There are 20 regions in Italy, each with its own distinctive — and delicious — culinary traditions. Since the cooking styles are hyper-regional, you could stumble upon very different foodie experiences in towns that are a mere 3 miles apart. To some, trying to taste the most from a region in only 3 (OK, 5) meals a day may sound daunting. To us, it sounds like an adventurous challenge. Pull up a seat and embark on a culinary tour from Tuscany to Sicily.
When you close your eyes and imagine Tuscany, you’re likely to envision rolling, sun-kissed hills dotted with olive trees, grape vines and the occasional farmhouse or villa. It’s a place where time slows and you can savor the rustic, earthy foods and wines that prevail here. While all that is true, this large and varied province ranges from mountains to farmland to seaside, and also encompasses the bustling cities of Florence, Siena and Pisa.
As with all regions in Italy, uniquely bold food traditions pervade the area, such as a liberal use of beans, hearty soups, crusty loaves, fennel-scented salami and sheep’s-milk cheeses. Chianina cattle and wild boar -- or cinghiale -- are among the prized Tuscan meats, and locals enjoy stuffed pastas like ravioli. Wash it all down with a bold local red like a Brunello di Montalcino, a Chianti or a Super Tuscan. After all, Tuscany produces some of the best-loved wines in all of Italy.
As a wildly popular tourist destination filled with art, romance, quiet canals and stunning beauty everywhere you turn, Venice is the indisputable shining star of the Veneto region. Naturally, Venice gets much of its seafood from the Gulf of Venice and the Adriatic Sea beyond it; but venture inland and you’ll find mountains and plains where country folk subsist on traditional preparations of risotto and polenta, commonly cooking with such ingredients as radicchio (a leaf chicory) and chicken and calf livers.
The medieval city of Verona, also in this region, pulls a fair amount of fish from lakes and rivers. And while most Italian desserts are simple and on the less-sweet side, the beloved tiramisu supposedly has its roots in the Veneto region. We also have Veneto to thank for Prosecco, Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone wines.
The appeal of most Italian cuisine is its effortlessness and simplicity. Not so in Piedmont, the northern region surrounded on 3 sides by the Alps and bordering both France and Switzerland. Here, there is often a deliberate attempt to make the richest, most decadent foods in Italy using such ingredients as local white truffles, gorgonzola, butter and world-renowned chocolates, as well as a liberal use of gnocchi and polenta.
Piedmont is also the home of fonduta -- a cheese dip similar to fondue but enhanced with truffles and egg yolks -- and bagna cauda, an olive oil-based dip deepened with anchovies and …. more truffles. The region’s wines include the unparalleled Barolo and Barbaresco, their vines benefiting from time spent on cool mountain slopes.
Commonly called the heel of Italy’s boot-like shape, Puglia is home to a cuisine that can easily be characterized by its artful marriage between such aggressive flavors as lamb, goat, bitter greens, spicy peppers and urchin with delicate ingredients like fava beans, milky pillows of fresh burrata cheese and generous anointments of olive oil.
The ancient coastal cities of Bari and Brindisi draw tourists to the east side of the Italian peninsula. Inland, the warm, arid plains are ideal for growing wheat and vegetables, which find their way into the produce-heavy, pasta-and-bread-focused cuisine of the region. Ear-shaped orecchiette is a particularly beloved pasta here. On the peninsula’s western coast, the city of Taranto -- on the cusp of both Mare Piccolo and Mare Grande -- is a shellfish heaven, especially for mussels. Wines here aren’t as well-known as those Tuscan superstars, yet Puglia is an abundant wine producer, making everything from the robust Brindisi to the subtle Locorotondo.
Much of Italy has been occupied by foreign conquerors at one point or another, each time absorbing a few of the culinary traditions brought by those invaders. In Sicily, the indigenous dishes that pull heavily from the surrounding seas and such sun-loving vegetables as eggplant and peppers are complemented by Arab, Greek and Spanish influences. You will even find couscous used commonly in northwestern Sicily thanks to African influences, and the use of raisins, saffron and cinnamon reportedly came from the Arabs.
Dessert is typically a much bigger deal in Sicily than in many other regions of Italy -- perhaps because citrus fruits and nuts grow so abundantly here. This island is also the birthplace of cannoli, meltingly light pignoli cookies and granita, a semi-frozen dessert made from water and various flavors like lemons and almonds. They pair well with a glass of Marsala wine, which also hails from Sicily.