One of the world's most revered cuisines, Italian food is a handy umbrella term for the country's cache of regional cuisines. Together they reflect Italy's extraordinary geographic and cultural diversity. The common thread between all is an indelible link between food and the locals' sense of identity. From the quality of the produce to the reverence for tradition, eating here is all about passion, pride and godere la vita (enjoying life).

The Basics

Italy has no shortage of eating options, and reserving a table on the day of your meal is usually fine. Top-end restaurants may need to be booked at least a month in advance, while popular eateries in tourist areas should be booked at least a few days ahead in peak season.

Trattoria Informal, family-run restaurant cooking up traditional regional dishes.

Ristorante Formal dining, often with comprehensive wine lists and more sophisticated local or national fare.

Osteria Similar to a trattoria, with a focus on traditional cooking.

Enoteca Wine bars invariably double as a casual place to graze or dine.

The Big Fork Manifesto

The year is 1987. McDonald's has just begun expansion into Italy and lunch outside the bun seems to be fading into fond memory. Enter Carlo Petrini and a handful of other journalists from small-town Bra, Piedmont. Determined to buck the trend, these neoforchettoni ('big forks', or foodies) created a manifesto. Published in the like-minded culinary magazine Gambero Rosso, they declared that a meal should be judged not by its speed, but by its pure pleasure.

The organisation they founded would soon become known worldwide as Slow Food (www.slowfood.com), and its mission to reconnect artisanal producers with enthusiastic, educated consumers has taken root with around 100,000 members in over 160 countries – not to mention Slow Food agriturismi (farm-stay accommodation), restaurants, farms, wineries, cheesemakers and revitalised farmers' markets across Italy.

Held on even-numbered years in venues across Turin, Italy's top Slow Food event is the biennial Salone del Gusto & Terre Madre (www.salonedelgusto.com). Slow Food's global symposium, it features Slow Food producers, chefs, activists, restaurateurs, farmers, scholars, environmentalists and epicureans from around the world…not to mention the world's best finger food. Thankfully, odd years don't miss out on enlightened epicureans either, with special events such as Slow Fish (http://slowfish.slowfood.it) in Genoa and Cheese (www.cheese.slowfood.it) in Bra.

Aperitivi: Budget Feasting

Aperitivi are often described as a 'before-meal drink and light snacks'. Don't be fooled. Italian happy hour can easily turn into a budget-friendly dinner disguised as a casual drink. This is particularly true of aperitivi accompanied by a buffet of antipasti, pasta salads, cold cuts and some hot dishes (this may include your fellow diners: aperitivi is prime time for hungry singles). You can methodically pillage buffets in cities including Milan, Turin, Rome, Naples and Palermo from about 5pm or 6pm to 8pm or 9pm for the price of a single drink – which crafty diners nurse for the duration – while Venetians enjoy ombre (half-glasses of wine) and bargain seafood cicheti (Venetian tapas).

Despite its national popularity, Italy's aperitivo roots lie in Turin. It was in Piedmont's capital that, in 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano infused Moscato white wine with herbs and spices to create Vermouth. The drink quickly gained a reputation for piquing the appetite, turning the bar in which Carpano worked into Turin's pre-dinner hotspot. These days, favourite aperitivo libations include the spritz, a mix of prosecco, soda water and either Aperol, Campari or the more herbacious Cynar. Not surprisingly, aperitivi are wildly popular among the many young Italians who can't afford to eat dinner out, but still want a place to enjoy food while schmoozing with friends – leave it to Italy to find a way to put the glam into budget.

Tutti a Tavola

'Everyone to the table!' Traffic lights are merely suggestions and queues are fine ideas in theory, but this is one command every Italian heeds without question. To disobey would be unthinkable – what, you're going to eat your pasta cold? And insult the cook? Even anarchists wouldn't dream of it.

You never really know Italians until you've broken a crusty loaf of pagnotta with them – and once you've arrived in Italy, jump at any opportunity to do just that.

Lunch & Dinner

Italian food culture directly contradicts what we think we know of Italy. A nation prone to perpetual motion with Vespas, Ferraris and Bianchis pauses for pranzo (lunch) – hence the term la pausa to describe the midday break. In the cities, power-lunchers settle in at their favourite ristoranti and trattorie, while in smaller towns and villages, workers often head home for a two- to three-hour midday break, devouring a hot lunch and resting up before returning to work fortified by espresso.

