northern italian food vs southern italian food (1)

Northern Italian Food vs Southern Italian Food: The Main Differences

Italian food fans and food travel aficionados are constantly debating the hotly contested battle of Northern Italian food vs Southern Italian food. 

One group of Italian food lovers speaks poetically about the fresh flavors and the amazing dried pasta of the south. Then there are the Italophiles that only want to eat the rich flavors and the legendary products of the North. 

The answer to this age-old debate is that they are both wrong. The reality is that Italy is broken up into three areas including the north, south, and central. On top of that, Italians don’t divide the country’s unique cuisines by these vertical divisions. 

To better help you understand where to find the best food in Italy, let’s look further at how real Italians view the food of their country and how they make these distinctions.

What are the differences between Northern and Southern Italian Food?

lasagna verde alla bolognese on a plate
Lasagna verde alla Bolognese from Northern Italy
pizza napoletana_
Neapolitan Pizza from Southern Italy

There are some generalized culinary differences between northern and southern Italy, that being said, you do see a lot of crossover of techniques and ingredients that are quintessentially Italian. 

Many of these pre-conceived notions that are viewed as delineations between the north and the south are often based on misconceptions. Even if this is true, there are a few differences that should be pointed out.

  • In Southern Italy, more olive oil is consumed than in Northern Italy where butter and olive oil are both used.
  • The starch of choice in the south is either pasta or bread whereas in the north you will find rice and polenta play a heavy role alongside fresh pasta.
  • One area that plays a significant role is the historic economic divide with much humbler ingredients being used farther south.
  • Southern Italy is more heavily reliant on seafood and lamb compared to Northern Italy which utilizes a combination of beef, lamb, pork, and seafood.
  • Cheese made in the north is mainly made of cow’s milk with many exceptions, and in the south, the majority are made with goat or sheep’s milk.
  • The spicy Italian food that people love does come from the chile peppers that grow in the warmer climates in the south like Calabria.
  • In Northern Italy, fresh pasta is usually made with egg while most fresh pasta in Southern Italy simply uses durum wheat and water.

Similarities between Northern Italian Food and Southern Italian Food

wheels of parmigiano reggiano italy from northern italy
prosciutto di parma ham from northern italy
Prosciutto di Parma

Although the regions that make up the north and south of Italy have very different approaches to cuisines, they still have a lot in common. 

  • Pasta is widely eaten in both areas
  • Olive oil is produced and an important part of the food in all of Italy
  • Artisan cheesemaking is equally important 
  • The art of curing meats is abundant from north to south
  • Seafood is caught and eaten widely in both sections of the country
  • Fertile soils and fresh farmed produce are as important in the north as the south

Northern Italian Food vs Southern Italian Food: Which one is better?

If you want to know whether Northern Italian cuisine or Southern Italian cuisine has better food, you are asking the wrong question. You should be asking what regions make the best food in Italy

Every region in Italy has delicious food and specialties that range from aged hams to decadent red wines. Which food region is best, really comes down to what you love about Italian food and what Italian dishes you want to eat the most. 

Let this post on the northern Italian food vs. southern Italian food be your starting ground in finding the perfect food region for your tastes.

How does Italian food vary by region?

When Italians argue about who has the best food, it is on a much smaller scale than north vs south. Some of the biggest battles over “who makes it better” take place in neighboring towns like Modena and Bologna.

Both of these cities make the same tortellini en brodo, but hate each other’s version and swear that they make it the right way. 

The true division of the food of Italy is separated by regions. Each one of these 20 regions has its own specialties, ingredients, and products that they take a lot of pride in.

Northern Italian Food

northern italian mountains
Dolomites Mountains in Northern Italy

The section of Northern Italy has its unique geographical influences that have played a significant role in shaping its individual region’s cuisines.

With oceans on its east and west and the Alps to the north, the landscape and climates are as diverse as the food that is served. 

There is also the influence of the neighboring cultures from France, Switzerland, Austria, and Croatia that have had an impact on the food in Northern Italy.

You can eat pesto pasta in Genoa and in less than a three-hour drive be snacking on a Swiss-influenced fondue in the Alps. 

How is Northern Italian food different?

Northern Italy, with its cooler climate and fertile soils, is perfect for raising cattle and other livestock. When you have cows, you get dairy products like butter and cheeses like Taleggio and the famous Parmigiano Reggiano. 

The north of Italy is also known for its amazing hams that range from the nutty Proscuitto di Parma to the smoky speck from the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige.

