Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Italy >
Jun 16, 2009 12:45 PM

Must-try food (not restaurant) recommendations for Italian food novice?

I'm staying in Italy for 9 months and I want to make the most out of it food-wise. Very simply, what recipes/dishes/ingredients/wines and other alcohol do you suggest I HAVE TO try while I'm here? If you can tell me the Italian word, that would be really helpful (I'm very slowly learning Italian).

I'm asking because I thought I knew something about Italian cooking...until I faced all those cheeses and wines in the market. A couple of things to keep in mind before you suggest:
1. I'm vegetarian (no meat, fish or poultry; yes to eggs and dairy) and I hate onions.
2. I love desserts.
3. I'm on a pretty limited budget so mostly I cook at home. And I have no oven (except for a microwave).
4. I'm staying put in one town in north Italy for the most part (though I will try to travel) so please don't suggest expensive restaurants in Calabria.

So far I've tried one tiramisu in a restaurant, a couple of tortas (a ricotta one that I loved), one cheap white wine that I really like...among other things. I've bought a basilico plant and have to buy one of prezzomolo soon. I've been trying different types of salads, pasta and sauces (I'm in deep undying love with pesto). Just to give you some idea...

If you've been patient enough to read this far, thanks in advance for your suggestions!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. where are you in northern italy? It makes a difference.

    You will be starting to get in - or you may be getting - some wonderful fruits and vegetables. Id start trying the ones that look good, especially local ones. Strawberries and cherries should be in the markets now - if you can find the little wild strawberries in your fruit market do try them. We really enjoyed a little basket of them in parma around this time last year. Try the different varieties of tomatoes in the market - some are just wonderful - I think the kind we found in bergamo were like small san marzano tomatoes - elongated with a point on the end and glorious flavor to eat out of hand or for salad or cooking. If you havent used any porcini mushrooms in your cooking yet you are n for a treat - you can buy them just a handful at a time from your greengrocer, they shouid look creamy and fresh rather than dark and dried up.
    Make friends with your cheesemonger/wine seller and you will get recommendations. The tuscan pecorinos are really delightful.

    1. 9 months in Italy.That sounds wonderful.Not sure where you'll be staying and as jen kalb has said the food/wine,etc. will vary quite a bit from North to South.I spent a week in Florence/Italy with my family several years ago and we all loved the food and the people.
      I would recommend gelato.We had some great gelato in Florence.Also highly recommend trying risotto.It will likely have onion in it,but it will be finely chopped and then sauteed,so it won't have a pronounced flavor.I had a white asparagus risotto at a restaurant in a castle in the town on Marostica,which is near Venice.The whole experience was fantastic.As far as wine I don't have any particular wineries to recommend and each area is known for varying whites and reds.So I would suggest with wine just go with whatever the local specialities are.They will go best with the cuisine of the area.I strongly suggest you have prosecco wherever you are.It is Italy's light,sparkling wine and is usually served as an apertif before a meal,not as an accompaniment to your meal.As far as alcohol,Italy is known for bitter liqueurs,like Campari and Aperol and a whole category called Amaro.They do make a drink called a Spritz which is Prosecco and Campari or Aperol.Also a Negroni(Gin,Campari,Sweet Vermouth) or an Americano(Campari,Sweet Vermouth,club soda).But the Italian drinks that I'm familiar with have a bitter component to them so if you don't like bitter you may be best off sticking with wine.Hope you have a great time and enjoy it as much as we did.

      1. One of the first things you must learn about Italian eating is it REALLY matters EXACTLY where you are. With all that pesto, I hope you're in Liguria, where the basil is very particular.
        Then, remembering that heaven helps those who help themselves, pay attention to the names of the foods you are eating. Copy them off the menu, or carry a notebook and ask people to write them down for you. Tell people you want to eat local specialties. Don't even think about what to eat "in Italy" but what to eat in "place X". Don't use your bad Italian as an excuse, use your food adventures to help yourself learn Italian. You will begin to eat even better when you are able to discuss your food with local people.

        1. Some things that you may not be familiar with (and apologies for my dodgy Italian if I messed up the spelling)

          polenta (cornmeal porridge, liquid or solid, with our without and filling)
          farro (spelt or spelt-ish, depending on who you ask)
          Fiori di zucchina (zucchini blossoms--sometimes stuffed with cheese and deep fried, but check for meat/fish)
          raddichio (chicory)
          lenticce (lentils, really gorgeous ones)
          finocchio (fennel, try it fresh shaved or stewed)

          1. Thanks for the suggestions so far! To those who asked, I am in Rovereto in Trentino. As far as I can make out, the local food is similar to some German food in some ways--my second day here we had dinner at a local restaurant with polenta and all sorts of meat--boar, rabbit, etc.

            I've been eating gelato as often as I can--trying all the different flavours in the gelateria. I made risotto a couple of times but somehow I didn't find it as good as I thought it would be...maybe I need to cook it better? Surprisingly I haven't found a large variety of fresh vegetables where I shop. I'll keep an eye out for some of the things you suggested...also which fresh herbs besides basil and parsley do you suggest I should keep at home?

            2 Replies
            1. re: adirao

              wow, that should be a wonderful area for eating. The wines in Trentino and the nearby Veneto and Alto Adige are really excellent.will try to come up with some more specific recommendations soon. for cheeses, restaurants etc. Its seems as though you ought to be able to get asparagus at this time of year. In Italy, vegetables are mostly seasonal - they will not be shipped away from different climate zones far away as in US.

              1. re: adirao

                You can find oodles of risotto recipes online at if you want to improve your technique. As someone has already pointed out, almost all of them call for onions in one shape or another, but there is never a pronounced taste of onion in the finished dish.