The call of la dolce vita brings millions of visitors to Italy each year, ready to explore the country’s rich art and history, the thriving wine and food culture, stunning scenery and more. Enjoying Italy is as much about the broad, bucket list items (glimpsing Venice on the horizon as you speed across the lagoon from the airport) as it is the smaller details (enjoying the hustlebustle of Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori with its stacks of fresh produce and flowers).
Whether it's a warm drink to start your day, a rich pasta for dinner or a delectable sweet to finish things off, Italy is packed with captivating morsels to enjoy. Wine Spectator's editors share some favorites from up and down the boot.
Several of Italy’s iconic cocktails are easily identified due to their inclusion of vivid red Campari or orange-hued Aperol. These Italian spirits are complex in flavor with pleasing bitterness.
In a wineglass with ice combine: 1.5 ounces Aperol, 3 ounces Prosecco and a splash of soda water. Stir. Garnish with an orange slice.
For some variety: Other authentic versions to try when in Venice—Spritz al bitter (made with Campari) and Spritz Select (made with Select Pilla).
In a rocks glass with ice combine 1.5 ounces Campari, 1.5 ounces Italian (sweet) Vermouth, 1.5 ounces gin. Stir. Garnish with an orange wedge.
Where to Drink:
Opened in 1915 in Milan’s Galleria by Davide Campari, son of Campari creator Gaspare Campari, this Art Nouveau institution is a shrine to aperitivo culture, serving Italian classics as well as innovative creations (camparino.com).
Italians are proud scofflaws, but when it comes to eating and drinking, one must know the rules.
Italians take digestion very seriously, including the idea that drinking milk during or after a meal will wreak havoc, so cappuccino is consumed only in the morning, and never after 11 a.m. Cappuccino tends to have equal parts coffee and milk, with a foam wreath on top.
SPEAK THE LANGUAGE
Un caffè means an espresso.
Caffè latte is the same in Italy as in the U.S. “Latte,” however, is just a glass of milk.
Caffè macchiato is an espresso with a dollop of foamed milk.
Caffè corretto is an espresso that has been “corrected” with a little liquor—perfect for before the opera.
There are no sizes. You order the type of coffee you want and it is served to you in the perfect portion to drink it at its peak. If you want another—and you will—order it after.
There are no to-go cups. Portions are small and typically sipped standing at the counter. Taking a seat will incur a higher price. The bar is a refuge from other demands, so forget your cares for a bit. It’s another version of la pausa, the period midday when shopkeepers close up.
Salami are salumi, but salumi are not necessarily salami. The salumi umbrella contains a great variety of salamis, which are ground and cased, distinguished from the whole-muscle preserved meats of the category, such as those described below.
Prosciutto di Parma is the undisputed quality leader; whole hams are salted and air dried and served as melt in your mouth paper thin slices.
Speck is a good alternative, with the difference being that it is also sometimes spiced and is always lightly smoked.
Lardo has enjoyed a fashionable moment lately, which is funny considering that it is simply spiced, cured lard.
Bresaola doesn’t get enough love, probably because it’s beef and most salumi are pork. It can be served on its own but also makes a great base for a lemony arugula salad.
The basic idea here is the same for both arancini and supplì: Arborio rice is stuffed, shaped, breaded and fried for a substantial street food. Sicilian arancini (“little oranges”) are round and bigger, with a filling often of mozzarella, some beef and peas. Roman supplì (“surprises”) are smaller, elongated cylinders, with a decent hunk of mozzarella and sometimes tomato sauce. Supplì al telefono means that when broken in two, the cheese inside will stretch like a telephone cord—if you’re old enough to remember those.
Pizza: Rome vs. Naples
Roman pizza uses oil in the dough so that it can be stretched a little thinner for a crispier crust. The pies tend to be large and oblong. You point to where you want it sliced, and they cut and weigh it to price it.
When in Rome:
Bonci Pizzarium | bonci.it
Neapolitan pizza is round and served whole, with a knife and fork. Beyond the famous places, we like two less-known destinations that are especially mindful—and sometimes even imaginative—about ingredients.
In Italians’ hands, any ingredient can be perfected and elevated. In this case, specific types of rice are cooked slowly while adding warm stock and stirring constantly. The payoff is firm but tender kernels floating in one of those “I can’t believe there’s no cream in that” sauces. Added flavors can include mushrooms or meats. Oh, and truffles will do in a pinch.
Roman Pasta Classics
Italian cuisine shines when a limited number of high quality ingredients are combined into a greater whole, a quality exemplified by Rome’s famous pasta sauces.
Cacio E Pepe: Pasta, Cheese, Pepper
Gricia: Pasta, Cheese, Pepper, Pork
Amatriciana: Pasta, Cheese, Pepper, Pork, Tomatoes
Carbonara: Pasta, Cheese, Pepper, Pork, Eggs
To Finish the Meal
If you think gelato is just another type of ice cream, it’s time to school your cool. Gelato has roughly a third the amount of butterfat as American ice cream, but by incorporating far less air, it is even denser and creamier on the palate.—A.N.
HOW TO ORDER GELATO LIKE A LOCAL
Know before you go: Before you hit the front of the line, decide whether you want to lick your way through a stacked cone (cono) or instead enjoy one small bite at a time in a cup (coppa).
Size it up: Ascending sizes are called piccolo, medio and grande. If you opt for more than one flavor, the gelato goes into the cone or cup in the sequence you order it.
VANILLA IS SO VANILLA
Long before Ben & Jerry’s, Italians came up with gelato flavors that go beyond the American ice cream basics. Below, a few must-try flavors.
Bacio: The name of this chocolate hazelnut blend is Italian for “kiss,” named after the popular chocolate candy from Umbria.
Frutti di Boschi: “Fruit of the woods” is both an Italian gelato and a jam flavor that describes a blend of brambly red and black berry and cherry fruit.
Nocciola: Hazelnut is great on its own as well as complementary to many other flavors, making it easy to to mix and match.
Pesca: Peach gelato is creamier than sorbet but fresher and more, well, peachy, than it would be as an ice cream; don’t knock it till you try it.
Stracciatella: Simply described, this is vanilla with chocolate chips, but the best gelaterie embellish with high quality chocolate, either shaved and mixed throughout or drizzled and frozen in place on top to be integrated with each spoonful.
Grocery Store Chocolate
Italy has a long tradition of chocolate makers, and they generally tend to add less dairy and sugar than their northern neighbors. As a result, you can get some high quality chocolate at a neighborhood grocery store: Really good bars, hazelnut- and ganache-filled Baci and Ferrero Rocher and more are readily available. Look further and you’ll find some world-class chocolates such as Amedei, Venchi and Domori.
Italian grocers are stacked high with these eggy, sweet breads from before Christmas until after the New Year. The basic recipe floats some combination of raisins and candied citrus (fruits preserved from warmer months) in a light, stretchy dough. Beyond that, variations abound. The best ones are substantial, but not heavy, and go easy on the fillings. This is a morning, noon and night bread, perfect as dessert after a big winter dinner, as an afternoon snack or with coffee in the morning.