If you are headed out to the tourist capital, Italy, you cannot help but be thinking about eating amazing food while you’re there. Here is what I found on my recent trip around Italy, starting in Rome and then traveling to Assisi, Siena, Florence, Cinque Terre and Venice.
There are so many places to eat so you will need to become a judge of what a place can offer you. You will find gems and duds everywhere, but that all depends on what you are looking for.
I also had a list of places I wanted to go to that I had researched extensively, and yet I managed to get to very few of them. We would be on the other side of the city seeing a gallery or museum and a lovely sandwich bar was right there, so we would choose to try whatever was interesting in the moment. Travel is organic and you should just flow with what is around you.
Food is often similar in restaurants in an area, so rather try to experience particular foods of a region rather than places that you may have heard about.
When you are in Liguria make sure you have pesto and Trofie pasta, when you are in Venice be sure to have the cicchetti and their fluffy white tramezzini, sundowners or Passegiatta time on the square – Aperol spritz and snacks before dinner later.
Centrale Mercato – Termini train station
This indoor food market is right inside the main train station building so it’s a great first stop or top-up before you head on to the next destination. Stalls are all brimming with street food like arancini, focaccia and pizza. Many dishes are modern and there is a lot of choice. We had Sicilian arancini stuffed with ragu and mozarella. You can also get sliced meats, cheeses and antipasti here to take back to your apartment if you are going self-catering.
Al Cardello in Via Frangipane, near the Colosseum
We stumbled upon this place after our first day at the big Roman sites. We just needed a break and wanted something casual. They make their own pastas and pride themselves on their strangozzi which is an irregular cut of long pasta served with a tomato and chilli sauce. I had my favourite, gnocchi, and it was served with loads of lightly cooked white onions, zucchini and olive oil. This was our first introduction to how simple Italian food is.
Astemio Enoteca in Via Di Santa maria Maggiore
Enotecas are fancy wine bars where you can pop in to taste many wines and then enjoy your favourite one by the glass.
Baccano in Via delle Muratte, Trevi Fountain area
This was one of those times where it’s fun to eat near the main attractions to be immersed in the intoxicating buzz of nightlife in Rome. We sat outside and were served Chanel Spritz (Chambord variety) by waiters in long white aprons and curled up moustaches. I love that.
U. Giuliani Pasticceria in Via Marsala
This old-school coffee bar is across the street from the Termini station. To the left was where we stayed, and so we took our morning coffee and pastry here on the corner.
Gelateria del Teatro in Via dei Coronari near the Piazza Navona
Highly rated for their more artisanal style gelato, Gelateria del Teatro is not to be missed. The ingredients are fresh and you can watch them making the gelato through a window into the kitchen. I chose the pinoli (pine nut) gelato.
Babbingtons tea room next to the Spanish steps
If you visit Rome anywhere from March to October, you will experience the heat and you will need refreshment, opportunities to escape from the crowds and a seat. Around the Spanish steps I found this tea room to be an oasis. It’s cool inside and it sells loose-leaf iced tea. Because its more expensive and ‘prim’ it’s less populated and everything that outside the shop isn’t.
Assisi is small and a lot of places are on the main road. You can find the staples – Pasticceria, gelateria, prosciuttoria and caffes – without having to search much at all.
La Pizetta di Agnese in Via Sant’Agnese – one road from the Santa Chiara church.
The view from this little cafe is picture-perfect overlooking the Umbrian countryside in all its Old Master beauty. Try the thick, iced Crema coffee and good old Caprese and Bruschetta with lots of olive oil on the side.
Something we particularly enjoyed was taking our Aperol spritz in a tiny courtyard balcony just at the end of the stairs to the hill of the Rocca Maggiore. The view was majestic and the place was nearly empty in the lull before dinner. It is a true gem.
La Lanterna in Via San Rufino
This is a delightful courtyard restaurant taking up the whole road. It’s cosy because, of course, as usual you are sharing a table with other patrons. We tried the warthog stew and the strangozzi with porcini and preserved truffle with a big glass of the house wines.
