It turns out there’s no such thing as Italian cuisine—not with 20 diverse regions in the country and a population of almost 60 million. Northern Italy has a whole different set of influences than Southern Italy, and Sunday gravy is simply not the national dish. Here’s a look at Italy’s 10 most prominent regions—and a typical dish from each.
Where it is: Central east coast
What it is known for: This mountainous port city makes “guitar pasta” and likes hot chile peppers and saffron to spice things up. It is also known for seafood and an annual massive feast called “La Panarde” numbering 35 to 50 courses that lasts all night. Top that.
Typical dish: Agnello cac’ e ove (lamb with cheese and eggs)
Where it is: The arch of the boot
What it is known for: This is a sparsely populated and modest part of Italy with a simple peasant cuisine.
Typical dish: Làgane (the ancestor of today’s lasagna) with olive oil and chickpeas
Where it is: Central/South-Central
What it is known for: This mountainous region has 500 miles of coastline and Greek, Arab, and Albanian influences, with dishes accented by chile peppers and noted for their sweet and sour flavor combo. Calabria also features a wide variety of eggplant dishes.
Typical dish: Macaroni with pork, eggplant and salted ricotta
Where it is: Southeast coast
What it is known for: This ancient land was settled by the Greeks and is the site of Mt. Vesuvious and Pompei; its fertile volcanic soil produces bountiful vegetables like famous San Marzano tomatoes, figs, lemons. This is where Naples is, the hallowed birthplace of pizza (see sidebar.)
Typical dish: Pizza, buffalo mozzarella
Where it is: North central
What it is known for: Known as “Italy’s food basket,” this is foodie heaven, with bragging rights for Proscuitto, mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Balsamic vinegar. Many consider this region to offer “classic Italian” dishes.
Typical dish: Bolognese sauce, tortellini
Region: Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Where it is: Northeast corner
What it is known for: This region is known for great beaches. But back to the food: Friuli has a northern bent with Slavic, Hungarian, and Austrian influences characterized by hearty pork and cabbage dishes.
Typical dish: Spiced frico cheese and toast
Where it is: West central coast
What it is known for: Rome is here, with three coins in the fountain, Julius Caesar, the Coliseum, tiny fiats and more but the cuisine is relatively simple, with lots of lamb and pork, vegetables and sheep’s milk cheese.
Typical dish: bruschetta, spaghetti alla carbonara, artichokes alla Roman
Where it is: Northeast coast
What it is known for: Mediterranean foods including porcini mushrooms, pine nuts, anchovies and a “delicate” olive oil. The bread here is typically focaccia bread.
Typical dish: Chickpea flatbread
Where it is: North central
What it is known for: Italy’s industrial region and its fashion capital Milan favors risottos and polenta, veal, beef, butter, cow’s milk cheese and freshwater fish.
Typical dish: Risotto, osso bucco
Region: Le Marche
Where it is: Central east coast
What it is known for: Fried stuffed olives from ancient Salt Road town Ascoli Piceno, seafood soup, flatbreads
Typical dish: Ancona spicy fish stew
Where it is: Central south
What it is known for: This unspoiled and little-known region with a rural population uses chile and garlic heavily for seasoning and is known for dishes with olive oil, rabbit, pig, lamb and garlic bread.
Typical dish: Tripe dumplings
Where it is: Northwest corner
What it is known for: This region—and its white truffles—has somewhat elegant cuisine, lovely wines like Barolo and Barberesco, and makes great chocolate desserts.
Typical dish: “Warm dip” (Bagna caôda) made by slowly cooking chopped garlic with oil and butter, anchovies, peeled walnuts and served with Jerusalem artichoke, endive, sweet pepper and onion in a terracotta pot.
Where it is: The heel of the boot
What it is known for: This is southern Italy’s “bread basket” with wheat, semolina flour, vegetables, olive oil, fava beans, broccoli rabe and lamb dishes.
Typical dish: Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops; rustic breads
Where it is: Island off central western cast
What it is known for: This island offers wild game like boar and mountain goat as well as lamb dishes, sheep’s milk cheese and a spiral-shaped busiati pasta. Seafood is also plentiful.
Typical dish: Pilau, a “couscous-like” dish, made much the way risotto is
Where it is: Island off the southwest ciast
What it is known for: The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily hearkens back 10,000 years before Don Corleone lived there. Its food has Greek, Arab, Spanish and French influences and favors antipasti, pasta and rice dishes and stuffed and skewered meat. It is also known for its candied fruits and marzipan.
Typical dish: Caponata, veal Marsala, , pasta with sardines
Region: Trentino-Alto Adige
Where it is: Northernmost region
What it is known for: This region’s food shares Germanic, Hungarian and Italian influences in dishes like goulasch, fruit-stuffed gnocchi, pasta and risottos. This is where the coveted Speck ham is from.
Typical dish: Strudel
Where it is: North central coast
What it is known for: This is one of Italy’s art and cultural treasures, highlighted by Florence, home of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, the Medicis. Its food has been described as the “art of understatement” with spices like thyme and fennel, and is well-known for its ravioli, tortelli and fish and seafood. Not to mention Chianti, Dr. Lecter’s favorite.
Typical dish: Pecorino cheese, steak alla fiorentina, panzanella (bread salad to you)
Where it is: Central
What it is known for: Called “the green heart of Italy” its specialties are pork, black truffles and guanciale (cured pork jowl.)
Typical dish: Tagliatelle with truffles
Region: Val D’Aosta
Where it is: Northwest tip
What it is known for: This region is replete with French and Swiss influences, beef and game, Fontina cheese, grains like rye and buckwheat and grappa-spiked braises. Sign us up.
Typical dish: Polenta with beef stewed in wine
Where it is: Northeast
What it is known for: Venice is the standout here, of course, but this region is also known for its Amarone wine, seafood soups and risottos and cured meats and aged cheeses.
Typical dish: Rice and pea risotto, traditionally served at the annual Doge’s banquet, held on April 25, the saint’s day of the city’s patron, St. Mark.