From north to south, east to west, alongside Italy’s more traditional restaurants there are new businesses springing up just about everywhere, dedicated to specialties eaten by hand or - at best - with plastic plates and forks, sat on a bench or lounging in the park.
A journey of the discovery of Italian street-food can only start in Sicily, the region that was the granary of the Roman Empire and then became a place of cultural and gastronomic crossroads between Arabs, Normans and Spaniards. One of the symbols of the island is arancini, a rice croquet prepared with different fillings and then fried - the most classic made with saffron, cheese, bolognese and peas.
If you want to try arancini in Palermo, a good place to go would be Alba bakery. And now that you’re already in the city, we’d recommend that you also try pane epanelle (a sandwich filled with chickpea fritters) or sfincione (a bread dough topped with tomato, sardines, onions and ricotta cheese).
Pane e panelle (a sandwich filled with chickpea fritters), Sicily
For those with a strong stomach, a classic dish is pani ca meusa; a sandwich filled with slices of cow spleen cooked in lard. Or for something a little sweeter that will please everyone: at every street corner you can try a tasty cannolo espresso, filled on the spot with sweet ricotta cheese.
These, and other specialties, can be eaten in the street or while strolling through Palermo’s main markets: Vucciria, Ballarò and il Capo. The journey back into the peninsula can be long and tiring, but a stop in Alberobello in Puglia will put the heart and the stomach at ease. Wander through the very white trulli (cylindrical homes with cone roofs found in Southern Italy) while nibbling at a bombetta; a roll of “capocollo” (pork meat taken from the neck) filled with cheese and salami, cooked on the barbecue.
Le Marche offers an interesting cuisine from the land and sea, but in the street they eat olive all'ascolana, stuffed olives filled with beef, pork, a bit of chicken, Parmesan cheese, white wine and nutmeg. Covered in breadcrumbs and fried, these olives will melt in your mouth. A piece of advice: buy them at the Migliori deli in Ascoli Piceno and savor them while admiring the majestic Piazza Arringo, in the heart of medieval Ascoli.
Olive all'ascolana, Le Marche
Central Italy is also famous for its porchetta. These sandwiches - filled with slices of spit-roast pork and flavored with herbs and spices - can be found just about everywhere, from Tuscany to Abruzzo. But their adopted homeland is Ariccia, a small town in Castelli Romani, just a stone’s throw from the capital. Here you can try porchetta in Osterias called fraschette, as well as from street-stalls and takeaways.
Porchetta, central Italy from Tuscany to Abruzzo
If Rome has its own street-food, Florence is certainly no exception. The lampredotto (from the third stomach of a cow) reigns supreme here. Cooked in a broth made with carrot, celery and onion and served in a bread roll, it can be covered in sauce, peeled (i.e. without the smooth, fatty part) or “con il cappello bagnato” (“with a wet head”), that is with the top of the bread dipped in broth. The sacred place of lampredotto in the city is the San Lorenzo Market. From here it’s a short walk to the Cathedral, so you can eat the humble lampredotto in the shadow of Giotto’s Bell Tower.
There are thousands of types of sandwiches in Italy, but one region has a delicious substitute to bread. In Romagna, the queen of Italian cuisine, you can find piada; a dough made from water, flour and lard, prepared fresh every day and cooked on a testo - a plate made from metal or another fire-resistant material that covers the entire surface of the stove. Piada is not only served in the street, it can also be eaten at the table as an accompaniment to a meal. It’s best, however, when filled with prosciutto and possibly squacquerone, a typical soft cheese from the area. There is also a variation known as crescione (or cassone or cascione), a piada folded in half and sealed like ravioli.
Until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to eat a good piada outside its home territory, but for a while now “piadina-mania” has led to the opening of decent piadinerie more or less everywhere in the big cities. There is nothing comparable, however, to the fragrant piada served at street-stalls from Cesana to Riccione, passing through Rimini and Cesenatico and the surrounding villages.
Piada found in Rome
Heading over to the sea, in Liguria flour also has a leading role. In Genova, a combination of water, yeast, salt and lard, seasoned with a lot of extra-virgin olive oil, creates the famous focaccia; excellent in any way, but best eaten still hot from the oven while wandering through the alleys of the Old Town. In Recco, the focaccia is a thin sheet filled with melted cheese. In Savona, along the Riviera di Ponente, you can eat farinata instead, made in two different ways; yellow with chickpea flour or white with wheat flour. Plain or stuffed; either way is delicious.
Focaccia genovese, Liguria
The street-food phenomenon doesn’t seem to be slowing down, despite the dry-spells of the economic crisis. Now there are people designing customized vans for every type of street-food, recreating the mythical Ape Piaggio (www.streetfoodmobile.com). Others have created Bonpat (“on a budget” in Piedmontese dialect), an app to locate street-food in the area: bonpat.tumblr.com.