One thing you must traditionally eat in Siena is panforte. A type of dried and minced fruit cake with nuts and spices, it is a super sweet and gooey Christmas cake. They do make chocolate variations, but the original is still my favourite. You can find them anywhere in the pasticceria in Siena. Buy a round to take home; they are so beautifully packaged for traveling.
Pizzicheria De Miccoli on the Via di Citta
One of my absolute favourite things that I ate in Siena was a torta rustica. It is essentially a large savoury muffin made with loads of off cuts of cured meats and mature cheeses. This punchy italian delight is a two-man affair. Choose to have a panino here and get your meat and cheese sliced thick to order and stuffed into a baguette behind an old-fashioned counter with cured meats dangling from the ceiling. This is a wonderfully Italian experience that requires patience. The shop is tiny and popular. The gents behind the counter like to be precise. No photos allowed.
The best coffee experience we had was on the edge of the main Piazza del Campo. The entrance to the cafe is on the road behind it and it leads out to a balcony with the best view of the heart of Siena.
We made some meals ourselves too and bought fresh goodies in the lovely corner shops along the main stradas.
We picked up some truffle and artichoke paste for antipasta from this bottega dedicated purely to truffles! Oh the smell… sigh. I love truffle so deeply. I spent a lot of euro here! I recommend buying something to take home with you. The truffle powder is sensational! You can also order online through their site.
Pasticceria Nannini Posta in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti
This is where I had my first Shakerato or iced coffee – so very welcome in the Italian heat. They also have a made-to order fresh fruit and vegetable juice bar at the back.
Fiore pasticceria in Via dei Montanini
This is where I bought panforte and schiacciatta. This is traditionally a sweet focaccia made with little black grapes and honey. We also found a fig and walnut flavour which looks amazing and I will be making it soon. This is much more appealing to me because I am not a fan of eating lots of grape seeds even though they are apparently good for you.
When I got home, I made a blueberry and pinenut schiacciatta here.
La Taverna di san Giuseppe in Via G. Dupre
We had an excellent meal here just around the corner from our apartment. The building dates back to Etruscan occupation so it is a special place to take in your Italian meal.
Tours into the deep wine cellar allow you to taste and select the wine for your meal. Book in advance and expect to share tables with rowdy Italian folk. A must is the gnocchi with fresh Umbrian truffle.
Don Nino Gelateria
This lovely coffee shop is in the same square as the magnificent Duomo. You can slurp on your frothy cuppa while staring right up at the colossus of green and white marble.
We visited every day for their cappuccino, rice tartlets and the best cannoli we had on our trip.
Caffe Gilli on the Piazza della Repubblica
This classic eatery has been here since 1733 and is still set out in the old wooden and marble finishings. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos, but I managed to get this one before they shut me down. Try the many pastries and sandwiches or have a bowl of creme caramel at the counter with your macchiato.
Mercato Centrale in the Piazza Mercato Centrale San Lorenzo
This indoor food market is split into two storeys. The bottom floor is full of fresh produce and grocer stalls. Here is where locals buy their meats, cheeses, pasta and dried mushrooms.
Upstairs is a food stall market with a lot of variety of local fare in street food format and there is also a large bar. An added treat is the chef school here that you can watch through the glass walls.
La Strega Nocciola Gelateria in Via de’ Bardi
5 minutes from the Ponte Vecchio, this is the kind of gelateria that serves the high-grade stuff. You can see some shops that serve the piled up flashy flavours of gelato, and some that store their gelato in below-counter stainless steel tubs. These sorts of gelateria use all natural products and churn smaller batches. I had the Fior de latte, pine nut and lavender.
Vyta Santa Margherita in the Florence Santa Maria Novella main train station
We passed through the Florence train station many times on our trip because nearly every major trip between cities goes through Florence to change.
The copper coffee and sandwich bar at the train station is a welcome respite from the madness of the Santa Maria Novella train station. Coffee is warm not hot, space is minimal and the sandwiches are plenty.
