As an American based in Rome, I consider it my mission in life to eat my way through Italy. I’ve traveled from the Dolomites in the north to Sicily in the south, dining on classic pasta dishes in old-school trattorias in Rome, brioche doused with almond granita in Sicily and the freshest seafood in Capri at stylish beach clubs.
A word to the wise: Unless you’re getting street food to go, reservations are essential in Italy. Some restaurants use online reservation systems, but many don’t, so you’ll have to call or ask the concierge at your hotel to make a reservation for you. Believe me — it’s worth it.
Wherever you travel in Italy, you’ll find plenty of places to dine. To help you narrow down your options, here are some of my favorite insider spots.
If you’re visiting Italy, it’s likely you’ll spend at least a couple of days in Rome — as you should. The Eternal City is not only full of remarkable ancient ruins, incredible museums and charming cobblestone streets; it’s also a foodie paradise where culinary offerings run the gamut from mouthwatering street food to Michelin-starred restaurants.
At most traditional Roman trattorias, the menu will feature the four classic pastas — carbonara, amatriciana, pasta alla gricia and cacio e pepe — but that doesn’t mean every trattoria makes them equally well.
Salumeria Roscioli — a deli and restaurant that’s part of a small family-run empire that also includes a bakery, a cafe, a wine bar and a brand new location in New York City — is arguably the most famous. Tables book up a month in advance, but you can usually find availability on shorter notice at Rimessa Roscioli, the wine bar that serves a similar menu.
Personally, I also love the family-run trattoria Da Enzo al 29 in Trastevere and La Matriciana dal 1870, which claims to be the restaurant that introduced bucatini all’amatriciana to Rome.
The hottest new restaurants, however, just opened in two of the city’s buzziest new hotels. In June, the Bulgari Hotel Roma swung open its doors and its namesake restaurant by chef Niko Romito of Michelin acclaim became an instant hit. Also, the debut of The Rome Edition brought with it a fantastic new restaurant called Anima helmed by Paola Colucci, whose restaurant Pianostrada is a favorite among locals.
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Another perennial favorite, Florence seems to be enjoying a new vibrancy.
In a city where tradition often trumps innovation, one of the hottest tickets these days is Angel Roofbar & Dining at Hotel Calimala, which features fantastic views of the city’s terracotta rooftops. You’ll need to book well in advance to sample alternative takes on classic Italian cuisine. Expect plates like roasted cauliflower amped up with Israeli flavors like tahini and spicy harissa.
La Ménagère is another excellent place to experience modern Florentine dining. Up front, there’s a flower shop and a boutique, as well as a casual cafe, while in the back, the candlelit dining room has a refined air that is perfect for a romantic dinner.
Hankering for a classic bistecca alla Fiorentina? The place to get this regional staple is Regina Bistecca, which serves the finest Chianina beef in a charming space that used to be an antiquarian bookshop.
Enough about cities. In Italy, summer is best enjoyed at the sea.
If you’re heading to Italy’s seaside destination par excellence — the Amalfi Coast — you would do well to make restaurant reservations far in advance, especially if you want to dine at the most coveted spots. Many of the most in-demand tables can be found at the top luxury hotels, including La Sponda at Le Sirenuse Positano and Rossellinis Restaurant at Palazzo Avino, which has a Michelin star.
Michelin stars tend to inspire images of a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and jacketed staff. However, one of the best Michelin-starred meals I’ve ever had was at Il Riccio in Anacapri, which feels like a slightly gussied-up beach club with turquoise tables overlooking the sea. Slurp oysters and spaghetti with sea urchins, but be sure to save room for dessert — there’s a whole dessert room filled with cakes, cookies and pastries like the classic torta caprese cake made with chocolate and almonds.
The big news on Capri earlier this year was the highly anticipated opening of Hotel La Palma, a member of the luxurious Oetker Collection. Its restaurant, Gennaro’s, is the place to see and be seen this season. It also has a chic beach club called Da Gioia by La Palma in Marina Piccola. Both restaurants are run by award-winning chef Gennaro Esposito.
This spring, the luxurious Anantara Convento di Amalfi Grand Hotel also opened with a fine dining restaurant run by a promising young chef. In the evenings, the casual restaurant transforms into a pizzeria by Gino Sorbillo, the king of a family-run Neapolitan pizza dynasty.
The Amalfi Coast and Capri have long been hot spots for jet-setters. However, the secret is out about Puglia. The heel of Italy’s boot is known for its pristine beaches. It’s also the country’s largest producer of olive oil and where you can find the best burrata.
If it’s on your list, it’s worth doing an olive oil tasting and visiting one of the region’s many cheese-producing farms, such as Agriturismo Aglio Piccolo.
Also be sure to visit a historic masseria — the old farms that dot the countryside. Many of them have been transformed into rustic restaurants like Masseria Le Stanzíe. You’ll even find a few in luxurious hotels, such as Masseria Torre Maizza, which is run by Rocco Forte Hotels.
For a fine dining experience, head to Due Camini, the Michelin-starred restaurant at Borgo Egnazia, the pioneering member of Leading Hotels of the World that put Puglia on the map.
Of course, no guide to eating and drinking your way through Italy would be complete without a section about Sicily. The largest island in the Mediterranean conjures dreams of arancini, eggplant parmigiana, cannoli and gelato.
Sicily produces the most prized pistachios and almonds in Italy, both of which are used to make two of the best flavors of granita, the sweet frozen treat that Sicilians eat from morning till night.
A traditional Sicilian breakfast is brioche dunked in almond granita with a shot of espresso poured on top. Thanks to a turn on “Chef’s Table,” Caffè Sicilia in Noto is probably the most famous place to get it. You can find the ubiquitous treat everywhere from fancy hotels to little food trucks parked by the beaches, though. (The best lemon granita I ever had was at a truck parked near the beach in Noto.)
When in Sicily, eat all the street food. Just walking through the bustling markets in cities like Palermo and Syracuse is a thrill, with vendors hawking their wares and smoke billowing up as cooks fry up local delicacies.
Aside from arancini (the baseball-size fried rice balls found all over Sicily), you must try panelle (flat pieces of fried chickpea batter), sarde a beccafico (sardines with raisins, bread crumbs and pine nuts) and pane cunzatu (a sandwich with anchovies, pecorino, oregano and tomatoes).
Also, eat all the seafood, especially the red shrimp from Mazara del Vallo, which are famously tasty. For an epic seafood feast, splurge on lunch at Anciovi, the chic poolside restaurant at San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel, where the second season of “The White Lotus” was filmed.
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