Italy Roundtable: Packing the Perfect Picnic in Italy


The Italy Roundtable is coming out of its summer break with a food topic – FARM TO TABLE – to lead us into harvest season, plus a brand-new member!

So much of great Italian cuisine is FARM TO TABLE, with local and seasonal being two components of what makes Italian food so wonderful, that I had a little trouble figuring out what to write. Then I realized that one of the easiest ways for travelers to experience FARM TO TABLE is with a do-it-yourself meal that may or may not involve a table at all – a picnic.

And we are so pleased to have the delightful Georgette of Girl in Florence join our merry band! Please help us welcome her to the table.

Picnic spread || creative commons photo by Michell Zappa

Picnic spread || creative commons photo by Michell Zappa

One of the things I love doing in any Italian town is taking a stroll through an outdoor market. In part, this allows me to feed the fantasy that I live in said town and am on my weekly visit to the market in order to stock my fridge and pantry. Markets are also so colorful and lively – they’re a slice of real life, something many travelers crave.

Italy’s outdoor markets are also ideal places to go if you’re trying to put together a picnic.

Of course, there’s no shortage of wonderful restaurants in Italy, so it’s not as if you really need to go on a picnic. But if the weather is glorious, if you’re going to be spending any time in the country, if you’re trying to save a little money, or if you just want to join the locals for a Sunday afternoon repast in the park, then a picnic is an excellent option.

Some Italian picnic language nerdery for you: The Italians use the word “picnic,” too, but they break it into two words for some reason – “pic nic” – and pronounce it like “peek neek.” The Italian word “scampagnata” technically means “a countryside outing,” but since those outings nearly always involve food it can also be used to describe a countryside picnic.

The No-Cook Italian Picnic

Simple Italian picnic || creative commons photo by Luis Eduardo P Tavares

Simple Italian picnic || creative commons photo by Luis Eduardo P Tavares

Visitors don’t always have access to a well-stocked kitchen in which to bake or whip up a pasta dish to bring on a picnic. (And even if you’re renting an apartment, it might be too much of a hassle to have to buy all sorts of staples you’ll barely use just to make one meal.) The good news is that there are still plenty of delicious things you can pick up at an Italian market that are perfectly picnic-ready.

As an aside, one of the advantages of shopping for a picnic means that you’re going to find local specialties you might not otherwise know about. Locally-made cheeses or breads, for instance, may not be exported beyond a small area, so it’s a great way to expand your Italian culinary knowledge.

  • bread – Whether from a market or a bakery, fresh bread is a great start to a picnic.
  • cheese – Many cheese vendors at outdoor markets will let you sample before you buy, so you can get something you’ve never heard of before without the risk of not liking it. Ask, “posso assaggiare,” which means “may I taste?”
  • cured meats – The try-before-you-buy policy usually also applies to vendors selling cured meats, too.
  • canned tuna – Head into any Italian grocery store to pick up a can of tuna. Just be sure it’s got a pull-tab top so you won’t need a can opener. The oil-packed fish is delicious straight from the can or on pieces of that bread you picked up.
  • fritti – Italians love their fritti – deep-fried finger foods – and will fry all sorts of things (zucchini flowers, cheese, vegetables, meat, rice, etc.). Look for fritti in virtually any rosticceria. Some grocery stores will have a sort of deli section, with prepared foods (sometimes including fritti) you can buy by weight. You may also see them in outdoor markets, just stop by every stall with what looks like a deli case to see what’s on offer.
  • polpette – This is the Italian word for “meatballs,” though you can find polpette made with non-meat items (like beans), too. They are sometimes served in a sauce, sometimes without, and you’re most likely to find these in the rosticceria. You may also see them in the aforementioned deli-style area of a grocery store or outdoor market.
  • fruit – This is an easy picnic addition that can double as dessert, especially if you’re lucky enough to be picnicking during citrus season. Oranges from Sicily are like candy.
  • pastries – Pick up a few sweet treats at the bakery when you stop to get bread, and you’ve got dessert covered.
  • wine – Unless you carry a corkscrew when you travel, just be sure the bottle you choose has a screw-top.

