I’m going to continue my list of delicious things to eat in Italy with another installment. Together this series will make up an Italy Food Bucket List you need to seek out and try while in Italy! Read Part 1 of the Italy Food Bucket List here.
Something missing from the list? Don’t worry, it will probably be on the next installment.
Burrata is mozzarella cheese stuffed with, or rather encapsulating, a rich creamy center with pieces of stracciatella, scraps of mozzarella, and lots of cream. It means you have a smooth mozzarella pinched and tied at the top, with a soft center that’s waiting to spill out when cut. It’s incredibly rich, creamy, and extremely perishable.
It feels like I see burrata everywhere on the menu now in the U.S. and U.K., but 10 years ago (!!) when I first blogged about burrata, it was mostly unknown outside of Italy. Sadly, most of the burrata in the US doesn’t come from Italy because of the perishability of the cheese (and the impossibility to import it), but I’ve also had some delicious burrata elsewhere.
Though burrata originated in the region of Puglia, it’s now relatively easy to find it in many parts of Italy (though it most likely is still imported from Puglia), and you can purchase from a cheesemonger if possible. Burrata needs to be fresh and the sooner you can eat the burrata after purchase, the better.
My tip? Do not heat up burrata. Do not cook it or substitute it in recipes calling for mozzarella. In fact, leave it at room temperature before serving and if you’re eating it with something warm (like pizza), be sure that it doesn’t heat up too much, or you’ll lose the creaminess of the center. Serve it with as little condiment as possible – a little salt and pepper, maybe a small drizzle of olive oil, and pair with ripe tomatoes and salumi.
Pizza bianca is plain pizza dough, baked and drizzled with olive oil and salt, with no other toppings. It’s most common in Rome, and in fact I suggest making sure you do try it when you’re in Rome (see other posts about Rome here).
One of the places I love to get pizza bianca in Rome is at Campo de’ Fiori’s Forno. There are many more places in Rome to find pizza bianca like Roscioli, and of course Bonci.
‘Nduja (en-DOO-yah) is a spicy pork, pork fat, and hot pepper spread from Calabria, and it’s one of my favorite things to spread onto toasted bread or sometimes even in pasta. Though it comes from Calabria it’s pretty easy to find it outside of the region elsewhere in Italy. Traditional ‘nduja can come in a loaf or sack form (similar to salami) though it’s pretty impossible to slice and is very spreadable. ‘Nduja also comes in jar form which is much easier to find in supermarkets and specialty food stores (like Eataly), and I’ve had versions of ‘nduja which are mixed with other ingredients like Tropea onions, capers, or tuna.
Unfortunately, I think it’s still not permissible to import ‘nduja into the U.S., so you should think twice about sticking a jar in your suitcase to bring home, and be sure to check the customs restrictions for your particular destination.
If you know Italian food you’ve probably seen stracciatella associated with gelato, which is the chocolate chip variety. But stracciatella is what is inside a burrata (mentioned above), and you can sometimes find it sold by the scoop on its own in cheese shops and supermarkets, and sometimes it will show up on appetizer menus as well.
I like to slather the stracciatella onto toasted bread or pizza bianca. If you like ‘nduja, it pairs deliciously with it and the creaminess cuts right through the spiciness.
You don’t eat it, but Fernet Branca is a big part of Italian cuisine. It’s a very popular digestivo, digestive, which is sipped from a small glass after a meal. Fernet Branca has a bit of a cult following in the U.S. and Argentina and it’s drunk more casually there mixed with other alcohol or mixers, but in Italy, it’s still drunk pure, alone, and in small amounts.
I’ve actually toured the Fernet Branca factory in Milan, and it was great to see how it’s made, though you can’t really be sure what’s in it. They say it’s made from a blend of 27 spices (and can taste pretty medicinal), but at the factory they have a ton of spices on display, some of which are decoys so that the exact recipe is not easily guessed. I prefer the slightly sweeter and mintier Brancamenta brand made by the same company, and if it’s served very cold or directly out of the freezer, it’s even better. It’s definitely an effective digestive!
