15 Italian comfort foods to eat in fall
(Updated Oct 2020)
Imagine this: it’s 4pm in Venice and the sun has already set. Outside, a fierce wind litters the streets and canals with an extra layer of leaves.
Fall has arrived, and so too has a drop in temperature. Autumn is a season when Italian comfort food is in abundance and calorie counting goes into hibernation.
We’re talking about steaming bowls of pasta covered in a rich Ragu sauce, and fluffy polenta topped with melted Asiago cheese.
Get cozy, and prepare to salivate over these 15 Italian comfort foods to try in Italy on your travels.
There’s one Italian dish that makes me salivate the second I detect its heavenly aroma: pasticcio.
A dense pie consisting of a Ragu meat sauce, béchamel sauce and Parmesan cheese sandwiched between layers of pasta. You may also see it written as ‘pastitsio’.
The difference between pasticcio and lasagne — Italian comfort foods
When looking at photos of pasticcio and lasagne, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same dish. For the most part, they are, though with some slight differences.
Pasticcio or lasagna Bolognese? Either way, it’s one of the best Italian comfort foods
2. Polenta Asiago e funghi
Polenta Asiago e funghi is a dish you’re more likely to find in the north of Italy than the south.
The dish is so basic and yet is something you instantly want to order the second you see it. It consists of a base of fluffy polenta, with a helping of mushrooms in the center. The final ingredient is an oozing of Asiago cheese melting on top.
When fall arrives, so too do the variety of mushrooms. Porcini or chanterelle mushrooms pack even more of a flavorful punch into the dish.
Italian comfort foods — what is polenta?
Polenta is a dish consisting of water and corn maize — typically yellow marano corn. It has a mashed potato-like consistency and is sometimes eaten as an alternative to rice or pasta.
At one point, polenta became so common, it was the main staple that people ate in the north. The dish’s also suitable for coeliacs as it’s corn, and not wheat based.
You should know that polenta is very bland on its own, so adding some kind of seasoning is essential.
Maize fields are in abundance in northern Italy; a main reason why it’s the predominate grain used in polenta.
It was explorer, Christopher Columbus, who first brought corn to Europe from America. He cited the example of indigenous people preparing a kind of pancake using cornmeal and water.
Tuck into a plate of polenta Asiago e funghi this fall in Italy
“Light and fluffy crepes filled with Gorgonzola cheese and fresh radicchio is a dream combination comfort food.”
The first time I tried spezzatino was at a small Osteria in Bassano del Grappa. Even though it was the height of summer and the wrong time of the year, I savored every bite.
Spezzatino is a stew, usually cubes of beef, that’s slow cooked for a few hours. It’s fragrant, full-bodied and utterly delicious. Other ingredients typically also include carrots, celery, red wine and rosemary.
An easy dish to make at home, you can throw everything into a saucepan, and leave it to cook.
There are several different versions of Spezzatino, which substitute beef for veal, chicken, pork or lamb.
Serve the beef stew with some crusty bread, and a glass of robust red wine. It’s a dish that’s comforting as it is filling.
4. Pasta e fagioli
There’s a warm and fuzzy feeling that overcomes me when I see a bowl of pasta e fagioli. Simply put, it’s a soup-based dish consisting of pasta and beans (fagioli).
The base ingredients are pasta, beans, garlic, celery and broth. It’s a dish that varies according to regions, so you may come across slight variations. Pasta e fagioli may also include herbs like sage or parsley, or peppers, tomatoes, ham and pancetta.
There are a few regions in Italy where this dish is typical, and is also a comfort food favorite. They include Veneto, Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany.
The history of eating pasta with beans dates to the Roman times. Statesman and philosopher Cicero was allegedly a big fan.
Pasta e fagioli anyway you like it
As with most Italian dishes, good ingredients take center stage. The beans traditionally used in pasta e fagioli are borlotti and cannellini. What type of pasta you use also makes a difference. Many variations use short pasta, but there are also some that use the long kind.
Lastly, the cooking techniques can also differ depending on where you eat it in Italy. In Naples, they cook the pasta and the beans together, meaning that it retains all the starch. The result is a soup that’s thicker and creamier in texture.
Personally, I prefer my pasta e fagioli on the creamier side, with small cubes of pancetta on top. However you like it, I can guarantee that your level of comfort will increase substantially after a hearty bowl.
Pasta e fagioli is one of my favorite fall comfort foods in Italy
5. Cotoletta alla Milanese
Finding Italian comfort food in Milan is as high on the bucket list along with shopping and visiting its Duomo. And when it comes to choosing what to eat, there’s one choice that surpasses them all.
