Lesser-Known Italian Food that the Family Will Love
If you need a little variety in your menu, these lesser-known Italian dishes will delight your family.
Growing up in North Carolina, the only Italian food I was exposed to as a kid was from our town’s Olive Garden. In college, I studied abroad in Rome and was delighted at the huge variety of delicious dishes that I had never heard of before.
Authentic Italian food is simple, but never plain. Cooking in Italy focuses on preparing fresh, seasonal ingredients in ways that showcase and amplify their flavors. Although pasta is a staple in Italian cuisine, there is a large number of pastas throughout the country in many shapes, widths, sizes and flavors. Beyond lasagna, pizza and spaghetti, there is so much incredible Italian food to discover.
1. Osso bucco
Osso bucco means “bone with a hole,” referring to the marrow hole of the veal shanks used in this Italian food. Veal is the traditional meat for osso bucco, but lamb, beef and pork have also been used. It’s not a quick dish, because shanks take a while to braise to make the meat tender and succulent, but once you get it in the oven, it’s almost hands off except to make sure that there is enough braising liquid to keep the meat from drying out. Serve osso bucco with risotto, polenta or roasted vegetables.
Pro tip: Make osso bucco in a dutch oven or pan that can go into the oven after browning the meat and cooking the vegetables.
2. Italian wedding soup
The American version of this soup includes meatballs and greens, but the original version wasn’t quite so fancy. The soup originated in Naples as peasant food. In Italy, it’s called “minestra maritata” or married soup, referring to the marriage of ingredients, not being served at weddings. It’s essentially a hearty meat broth with leafy greens, beans and other vegetables. Served with crusty bread and parmesan cheese, you might get your kids to eat their vegetables without any complaining. Of course you can always add small meatballs if you prefer the Americanized version of this Italian food!
Pro tip: Skip the can and make it homemade. If you don’t have time to make homemade stock, buy a good quality broth with a rich flavor.
Arancini is a decadent and portable snack food. Little balls of rice and cheese, are coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. Arancini is a traditional food eaten for the feast of Santa Lucia, when Sicilians don’t eat bread and pasta. But, you can find this Italian food all year round, across Italy. Arancini is a way to use up leftover rice, but you may have to play with the mixture so that it’s not too dry or too wet. To jazz up your arancini like the Italians do, add ragu and/or peas to the rice balls for extra layers of flavor.
Pro tip: Add a mixture of egg and bechamel sauce to the rice to make the balls. You get structure from the egg and moisture from the bechamel so your rice doesn’t turn out too heavy.
Polenta is similar to southern grits, but Italians use polenta in many ways. Make a stew of polenta and vegetables, called polenta incatenata. Or, serve polenta with a thick ragu and sausage or with a beef soup. Polenta with cheese makes a delightful side dish. You can change the texture of polenta by using a mix of fine and medium grinds. Go with different colors of polenta, from a deep yellow to white.
Pro tip: Slice leftover polenta into slices and put on a low grill or fry in a pan to serve with meat or fish.
Ribollita is translated as “reboiled,” a peasants soup from the medieval period. It’s a soup made of white beans, leafy greens and leftover bread that thickens it up. You can use up any leftover vegetables, making this soup thrifty and easy. Use a good quality bread, like ciabatta, sourdough or a French boule. Don’t cut the bread up, but instead tear it into large chunks before toasting in the oven to put in the soup. This Italian food is even better the second day when the soup is reboiled.
Pro tip: Toss a piece of parmesan rind in the soup for a wonderful layer of flavor. If rind doesn’t completely dissolve, scoop it out of the broth and cut it into small pieces and put it back in the soup for serving.
6. Risi e bisi
Risi e bisi is a celebratory dish for the first harvest of peas in spring. It has a royal heritage, as it would be served to the Doge of Venice for the feast of St. Mark. It’s a humble dish of rice and peas, but with an Italian spin it transforms into a delicious, satisfying supper that’s a cross between a risotto and soup. You can add a protein, such as shrimp or bacon, but risi e bisi is wonderful as a vegetarian dish.
Pro tip: Fresh peas are definitely worth it when you’re making this dish, but frozen peas are a good substitute when peas aren’t in season.
7. Panna Cotta
What’s a great meal without a dessert? Italian desserts are typically not overwhelmingly sweet. Panna cotta is a dessert made of sweetened cream, thickened with gelatin. It’s related to custard, but a true custard uses egg yolks as the thickener. Panna cotta is a nice base for fresh fruits or liqueurs. It’s typically flavored with vanilla and served with berries, but caramel or chocolate are also nice sauces.
Pro tip: Panna cotta can be made with plant-based milks, but you may need to adjust the amount of gelatin used to achieve the right jiggle.