Other things that the North Italian cuisine is known for are its fresh-made egg pasta like tortellini and lasagna verde.

Northern Italy is also known for being the home of balsamic vinegar, the most expensive white truffles, several varieties of risotto rice, and is home to Piedmontese cattle which is one of the most prized in the world.  

The food in northern Italy is jam-packed with delicious Italian dishes ranging from stunning seafood to some of the best pasta dishes in the country.

Regions in Northern Italy

Emilia Romagna

lasagna verde alla bolognese food in north italy

One of the best places you should visit in Northern Italy for food is Emilia Romagna. No region in Italy produces as many stunning food products as this region. It all starts with the legendary Parmigiano Reggiano and it is followed up by the Proscuitto di Parma which is the envy of the culinary world.

This Italian food region is also renowned for its freshly made pasta that is mostly made completely by hand.

Emilia Romagna is also home to the world-famous Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Culatelo di Zibello, and Mortadella di Bologna.

  • Lasagna Verde alla Bolognese – spinach pasta sheets layered with meat ragu and besciamella
  • Tortellini en Brodo – stuffed belly button looking pasta in a meaty broth
  • Tagliatelle al Ragu – fresh pasta in a ragu made with various meats and salumi

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

As Italy’s newest region, this area is a mix of different cultures from Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia that all had their influence on the cuisine.

Outside of the famous Proscuitto San Daniele and amazing olive oil, most of the food would be unidentifiable as Italian.

Many dishes rely heavily on fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and pickled turnips. Don’t let this scare you away as the food in this Northern Italian region is delicious and heartwarming.

  • Goulash Triestino – slow-cooked beef with paprika that is served with polenta
  • Brovada e Muset – Pork sausage with fermented turnips
  • Gnocchi di Prugne – Potato dumplings stuffed with prunes

Piedmont Region

alba white truffles italy
The best white truffles in the world is in Piedmont Region in Northern Italy

If there is one thing that this culinary region in Italy is most famous for, it would definitely be its stunning wines and vineyards.

Big and bold wines including Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Dolcetto are served alongside the world’s best truffles and cheeses like Castelmango which are breathtakingly good.

The region is also famous for its Piedmontese breed of beef that is low in fat and super tender. 

  • Brasato al Barolo – Beef slow-cooked in Barolo red wine
  • Agnolotti del Plin – meat-stuffed pasta with either a butter or meat jus
  • Gnocchi – fluffy hand-rolled potato dumplings


This region in Northern Italy is best known for its sinking city of Venice and its incredible Amarone and sparkling Prosecco wines.

Most people only ever experience the stunning seafood that is caught from the region’s coastal waters near Venice.

What is usually missed is the inland side of the region where amazing dishes built around the rice and corn that are grown in the region are made into amazing risotto and polenta.

The region also produces some great cheeses including Asiago in its many styles. 

  • Baccalà Montecato – poached salted stockfish that is whipped into a spread for crusty bread
  • Risotto all’Amarone – a creamy rice porridge that is colored and flavored with red wine.
  • Sarde in Saor – Fried sardines with pickled onions and raisins


risotto milanese italy
Risotto alla Milanese – a Northern Italian dish you must try!

One of the northernmost regions of Italy, Lombardy is dotted with picturesque lakes, sections of the Alps, and beautiful cities like Milan.

If there is one region in Italy that represents what is generalized as Northern Italian cuisine, it would be Lombardy. Rice, polenta, and stuffed pasta are the top starches used instead of dried pasta.

With a large number of dairy cows being raised, butter is dominant over olive oil along with some incredible cow’s milk cheeses being produced like Grana Padano, Tellegio, and Gorgonzola. 

  • Risotto alla Milanese – a saffron accented creamy rice porridge made of Carnaroli rice and Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Osso Buco – super tender slow-cooked veal shanks in a meat sauce 
  • Panettone – a Christmas bread accented with dried fruit

Trentino-Alto Adige

There is a high probability that you have never heard of any of the dishes from this Northern Italian region which serves up a hybrid of Germanic and Italian food.

The heart of the region is the stunning Dolomite mountains but is most widely known for its smoked Speck ham and its Alpine cow and sheep’s milk cheeses.

The unique side of the food is how these cuisines come together with Italian-style dumplings being served alongside German spaetzle pasta. The food tends to be very rich but is big in the flavor department.

