Italy for foodies: What to eat on a Lakes & Mountains holiday
Italy is famous for pizza and pasta, but there’s so much more to the cuisine – including loads of regional specialities made from traditional recipes and local produce. And in towns around Lake Garda, Como and Maggiore, you’ll find fresh lake fish on every menu too. See how you can eat like a local for a truly authentic experience on your next holiday.
Rise and shine for breakfast
Lots of Italians start their day with fresh fruit or an Italian brioche – a sweet pastry treat that’s like a softer version of a French croissant. Follow their lead and either eat yours plain or choose from a range of fillings like jam, honey, chocolate or vanilla cream. You’ll find freshly baked brioche on many hotel breakfast buffets and in cafés and restaurants, so you can try it wherever you’re staying. And to go with it, order a short, sharp espresso or a milky latte macchiato just like the locals do.
Coffee etiquette is very important to Italians, who’ve got strong opinions about what types you should drink and when – like the idea that you should only ever have a latte macchiato at breakfast time. Try it the Italian way by standing at a café counter for a quick mid-morning shot of espresso, or sit down outside to enjoy a frothy cappuccino as you watch the world go by.
Italians generally don’t opt for anything too filling at lunchtime, so a light salad is a perfect choice. Try a simple insalata caprese of sliced tomato, creamy buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
If you’d like to try some freshwater fish, head to Lake Garda, where lavaret, sardines, pike and perch are top choices in most restaurants. A midday favourite is spaghetti alle vongole, which combines the summery flavours of parsley, lemon, garlic and clams. Or if you’re staying on Lake Como, sample the traditional missoltino dish of sundried, salted shad straight from the grill.
If you’re after a more substantial meal, go for a rice-based classic like paniscia – a hearty dish that’s popular on Lake Maggiore and in the Piedmont region, and is cooked with onions, salami and seasonal vegetables. And it’s best accompanied by a glass of local wine.
Another restaurant staple is polenta, especially in the mountains and around Lake Como. This cornmeal dish can be cooked and served in lots of different ways – hot and creamy, sliced and baked, or even cooled. And it goes well with meat, fish or cheese dishes.
Top tip: Try heading away from the lakefront or off the main streets into the quieter backstreets to find more authentic local restaurants. And prices are often cheaper away from the hubs too.
As the sun goes down, it’s time for a refreshing aperitivo and some pre-dinner nibbles. On Lake Garda, one of the best spots for this is the Bardolino promenade, where you can sit and watch the sunset while sipping a glass of Prosecco, or a Hugo or Aperol Spritz – some of Europe’s must-try tipples. And along with your drink, you’ll usually get a selection of snacks like olives, bread sticks, pistachios or crisps included.
Italians like to dine out regularly in the evenings, so if you fancy a dinner away from your hotel, there are loads of top restaurants to try.
As you sit down at the table, you’ll usually get a complimentary basket of bread to start off, with plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.
Then it’s on to the primi piatti (or ‘first plate’), which is often a pasta dish that’s local to the area. In the south of Lake Garda, the regional speciality is tortellini di Valeggio – knot-shaped parcels of pasta filled with meat and coated in butter or a drizzle of olive oil. Or you can pick a frutti di mare spaghetti dish, which translates as ‘fruit of the sea’, so you can expect a mix of fresh seafood like clams, shrimp and mussels.
And after the first plate, of course, comes the second – the secondi piatti. Some people opt for a meat, fish or vegetable dish, but you can also choose that other Italian staple, pizza. The thin, crisp base can be topped with an endless variety of ingredients, but you can’t go wrong with the classic tomato sauce, soft mozzarella and fragrant basil or rocket.
And for something to drink with your meal, sample some of the region’s wines. Try local favourites from around Lake Garda like the Chiaretto rosé, Bardolino red or Soave dry white. If you can’t decide, ask a waiter for advice on the best one to pair with your meal.
Round off your evening with a sweet treat. In Italy, the locals often like something chilled and palate-cleansing, like a creamy panna cotta. On Lake Como, don’t miss fragole con gelato – a simple dish of strawberries and ice cream. Or if you want something more indulgent, sink your fork into an international favourite, tiramisu – a combination of coffee, cocoa and velvety mascarpone.
And if you don’t want a sit-down dessert, what better way to finish off the day than with a visit to a local gelateria? Pick up a cone of your favourite flavour ice cream and enjoy it as you stroll around town or along the lakefront.
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