Where la pausa has been scaled back to a scandalous hour and a half – barely enough time to get through the lines at the bank to pay bills and bolt some pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) – rosticcerie (rotisseries) or tavole calde (literally 'hot tables') keep the harried sated with steamy, on-the-go options like roast chicken and supplì (fried risotto balls with a molten mozzarella centre). Bakeries and bars are also on hand with focaccia, panini and tramezzini (triangular, stacked sandwiches made with squishy white bread) providing a satisfying bite.

Traditionally, cena (dinner) is lunch's lighter sibling and cries of 'Oh, I can hardly eat anything tonight' are still common after a marathon weekend lunch. 'Maybe just a bowl of pasta, a salad, some cheese and fruit…' Don't be fooled: even if you've been invited to someone's house for a 'light dinner', wine and elastic-waisted pants are always advisable.

But while your Italian hosts may insist you devour one more ricotta-filled cannolo (surely you don't have them back home…and even if you did, surely they're not as good?!), your waiter will usually show more mercy. Despite the Italians' 'more is more' attitude to food consumption, restaurant diners are rarely obliged to order both a primo and secondo, and antipasti and dessert are strictly optional.

That said, a lavish dinner at one of Italy's fine-dining hot spots, such as Modena's Osteria Francescana or Alba's Piazza Duomo, is a highlight few will want to skip.

Many top-ranked restaurants open only for dinner, with a set-price degustazione meal that leaves the major menu decisions to your chef and frees you up to concentrate on the noble quest of conquering four to six tasting courses. Forza e coraggio! (Strength and courage to you!)

Morning Essentials

In Italy, colazione (breakfast) is a minimalist affair. Eggs, pancakes, ham, sausage, toast and orange juice are only likely to appear at weekend brrrunch (pronounced with the rolled Italian r), an American import popular at many trendy urban eateries. Expect to pay upwards of €20 to graze a buffet of hot dishes, cold cuts, pastries and fresh fruit, usually including your choice of coffee, juice or cocktail.

Italy's breakfast staple is caffè (coffee). Scalding-hot espresso, cappuccino (espresso with a goodly dollop of foamed milk) or caffè latte – the hot, milky espresso beverage Starbucks mistakenly shortened to latte, which will get you a glass of milk in Italy. An alternative beverage is orzo, a slightly nutty, noncaffeinated roasted-barley beverage that looks like cocoa.

With a tazza (cup) in one hand, use the other for that most Italian of breakfast foods – a pastry. Some especially promising options include the following:

  • Cornetto The Italian take on the French croissant is usually smaller, lighter, less buttery and slightly sweet, with an orange-rind glaze brushed on top. Fillings might include cioccolato (chocolate), cioccolato bianco (white chocolate), crema (custard) or varying flavours of marmelata (jam).
  • Crostata The Italian breakfast tart with a dense, buttery crust is filled with your choice of fruit jam, such as amarena (sour cherry), albicocca (apricot) or frutti di bosco (wild berry). You may have to buy an entire tart instead of a single slice, but you won't be sorry.
  • Doughnuts Chow down a ciambella (also called by its German name, krapfen), the classic fried-dough treat rolled in granulated sugar and sometimes filled with jam or custard. Join the line at kiosks and street fairs for fritole, fried dough studded with golden raisins and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, and zeppole (also called bignè di San Giuseppe), chewy doughnuts filled with ricotta or zucca (pumpkin), rolled in confectioners' sugar, and handed over in a paper cone to be devoured dangerously hot.
  • Viennoiserie Italy's colonisation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century had its upside: a vast selection of sweet buns and other rich baked goods. Standouts include cream-filled brioches and strudel di mele, an Italian adaptation of the traditional Viennese apfelstrudel.

Italian Menu 101

The cameriere (waiter) leads you to your table and hands you the menu. The scent of slow-cooked ragù (meat and tomato sauce) lingers in the air and your stomach rumbles in anticipation. Where might this culinary encounter lead you? Order a glass of prosecco, unfurl that tovagliolo (napkin) and read on…

Antipasti (Appetiser)

The culinary equivalent of foreplay, antipasti are a good way to whet the appetite and sample a number of different dishes. Tantalising offerings on the antipasti menu may include the house bruschetta (grilled bread with a variety of toppings, from chopped tomato and garlic to black-truffle spread) or regional treats like mozzarella di bufula (buffalo mozzarella) or salatini con burro d'acciughe (pastry sticks with anchovy butter). Even if it's not on the menu, it's always worth requesting an antipasto misto (mixed antipasto), a platter of morsels including anything from olive fritte (fried olives) and prosciutto e melone (cured ham and cantaloupe) to friarielli con peperoncino (Neapolitan broccoli with chilli). At this stage, bread (and sometimes grissini – Turin-style breadsticks) are also deposited on the table as part of your €1 to €3 pane e coperto ('bread and cover' or table service).