  • Canederli – dumplings made with speck ham, Grana Padano cheese, and breadcrumbs served in a broth 
  • Strangolapreti – spinach and bread dumplings with sage and brown butter
  • Spatzle Tirolesi – German-style spinach pasta with smoked speck ham, in a cream sauce


spaghetti pesto pasta
Pasta alla Genovese

This coastal region of Italy is well known for one culinary creation that is loved by Italian food fans around the globe.

Liguria is home to the best basil in Italy and thus, it was utilized to make pesto. This is just the beginning of all the delicious food that can be found in Liguria, especially in its main city of Genoa.

If for no other reason, visit this food region for its amazing seafood and some of the best olive oil in Italy.

  • Focaccia – a fluffy olive oil bread that is baked in a shallow pan
  • Pasta alla Genovese – classic Genovese basil pesto pasta
  • Fritto Misto di Mare – a mixture of various fried seafood served in a cone

Aosta Valley

Bordered by Switzerland to the north and France to the west, this region in Northern Italy is situated right in the Alps.

The influence of its geography plays heavily in its cuisine and is very reminiscent of the food you will find just across these borders.

The food is on the hearty and comforting side with stewed beef and goat dishes, cheeses including Fontina, and a plethora of different local charcuterie types including Jambon de Bosses ham.

  • Fonduta – a rich cheese dip made from Fontina cheese
  • Carbonade Valdostana – slow-cooked beef with onions in a rich red wine sauce
  • Zuppa alla Valpellinentze – a baked dish consisting of layers of bread, Fontina cheese, cabbage, and a cinnamon-spiced broth.

What Food is Northern Italy Known for? 

Northern Italian cuisine is known for its rich and comforting Italian food. Whether you want to dig into a big plate of lasagna or eat a mortadella sandwich, the food of northern Italy will provide you with heartwarming flavors and deep delicious flavors.

  • Prosciutto di Parma
  • Aceto Balsamico
  • Tartufo di Alba
  • Pamigiano Reggiano
  • Gorgonzola

Southern Italian Food

sorrento southern italy_
What makes food in Southern Italy special?

If you visualize southern Italian food to be pasta with fresh seafood, and wood-fired pizzas, you would be partially correct.

The warmer regions of the south tend to be more reliant on the sea and utilize the longer growing season which lends itself to lighter and fresher tasting dishes. 

This isn’t always the case as parts of southern Italy have been historically impoverished compared to central and northern Italian regions.

This led to some very humble but rich and delicious southern Italian dishes that were made to satiate the hungry workers for a cheap price. 

What makes Southern Italian food different?

Southern Italy produces the majority of the country’s olive oils and you will find it liberally used throughout the regional cuisines.

Another unique feature of southern Italian cuisine is the utilization of lamb and goats in cheesemaking along with many meat dishes. These animals take up less of the precious farmland and can serve a dual purpose by providing both milk and meat. 

The southern regions of Italy consume a large amount of pasta, but the majority of what is produced is fresh pasta made simply with durum wheat and flour. This fresh pasta can then be eaten right away or dried for future meals. 

Regions in Southern Italy


neapolitan pizza in italy
Neapolitan Pizza – a famous dish in the Southern Italian region

You can’t think about this region without starting to salivate at the thought of taking a bite of a Neapolitan pizza.

The food in this Southern Italian region is also renowned for its incredible fresh buffalo mozzarella and its bounty of amazing seafood from the Almalfi Coast including their famous clams.

There is no other region that has mastered the combination of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil better than Campania.

  • Neapolitan pizza – wood-fired pizza with strict regulations
  • Spaghetti alle Vongole – clam pasta with red peppers and garlic
  • Caprese salad – buffala mozzarella with tomatoes and basil


Puglia embodies the vision of what southern Italian food should be with its amazing seafood, lamb products, and tons of pasta.

The most pronounced example of this is the fact that Puglia produces over 40% of the country’s olive oil. The other product that would make a trip to this food region worth a visit is Burrata cheese which is the envy of all of Italy.  

  • Orecchiette con Salsiccia e Cime di Rapa – ear shaped pasta with broccoli rabe
  • Panzerotti – deep-fried pastry pockets stuffed with tomato and mozzarella
  • Puccia – puffed pizza dough roll stuffed with various ingredients like salami


grilled lamb skewers on a grill
Arrosticini – lamb skewers

Although this region is parallel to the Lazio region which is in central Italy, Abruzzo is characteristically Southern in its style of food.

The cuisine is heavily dependent on lamb for its protein in the inland areas and in the coastal areas, anchovies and salt cod play a major role.