Italian Picnic Dishes for When You Have a Kitchen

Fancy picnic || creative commons photo by giulio nepi

Fancy picnic || creative commons photo by giulio nepi

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a kitchen during your Italy trip, then your picnic repertoire can get even more creative. These are just a few of the things Italians might bring on their own picnics.

  • bruschetta – Slice up some good bread, brush on a little bit of olive oil, grill or toast it, and rub the still-warm slices with fresh garlic (cut a clove in half to expose the pungent part). Sprinkle on a little salt and you’re ready to go. It’s fine on its own, or it’s the perfect thing on which to put any number of toppings (just don’t put the toppings on until you’re ready to eat, or the bread may get soggy.)
  • panzanella – This classic Tuscan summer salad combines fresh tomatoes, bite-sized hunks of day-old Tuscan bread (the kind made without salt), fresh basil, thinly-sliced red onion, and sometimes cucumber. Toss the whole thing with olive oil and red wine vinegar (and salt and pepper to taste). This one doesn’t require cooking, so if you’ve got a kitchen that’s already stocked with a few staples (olive oil, vinegar, etc.) this is easy to include in your no-cook picnic, too. Be careful not to drown the salad in olive oil and vinegar – it should just coat everything, and serve to revive the stale bread.
  • polpette – Sure, you can get them at a rosticceria, or you can make your own polpette. Pack some toothpicks and you’ve got an easy-to-eat picnic contribution.
  • frittata – You can buy ingredients for a frittata, or you can just throw whatever you’ve got on hand into a pan with some lightly-beaten eggs. Once it’s cooled, slice it like a pie for easy serving or make it a sandwich filling.
  • caponata – This Sicilian sweet-and-sour vegetable dish can be eaten on its own or put on those bruschetta-ready slices of bread you brought.
  • caprese – Mix together fresh tomato, fresh basil, and mozzarella cheese with olive oil, salt, and pepper (optional) for a salad or the filling for a sandwich. This, like panzanella, can be an excellent no-cook picnic addition as long as you’ve got olive oil and salt on hand.
  • focacciaFocaccia can be made relatively plain in order to make a panino, or you can incorporate all sorts of things into the dough (such as olives, vegetables, meats, etc.) to make it more of a meal in and of itself.

I love the idea of these chilled involtini, both meat and non-meat options (recipe in Italian), and this article has several other Italian picnic ideas.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What delicious topics are my cohorts talking about this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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8 responses to “Italy Roundtable: Packing the Perfect Picnic in Italy”

  1. Love these tips and descriptions! I always add a little (non Italian) homemade hummus to my sandwiches are put it an unused jar which goes well with picnic fare. Ps. Thanks for welcoming me in your wonderful group, it’s an honor!

  2. Lisa Barr says:

    Picnics were our lifesavers when we were first married, still paying my student loans, and really couldn’t afford to visit Italy but did it anyway. I will confess that we surreptitiously assembled picnic lunches from the hotel continental breakfast to save money. Later, when traveling with young children, we gave them (and ourselves) a break from restaurant dining with the occasional picnic. Even now, at 55, I still love a good picnic, although the quality of the food has certainly improved.

    • Jessica says:

      You are certainly not the only person to have put together a picnic from a hotel’s continental breakfast buffet – it’s sort of a traveler’s right of passage, I think! And you mention another perk of picnics – they’re great fun for kids, who might get more easily bored in restaurants. Thanks for the note!

  3. One of the biggest culture shocks when I moved to Italy was the Italian-style “picnic”, which generally involves a portable gas range to boil pasta in, at least four courses, and a proper table and chairs de rigueur. They don’t waste time on sandwhich foolishness here.

  4. Ahhh … love a good picnic! My favorite is to combine a hike on the Amalfi Coast with a picnic. They also do amazing beach picnics around here, too.

  5. Aaaand now I’m starving. It’s not especially Italian, but another great option is the roasted chicken from the butcher or supermarket. They seem to stay warm forever in those little baggies and the bones even make for a good broth when you’re done 😉 Bring hand wipes though! Yup. Definitely have to eat something now…….

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