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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!

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  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 additions...cheap 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 www.epicurious.com 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.

                1. re: adirao

                  I agree - the Terlano whites weve had have been really delicious.

                2. What a beautiful part of Italy- how lucky you are!!! My father-in-law was born in Trentino...so have had some of the regional food. The best apples come from the Trentino-Alto Adige region, and naturally they make very good strudel there. For fresh summer fruits, you should try the wild strawberries or "fragole di bosco" ...they are tiny but sooo delicious. Also good are "mirtilli" which are like tiny blueberries...I especially love the mirtilli-flavoured grappa...actually there are loads of fruit-flavoured grappas to enjoy that are famous from that region.

                  For other typical fare, you should try the canederli - which are like giant bread dumplings. But be careful to ask what they are made with, sometimes veggies or herbs, but oftentimes will have speck or liver. And they will either be served in broth or with butter and herbs and cheese. I am not crazy for them, because they will sit like a rock in your stomach, but you should still give them a try.

                  Also try the spatzle (which are lighter flour & egg dumplings)...these are great with gorgonzola cheese as a first course. I'm sure you'll also find gnocchi there....keep your eyes open for gnocchi di castagne (which are gnocchis made with chestnut flour & are delish!)

                  There are loads of good cheeses there - ASIAGO!!!! for one... also try the goat's cheeses (caprinos) and the goat cheese ricotta is delicious.

                  Also you will find good rye bread, and Austrian style pastries in the paneficios and pasticcerias.

                  Hope this helps! Have a great time!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: msmarabini

                    Thanks! Gnocchi di castagne sounds good to try. I had gelato with fragole di bosco...assumed it was mixed berries from the forest.

                    The other day I went for a walk in the mountains and saw apricots and cherries growing in someone's vineyard. The branches were overhanging the road and some fruits had fallen on the road so I got a taste. :) The view of the mountains is really so incredible...as are the older streets and buildings.

                  2. After living in Italy for several years I realized it is all about the ingredients being so flavorful, then deftly handled rather than "Italian" recipes or particular foods. Local dishes you must try are the ones they offer ---- in season, with local ingredients. Today sadly too many ingredients now come from outside the areas and are table ready all throughout the year coming from other mass growing countries like Turkey.

                    So the best bet is to stick with the seasonal specials and subscribe to the SlowFoods movement which started in Italy for this very reason - preservation of local, fresh and seasonal Italian food.

                    Per esempio: insalata caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil salad) comes from the tomatoes that are grown on the volcanic soils of Vesuvius under the Campania sun with mozzarella made fresh daily and not shipped or refrigerated into preserved rubbery glops. Just perfect fresh, local ingredients singing together under the Neapolitan skies, yet you can have insalata caprese anywhere in Italy and it will never reach the magical heights of its home base. When the name of the dish indicates a locale like caprese (Capri), don't order it more than 50 miles from its origins. (!)

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: glbtrtr

                      I am reminded of the time we saw "hemmenex" on a menu in Ticino and looked at the German translation on this menu and did not understand the German either so we asked and the waitress looked very surprised and kept repeating "hemmenex", "hemmenex". I finally asked what it was made out in Italian and she responded ........ uovi et proscuito.* (!)(!)

                      1. re: glbtrtr

                        Sorry, it was not Ticino but in the Tyrol - Val Gardena area of Italy where Italian is the second language to German.

                        1. re: glbtrtr

                          Thanks for the tip...I'll just try to buy whatever's fresh and mix/cook it however I can.

                          I've already realized that the Italian food I ate outside Italy was complicated compared to what is served here. I guess in other countries they have to add lots of cheese, cream and herbs/spices to make up for the quality of the ingredients.

