Pasta e basta: A guide to some of Italy’s best dishes

Are you looking to take a well-deserved break in your Italian learning process? Get your apron ready and let’s get cooking.

When it comes to food, few countries can rival the culinary delights of Italy. From hearty pasta dishes to delectable sweet treats, la cucina italiana – renowned for its bold flavors and fresh ingredients – has taken the world by storm.

As a beginner or advanced learner of Italian, studying the language through cooking can be a fun and tasty way to practice your Italian language skills, expand your vocabulary and learn about the different regions of Italy.

From pasta to pizza and everything in between, meet us in your Nonna’s kitchen as we take a look at 10 iconic Italian dishes that are sure to tantalize your taste buds and help you immerse yourself in Italian culture.

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La pasta

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Sophia Loren once said. 

Whether a seasoned chef or a culinary novice, one simply cannot overlook the predominant role pasta plays in Italian cuisine. The country boasts over 350 known pasta shapes and an incalculable number of pasta dishes, ranging from Sicily’s pasta alla norma (showcasing aubergine, tomato sauce and ricotta) to agnolotti (a type of stuffed ravioli from Piedmont), from Bologna’s tortellini in brodo (small ravioli cooked in a broth)  to one of Rome’s most emblematic pasta dishes cacio e pepe (cooked with pecorino cheese and pepper). The pastabilities are endless, ragazzi.

With the average Italian consuming around 60 pounds of pasta each year, this staple food has been a part of the country’s culinary tradition for centuries and makes it one of the most popular and beloved foods in the country.

Bistecca alla fiorentina 

Vegetarians, look away and meat lovers: hone your knife and sharpening skills with bistecca alla fiorentina. On your next trip to Florence, you’re bound to come across this thick and juicy take on a T-bone steak in any trattoria. Tradition has it that this meat dish should be served grilled, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and a dash of olive oil, and come with a side of vegetables (also known as contorni). Please take the time to thank the Medici for it.

La pizza

Moving on to one of Italy’s quintessential dishes that has left an indelible mark on all six continents, pizza has the ability to satisfy just about any kind of craving that abides by the crust-and-topping doctrine. One simply can’t resist the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked dough, layered with tangy yet sweet tomato sauce, and gooey mozzarella cheese, are we right? On its home surf, this round 12-inch phenomenon is not just considered food; it’s a way of life, a symbol of family, tradition, and community. Italians (dare we say Neapolitans) take their pizza seriously, with strict rules about the type of flour, tomato sauce, and cheese that can be used.

Did you know? There are many variations of pizza. In Rome for instance, locals can enjoy pizza al taglio (“pizza by the slice”), while in Naples, pizza is often enjoyed fried, with pizza fritta being the most common street food in the city.


Though a derivative form for consuming pasta, we reckon lasagna deserves its own entry. Layers upon layers of pasta, bubbly cheese, and minced meat or vegetables make up this comforting and hearty dish. While the origins of lasagna can be traced back to Ancient Greece, historians have come to agree the modern version of Lasagna was invented sometime between 1544 and 1692 – most likely in either Emilia Romagna or Naples.

In fact, one of the earliest recorded recipes for lasagna is found in a cookbook called “Libro de Arte Coquinaria” (The Art of Cooking) by 15th-century Italian chef Maestro Martino. While the recipe in this book called for the use of fermented dough rather than pasta, the layering technique was similar to the modern version of lasagna.

Like many world-wondering dishes, lasagna is not so much a recipe as a reflection of human taste, in all its ubiquity and wild variety.


We take a well-deserved glance at the dessert menu for this next entry. Sfogliatelle is a traditional 18th–century pastry from the Campania region and a local specialty in Naples. Often enjoyed as a breakfast pastry or mid-morning snack with a cup of coffee, sfogliatelle are made with a flaky pastry dough filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and flavored with orange peel and cinnamon. The term comes from the Italian word sfoglia, which means “leaf” or “sheet,” as a reference to the many layers of pastry making up the dessert. 

Warning: mastering the art of pronouncing sfogliatelle correctly will require several hours of Saga Baldoria online Italian lessons. What are you waiting for?

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We head up north, to the land of risotto, a dish often high on Italian food rankings. It’s a staple dish which can be traced back to the 14th century, when rice first began to be cultivated in the fertile plains of Northern Italy, particularly in the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. At that time, rice was considered a luxury food item and was reserved for the wealthy, often served at banquets and feasts.

The traditional risotto recipe involves using a special type of short-grain rice (Arborio or Carnaroli), cooked and stirred with broth until it reaches a creamy consistency. This iconic Italian dish can be rustled up in many different ways, and showcase a variety of vegetables, cold meats, or merely be enjoyed with a simple broth and Parmigiano.

Did you know? While this starchy dish is a must-try when backpacking across Northern Italy, feel free to stick your fork into orzotto, a derivative of risotto featuring orzo pasta cooked risotto style.


No Italian dish list would be complete without the mention of tiramisu (literally “pick me up”). Featured in every Italian restaurant dessert menu worldwide, this tasty delicacy features layer upon layer of mascarpone cheese, eggs and ladyfingers (known as savvorardi) generously soaked in espresso. Although the origins of this dessert are somewhat disputed, with several regions of Italy laying claim to its invention, a popular theory is that tiramisu originated in the city of Treviso, located in the Veneto region of northern Italy. 

Did you know? The city even hosts its annual Tiramisu Day in October, during which a homemade tiramisu competition is held. Now that’s what you call a celebration.


Thought you’d had your fair share of donuts? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Arancini are a type of savory deep-fried donuts originating from Sicily, and come filled with rice, peas and Parmigiano cheese. Translating as “little oranges” in English (in reference to their shape and color), arancini are often consumed on street markets or as appetizers before tucking into a meal.


Reaching your five-a-day target has never been easier. Deeply rooted in Italy’s culinary past, minestrone is a hearty soup loaded with a mix-and-match of colorful vegetables, pulses, and pasta. Formerly cooked as a way to use up leftover vegetables and grains, it was often made by Italian peasants during the winter months, who would gather whatever ingredients they had on hand. Today, it remains a go-to option for warming up on a winter day any way you slice it.

Fritto misto 

We end this list on a high note with fritto misto, a traditional Italian dish that consists of a mixture of fried seafood and vegetables. The term fritto misto literally means “mixed fry” in Italian, and it is a popular dish throughout Italy, especially along the seaside regions of Campania and Liguria.

The exact ingredients used in fritto misto can vary depending on the region and the season, but the dish typically includes shrimp, calamari, as well as sardines or anchovies, as well as zucchini, aubergine, and mushrooms. Overall, a crowd-pleasing appetizer platter.

If this mouth-watering list hasn’t whetted your appetite, then we don’t know what will. While you ponder the question, we suggest you try our online Italian lessons Saga Baldoria for free for 7 days.

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