7 underrated regions in Italy with the best food and wine
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Italy is one of the top destinations in the world for food and wine. And the country’s culinary delights extend well beyond just pizza, pasta and Chianti wine. We’re definitely not discounting a trip to Rome to indulge in a hearty plate of cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta), sipping a foamed cappuccino in one of Florence’s bustling squares or splurging on a fancy dinner out in Milan (the Lombardy region has over 60 restaurants with Michelin stars).
But if you want to delve deeper into Italy’s world-renowned food and wine scene, consider a holiday in one of these lesser-visited regions known for gastronomy.
1. Emilia Romagna
This northern Italian region is home to some of Italy’s best cuisine. Start in the city of Bologna, which is known as the gastronomic capital of Italy. Bologna is affectionally nicknamed La Grassa (the fat lady) by Italians thanks to its ragu, a tomato-and-meat-based gravy sauce often piled upon pizza or used in lasagna, also known as Bolognese sauce.
The hill town of Parma is where some of the country’s best prosciutto (dried, cured ham) comes from. The ham is buttery and smooth — don’t remove the fat, that’s what gives it all the flavour. Pair the ham with fan-favourite Parmigiano Reggiano, a cured, hard cheese that also comes from the region. And let’s not forget about sharp balsamic vinegar often sprinkled over the popular cheese, which hails from Modena. Quench your thirst with a sparkling Lambrusco wine, which is cultivated in various vineyards scattered around the Emilia Romagna region.
I’ll never forget watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix (season 4, episode 2) when Chef Corrado Assenza explains how his family-owned pastry and coffee shop Caffè Sicilia in Noto has evolved over the years (it’s been open for more than 100). By the time the episode had finished, I’d already booked my flights to Catania, dreaming of cannoli, cassata (a ricotta-based cake) and the shop’s speciality — warm brioche bread paired with either almond or lemon granita (a type of Italian ice), often eaten for breakfast during the warmer months.
Read more: 5 reasons to visit Naples, Italy
I couldn’t have been the first visitor at Caffè Sicilia to order nine different desserts in one sitting, comparing and sampling each in wonder. And the rest of Sicily’s food scene brought me equal amounts of joy (and less of a sugar high, thankfully). Sicilian pistachios are everywhere: in pastries, encrusted and sauteed on sea bass and ground into pesto with lemon, garlic, basil and cheese. Don’t forget to pair a dish of pasta alla norma (pasta topped with aubergine, tomato and pecorino or ricotta) with a full-bodied glass of Nero D’Avola wine.
Move over, Tuscany. Piedmont is the up-and-coming foodie destination for both tourists and locals alike. Its city of Bra is home to the Slow Food Headquarters, an organisation responsible for protecting and promoting local food growers, farmers and traditional flavours — there’s even a slow food university to train chefs and other food professionals. Exploring some of Piedmont’s smaller towns and wine villages will introduce you to the best slow food — local, seasonal ingredients, eco-friendly wines and age-old recipes.
While some of the region’s best cuisine (think signature white truffles, grissini, which are breadsticks and rich Barolo wines) is more traditional, parts of the region, such as Turin, are emerging as newer and more innovative cuisine destinations. Chef Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero holds a Michelin star and often appears on top-100 restaurants in the world lists. Here, you can indulge in some of the region’s more experimental and creative cuisine, items like cyber eggs or virtual oysters while still experiencing that Piedmontese charm (the restaurant is located inside a historic castle).
This crescent-shaped region is home to more than just Cinqueterre. Perhaps you’ve eaten focaccia bread or pesto? Both hail from the region. Liguria’s mineral-rich soil is also ideal for growing herbs, meaning much of the food you’ll find there will be flavoured with rosemary, fennel, sage and basil, which brings us to pesto.
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Pesto is actually just a nickname for “pesto alla Genovese”, thanks to the sauce’s origins in Genoa, the capital of Liguria. You can spread the green basil-based sauce on pretty much anything and everything for a burst of flavour. Farinata, a type of tart made from chickpea flour and olive oil, is another food found throughout the region. And whatever you eat in Liguria, you may as well douse with olive oil. This particular region’s oil is made with the Taggiasca olive, creating an extra virgin variety that is light and flavourful, yet not so strong it masks the taste of the food. It’s often paired with seafood, so you can enjoy it with fresh fish all while soaking up the beauty of the Italian Riviera.
Parts of this region may not be considered “lesser-visited” but we simply couldn’t leave Campania off the list. Starting with Naples and its famous pizza, the city actually has its own pizza police: the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. This group certifies pizzerias and gives them the official go-ahead to make authentic Neapolitan pizza. The pizza differs from other pizza because it’s cooked in a wood-burning oven, for about a minute at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. This ensures that the crust is soft and malleable and the mozzarella cheese is perfectly melted.
The region is also famous for its citrus fruits, especially Sorrento lemons. As you weave through the Amalfi Coast, you’ll taste the lemon in almost everything you eat, zested into a chicken or seafood dish, in gelato, cookies and of course, limoncello. And if limoncello isn’t your thing, you can always sample one of Italy’s most underrated red wines, Aglianico, or opt for a variety cultivated along the steep, sloping vineyards of Neapolitan volcano Mount Vesuvius, Lacryma Christi wine (this literally translates to tears of Christ).
Puglia forms the southern heel of Italy’s boot, known for gorgeous villages, seaside towns and endless olive groves, vineyards and rolling countryside. The south of Italy moves at a slower pace, ensuring you’ll have plenty of time to indulge in long, leisurely meals. Dining in areas with fewer tourists may mean you might not be charged a coperto — a surcharge which is basically to sit at the restaurant (often higher if you’re sitting outside). You can also avoid this by standing at the bar for your coffee instead of sitting.
If you’re visiting during the heat of summer, make sure to sample frisell, a cracker-style bread that’s baked and toasted, topped with tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt. Another must-have is bread made in the village of Altamura. Created from durum wheat flour and baked in a wood oven, this round, large bread is the only bread in the world with a DOP status (Protected Designation of Origin). The recipe is rumoured to date back to the Middle Ages. Puglians also love antipasti (starters), so don’t be surprised to see many on the menu — items like stuffed, grilled or fried vegetables, local cheeses and souffles. Don’t forget to sample a tannic, fruity red wine from the Primitivo grape that’s similar to Zinfandel.
While everyone knows about Tuscany, fewer are familiar with the region to its southeast: Umbria. The small, landlocked area is known as one of the greener areas of the country, scattered with vineyards and forests. Carnivores should head to Norcia, known as the pork capital of Italy. Here, you can enjoy cured meats like ham (Prosciutto di Norcia is especially famous), salami and even wild boar, as well as other types of charcuterie.
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Visitors can also head into the woods to truffle hunt, or simply enjoy the speciality tartufo grated on pasta, sauteed with eggs or even used to flavour the aforementioned meats and Umbrian Caciotta cheese. The woods also have many bird game and don’t be surprised to find things like pheasant stew or quail ragu on an Umbrian restaurant menu. And for dessert, don’t forget to sample something sweet at the Perugina Chocolate Factory. Umbria is also home to a number of wine regions.
While you really can’t go wrong eating anywhere in Italy, diving into some of the country’s lesser-visited regions may ensure you get a taste of true Italian ingredients and recipes. Whether it be pork in Umbria, truffles in Piedmont or pizza in Campania, get ready to discover some of the world’s best cuisine in Italy — with wines to match.
Featured photo courtesy of Justin Lewis/Getty Images
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