Caffè (Coffee)

Most Italian mornings start with a creamy, frothy cappuccino (named for the Capuchin monks, with their brown hoods), which are rarely taken after about 11am and usually served not too hot. Otherwise it's espresso all the way, though you could ask for a tiny stain of milk in a caffè macchiato or a cheeky caffè corretto (espresso 'corrected' with a splash of grappa or brandy). On the hottest days of summer, a granita di caffè (coffee with shaved ice and whipped cream) is ideal. An ever-growing number of Italian bars in both northern and southern Italy now also offer alternatives to cow's milk, making that cappuccino con latte di soia (soy-milk cappuccino) or latte di mandorla (almond milk) less of an odd request.

Frutti e dolci

'Siamo arrivati alla frutta' ('We've arrived at the fruit') is an idiom roughly meaning 'we've hit rock bottom' – but hey, not until you've had one last tasty morsel. Your best bets on the fruit menu are local and seasonal. Formaggi (cheeses) are another option, but only diabetics or the French would go that route when there's room for dolci (sweets). Biscotti (twice-baked biscuits) made to dip in wine make for a delicious closure to the meal, but other great desserts include zabaglione (egg and marsala custard), torta di ricotta e pera (pear and ricotta cake), cream-stuffed profiteroles or cannoli siciliani, ricotta-stuffed shell pastry. Cannoli worthy of the pickiest Sicilian palates will only be filled fresh to order, ensuring that the cialda (shell) retains its satisfying crunch.

Primo (First Course)

Starch is the star in Italian first courses, from pasta and gnocchi to risotto and polenta. You may be surprised how generous the portions are – a mezzo piatto (half-portion) might do the trick for kids.

Primi menus usually include ostensibly vegetarian or vegan options, such as pasta con pesto – the classic Ligurian basil paste with parmigiano reggiano (Parmesan) and pine nuts – or Sicilian alla norma (with basil, eggplant, ricotta and tomato), risotto ai porcini (risotto with pungent, earthy porcini mushrooms) or the extravagant risotto al Barolo (risotto with high-end Barolo wine, though actually any good dry red will do). But even if a dish sounds vegetarian in theory, before you order you may want to ask about the stock used in that risotto or polenta, or the ingredients in that suspiciously rich tomato sauce – there may be beef, ham or ground anchovies involved.

Carnivores will rejoice in such legendary dishes as pasta all'amatriciana (Roman pasta with a spicy tomato sauce, pecorino cheese and guanciale, or bacon-like pigs' cheeks), osso bucco con risotto alla milanese (Milanese veal shank and marrow melting into saffron risotto), Tuscan speciality pappardelle alle cinghiale (ribbon pasta with wild boar sauce) and northern favourite polenta col ragù (polenta with meat sauce). Near the coasts, look for seafood variations like risotto al nero (risotto cooked with black squid ink), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clam sauce) or pasta ai frutti di mare (pasta with seafood).

Secondo (Second Course)

Light lunchers usually call it a day after the primo, but buongustai (gourmands) pace themselves for meat, fish or contorni (side dishes, such as cooked vegetables) in the second course. These options may range from the outrageous bistecca alla fiorentina, a 3in-thick steak served on the bone in a puddle of juice, to more modest yet equally impressive fritto misto di mare (mixed fried seafood), carciofi alla romana (Roman artichokes stuffed with mint and garlic) or pollo in tegame con barbe (chicken casserole with salsify).

Even if your waiter does not tell you the day's specials, follow the Italians' lead and always ask 'Cosa c'è di buono oggi?' (What's good today?). Daily specials often feature the best of the morning's market produce or may include a rarer dish. Just because it's not on the menu doesn't mean it's not on offer. Also, as a general rule of thumb, opt for fish and seafood dishes in coastal areas and earthier meats and vegetables further inland and in mountainous regions. This way you're more likely to eat local specialities made with the freshest produce. When eating fish and seafood, always ask if it's surgelato (frozen) or fresco (fresh) – it's the latter you want to be eating.

