Italian food is a global force. When people talk about the art of cuisine or Michelin star restaurants, French, Japanese, or Italian food. But when those same people talk about a long day and how they just need some easy Italian food is everyone’s first choice world-wide.
That is the beauty of Italian food: the diversity. From Bottura’s elevated cuisine to nonna’s homemade stews, it falls on every level of the dining pyramid, even having a multitude of side dishes that can accompany your main course.
At a restaurant, most of the time your main dish will come ala carte, with a few exceptions. If you want a side dish you must order it separately. Side dishes (contorni) are usually vegetables or a salad. The vegetables will be local and seasonal, so you always have to ask what’s fresh and available.
The fact that one country can manage such a litany of side dishes that rival the mains is mind-boggling and should be looked at with greater focus. Here, we will look at the best Italian side dishes that can be eaten on most any occasion.
A surprising first entrant for best side dish, but when it’s done right, this dish is perfection. Most people avoid eggplant, due to its bitter taste and moisture content.
If you brine or salt your eggplant 30 minutes before cooking, the bitter flavor will be drawn out with the moisture. You can then dab the eggplant with a paper towel, and it is ready to cook.
Once cooked, you are met with a creamy, soft dish that takes on the flavor of what you add to it. This makes it a perfect appetizer or side dish, as you can mix and match condiments and flavors, while you take a break from the main course.
Caprese is a simple dish, made up of sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and vinegar. That’s it. However, some of the best recipes are the simplest and with only five ingredients, this can be called a very successful dish.
It has a look of different flavors that combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. It is salty, it is acidic, it is fresh, it is rich, and delicious.
Given its complex flavors and simplistic style, it is perfect as a refreshing side dish for heavier mains and works to clear the palate perfectly before the next course.
Polenta is a dish that is made of boiled cornmeal. That’s it. Unlike the Caprese salad, though, this dish does not make something greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, its strength lies in what you do or add to it.
It can be served as an oatmeal, or it can be cooled and allowed to solidify into a loaf that can then be either grilled, baked, or fried. It is really easy to make and, much like the eggplant, takes on the flavors of anything you add to it.
With the diverse ways you can cook it and given you add so much flavor to it, polenta is a dish that can become any dish you want, making it perfect as a side dish.
Since focaccia needs to be eaten fresh, you would think you need to throw it away after. Not if you want Panzanella Salad, you don’t. This bread salad calls for toasted bread and a variety of raw vegetables mixed together in an olive oil vinaigrette.
This is a fantastic way to use up any stale bread or left-over focaccia you may have lying around and, since it is customizable, you can change it to become an accompaniment to any dish you may be serving or to simply use up vegetables you have spare in your fridge.
Burrata is a cheese made from mozzarella and cream. While the outside is solid cheese, the inside is soft and creamy, giving it a unique and delightful texture.
Served in a salad with cherry tomatoes, spring greens, and a generous drizzle of pesto and olive oil, this salad is a perfect dish to go along with your meal or to start it. The fresh flavors can cut through a fatty roast or wet the appetite for the rest of the meal, without stuffing you to the brim.
I’m sure many people are scratching their heads wondering how risotto got on a side dish list, and I do understand, but I promise there are good reasons. It is rich, creamy, and can hold its own with the best of them. However, having a vegetable risotto can be a perfect accompaniment for a heavy main course.
It’s got plenty of flavor, while not being overpowering and, in turn, it won’t be overpowered by the main, while providing an exquisite vegetable dish that can compliment the main easily.
Risotto, while finicky, can also be changed to suit the flavors in your meal – with mushroom risotto being earthy, while pea and goat’s cheese risotto is fresh and tangy – making it equipped to stand to the side of your main while improving your meal’s overall experience.
Italians love fennel. While many western cultures are not the biggest fans of its anise flavor, it is everywhere in Italian cooking, from sausages to risotto, with the bulbs even being roasted. You may think of avoiding this dish by associating the flavor with licorice, but, honestly, it’s great.
Once the fennel is roasted it takes on a delicate, almost sweet flavor and the texture of the plant softens completely, making it melt in your mouth. With a bit of grated Parmesan on top, it brings a symphony of flavors to your mouth.
Thanks to the mild flavor and delicate texture, it makes a great side dish or an appetizer to wet your tongue, before indulging in the main course.
