Traveling to Italy and only seeing Rome is like visiting a Michelin-starred restaurant and only tasting the amuse-bouche. You’re missing out on the main course! The true needles in the haystack of Italian cuisine are found outside the tourist cities, in places where small-town tradition hasn’t been influenced by modern trends and high-volume tourism. Venturing off the beaten path is the only way to truly taste Italy’s brilliant culinary diversity—especially between its northern and southern regions. The contrasts between North and South are akin to the difference between butter and olive oil; freshly picked and artfully aged; mountains and ocean. So which region is best? Either will have you savoring perfectly balanced plates and practically bathing in world-class wine. Read on as we explore the mouthwatering differences in a hunger-inducing head-to-head.
The big cities of Northern Italy have undeniable appeal—high fashion in Milan, centuries-old art and architecture in Florence, the picturesque canals of Venice—and honestly, they are undoubtedly worth a visit. Yet at the end of the meal, these busy tourist destinations lack the small-town gastronomic charm and local tradition so prevalent in the North’s less-trafficked (and still very accessible) regions.
Stretching from the Apennine Mountains to the Po River, Emilia Romagna is possibly the most famous region of Northern Italy. Within just 60 miles, each of three towns boasts its own world-renowned culinary forte emblazoned with the name of its origin. With charming town squares framed in photogenic arched porticoes dispersed amongst stretches of verdant countryside, it’s the perfect destination for a foodie road trip. Start in the medieval capital of Bologna, home of Bolognese itself. Here, you’d be amiss not to try this rich, meaty sauce atop an egg-based noodle like tagliatelle. Then, stop at a salumeria (deli) to taste the world’s best mortadella—thinly sliced cured pork perfectly accented with hints of garlic and spices. But don’t mistake it for bologna; this is a top-shelf charcuterie component that is miles—both literally and figuratively—from the American lunch meat knockoff.
North of Bologna is Modena, known the world over for its balsamic vinegar. Unlike inexpensive "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" found in your local grocery store, Italy is much stricter with their labeling designations. Certifications like DOP, or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”) apply to everything from cheese to wine, meats, and even produce to indicate its geographic authenticity and quality. Save space in your checked baggage; the difference is unmistakable. In order to be dubbed with the illustrious title of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP, a balsamic vinegar must be made from the caramelized juice of Trebbiano grapes grown exclusively within the Emilia Romagna region and aged in wooden barrels for no less than twelve years. The resulting product is a complex, syrupy vinegar with a heavenly agrodolce flavor, an ideal complement to fresh fruit, salad, and sweet desserts.
No visit to Northern Italy is complete without stopping in Parma, most famous for one exquisitely salty, impeccably crumbly, supremely scrumptious staple. You guessed it: cheese. Specifically Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP, produced solely in the provinces of Emilia Romagna. The savory, nutty notes of this hard cow’s milk cheese pair perfectly with Parma’s other famed local namesake: razor-thin Prosciutto di Parma. Find the two sultry flavors fraternizing in delectable stuffed pastas for a truly aphrodisiacal experience.
Finally, continue north to Piedmont, literally “foot of the mountain.” This region, flanked by the picturesque Ligurian coast and cradled on three sides by the Alps is home to the largest glaciers and highest peaks in all of Italy. “Beautiful” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Bordering France and Switzerland, the cuisine of Piedmont is seated at the crossroads of affluent Italian tradition, rich Swiss heartiness, and sophisticated French influence. In short, this not a land for the lactose-intolerant.
Gorge yourself on aged salumis and rich cream sauces, French-inspired fondutas, and buttery risotto accented with the prized earthy flavor of locally-grown truffles. Relish artisan cheeses and decadent chocolate-hazelnut gianduja paired with a glass of any number of fine wines, from Nebbiolo to Barolo, Barbera, and Asti Spumante. Piedmont is home to a wealth of Italy’s most esteemed DOP treasures. Indulging in Northern Italy’s rich cuisine backed by bountiful baroque architecture and majestic Alpine landscapes feels so good, it’s almost hedonic.
We’re giving Northern Italy the boot, geographically speaking. What the North boasts in landmarks, the South matches in chill-inducing landscapes. From the heel of Puglia to the toe of Calabria, spectacular Sicily and beyond, Southern Italy is raw beauty, bold colors, and bright flavors. It’s impossible not to be moved by its expansive natural splendor, where spaghetti-thin roads wind through jagged mountains, over rolling hills of olive groves, and past sapphire ocean panoramas thick with lemon-scented sea air.
While the livestock of Northern Italy is responsible for its fine meats and aged cheeses, the sundrenched coastlines of Southern Italy yield an abundance of fresh seafood, florid vegetation, and year-round ripe produce. Begin in the region of Campania, home to the most famous trio of Italian flavors: Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP (buffalo mozzarella), fragrant green basil, and ruby-red San Marzano DOP tomatoes—produced exclusively in Campania, of course. There is arguably no better way to witness this symphony of flavors than by devouring an authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza right in its hometown. But don’t stay too long; escape Naples’ crowds and head southeast, where the best of Italy awaits.
The regions of Basilicata and Puglia are among the least-travelled regions in Italy—which is a very good thing. In fact, it’s so unspoiled that it hardly looks like the tourist version of Italy we so often see. Basilicata’s craggy peaks and vast valleys could be mistaken for Ireland and the ancient hillside village of UNESCO-designated Sassi di Matera resembles the holy land so closely that it’s starred as Jerusalem’s Hollywood stunt-double more than two-dozen times. Here, the red earth looks like the Wild West, the whitewashed cubiform villages of Lecce masquerade as Greece, and the rocky outcroppings and cerulean seas of Salento give Cabo a run for its money.
Puglia isn’t just a pretty face, either. Its endless groves produce more olive oil than any other region in Italy—and Puglia’s cuisine is drenched in this liquid gold. The trademark of Southern Italian cuisine is its elegant simplicity. Where the North loves finely-crafted artisan products and complex recipes, the South lets Mother Nature do the heavy lifting. Dishes here are defined by prime quality ingredients: same-day fresh seafood, giant artichokes, deep red tomatoes, aubergine, asparagus, and lemons the size of softballs. Plus, the fresh, bright elements of Puglian cuisine pair perfectly with the big flavors of local wines like Negroamaro and Primitivo (or, as Californians would call it: Zinfandel). In the tranquil regions of Southern Italy, you can devour fresh steamed seafood, simple pastas, and a rainbow of market fresh produce alongside fine wines and breathtaking scenery.