With 7600 kilometers of coastline, Italy is one of Europe’s best beach destinations. Though many trips to Italy are planned around cities and monuments, it’s worth making a seaside detour during summer months, where you can lounge (and eat!) like a local by the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean.
One interesting thing about Italy and beach food: it becomes more difficult to find fresh seafood as you venture inland. I spend my summers in the rolling hills of southern Tuscany, less than two hours away from both coasts, but I live in the land of suckling pig, prosciutto, sheep’s milk cheese and wild boar. The only time I encounter fresh fish is on Wednesdays at my local osteria, after the fishmonger’s van makes its weekly pass through my hill town. When I crave fresh frutti di mare, I hit the road and don’t look back until I’m spitting distance from the sea with a fork in my hand.
Like the rest of Italy’s complex cuisine, beach food is regional. On the Adriatic, Ionian or Tyrrhenian, you’ll find completely different dishes from one rocky cove to the next. Later this week we’ll give some Foodie International tips on “how to hit the beach like an Italian,” but for now, let’s start with ten of my favorite seaside snacks:
10 Foods to Try on Italy’s Beaches
(Rome) We might know it as “Italian water ice,” but this Roman treat — not to be confused with Sicily’s famous granita — is made from hand-shaved ice smothered in sweet, flavored syrup. You can find grattachecca in central Rome, but it’s best enjoyed with a sea view. Head out to the city’s beaches (we love Fregene, Sperlonga and Maccarese) and flag down a gratachecca vendor pushing his cart along the sand. Pick your poison (syrup flavor/color) for a euro or two, and enjoy the chill of fresh ice while sucking out the syrup like you did when you were a kid.
2. Olive all’ascolana
(Ascoli Piceno) Along the Adriatic Sea, on the coast of Italy’s Le Marche region, you’ll find one of my favorite fried seaside snacks: olive all’ascolana. Large green olives (typically from the Ascoli area) are pitted, stuffed with ground meat then deep-fried. This savory treat is enjoyed throughout Le Marche, from the “velvet beaches” of Senigallia to the port of Pesaro.
3. Spaghetti ai frutti di mare
(Everywhere) Pasta with mixed seafood (frutti di mare) is the King of Italian beach food. This is what we crave, jumping into our cars and flying down the coastal highways at sunset. Clams, mussels, prawns, squid — whatever seafood is fresh and available — gets thrown into a garlicky white white sauce and tossed with the local pasta. After we clean out every last shell, we dunk hunks of bread into the remaining sauce, soaking up every last drop.
4. Pizza al taglio
(Everywhere) Pizza al taglio was invented in Rome, not to be confused with its round, highbrow Neapolitan cousin. Nothing fancy here, just pizza by the slice, the dough rolled out into long, rectangular pies and baked in a wood-burning oven. When you select your preferred topping, it’s custom-cut with scissors — pizza as big as you want it — and weighed. Flat, greasy, salty, and the most amazing thing you may ever eat after a lazy day in the sun.
Don’t let the name fool you. “Scampi” are not shrimp or prawns, nor are they smothered in a garlic and butter sauce. In Italy, scampi are what we know as langoustines, large lobster-like crustaceans, with the sweetest meat imaginable. Scampi alla griglia are a must-eat on the Mediterranean. Order them stuffed with garlic breadcrumbs in Rimini, or go for the sweet and simple approach while overlooking the cliffs of Amalfi: barely brushed with local olive oil and grilled on an open flame.
I call it the “Italian sashimi.” Crudo is an excellent way to enjoy fresh fish, normally sliced and served raw. drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and the quick squeeze of a lemon. Pesce spada (swordfish) is a popular choice, so is Sicilian bluefin tuna. Crudo is found in most coastal towns, especially in Sicily and Sardinia, where seafood rules.
One of my favorite parts of taking the train to Sicily is crossing the Straits of Messina. The train is loaded onto a traghetto — large ferry boat — one car at a time, then sets out on a twenty minute crossing. If you’re quick, you can leave your train car, run upstairs and grab an arancino at the bar (never mind the fact that it’s probably 5:00AM and you haven’t brushed their teeth). These golden fried, breadcrumb-coated rice balls are a Sicilian and southern Italian staple. Sometimes stuffed with tomato sauce, ground meat or peas, arancini always make me think of summer.
Granita is Sicily’s favorite breakfast treat. The kick-starter is slushier than gelato and served in a glass, but it’s still sweet and cold enough to cause early morning brain-freeze. Often topped with a solid layer of whipped cream, granita is served with a large, freshly baked brioche.accompanied by a still-warm, slightly sweet brioche for dunking. There’s something fabulous about whipped cream first thing in the morning…with a spectacular sea view.
9. Fritto misto
(Everywhere) Il fritto misto di pesce translates as “mixed fried fish” and it is the quintessential beach eat, all over Italy, from paper cones filled with tiny whole fish in Trieste to a beachside platter of sardines and baby squid in Sicily. The only criterion is that the seafood mix must be fried, and deep-fried at that. Crunchy, salty, fishy goodness. If you see this dish on a menu, order it. You’re welcome.
Though an aperitivo not is something you “eat,” it’s almost always accompanied by food. If you don’t have time to spend the day and one of Italy’s beach clubs, try hitting a beach club bar around sunset for an aperitivo – a pre-dinner cocktail served with salty snacks, tiny salads, finger sandwiches, fruit and whatever else emerges from the kitchen. Mojitos made with Cuban rum are popular seaside drinks in Italy. For something lighter, sip on an Aperol Spritz — prosecco, Aperol and a splash of soda — once a Venetian libation, now found throughout the country. Admire the sunset, stick your feet in the sand and think of La Dolce Vita.
What are your favorite summer beach eats — at home and abroad? Leave a comment and let us know what foods make you think of sand, surf and summertime.