Broccoli Rabe is simply that: broccoli rabe. This plant is drenched in olive oil and salt before roasting, however the flavor that comes from this little plant is fantastic.
Its natural bitterness provides a satisfying bite, when you chow down on it, and you can add a host of different seasonings to enhance that flavor, with particular favorites being minced garlic and red pepper flakes.
Due to rabe being a solely vegetable side with a unique flavor that refreshes the palate and resets the taste buds, it provides a great relief from the main dish without disrupting the meal.
Radicchio is known to permeate throughout Italian cooking, so much so that the plant is sometimes called ‘Italian chicory’. It has a bitter, spicy taste, which, when combined with olive oil, roasted hazelnuts, apples, and blue cheese, creates a vibrant salad that stings the nostrils, while still making you come back for more.
The salad can be a game changer at a dinner party, as it works well to absorb the fatty flavors of roasted meats and pastas and the heady effects of too much wine, reinvigorating your guests and exciting them for the next course.
What’s great about this salad, is that there is only one key component: the radicchio itself. As such, if you feel the need, it is the perfect chance to try different flavors with this vegetable to see what unique taste you can achieve.
Carpaccio is an unusual dish in the west, due to it being made from raw meat (mostly beef or venison). However, you should not disregard it simply because it is raw, as you will miss out on a tantalizing treat.
The meat of choice is cut super thin and served in a circular pattern with lemon or vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. In less traditional versions, a variety of vegetables and cheeses are added, but never so much as to over power the meat.
What makes this dish so good is that the ingredients taste good on their own but are also served in a way that most people do not normally eat them. Making the dish stay in people’s minds long after the meal has ended.
Pomodoro Al Riso
A dish beloved in the city of Rome, Pomodoro al Riso is, essentially, stuffed tomatoes. Tomatoes are hollowed out and packed with all kinds of savory goodies, before being baked in the oven. Once done, you can season with fresh herbs and a splash of olive oil, before serving to your hungry guests.
What makes these so good is what you can put in them, which is literally any savory food. Pine nuts, breadcrumbs, arborio rice, garlic, onion, anchovies, any semi compatible flavor will work in them.
Friselle is a twice baked wheat bread from southern Italy that is simple and easy to make. Unlike focaccia, this bread is quite dry and, when toasted, resembles more of rusk than anything.
However, they are packed with flavor and combined with their unique texture, they make a great dipping bread that can be used with soups.
The texture doesn’t make it good for only soups either, it can be used for mopping up sauces, or to have juicy or saucy foods – tomatoes, herbs, and olive oil being traditional – on top for a delectable little snack throughout your meal.
Many of us have walked into an Italian deli for the selection of meats and decided to pick up some giardiniera while we’re there. And why not? It is essentially just pickled vegetables, but with the amount of flavor packed into that.
Many of us have walked into an Italian deli for the selection of meats and decided to pick up some giardiniera while we’re there. And why not? It is essentially just pickled vegetables, but with the amount of flavor packed into that little jar, giardiniera packs a punch into any salad or sandwich it’s put in.
The tangy flavor and crunchy texture work well with or without food and can be placed anywhere from the start to the end of the meal, without upsetting your palate. Its flavor cuts through the haze brought on by fatty foods, and the crunch works to juxtapose more tender dishes, giving you an easy victory at your dinner party.
Bruschetta is usually served as an appetizer, but can also be a side dish sometimes. It’s an incredibly simple dish to prepare, and if you choose high quality ingredients, it can easily steal the show at your dinner party. In its original, simplified form, it’s just grilled bread topped with garlic, olive oil, and salt. While this is all it takes to make bruschetta, it does not take away from the joy of eating, being full of flavor and texture.
Many have taken this simple dish a step further by adding fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, and sometimes different meats or fishes to the dish, making a decadent, indulgent little snack before the meal itself.
Best Italian Side Dishes – Conclusion
Italian cuisine holds no prisoners and covers all bases. From opulent ballrooms filled with the world’s finest to little cottages in the countryside surrounded by family, Italian cuisine can be used anywhere.
It’s long history and cultural significance to all sections of Italian society have given us an eclectic and diverse range of flavors and textures to dine on to our hearts content.
From this mighty collection of food, side dishes have formed a cornerstone and continue to be made and improved upon by those who hold them most dear.
The Italian side dish is strong enough to stand on its own, but, when it is used to accompany a main, it truly makes your home dinner party feel like a royal feast with only the flavors taking you there.