Cotoletta Milanese (also called Costoletta) is a veal cutlet that’s coated in breadcrumbs and fried. It’s similar to the Viennese Wiener Schnitzel, though the 2 countries dispute whose version came first. One significant difference is that the Milanese is made with veal, while the Austrian schnitzel uses pork.
According to historians, there’s evidence to show that the dish, then called, lombolos cum panitio, dates to the 12th century. It was listed in the menu of the monks at the Sant’Ambrogio Basilica in Milan.
Variations can range from thin and crunchy cutlets, to some with the bone in and also slightly pink inside. Double breading the cutlets and cooking in clarified butter gives it a crunchier exterior.
I enjoy my cutlet with a squeeze of lemon, and with a side serving of potatoes and vegetables. In short, it’s comfort food on a plate.
The mighty and delicious Cotoletta alla Milanese
Falsomagro is a traditional meat roll typically made from beef or veal stuffed with bread, cheese and ham. Slices of bacon, onions, garlic and fresh herbs and hard-boiled eggs complete the dish, but ingredients can vary.
String is tied around the joint to keep the flavors together, and it’s then put it in the oven. American readers will recognize the shape of the Falsomagro, given that it’s similar to a meatloaf.
The meaning behind ‘falsomagro’
‘Falso’ means false and ‘magro’ means ‘thin’ or in this case ‘lean.’ It refers to the small amount of meat in the dish compared to its generous size. Another meaning is said to describe the lean cut of meat that’s used, which contrasts to the higher fat filling.
The story behind falsomagro — Italian comfort foods for fall
The origins of this dish come from Palermo and dates to the 15th century.
During the period of French rule in Sicily, people didn’t eat cow meat because the animals were used for work. Instead, they only ate animals that were lame or old with hard and fibrous tissue.
This led to French-trained Sicilian chefs, called monsù, having to create something appetizing from the meat that they had. They stuffed the meat with herbs, creating a dish that the French interpreted as ‘fake skinny’.
Sicilian chefs elaborated the dish, later stuffing it with ham, boiled eggs and cheese, to resemble what it is today.
Falsomagro is more common in rural areas of Sicily, where they usually make it for Sunday lunch. However, if you really want to try it in Sicily, I can recommend Ai Cascinari in Palermo. This charming trattoria in the Kalsa (former Arab) quarter of the city serves up a very tasty falsomagro.
A take on the Falsomagro at Trattoria Ai Cascinari
7. Canerdeli in brodo
The region of Trentino-Alto Adige/ Südtirol not only shares a border with Austria, but it also shares some of its dishes. Canerdeli in brodo are dumplings made from stale bread, ham and cheese, and cooked in a meaty broth.
The smell and the sight combined brings a level of comfort that hits long before you try it. In Austria, they know it as Knödel.
Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia also have their own version of this bread dumpling dish.
You’ll also find variations of the original canerderli, containing speck (dry-cured smoked ham), parsley and flour. It’s a dish that’s popular across north-east places in Italy like Friuli Venezia-Giulia and Alta Valtellina.
A dish that differs — Italian comfort foods for fall
The name ‘Canerdeli in brodo’ differs according to the regions. In Friuli, they’re called ‘chineglis’ or ‘chineghi’, while in Trieste they refer to them as gnochi de pan (bread dumplings).
Canerdeli in brodo comes from a very old recipe, and from a time when they ‘recycled’ leftover food. You won’t be surprised to read it was considered the food of the poor.
Sources show that the first representation of canederli was found in a fresco in the chapel of Castel d’Appiano. It dates to around 1180 but it’s unclear how much longer the dish has been around for.
This wholesome dish is perfect after a long day on the slopes, or for chilling by a toasty fire.
Relaxing in the lobby of Hotel St. Petersbourg in a piece designed by Finnish interior designer Eero Aarnio
8. Pollo alla cacciatora
It’s off to Tuscany for this next Italian comfort food. Pollo alla cacciatora (Hunter’s chicken) is a baked chicken dish with red wine, tomatoes, rosemary, onions, carrots and celery. Like canerdeli, pollo alla cacciatora is also a recipe that originates from humble beginnings.
It has all the ingredients to warm you up, and to also satisfy your tastebuds at the same time.
Pieces of chicken are browned in a pan with onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Red wine (or white wine) and tomatoes are then added along with seasoning. The delicious concoction is cooked on a low heat creating a simple, yet incredibly tasty dish.
This chicken dish is so popular across the country, that regions adapt it using their own local ingredients. In the Sicilian version, you may find capers along with olives, chili and sprigs of wild fennel. In Rome, they’re likely to add peppers, anchovies and marjoram.
The meaning of ‘pollo alla cacciatora’
‘alla cacciatora’, meaning ‘of the hunter’, refers to the style in which the dish is prepared. It also usually refers to the ingredients they use to make the dish, such as onions, garlic and wine.