Each of the 5 little seaside towns in the Cinque Terre have a similar layout: one main road or tiny centre and then residential walkways leading off that. Finding something delicious to eat isn’t difficult as everything is on these short main roads. Their focaccia is aplenty and often full of white onion and olives. The pizza was different too: square and thick like a focaccia. Instead of melting mozzarella, I tasted their use of stracciatella which made it slightly tangy and more graceful to eat.
Have the deep fried anchovy and calamari in cones in Vernazza as well as any slice in the focacceria. Go to Pasticceria Laura in Monte Rosso al Mare in Via Vittorio Emanuele and have the Monterossina torte. You might find other versions of it in the five lands, but this one was the original. Pick up a cream bombolina here too. It’s a fluffy, flat, custard-stuffed donut that is just heavenly.
Pesto is a ligurian speciality so make sure you have it al least once with the accompanying pasta Trofie. Of course fresh seafood is everywhere and if you live in the villages during your stay rather than day tripping, you can see the fishermen and their pets fishing and chatting over their boats which get parked in the town square. We chose to stay in Vernazza for this. There are lots of lemon groves nearby, and so there are plenty of lemon tarts and pies. Be sure to try the lemon granitas as well. Locals grab a bottle of wine and a few snacks and have a pre-dinner pause on the wharf after the tourists have cleared off. The restaurant with the best view is on the rock cliff on the pier in Vernazza.
I also found a variety of rice tarts, both sweet and savoury and these were some of my most favourite discoveries.
Be sure to have the Cinque Terre wines at any one of the bars for sundowners.
You will find tons of places that offer delicious food in Venice. Many of the restaurants have the same type of menu and you will find pasticcerias, arancini bars, sandwich bars and street food holes in the wall everywhere.
Be sure to have Baccala: salt cod fish, creamed and pureed and often served with polenta. Stop in for a glass of wine and cicchetti, which is a tapas-style bar food. Try anything made with cuttle fish or squid ink, pasta nero or risotto. Delight in the tramezzini which is soft, white bread stuffed with saucier fillings than the panini. You will see packets of yellow biscuits for sale everywhere, do try them and dip them in your chilled Vin santo for sundowners. A trip to Caffe Florian is expensive, but beautiful and absolutely essential.
It’s easier to get lost in Venice than it is to find your destination, so just follow your nose and try whatever you find along the way as you go sightseeing.
You can find an old-school pasticceria near every campo, piazza and local clusters of shops. Be sure to go in and get a quick cuppa and a pastry. It’s small and you stand with all the locals so it’s not a long game. I found a couple of modern pasticceria called Farini. People having pizza and custard brioche buns for breakfast is lovely to be around and there is lots of seating space inside at the counters. It’s great if you want to rest and take it all in.
Dinner on the Grand Canal is really beautiful. It’s a fantasy land for those of us who sigh deeply when we think of Venice. The restaurants vary in their offerings and authenticity. You will need to judge for yourself if you are willing to eat from what they label as Tourist Menu, so you can enjoy the view. We had a delicious ragu with pasta and the service was great.
The Gelato in Venice seemed to be more indulgent than in the other cities. This Sacher Torte flavour was so decadent and all consuming. It was the most memorable gelato we had there, and we ate gelato every day (sometimes twice a day!). It is a sugary delight and not the purest form of original, artisan gelato, but oh my gosh it was so good! We found this flavour in several places. No gelato shop will disappoint you.
The Rialto market is a wonder to visit. If you are renting an apartment with a kitchen you could stop in here to get your supplies. The fish market is full and beautiful, and it’s very interesting to see different types of fish here. The market is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but it seems that the fresh produce market is open every day, rain or shine.
Aperol or Campari spritz time starts around 4pm. Pick a campo and pull up a chair to watch the Venetian life. Make sure you do this in St Marco’s Square on at least one night. It’s magical.
Happy travels and happy eating!