Just as it is in many countries around the world, food is a major part of Italian culture. Although a lot of people think they have an idea of what “Italian food” is, what the rest of the world has adopted is usually a far cry from what is actually available in Italy. The best way to explore traditional Italian food is by traveling around different regions, as they all vary wildly according to what is available locally.

A major contributing factor to this is Italy’s adamant stance on DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), which means Protected Designation of Origin. This is because they want to protect products that are locally grown and produced. So how do you eat like a local Italian?

Italian Cuisine Varies By Region

Coffee Culture

Coffee is the heartbeat of Italian cuisine, as it gets everyone going in the morning and keeps them afloat in the afternoon. However, Italians are very particular about which kind of coffee is acceptable depending on the time of day.

Milk-based coffees are to be consumed with breakfast in the morning. People will look at you funny if you try to order a cappuccino in the afternoon, we promise. That doesn’t mean they won’t serve it to you, but expect a hearty serving of side-eye as well.

While American cultural norms are seeping into the rest of the globe, one thing that is still definitely not a norm is a coffee to go. Coffee is usually drunk right at the bar where you’re being served.

Italian Coffee Bar

Foods You’ll Find All Over

While a majority of local dishes vary by regions, there are still some staples that you’ll easily find everywhere you go in Italy. Breakfast will usually consist of a cappuccino and a cornetto, which is similar to a croissant and that will sometimes be filled with jam. Up north, it might be called a brioche.

Capuccino With Cornetto

Foods By Region

Of course, every region has endless specialties and there’s no way to list them all. However, there are some famous dishes that have become well known around the world, and it’s good to know where these originated from.

Northern Italy

Here you’ll find the birthplace of Tiramisu, plenty of fish, pasta dishes like Vongole, and Prosecco. This is also where the Spirtz Aperol originated.

Southern Italy

Southern Italy is known for pizza, which originated in Napoli, Caponata, and Eggplant Parmigiana.

Sardinia

One of the Sardinia’s best known dishes is suckling pig, which is truly a delicacy.

Sicily

Delicious rice balls filled with cheese called Arancini are a Sicilian speciality, as well as Caponata and Cannoli.

Sicilian Cannoli

Meal Structure

The meal structure in Italy is very important, so it’s crucial that you know all the key terms that will help guide you through the meal. There’s a reason why meals are quite the long affair, and every moment is to be savored.

Aperetivo

Aperetivo is the introduction to the meal, which consists of a few bites and sips, like an Aperol Spirtz with some tapa like olives.

Antipasti

This is the starter, which can consist of a small plate of cheese and meat.

Primi

This is the first course, which is usually a vegetarian pasta dish.

Primi Pasta Dish

Secondi

This is the second course, which will typically consist of meat or seafood.

Contorini

This is the side that will usually be served alongside the secondi. Typically, this will be a vegetable.

Insalata

A small salad that can be eaten after the second course.

Caprese

Formaggi E Frutta

The always-wonderful cheese and fruit platter.

Dolce

The best part of the meal: dessert!

Tiramisu

Caffe

Many Italians will finish off their meal with a shot of espresso.

Digestivo

These are alcoholic drinks that follow the meal, usually consists of limoncello, grappa, and amaro. These are consumed as they’re considered to aid in digestion.

Digestivo