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 peninsula 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. 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: Pasta Emilia 259 Riley Street, Surry Hills 02 9212 1069
Signorelli Gastronomia Sydney
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, 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. Spleen burgers and intestines on sticks, sadly, haven't made it to Sydney yet.
Try it: Pasticceria Tamborrino 75 Great North Road, Five Dock 02 9712 1461; Signorelli Gastronomia Trouton Place, Pyrmont 02 8571 0616
Cecina con testa en cassetta (suckling pig terrine in a chickpea focaccia) from Pilu at Freshwater, the only fine-dining Sardinian restaurant in Sydney. Photo: James Alcock
Suckling pig, sweet and tender, cooked over a spit roast is pride of Italy's second largest island. Pilu at Freshwater is known for plating up Sydney's best Italian porcetto, sourcing their free-range pigs from Melanda Park.
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.
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: Pilu at Freshwater Moore Road, Freshwater 02 9938 3331; Filicudi Restaurant 11 Ramsay Road, Five Dock 02 9713 8733
Aperol spritz is part of the Veneto culture. Photo: Jesse Marlow
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.
Artusi offers a strictly Italian line-up of aperitifs - bellini, negroni or martinis - and a few Veneto wines, such as a Corte Giara IGT delle Venezie - with stuzzichini along the lines of fresh anchovies, warm olives and sashimi kingfish dressed with Campari vinaigrette.
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: Artusi 2/122 Edinburgh Road, Castlecrag 02 9967 5371
Via Napoli Pizzeria
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. Vegan pizzeria Gigi has the tick, as does Lucio.
Running along the south coast, it's simple Mediterranean cooking – bread and pasta, fresh vegetables and olive oil, and lots of tomatoes. If you're chasing the cheese, Via Napoli serves up buffalo mozzarella with San Danielle prosciutto, in crocchette, atop of pizza and simply crumbed and fried.
Naples is the home of the Caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and, as a gift to students everywhere, created the dried pasta maccheroni.
Try it: Via Napoli 628 Crown Street, Surry Hills 02 9310 1300; Gigi 379 King Street, Newtown 02 9557 2224; Lucio Pizzeria, 2-4 Defries Avenue, Zetland 02 9697 3028