When in Italy, your food may come from a cart or stall, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. Across this edible nation, the streets are teeming with bite-sized, hand-held snacks that will trigger instant salivation.
“It’s something that you eat walking down the street,” says Massimo Capra, an Italian-Canadian celebrity chef and Chopped Canada judge. “In the north, we eat grilled sausages and chickpea pancakes. In Naples, there’s pizza, folded libretto-style. In Sicily, sandwiches, focaccias and arancini.”
Traditional Italian “street food” includes everything from gelato, panzerotti, zeppole, pizza – anything that’s delicious and can be consumed rapidly using your fingers. But what makes these street eats and treats so mouth-wateringly good? It’s not just the ancient recipes or special cooking techniques – the Italian-made ingredients and products also play a starring role.
1. Arancini Di Riso (Rice Balls)
Crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, look for these balls of deep-fried goodness in the laneway stalls of southern Italy. This savoury snack has deep roots in Sicily, possibly dating as far back as the 10th-century. It’s not surprising, given the long tradition of street-eating on the island.
“In Palermo, their street food is quite incredible,” says Chef Capra. “They have a culture of street food – they make it right there for [your] walk down the street.”
As the story goes, these puff balls were fried to preserve the rice and offer a portable nosh for the royal court during long trips or hunting excursions. Each sphere is stuffed with rice, Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, ragù meat sauce, and other flavourful fillings, and then rolled in bread crumbs and browned until crisp. On the island, you might see arancini molded into different shapes and sizes: the most common are round and originate from Western Sicily, whereas the ones from the Eastern Sicily are often cone-shaped (a nod to Mount Etna).
Today, their take-away legacy continues amongst Italians; but arancini are also trending in Canadian restaurants and are the ideal snack to make when you have leftover risotto. The love of this snack knows no boundaries!
Craving a sweet-savoury snack? Head to Genoa in northern Italy, where farinata or torta di ceci is all the rage. A local favourite since the 18th-century this hand-held, crispy flatbread or pancake is made from chickpea flour mixed with water, salt and olive oil.
“You buy it from these beautiful, big frying pans – they just pour it on, cook or fry it, and then slice it,” says Chef Capra. “By the time you’re done eating, you’ve got olive oil dripping all over your arm, so you better have short sleeves when you’re eating it!”
It’s a messy meal best consumed on the spot, but this tasty number is also making cameos on menus in ritzy restaurants worldwide. For authentic farinata, use Riviera Ligure DOP extra virgin olive oil.
Stemming from the Italian word for “stomach,” panzerotti originate from Puglia, a region of southern Italy. But these delicious fried dough pockets are so popular that they’re sold on the streets of virtually every city in Italy.
The recipe hasn’t changed much since the 18th-century. The ingredients are folded into a dough, and rapidly deep-fried to create a golden brown crunchy crust. Biting into the steamy centre unearths a cheesy-tomato burst that melds with herbs, egg, and pieces of silky prosciutto.
This tasty moon-shaped dish has gradually migrated onto menus in Canada and the United States, offering a fabulous finger food for picnics and parties, and even inspiring dessert dishes. To try making it at home, stock up on Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP and Parmigiano Reggiano DOP – two ingredients to guarantee belly bliss.
Got the munchies for some sumptuous street eats? Eat all the things at the Streeat Food Truck Festival, touring Italy in April, May and June.