When it comes to contorni, Italians prefer to keep things simple, with common options including seasonal verdure alla griglia (grilled vegetables), usually dressed in little more than olive oil. The classic insalata mista (mixed green salad) typically consists of unadorned greens with vinegar and oil on the side; croutons, crumbled cheeses, nuts, dried fruit and other frou-frou ingredients have no business in a classic (some may say bland) Italian salad.

Five Must-Try Cheeses

Cheese fiends can expect soaring spirits (and cholesterol levels) in Italy, home to some of the world's most esteemed formaggi (cheeses). While there are hundreds of regional creations to nibble on, start with these prized heavyweights:

Parmigiano reggiano A grainy, nutty DOP cheese high in calcium and relatively low in fat. Produced in the northern provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua, it's made using milk from free-range cows on a prized grass or hay diet. Parmigiano reggiano is available fresco (aged less than 18 months), vecchio (aged 18 to 24 months) and stravecchio (aged 24 to 36 months). Beautiful with a bubbly Franciacorta or lighter, fruit-forward red.

Gorgonzola Gloriously pungent, this washed-rind, blue-veined DOC cheese is produced in Lombardy and Piedmont. Made using whole cow's milk, it's generally aged three to four months. Varieties include the younger, sweeter gorgonzola dolce and the sharper, spicier gorgonzola piccante (also known as stagionato or montagna). To crank up the decadence, pair it with a sticky dessert wine.

Mozzarella A chewy, silky cheese synonymous with Campania and Puglia and best eaten the day it's made. Top of the range is luscious, porcelain-white DOP mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella), produced using the whole milk of black water buffaloes. Variations include burrata, buffalo-milk mozzarella filled with cream. Mozzarella made using cow's milk is called fior di latte. Match all types with a dry, crisp white.

Provolone Its roots in Basilicata, this semi-hard, wax-rind staple is now commonly produced in Lombardy and the Veneto. Like mozzarella, it's made using the pasta filata method, which sees the curd heated until it becomes stringy (filata). Aged two to three months, provolone dolce is milder and sweeter than the more piquant provolone piccante, itself aged for over four months. Pair with pinot grigio or a medium-bodied red.

Asiago Hailing from the northern provinces of Vicenza, Trento, Padua and Treviso, pungent, full-flavoured Asiago DOP uses unpasteurised cow's milk from the Asiago plateau. Choose between milder, fresh pressato and strong, crumbly, aged d'allevo. The latter can be enjoyed at various stages of maturation, from sweeter mezzano (aged four to six months) and more bitter vecchio (aged over 10 months), to spicy stravecchio (aged for over two years). Wash it down with an earthy, tannin-heavy red.

The Vino Lowdown

A sit-down meal without vino (wine) in Italy is as unpalatable as pasta without sauce. Not ordering wine at a restaurant can cause consternation – are you pregnant or a recovering alcoholic? Was it something the waiter said? Italian wines are considered among the most versatile and 'food friendly' in the world, specifically cultivated over the centuries to elevate regional cuisine.

Here, wine is a consideration as essential as your choice of dinner date. Indeed, while the country's perfectly quaffable pilsner beers and occasional red ale pair well with roast meats, pizza and other quick eats, vino is considered appropriate for a proper meal – and since many wines cost less than a pint in Italy, this is not a question of price, but a matter of flavour.

Some Italian wines will be as familiar to you as old flames, including pizza-and-a-movie Chianti or reliable summertime fling pinot grigio. But you'll also find some captivating Italian varietals and blends for which there is no translation (eg Brunello, Vermentino, Sciacchetrá), and intriguing Italian wines that have little in common with European and New World cousins of the same name, from merlot and pinot nero (aka pinot noir) to chardonnay.

Many visitors default to carafes of house reds or whites, which in Italy usually means young, fruit-forward reds to complement tomato sauces and chilled dry whites as seafood palate-cleansers. But with a little daring, you can pursue a wider range of options by the glass or half-bottle.