One other feature of the food that is semi-unique is the use of fresh and dried chilies that show up in many dishes.

  • Pasta alla Chitara – pasta cut with wires attached to a woodblock that is served with a ragu containing mini meatballs
  • Crespelle in Brodo – egg crepes in a chicken broth with Grana Padano cheese
  • Arrosticini – grilled fatty lamb skewers


If Emilia Romagna is the master of egg pasta, then Basilicata is the king of the simple durum wheat and water version.

The region is dominated by farmland and with limited space, the livestock of choice is lamb. It can be used for its meat or its milk that is turned into amazing cheeses like Pecorino di Filiano and Cacioricotta.

Italy’s most expensive cheese comes from Basilicata called Caciocavallo Podolico which is made exclusively from Podolico cow’s milk. 

  • Lagane – chickpeas with wide egg pasta
  • Spezzatino di Agnello – stewed lamb
  • Pasta Mollicata – bucatini with tomato sauce, bread crumbs, and anchovies


wheels of italian cheeses for sale on a table
Different types of cheeses in Italy

Even though Sardinia is lumped together with other southern Italian cities, it is actually an island that is very disconnected culturally and by distance.

Their food is considered Mediterranean as they have had influence from the surrounding parts of this region while still holding on to their own heritage.

The Island’s specialties include a variety of delicious sheep’s milk cheeses, salted fish eggs called Bottarga, and roasted whole animals.

The cuisine of Sardinia is wildly complex and diverse while the individual dishes remain simple and delicious. 

  • Porcheddu – whole roasted suckling pig
  • Suppa Cuata – baked with layers of bread, broth, and cheese
  • Seadas – fried pastry with ricotta, honey, and lemon


This southern region in Italy is known for its big and bold flavors that are centered around pepperoncino chili peppers, Tropea onions, and N’udja salami.

Although Calabria is located in the toe area of the boot of Italy, it is fairly mountainous which allows for some great cheeses to be produced.

Calabria is almost entirely surrounded by the ocean so the cuisine is heavily reliant on the bounty of the sea.

  • Ravioli Calabrese – Soppressata salami and Provola-stuffed pasta with tomato sauce.
  • ‘Nudja – spreadable salami made with roasted peppers and spices
  • Maccheroni col ferretto – twisted ribbon-shaped pasta with ragu


three pieces of cannoli italian dessert on a plate
Cannoli – a delicious Italian dessert from Southern Italy

This island region is a cross between classic southern Italian food mixed with the food and techniques that were brought in by outsiders during the endless wars and invasions that took place during its history.

While classic ingredients like olive oil, oregano, and pasta are ingrained in the cuisine, other ingredients that immigrated into Sicily like saffron and pistachios are just as important.

The island has a natural abundance of seafood along with a bounty of fresh produce that is harvested from its nutrient-rich volcanic soils from Mount Etna.

This is the Italian food that so many fantasize about eating when coming to Italy, so make sure to visit Sicily on your trip. 

  • Arancini – breaded and fried risotto balls with various fillings
  • Caponata – sweet and sour eggplant with pinenuts, capers, and raisins
  • Cannoli – fried pastry tubes stuffed with whipped cream and garnished with either chocolate or pistachio


The Molise region for a long time was lumped together with Abruzzo leaving this lesser-known region’s cuisine mostly undiscovered.

This is considered the most impoverished area in Italy and the cuisine’s humble origins led to some delicious and hearty dishes based around goat and lamb along with their offal.

Luckily flour is fairly cheap and because of that, this region put its efforts toward a long-standing tradition of making delicious pasta.

  • Fusilli alla Molisana – rolled pasta with tomato or lamb ragu
  • Cavatelli con Sugo di Ventricina – hollow pasta with sausage ragu
  • Pampanella – pork loin ribs baked with chili peppers

What Food is Southern Italy Known for?

The unique food in southern Italy is built around the bounty of seasonal fresh ingredients that are grown and harvested in its warmer Mediterranean climates and on its abundant coasts.

From sheep’s milk cheeses to olive oil-laden pasta, Southern Italy stars with its cornucopia of stunning ingredients.

  • Caciocavallo cheese
  • Mozzarella di Buffala
  • Burrata
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sardines, anchovies, swordfish, and so much more seafood

Central Italian Food 

rome colosseum italy

Lost in the conversation of northern Italian food vs southern food is the entire central area of the country which includes arguably, some of the most important food regions of Italy. 

