Italy is known for it’s food. Pizza, pasta, and wine all seem to taste better in Italy. Maybe it’s the ingredients, maybe it’s the tradition, or maybe it’s just the placebo. The great thing about Italian food is that you can get great food for pretty cheap. Enjoying all Italy has to offer on a budget is quite easy, but there are some things that are worth splurging on, depending on where you are.
Every region of Italy is known for something different. Something special. Although you can find margarita pizza or pesto pasta anywhere, it’ll be even better (and usually cheaper) if you get it where it originated.
Here’s what to eat (and where to eat it) in Italy:
Bologna: Tagliatelle a Ragu
Pasta bolognese is popular all around the U.S., but in Italy don’t try to order bolognese sauce. Bolognese sauce is known as “a ragu.” It’s much more flavorful and complex than any bolognese sauce that I’ve ever had in the states. I always assumed that bolognese sauce is red sauce with ground beef thrown in. (Admitting this probably makes every Italian chef cringe). True ragu is cooked for about four hours. The flavors of the meat and spices simmer into the sauce and create a perfect harmony. It’s a lot less saucy than American bolognese and more meaty. Tagliatelle is the perfect vessel for the sauce. It’s thick enough to allow the meat to cling to the noodle perfectly.
Get it on a budget: Trattoria d’Orsa, six euro.
Naples invented thin crust pizza and it’s popularity has spread around the world. This pizza is best eaten folded in half while dripping sauce and olive oil. This is the one place where I’ve seen a single serving size bigger than in the States. One pizza is a serving size. It’s far from a personal pan. It’s bigger than a human head. Looking at the size of the pizza, I did not expect to finish it. Then within about 10 minutes I’d finished it easily. It comes in all different flavors, but the best is the simple and classic margarita with red sauce, mozzarella, and a bit of basil. Bonus points if it’s made with buffalo mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella is saltier and richer than cow mozzarella and makes for an even more flavorful pizza.
Get it on a budget: Sorbillo, starting at four euro for a simple margarita.
Rome: Spaghetti Carbonara
Like bolognese, Italian carbonara is very different from the creamy American version. It’s a lot lighter with just eggs, parmesan, and guanciale (a salty Italian bacon), but no cream. It tastes fresher than anything I’ve had in the U.S. I was worried it would have an eggy taste, but the parmesan balanced it well. The sauce coated the noodles lightly, but fully so there was no residual sauce in bowl. This is a dish that’s worth splurging on as it’s easy to mess up. Guanciale is quite salty, so the dish can easily be too salty. The egg can also be overcooked leaving chunks of egg in the pasta, instead of coating the pasta.
Splurge on it: Armando Al Pantheon, 10.5 euro
Tuscany has such a rich food tradition that it’s difficult to choose just one thing, but for budget travelers panini’s are the way to go. All around Florence tiny shops sell big sandwiches packed with meat, cheese, and veggies. Panini’s are most commonly served on focaccia, but also come on a roll or a baguette. Most places will have a menu of classic panini’s. I always trust the experts over making my own. As much as I love travel and trying new things, I struggle to push myself out of my comfort zone when it comes to choosing food. Going with a menu or recommended option helps me push myself out of the comfort zone while knowing everything will taste great. It’s important to remember that these panini’s aren’t like American ones. They’re not hot or grilled, just a simple sandwich made from fresh ingredients.
Get it on a budget: All’Antico Vinaio, five euro, try the La Favulosa.
Cinque Terre: Pesto
Cinque Terre is known for it’s fresh, light pesto. The strong but simple flavor of the basil perfectly compliments pasta or pizza. All the ingredients are native to the region, and therefore come super fresh. That’s the great thing about Italy, all of the ingredients come fresh and the pizza/pasta are made from scratch, so the flavors are all quite powerful. The bad thing about Cinque Terre is that everything is quite expensive. To try pesto on a budget, head to bigger less touristy cities in the region like La Spezia or Genoa. You don’t have to spend a ridiculous amount of money in Cinque Terre, but it will cost around 13 euro.
Splurge on it: Trattoria Dal Billy, 13 euro.
Milan: An Appertivo
An appertivo isn’t a specific dish, it’s more of a tradition. From six in the evening to around eight, purchase a drink at any Milanese bar and pick food from a large buffet. Not all appertivos are created equal. At some, you pay more for your drink to access the buffet. These places usually have a more diverse buffet with everything from cold cheese and meats to pizza and pasta. At some places, you don’t pay extra for the drink, but the buffet is more limited with cold meats and cheese and some chips or olives. The appertivo comes with any drink, but for an authentic experience stick to Italian classes like a negroni or an aperol or campari spritz.
Appertivo’s on a budget will be around six euro at bars around Milan for a small buffet, for a splurge find a larger buffet for around 11 euro.
Anywhere and everywhere: Gelato
Eat gelato everywhere. Eat it as often as you can. Moderation is not key here because gelato will never be as good anywhere else. It makes the perfect snack/dessert/lunch/dinner. Not all gelato is created equal. Avoid the places with unnatural colors. Pistachio should be an earthy green, not a lime green. Also make sure to avoid the places with gelato decorated and piled high. It’s more show than flavor.
A small cup of gelato with two flavors will cost around two or three euro depending on where you are.