There’s another unique theory surrounding the meaning of ‘alla cacciatora’. Sources say it refers to the combination of garlic and rosemary that hunters once used to marinate their prey.
Serve a healthy portion of the chicken, along with some fresh bread, or with roast potatoes and vegetables.
An Italian comfort food favorite for fall — pollo alla cacciatore
9. Crespelle radicchio e Gorgonzola
My mouth waters simply at the thought of this dish.
Light and fluffy crepes filled with Gorgonzola cheese and fresh radicchio is a dream combination comfort food. Crespelle radicchio e Gorgonzola makes a filling first course, but it depends on how many you eat!
Gorgonzola together with the radicchio creates a rich and intense cream that only adds to the melt-in-the-mouth experience. The cheese was actually the result of a happy accident.
The story behind Gorgonzola cheese
The story goes that a shepherd left some curdled milk in a container, forgetting to add salt to the curd. The next day he used the same container, still with the curds at the bottom. Not realizing that small molds had formed, he’d mistakenly created a new cheese.
It was only after a few days that the shepherd realized his creation. Nowadays, Gorgonzola, with its robust flavor and unique texture, is popular not just in Italy, but across the globe.
Radicchio is one of my all-time favorite vegetables. The best produce comes from Treviso, which you can only find during the winter months. For a perfect filling, the radicchio should be the round and bitter variety. Likewise, the type of Gorgonzola also makes a difference. It shouldn’t be too soft or overly ripe.
Other varieties of Crespelle radicchio e Gorgonzola also include Chanterelle mushrooms and bacon.
One of the best fall comfort foods in Italy is Crespelle radicchio e Gorgonzola
10. Polpette al sugo
No post listing Italian comfort food would be complete without meatballs. It’s a favorite of mine in general, but come fall, it’s definitely something I crave.
Polpette al sugo are meatballs made from pork and beef, with a healthy coating of tomato sauce. It’s then combined with stale bread soaked in milk, eggs, grated parmesan and seasoning. The dish is another Italian one that comes from recycling leftovers. It was cooked with remaining meat, so as not to waste anything, then mixed together with other ingredients.
Meatballs with tomato sauce are an Italian family favorite and one that both kids and adults enjoy.
How to eat polpette al sugo — best Italian comfort foods
The meatballs can be fried, baked or even steamed. Good news for vegetarians, as there are also ‘meatballs’ made from legumes, such as chickpeas. More rarer recipes include meatballs with pecorino cheese and baked vegetables.
Good crusty bread is a must with polpette al sugo. ‘La scarpetta’ is when you ‘clean’ up the plate of remaining tomato sauce with your bread. It’s warming, slightly gluttonous, but damn delicious.
You can serve the meatballs in tomato sauce on its own, or with pasta. Spaghetti with meatballs is a classic, and one that’s an ideal Italian comfort food for fall.
With or without pasta, polpette al sugo warms up any cold day
11. Gnocchi burro e tartufo
There’s one aroma that dominates this dish, and that’s the truffles. Before I was a frequent visitor to Italy, I always assumed that truffles were crazy expensive. As it turns out, in Italy, truffles are commonly used, just not as an everyday ingredient.
Gnocchi burro e tartufo is potato dumplings with butter and truffles. Recipes vary between white (more expensive) and black truffles but ultimately, it depends on the recipe.
Gnocchi with truffles also makes an ideal autumn dish. Good quality butter, fresh sage leaves and grated Parmesan cheese are additional key ingredients. Some of the best gnocchi I’ve eaten has always been homemade.
How to make Gnocchi burro e tartufo
Many Italians prefer to make gnocchi at home, which isn’t as difficult as it might sound. You first need to make the dough, using boiled potatoes.
Once you’ve passed the cooked potatoes through a masher, let it cool before adding flour, an egg and some Parmesan. Cut the dough into strips that resemble small rectangular shapes, and use a fork to make a small marking.
For the sauce, add a little oil and butter and mix with the grated white truffle. As soon as the butter has melted, pour it into a bowl.
The last step is to cook the gnocchi and mix them in with the creamy sauce. Make sure not to overcook the gnocchi. If you’ve any leftover truffles, grate this on top to finish the dish.
Enjoy the gnocchi burro e tartufo with some good friends and a chilled glass of white wine.
Just add truffles, black or white – when making gnocchi burro e tartufo
12. Ossobuco con risotto alla Milanese
Cotoletta alla Milanese may be a favorite in Milan, but when it comes to taste, Ossobuco con risotto alla Milanese wins.
The dish consists of thick slices of veal, with the bone still in, served with a rich saffron risotto.
