Just because you have a craving for Italian food doesn’t mean you have to labor over a steaming dish of pasta. Italy is a Mediterranean country, after all, meaning that much of the country gets torrid temperatures from June to September. Italian cooks have developed a repertoire of excellent cold dishes that both highlight the country’s stellar seasonal produce and keep it light so you can indulge without breaking a sweat.
Here are some of the best Italian summer dishes to prepare at home or seek out on your next trip to Italy:
Prosciutto e melone – This classic Italian antipasto is good all year round, but really shines in the early summer when cantalope melons are at their sweetest. Slice the most flavorful melon can find into thin wedges and wrap each in Prosciutto di Parma or, better, Prosciutto di Norcia—a saltier version of this aromatic charcuterie that really heightens the salt/sweet pairing that makes this simple dish a knockout. For a slightly more refined twist, substitute melon with sweet figs.
Insalata di riso (or insalata di farro) – One of the summer staples of any Italian table, insalata di riso (or rice salad) is as unique as the cook making it. All versions, however, are based on pre-cooked rice that is then cooled and tossed with olive oil and a variety of ingredients that range from diced vegetables (fresh, pickled, preserved in oil, and boiled are all common) to cubes of mortadella or prosciutto cotto (boiled ham) to canned tuna, hard-boiled eggs, or even sliced hot dogs. You can also substitute farro (spelt) for the rice, giving the dish a more complex, nutty flavor.
Caprese – Deceivingly simple, l’insalata caprese only has three main ingredients, so it’s imperative that they are of the highest quality to make this dish worth its salt. Use only the freshest buffalo mozzarella, sun-ripened tomatoes, and aromatic basil. Add a little salt and extra-virgin olive oil and voilà…you have created one of the most iconic summer dishes in Italy. The best Caprese to be had is found on the Amalfi Coast, but if you have a veggie patch in your backyard and a good Italian specialty foods market in the neighborhood, you can create a respectable facsimile at home.
Panzanella – Testament to the frugality of generations of Italian cooks, panzanella is a delightful summer salad built around cubes of day-old bread that are soaked in a water and vinegar solution and then squeezed dry and tossed with chopped tomatoes and olive oil. Like insalata di riso, where panzanella goes from there is based on the “secret recipe” of each individual cook. Most versions include red onion, lettuce, celery, cucumber, olives and capers. More elaborate versions can also feature sweet pepper, mozzarella, and tuna.
Bresaola con rucola – One of Italy’s lesser-known charcuterie, bresaola is dried, salted beef round that is aged two to three months until it hardens and takes on a deep red hue and sweet, delicate flavor. Though it is a specialty with origins in the Italian Alps, today you can find bresaola at any deli counter. It can be used for sandwiches like any cold cut all year round, but many Italians enjoy it most in the summer when it is sliced paper-thin and served with fresh arugula leaves, shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano, and a drizzle of olive oil. Some cooks gild the lily with extras like sun-dried tomatoes or balsamic vinegar; most aficionados agree that less is more when it comes to this simple yet satisfying dish.
Carpaccio – Carpaccio is less a dish than a technique. You can find beef carpaccio, tuna carpaccio, octopus carpaccio, and even horse carpaccio in Italy (yes, many Italians happily eat horse)…all of it raw and sliced thin, pounded even thinner, and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Like many straightforward Italian dishes, carpaccio stands or falls on the quality of the ingredients, so don’t order or prepare this dish unless you can swear by the meat or fish it is made from.
Vitello tonnato – Unlike most other dishes on this list, to make vitello tonnato you actually need to turn on the oven. This popular dish from Piedmonte is made from roast beef that is then chilled and thinly sliced before being covered with a creamy, tuna-based sauce. Though it may sound perplexing, vitello tonnato has been served in Italy since the Renaissance and is featured in Artusi’s classic 1891 cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. If you come across this dish on a summer menu, especially in northern Italy, give it a whirl.
Frittata – “Facciamo due uova?” is the most common refrain on hot summer nights when no one wants to cook. The easiest and most satisfying dish is often just a couple of eggs slowly cooked with some leftover spinach, asparagus, zucchini, or artichokes until just firm and either sliced up hot or left to cool to room temperature before being served with an easy salad of mixed greens and, maybe, if someone is really really feeling up to the task, a slice of simple oil-and-salt bruschetta.
Macedonia – Sure, gelato may be the go-to finale of choice in the summer, but sometimes it’s too hot even for this luscious treat. To satisfy a sweet tooth when temperatures soar, many Italians instead opt for macedonia, a simple fruit salad made with a variety of seasonal fruits chopped into small pieces and tossed with just enough lemon juice and sugar to bring out the fruits’ own juices. The best versions feature soft, sweet fruits like berries, stone fruits, melons, and bananas; make at least a few hours in advance to let the fruit flavors blend.