The vast majority of visitors to Italy spend at least part of their trip in Rome. This is apparent in the 20 million-plus tourists that arrive each year.

Most people form their opinions about Italian food based heavily on what they eat during this part of the trip.

We would be amiss if we didn’t mention the culinary influence that central Italy has had on the rest of the country and the world of gastronomy. Tuscan cooks even played a significant role in shaping the culinary landscape of France. 

These regions are home to an incredible heritage of pasta making, cured meats, world-class wines, and some of the best produce in the country. In fact, it could be argued that the best food is in central Italy instead of the north or south.

Regions of Central Italy


slices of roman pizza on a paper plate
Pizza al taglio
carbonara pasta on a white plate

This region in Central Italy is best known as the home of the capital city of Rome which hosts around 9 million tourists each year.

The culinary prowess of this region is well known, and people come in droves to eat its famous four pastas, pizza al taglio, and fried street snacks.

The products that are locally made play an important role in the cuisine of the region with guanciale and Pecorino Romano cheese showing up in many applications from pasta to panini sandwiches.

The lesser-known but equally delicious part of the region lies in the countryside away from the big city which has amazing but simple food.

  • Carciofi alla Giudia – olive oil fried artichokes
  • Carbonara – pasta with pecorino cheese, egg yolk, and guanciale
  • Maritozzi – egg bun stuffed with whipped cream and topped with powdered sugar.


Sandwiched between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, this region’s diverse geography plays a big role in its culinary traditions.

The reality is that the word is just getting out about the food in Marches. This is mostly due to the fact that the best culinary offerings have always been served in the home of the local people.

Restaurants are now starting to thrive serving up the region’s traditional dishes now that tourists are exploring outside of the Lazio and Tuscany region.

This is a must-visit if you love meat, as this region consumes more per capita than anywhere in Italy.

  • Vincisgrassi – a layered pasta-like dish that is similar to lasagna but with a lot more meat
  • Olives all’Ascolana – breaded and meat stuffed fried olives
  • Coniglio in Porchetta – Herb stuffed roasted rabbit


slices of a slab of steak
Bistecca alla Fiorentina

This Central region in Italy is as well known for its arts as it is for its food and wine. If you love a good Chianti Classico red wine to go with a wood fire-grilled steak, this is the region for you.

In fact, this region really specializes in big wines and rich meaty dishes including pasta and simple roasted dishes.

The region also has a more humble side that is built around the fertile land and the unique geographical location that allows it to grow incredible produce. Tuscany is also famous for being the birthplace of modern gelato.

  • Bistecca alla Fiorentina – grilled steak made from a Chianina breed T-bone
  • Pappardelle al Cinghiale – wide noodles with wild boar ragu
  • Ribollita – tuscan bread and tomato soup


This region in Italy garners far less attention than its neighbors but can hold its own with its culinary prowess. Umbria is best known for its famous black truffles which are the best found in Italy.

The region is also famous for its wild game, crisp Orvietto white wine, cow’s milk cheeses, and its abundance of cured pork products. This may be Italy’s best-kept secret, at least for now. 

  • Porchetta – roasted pork belly stuffed with fennel and herbs
  • Torta al Testo – flatbread stuffed with cured meats and greens
  • Pasta alla Norcina – pasta with pork sausage and black truffles

Northern Italian Food vs Southern Italian Food: List of Dishes

Northern Italian FoodSouthern Italian Food
Risotto alla MilaneseNeapolitan Pizza
Lasagna Verde alla BologneseOrecchiette con Salsiccia e Cime di Rapa
Brasato al BaroloSpaghetti alle Vongole
Osso BucoArrosticini
GnocchiSuppa Cuata
Table of Northern Italian food vs Southern Italian food: List of Dishes

Does North or Southern Italy have better food?

The answer once again is that both fans of Northern Italian food and aficionados of Southern Italian cuisine are both wrong. It’s because there are more players in the game which are the individual regions that make up the country.

Each region is special and unique in its culinary heritage and traditions. The dishes, products, ingredients, and wines they produce vary greatly and they all should be recognized for the delicious foods they produce.

Final Thoughts: Northern Italian Food vs Southern Italian Food

The culinary landscape of Italy is incredibly complex. This has led people to simplify the conversation and start a hotly contested debate about Northern Italian food vs Southern Italian food and which cuisine is better.

Now that you have read about all of these amazing food regions of Italy, which one are you most excited to visit and try all of their culinary delights? Maybe it’s time to start planning that trip to Italy!

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