Slow cooking are the keywords to making a good Ossobuco con risotto alla Milanese, but it’s worth every agonizing minute.
This dish is perfect for when the temperatures dip outside. The saffron rice is a symbol of Milanese culinary tradition and it also adds a golden color to the dish.
The origins of risotto alla Milanese
The origins of Milanese risotto date to medieval times, with roots in Arab and Jewish cuisine. According to the most popular story, the dish was created in 1574 during the wedding of a Belgian glassmaker’s daughter.
One of his assistants, named Zafferano (meaning ‘saffron’), decided to add some of the yellow spice to the white rice. The guests reacted well to the surprise addition of saffron. It added flavor to the dish, and also a gold color, which represented wealth and prosperity.
Another legend about the risotto’s origins tells a different tale, this time about a Sicilian chef, who moved to Milan. While preparing his beloved arancini, he didn’t have his usual ingredients to hand. So, he returned to a rice recipe he already knew, using saffron to add flavor and the distinctive yellow color.
Whichever of the 2 tales you believe, trying Ossobuco con risotto alla Milanese is a must. It’s a dish you can only really find in Lombardy and it’s also an ultimate Italian fall comfort food.
Sink your teeth into Ossobuco alla Milanese when in Milan
13. Pappardelle al chinghiale
There’s a lot I remember about my first trip to Florence, but as a foodie, one stands out most.
In a cozy restaurant not far from Piazza della Republica is where I’d one of the best dining experiences. At Buca Lapi, we dined on pappardelle al chinghiale followed by the sumptuous Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
The dish is a typical Tuscan dish, consisting of pappardelle pasta with a rich sauce of wild boar. As someone who’s not usually keen on gamey flavors, I can tell you with confidence, you need to try this.
The rich sauce makes the dish ideal for colder weather, though honestly, I’d probably still eat it in summer! Wild boar, ripened tomatoes, red wine, onion, celery, carrots, rosemary and bay leaves all go into the sauce. A good sprinkling of salt, pepper and a glug of extra virgin olive oil finishes the pasta dish.
Are you game for trying wild boar?
If you’re reading this and thinking, wild boar? You’re not alone. I, at first, was reluctant to try it, but one mouthful and I was sold. Wild pigs are in abundant in this part of Italy, especially in the Maremma, and features often in Tuscan gastronomy.
The boar’s first marinated in red wine and the other ingredients mentioned above for at least 12 hours. It’s then browned and left to cook for about 15 minutes. Immediately after, tomato paste is added, along with a glass of red wine and a little olive oil.
It’s left to cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally from time to time.
Pappardelle al chinghiale is one of the ultimate comfort foods to eat in Italy
14. Baccalà alla Vicentina
Vicenza is a city in north Italy that’s become a second home to me. And whenever we’re back, there’s one dish I most look forward to.
Baccalà alla Vicentina is a dish that’s made from dry cod. The long cooking process tenderizes the fish, and milk helps to refine its strong taste.
Baccalà alla Vicentina is a symbol of the city, and so popular that there’s a festival held every year. Thousands of people flock to Sandrigo in the province of Vicenza, for the Festa del Baccalà alla Vicentina.
You’ll find several places in the historic center and around the outskirts of Vicenza that serve the dish. One trattoria we usually visit, Da culata, makes an excellent Baccalà alla Vicentina, which they serve with grilled polenta.
Baccalà alla Vicentina is so versatile that it’s also been paired with bigoli (pasta) gnocchi, and risotto. The pumpkin gnocchi with baccalà is one dish that has fall written all over it.
Baccalà alla Vicentina is so popular there’s an annual festival to celebrate it
My last pick for Italian comfort food is a pasta dish whose origins are influenced by its Austrian neighbors.
Spätzle are unusual-shaped dumplings made from flour, eggs and water — not potatoes like gnocchi. They’re also known as Tyrolean dumplings.
As you can probably tell from its name, Spätzle is German in origin. The small dumplings are formed using a special tool called a Spätzlehobel. The result are dumplings that resemble the shape of teardrops.
Different varieties to try — Italian comfort foods
Once you’ve made the Spätzle, the only thing left to do is to mix them with the sauce. The most common method is to sauté the Spätzle in a pan with some butter and chives. Most restaurants will serve this as a first course, but for me, it’s good as a main.
There are many interesting variations of Spätzle, and if the opportunity presents, you may want to try something different.
There’s the popular spinach spätzle, which of course takes on the green color of the vegetable. The Spätzle with bacon, parmesan cheese and lashings of cream on top is Italian comfort food heaven.
Have I made you drool uncontrollably in this post? Which of these Italian comfort foods would you most like to try? Leave me a note in the comments below, I’d love to read them.
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....