It's been a helluva specific year in Italian restaurants. Region-specific dining is on the rise, yet most struggle to pin Italian dishes to the map. Here's a bluffer's guide to a few of the boot's most delicious regions.
All hail the mountains and plains of Emilia-Romagna, ground zero for parmesan, Massimo Bottura and balsamic vinegar. This rich belt runs right across the peninsular encompassing Modena, Reggio Emilia, Rimini and its capital Bologna, lovingly known as the fat one. Antipasti-wise, its great gift to pre-gaming is mortadella (the spiced, spongy pork sausage called baloney in the States) and gnocco fritto, yeasty dough pieces deep fried into fluffy puffed-up pillows – try it with whipped mortadella at Trattoria Emilia in the old Gill's site.This is also egg pasta central with special mentions going to tortellini – ricotta and spinach versions with sage butter are common, as is the use of butter, period. See also tagliatelle made extra light with spinach, and to go with it, bolognese, traditionally made with pork and veal, not beef. Rabbit alla cacciatore (with onion, capsicum served over polenta) is huge in Modena. Get some lambrusco or sangiovese in your glass, and chase everything with nocino (liqueur flavoured with green walnuts).
Try it at: Trattoria Emilia 360 Little Collins Street, Melbourne 03 9670 7214; Osteria la Passione 486 Bridge Road, Richmond 03 9428 2558
Cannoli stuffed with ricotta and dipped in pistachio is a Sicilian dessert staple. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Pistachio, seafood and citrus-rich, it's the island off the toe of the boot where active volcano Mount Etna presides over new-wave flinty chardonnays and syrahs and where you definitely leave the gun, take the cannoli. Dessert is non-negotiable, especially those pastry cigars piped with ricotta (Rosa Mitchell's at Rosa's Canteen are winners), and gelato served in brioche buns with the cap used as a spoon. Cassata is massive too – a layer of ricotta and dried fruit over booze-and-juice-soaked sponge. Palermo up north is the holy grail of street snacks, though we've inherited the tamer versions such as arancini (rice balls), mini fried calzone, chickpea fritters and other deep-fried wonders, lots of which you'll find at Elwood newcomer Figo. Spleen burgers and intestines on sticks, sadly, haven't made it to Melbourne yet.
Try it at: Rosa's Canteen Little Bourke Street & Thomson Street, Melbourne 03 9602 5491; Figo 73 Brighton Road, Elwood 03 9531 7732
Suckling pig, sweet and tender, cooked over a spit roast is pride of Italy's second largest island. At Pietro Porcu's Sardinian restaurant, Da Noi in South Yarra, you can rent out the back room and they'll cook your pig over a fire while you start on antipasti. Sardinia is also boss of a couple of great pasta creations - culurgiones are little pastie-shaped ravioli with a potato and mint filling, and malloreddus are little ridged semolina shells served with a sausage sauce. You'll find both in Albert Park at Vieni Qua where Da Noi graduate Carlo Furcas has taken over the kitchen. Snack-wise, Sardinians are also responsible for those ultra fine crispbreads that are known as carta di musica because they resemble sheet music.
Try it at: Vieni Qua 149 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park 03 9696 8963; Da Noi 95 Toorak Rd, South Yarra 03 9866 5975
Veneto-style bigoli noodles with duck, dried mandarin and asiago at Vaporetto. Photo: Simon Schluter
The most noteworthy export of Veneto, a great mass in the North East taking in Verona, Venice and Treviso, might actually be the culture. Venice is famous for coffee shops (side note, tiramisu hails from Treviso), and bacari – stand-up wine bars where you duck in for small snacks (little sandwiches, stuffed olives and so on, collectively known as cichetti) and a small glass of wine during the day – are a way of life. Heart Attack and Vine is modelled on a Venetian bar, as is Vaporetto in Hawthorn, where you can also get bellinis (prosecco and peach puree) and sarde in saor: fried, marinated sardines on toast. When you go to carb town it will be polenta dishes served with gamey meats, fat spaghetti known as bigoli and endless takes on risotto. But you'll find us in the bar making meals of snacks and amazing wines from Soave.
Try it at: Heart Attack and Vine 329 Lygon Street, Carlton 03 9005 8624; Vaporetto Bar and Eatery Rear 681 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn 03 9078 5492
It's all about buffalo mozzarella and pizza taken so seriously the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (aka pizza police) travels globally, bestowing its approval upon select venues who meet true Napoli specs, right down to dough acidity and type of tomatoes used. La Svolta and 400 Gradi both have the tick. Running along the south coast it's simple Mediterranean cooking – bread and pasta, fresh vegetables and olive oil, and lots of tomatoes. So this is where you want a Caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil). Students can also thank Naples for the gift of dried pasta – maccheroni.
Try it at: 400 Gradi 99 Lygon Street, East Brunswick 03 9380 2320; La Svolta 450 Hampton Street, Hampton 03 9521 8990