Sparkling wines Franciacorta (Lombardy), prosecco (Veneto), Asti (aka Asti Spumante; Piedmont), Lambrusco (Emilia-Romagna)

Light, citrusy whites with grassy or floral notes Vermentino (Sardinia), Orvieto (Umbria), Soave (Veneto), Tocai (Friuli), Frascati (Lazio)

Dry whites with aromatic herbal or mineral aspect Cinque Terre (Liguria), Lugana (southern Lake Garda), Gavi (Piedmont), Falanghina (Campania), Est! Est!! Est!!! (Lazio)

Versatile, food-friendly reds with pleasant acidity Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont), Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Abruzzo), Valpolicella (Veneto), Chianti Classico (Tuscany), Bardolino (Lombardy), Sangiovese (Tuscany)

Well-rounded reds, balancing fruit with earthy notes Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany), Refosco dal Pedulunco Rosso (Friuli), Dolcetto (Piedmont), Morellino di Scansano (Tuscany), Oltrepò Pavese Rosso (Lombardy)

Big, structured reds with velvety tannins Amarone (Veneto), Barolo (Piedmont), Sagrantino di Montefalco secco (Umbria), Sassicaia and other 'super-Tuscan' blends (Tuscany)

Fortified and dessert wine Sciacchetrá (Liguria), Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit (Friuli), Vin Santo (Tuscany), Moscato d'Asti (Piedmont)

Liquori (Liqueurs)

Failure to order a postprandial espresso may shock your server, but you may yet save face by ordering a digestivo (digestive). Among these is grappa, a potent grape-derived pomace brandy that is offered bianca (white, or clear) or barricata (cask aged). The latter variety – aged in oak, acacia, ash or cherrywood casks – is golden in colour and has a mellower, more rounded flavour than grappa bianca. Flavoured grappa is also produced, offering anything from hints of almond or honey to hints of blueberry and citrus. Another popular digestivo is amaro. Literally translating as 'bitter', this dark, bittersweet liqueur is prepared from herbs, roots, flowers and, in some cases, citrus peel. Citrus underscores southern Italy's iconic limoncello, a sweet, lemon liqueur most famously associated with the region of Campania.

Festive Favourites

Perhaps you've heard of ancient Roman orgies with trips to the vomitorium to make room for the next course, or Medici family feasts with sugar sculptures worth their weight in gold? In Italy, culinary indulgence is the epicentre of any celebration, and major holidays are defined by their specialities. Lent is heralded by Carnevale (Carnival), a time for migliaccio di polenta (a casserole of polenta, sausages, pecorino and parmigiano reggiano), sanguinaccio ('blood pudding' made with dark chocolate and cinnamon), chiacchiere (fried biscuits sprinkled with icing sugar) and Sicily's mpagnuccata (deep-fried dough tossed in soft caramel).

If you're here around 19 March (St Joseph's Feast Day), expect to eat bignè di San Giuseppe (fried doughnuts filled with cream or chocolate) in Rome, zeppole (fritters topped with lemon-scented cream, sour cherry and dusting sugar) in Naples and Bari, and crispelle di riso (citrus-scented rice fritters dipped in honey) in Sicily.

Lent specialities like Sicilian quaresimali (hard, light almond biscuits) give way to Easter bingeing with the obligatory lamb, colomba (dove-shaped cake) and uove di pasqua (foil-wrapped chocolate eggs with toy surprises inside). The dominant ingredient at this time is egg, also used to make traditional regional specialities like Genoa's torta pasqualina (pastry tart filled with ricotta, parmigiano, artichokes and hard-boiled eggs), Florence's brodetto (egg, lemon and bread broth) and Naples' legendary pastiera (shortcrust pastry tart filled with ricotta, cream, candied fruits and cereals flavoured with orange water).

At the other end of the calendar, Christmas means stuffed pasta, seafood dishes and one of Milan's greatest inventions: panettone (a yeasty, golden cake studded with raisins and dried fruit). Equally famous are Verona's simpler, raisin-free pandoro (a yeasty, star-shaped cake dusted with vanilla-flavoured icing sugar) and Siena's panforte (a chewy, flat cake made with candied fruits, nuts, chocolate, honey and spices). Further south, Neapolitans throw caution (and scales) to the wind with raffioli (sponge and marzipan biscuits), struffoli (tiny fried pastry balls dipped in honey and sprinkled with colourful candied sugar) and pasta di mandorla (marzipan), while their Sicilian cousins toast to the season with cucciddatu (ring-shaped cake made with dried figs, nuts, honey, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and citrus fruits).

Of course, it's not all about religion. Some Italian holidays dispense with the spiritual premise and are all about the food. During spring, summer and early autumn, towns across Italy celebrate sagre, the festivals of local foods in season. You'll find a sagra del tartufo (truffles) in Umbria, del pomodoro (tomatoes) in Sicily and del cipolle (onions) in Puglia (wouldn't want to be downwind of that one). For a list of sagre, check out www.prodottitipici.com/sagre (in Italian).

Top Food & Wine Regions

  • Emilia-Romagna
  • Tuscany
  • Piedmont
  • Sicily
  • Campania