Ricci di Mare, Sea Urchin
Ricci di mare (ree-chee dee MAHR-ay), or sea urchins, are a delicacy which can eaten directly from the sea urchin shell, and sometimes it’s paired with pasta. I’m not a huge fan of the pasta version, but eating one directly from the shell with sea water still inside is worth trying. You can really taste the ocean. As for the pasta, the simpler the sauce the better, so you can taste the ricci di mare instead of it being covered by other flavors.
Where to find them? The closer to the sea you are in Italy, the better. Read more about catching and eating ricci di mare, and a few of the photos from that post ended up in the U.S. edition of La Cucina Italiana.
Fichi d’India, Cactus Fruit
Fichi d’India (FEE-key), cactus fruit, are plentiful in southern Italy during the summer, and especially in the drier areas of Puglia, Sicily, and Calabria.
You can buy them at the street markets and often the spines will already be removed so you can avoid stabbing yourself with them. Some of the sellers will cut and peel the fruit in an instant. The fruit is incredibly full of seeds but still edible, or you can try fichi d’India jam or gelato as well.
Read about fichi d’India and my suggestion for a vinaigrette you can make with the juice.
What can I say about taralli? This Pugliese snack is a cross between a breadstick and a pretzel, one of my favorites, and a great accompaniment to any aperitivo. Taralli are made with olive oil, boiled before baking (like pretzels and bagels) and can be as simply flavored by the oil or also combined with fennel seed, onion, or even pizza flavoring. There is also a sweet version of taralli but the savory version is more widespread and found throughout Italy.
If you can find a tarallificio, taralli maker, that’s the best place to buy them, but you can often find them in supermarkets throughout Italy as well. If they’re fresh you’ll bite into them with a crunch, and if they’re extra delicious, they’ll be a bit flakey from the oil. Below are the large version, but the smaller bite-sized version are probably more well-known and found.
You should definitely see how taralli are made with my look inside a Pugliese tarallificio, taralli maker.
Beyond the regular caffè, espresso, and the cappuccino, you should try a marocchino (mar-oh-KEY-noh) while you’re in Italy. It may be called an espressino depending on where you are, but most bars should understand your request of a marocchino, an espresso served in a glass cup topped with hot, frothed milk and a touch of cacao powder (or chocolate syrup or whipped cream or Nutella, depending on the bar).
Cacio e Pepe Pasta
Eat cacio e pepe, grated pecorino romano cheese and crushed black pepper pasta, immediately. Do not pass go, do not try other pastas. This is one of my top comfort foods. Rome is the home of cacio e pepe, and will be the best place to try it and you can get it at most restaurants. Try it at Cesare al Casaletto or Flavio al Velavevodetto for starters.
Here’s my recipe for a slightly lighter version of cacio e pepe with zucchini noodles you can make at home.
Funghi Porcini, porcini mushrooms
Dried porcini are often used in risotto and other dishes, but if you can get them fresh you can prepare them many other ways like funghi trifolati, sautéed mushrooms, in pasta or on top of polenta; on a pizza, or sott’olio, under oil, and spread on toasted bread.
You’ll want to make sure that the mushroom is as fresh as possible, and if the underskirt starts to turn dark green, or there are holes in the stem, you know they’re getting a little old. The porcini mushroom season starts mid-to-late summer (July-ish) and can go through most of the fall (October/November) and you’ll see mushrooms at most Italian street markets and some supermarkets.
Pasticcini, Italian pastries
Pasticcini, pastries in Italy, are ubiquitous and present at most holidays, parties, and the occasional Sunday dinner. I don’t love all of them (some of the rum-soaked sponge cake puts me off), but getting a colorful tray and trying all the flavors to find your favorite is worth doing and is a fun thing to share.
Many supermarkets will offer pasticcini if they are baking in house, but I would definitely recommend going to a bar or bakery which specializes in them to get the best selection. Not sure where to go? Keep your eye out for beautifully wrapped packages being carried by people on the weekend or a holiday, and ask.
Acciughe, Fried or fresh anchovies
I never used to think much of acciughe / alici, anchovies, before I moved to Italy. I knew them as super salty things from a can and something to make sure didn’t show up on my pizza. But trying anchovies in Italy changed my mind completely. I love them fresh such as in alici al limone, marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and parsley; and they’re also delicious when battered and fried.
Have you tasted them all? Part 1 of the Italy Food Bucket list.