil-rich flatbread that can be topped with herbs or vegetables.
  3. Farinata: A chickpea flour pancake, often flavored with rosemary and other herbs.
  4. Lentil Bolognese: A hearty, meatless version of the classic Bolognese sauce, using lentils as the protein source.
  5. Penne Arrabbiata: Pasta in a spicy tomato and garlic sauce.
  6. Spaghetti Aglio e Olio: A simple yet flavorful dish of spaghetti with garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.
  7. Gnocchi: These potato-based dumplings can be served with a variety of vegan-friendly sauces, such as tomato or mushroom.
  8. Chestnut Pesto Pasta: A unique twist on the classic, using chestnuts for a rich, nutty flavor.
  9. Artichoke Pasta Bake: A comforting baked pasta dish featuring artichokes and vegan cheese.
  10. Saffron Risotto: A creamy, aromatic risotto colored and flavored with saffron.
  11. Tomato and Zucchini Risotto: A summery risotto dish with fresh tomatoes and zucchini.
  12. Supplì: Roman rice balls are typically filled with tomato sauce and could be adapted to omit cheese.
  13. Vegan Parmigiana: A plant-based take on the Italian classic, usually featuring layers of eggplant, tomato sauce, and vegan cheese.
  14. Panzanella Salad: A Tuscan salad made with stale bread, tomatoes, onions, and basil.
  15. Fennel Orange Salad: A refreshing salad that combines the anise-like flavor of fennel with sweet, juicy oranges.

These dishes highlight the versatility and richness of Italian cuisine for vegan eaters, providing a wide array of choices that are both nutritious and delicious.

Penne Arrabbiat
The word “arrabbiata” can loosely translate to “angry mood,” a name inspired by its piquant taste.

“No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.”

Christopher Morley

Italy’s 13 Most Popular Regional Dishes

  1. Lazio: Spring Lamb with Salt-Cured Anchovies: Tender lamb meets salty anchovies for a perfect pairing.
  2. Umbria: Tagliatelle with Truffles: Simple tagliatelle pasta elevated by earthy truffles.
  3. Valle d’Aosta: Polenta with Beef Stewed in Wine: A comforting dish of beef stew enriched with wine.
  4. Veneto: Rice and Pea Risotto: Creamy risotto featuring local peas for added texture and flavor.
  5. Ancona: Spicy Fish Stew: A seafood stew that packs a spicy punch.
  6. Lombardy: Risotto alla Milanese: A classic Milanese dish of saffron-infused risotto.
  7. Tuscany: Naked Ravioli with Ricotta and Spinach: Essentially ravioli filling without the pasta shell.
  8. Puglia: Orecchiette Pasta with Turnip Tops: Ear-shaped pasta combined with leafy turnip tops.
  9. Sicily: Pasta with Sardines: A maritime dish celebrating the flavors of the sea.
  10. Calabria: Macaroni with Pork, Eggplant, and Ricotta: A hearty and flavorful pasta medley.
  11. Abruzzo: Lamb with Cheese and Eggs: A savory combination of lamb cooked with local cheese and eggs.
  12. Campania: Pizza Napoletana: The iconic, simple, and classic Neapolitan pizza.
  13. Emilia-Romagna: Tortellini with Acacia Flowers: Stuffed pasta accented by the floral notes of acacia flowers.

Each regional dish invites you on a culinary journey through Italy’s rich and diverse gastronomic landscape.

italian restaurant

Oldest Italian Dish

The oldest known Italian dish is Atriya, a simple pasta made from flour and water that originated in Sicily. This ancient dish eventually gained popularity throughout Southern Italy and evolved into what we now know as spaghetti.

Italian cuisine has diverse roots, with Northern Italy drawing influence from Roman and Germanic cultures, while Arab traditions heavily influence Southern Italy.

The oldest Italian cookbook, “Liber de Coquina,” was penned in the 13th century in Naples, attesting to the long and rich history of Italian culinary arts.

Atriya (Spaghetti)
Atriya (Spaghetti) was the oldest Italian dish developed in Sicily.

“Unless you are a pizza, the answer is yes, I can live without you.”

Bill Murray