Published on: 2 April 2013 | Last updated: 10 February 2017
Eating out in Italy is different to going to an Italian restaurant at home. Forget any ideas you might have about ‘Italian cuisine’: apart from pizza, which is pretty much ubiquitous there’s no such thing as standard Italian food - the local specialities vary hugely from region to region, and even from town to town. You might see a local speciality in one town or village and then never see it anywhere else. For me, this makes eating local food in bars and restaurants an important part of the experience of travelling in Italy.
The regional specialities are shaped by history, tradition and geography. For example, a large swathe of the mountains of north eastern Italy were, until relatively recently, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (and before that were independent states) and the influences are clearly there to be seen the minute you cross over the old borders. In particular there’s gulasch; canederli (knödl - a sort of dumpling); würstel (sausage); spätzle (a sort of gnocchi); speck (dried and cured ham); crauti, (sauerkraut) and of course strudel.
Polenta is also very much a staple of restaurant menus in the north, so much so that polentone is the nickname southerners use for northerners (the nearest equivalent would be something like potato-head.
Geography is also important - around the many inland lakes, freshwater fish are the star of the show. While in the mountainous areas its meat like cinghiale (wild boar) or capriolo (roe deer) and of course funghi (mushrooms) and zafferano (saffron from wild crocuses).
This is changing, to some extent, with the massive emigration from the south to the north: southern emigrants to the northern cities brought their food with them, and some opened restaurants and bars. Dried pasta, refrigerated transport, frozen food mean that the southern mediterranean cuisine has gained a lot of ground especially when it comes to the food that people eat at home. Fishsellers in the towns of the Veneto will have fresh fish from Puglia in the far south. Restaurants, however, are still by and large strongholds of local traditions: if you see a restaurant menu that consists of the standard Italian dishes that you might expect to see in an Italian restaurant outside Italy it’s a sign that it may cater mainly to foreign tourists.
Italians seek out the local specialities and they are fiercely proud of their own. So when it comes to eating out think different: don’t stick to the dishes you know but look out for the local specialities - you may never have the chance to eat them anywhere else.