When the temperatures start to soar in Italy, digging into a steaming plate of pasta or piping-hot pizza just out of the oven loses some of its appeal. But don’t despair…Italy has a whole set of cool summer dishes that are lighter on the stomach and make for great a hot-weather lunch or dinner.
Many of these summer foods in Italy are regional—or better to sample in a certain region, even if they can be found everywhere—and they are all seasonal featuring summer ingredients served refreshingly cool. Here are our top ten picks of chilled specialties to keep you can try this summer!
Il caprese: You may know this dish of sliced fresh mozzarella and tomato as caprese salad, but in Italy, it’s just “il caprese”. There are only a few ingredients to this beloved summer dish, which means they need to be top-notch for the combination to truly transport. Try this classic in Campania, home of authentic buffalo mozzarella, heirloom piennolo tomatoes, and fruity olive oil. Add a few leaves of basil and a dash of salt, and you have perfection.
Friselle con pomodoro: Friselle from Puglia are a type of very crunchy, bagel-shaped bread created by baking once, then slicing (much like you would slice a bagel) and baking a second time until they are completely crisped through. Though they are not that appealing when served plain, they form the perfect conduit for fresh chopped Puglian tomatoes mixed with the region’s piquant olive oil, fresh herbs, and a pinch of salt. The tomato juices and oil soften the bread just enough to blend the flavors and it is one of the top summer dishes in the south.
Vitello tonnato: Though the combination of thinly sliced cold roast beef topped with a chilled tuna sauce sounds odd, this dish is a staple of Piemontese cuisine and an ideal main dish on a hot day when you want a protein-packed meal that isn’t too heavy. This main dish requires excellent roast beef sliced paper thin and paired with a flavorful sauce of tuna, anchovies, capers, eggs, and extra-virgin olive oil…though there are as many recipes for the sauce as there are home cooks in Italy.
Prosciutto e melone: You will find this pairing of Parma ham and cantaloupe across Italy (and you may have even had this classic Italian cold dish close to home), but nothing beats the version you’ll find in Emilia Romagna. This water-rich region is known for its high-quality produce, including juicy melon with a sugar-sweet flesh that is the perfect foil to salty, savory Prosciutto di Parma, produced in the countryside between Parma and Bologna.
Panzanella: A summer staple in central Italy, this frugal dish was once a way for housewives to save that last piece of stale bread. Hard bread is softened in a vinegar and water soak then tossed with a variety of fresh garden vegetables from tomatoes and cucumber to lettuce and celery. Then the creative part begins as each cook adds anything that appeals, from olives to fresh herbs to create a cold yet satisfying “bread salad”.
Insalata di riso: This is another summer staple that you may not find on many restaurant menus but is a deli and dinner-table favorite. Basically a cold rice salad (much like a cold pasta salad, which is strangely much less common in Italy than rice salad), this fridge-cleaner can have everything but the kitchen sink tossed in. Common versions include finely chopped fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, olives, pickles, tuna, capers, boiled ham, tuna, peas…the list goes on and on.
Carpaccio di pesce: Long before sushi arrived in the West, Italians have been feasting on raw fish and seafood. You’ll find raw oysters, shrimp, sea urchins, and a number of “finned” fish on seaside menus from Venice to Puglia, and on of the most popular ways they are served is as “carpaccio”, or thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Common versions of carpaccio di pesce include tuna, swordfish, salmon, and seabass.
Carpaccio di vitello: The turf version of the surf carpaccio di pesce, this light summer meat dish centers around high-quality beef, so you’ll find it more often in regions like Piemonte or Tuscany where the local beef is excellent. This is also served with olive oil and, less often, lemon and eaten as a main dish
Bresaola con rucola e grana: If you like the idea of carpaccio but want to avoid raw meat or fish, try bresaola. This aged, salted beef is served much like carpaccio: sliced thin and dressed with olive oil. It is most often topped with peppery leaves of fresh rucola and flaked Grana Padano cheese (similar to parmesan) to make a main and side dish all in one.
Brioche con granita: We can’t really condone calling gelato a summer meal, but in Sicily, granita served with a sweet bun called a brioche is a common breakfast treat. Granita cools like gelato but has no dairy, so is much lighter—classic flavors include almond, pistachio, mulberry, or prickly pear. It is served either in a class and you can dip your brioche into your granita, or it is served with the granita already inside the brioche, like a sweet sandwich.
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