                          1. re: adirao

                            Ok I pulled out my Fred Plotkin book, Italy for the Gourmet traveler, and here are some of the things he mentions for the Trentino and Rovereto
                            1. this is a big mushroom region, with a lot of avid mushroom hunters - look for them in the markets come Fall - I well remember a "mostra di funghi" in Padova and a whole mushroom market in Vicenza when we were in the Veneto in late September one year. Plotkin says Trent has a good mushroom market and an annual mushroom fair (mostra)
                            2. apples are a regional specialty as well as plums, grapes and chestnuts. nOTE: In late-summer fall look for the wonderful varieties of muscat grapes (moscato).
                            3. fish from lake Garda, if you eat fish also trout. the fish in this area is lovely and delicate.
                            4. cheeses - plotkin says that there are some generic names but the actual cheeses under those names vary over the region - some are asiago (some is aged), malga (a group of mountain cheeses).vezzena (Plotkin says you shouldtry this one). bagoss. He says many cheeses are simply marked "nostrano" which means ours. I think buying products labelled "nostrano" is a good idea wherever you are in italy - these are items the vendors are selling with pride.
                            5. some sweets - apples strudel, fregolata (a crumbly "cake" with almonds also found in Veneto, Lombardy, brazadel (a breakfast cake) and zelten (christmas cake)
                            6. wines - Plotkin says that a lot of the wines go into decent but generic bulk production (like the Cavit Pinot Grigio and Merlot we drink here) He recommends trying to find wines of small producers like Balter (for Traminer)
                            Battistoti (for Marzemino) etc. Note: you are close to other wonderful regions like Veneto (Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave, etc) and Alto Adigo - make friends with a wine merchant or go to a wine bar and figure out what you like - there is so much to explore.

                            Re Rovereto specifically. I so envy you having so much time in this area. Here are some of Plotkins recommendations - I imagine you may have found some of them already
                            1. Pasticceria Andreotti, via Roma 9 - he says this is an outstanding bakery, the best he has found in the Trentino. Has a strong Austro-Hungarian, as well as venetian influence (the latter shown in the dryness and use of alcohol in some of the cakes) Specialties he mentions - fil di ferro (thread of iron) a roll filled with a layer of fruit and rum, vaja (plum cake with pastry cream,heibach (a yeast bread), etc etc. + great cappuchino.
                            E.N.D.A.S. - a workers restaurant at Scala della Torre 7. Modestly priced with dishes includingpolenta with mushrooms and cheese, a fine strudel, good Asiago and a good house Marzemino ( Conte Bossi Federogotti)
                            Osteria Pettirosso- at Corso Bettini 24 - offers a dish called orzotto al Marzemino, barley cooked in the local Marzemino wine, plus fresh water fishes and baccala (dried salt cod)
                            Fruit and Veg Market - held at Piazza Malfatti nr Piazza delle
                            Erbe - Thursday and Saturday mornings
                            Alimentari Finarolli - Via Mercerie 9 -good salumi, homemade pasta, good source of funghi porcini.
                            Gelateria Gocci de latte, Via Tartarotti 56. try their apple ice cream. their products are also sold at nearby Bar Excelsior.
                            The Slowfood guide has one recommendation if Rovereto - Osteria Pettirosso at Corso Bettini 24, wine bar and restaurant. This looks like a great place to sample local dishes and wines.

                            We visited Trento and Riva del Garda last year - Trento is a beautiful city with a lot to see and do - we barely scratched the surface. the castle there, with amazing frescos in an upper chamber are a must see. The germanic influence is notable (much more beer than farther south in Italy) If you want more info about restaurants and shopping in Trento, I will send. Riva is really touristy, but you can catch a lake steamer there for a magical trip on the lake - in addition to breathtaking mountain views, you can see hundreds of windsurfers whipping around and old terraces where some lemons are still grown.

                            1. re: jen kalb

                              Sigh, my two and half years living in Italy was on Lake Garda, at the southern end looking up towards Riva and the pre-Alps ........... one develops a palate by osmosis after that time without even trying ........... my life and world peaked after those years. The rest of it spent attempting re-creation ..... and I am goin' down trying ....

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                Oh my god, this is so amazing! Thank you so much for so many recommendations! I live right around the corner from Scala della Torre so I don't think ENDAS is there anymore--it's become a regional specialty trattoria. I have been to Osteria Pettirosso once already (but only for the wine, which I really liked), but I'll visit again for the food. I've also seen the fruit & veg market (though now it seems to be only on Tuesday mornings, during which I work). I'm also always amazed at how beautiful all the cafes, bars and trattorias look.

                                I have really liked even the cheap white wines I buy from the supermarket--though it's tough for me to remember their names.

                                I haven't visited Riva del Garda or Trento yet but I plan to soon. If either of you have any specific standouts that you recommend, please feel free to send them along. Thanks again!