Nouvelle Italian cuisine - something fishy in Tuscany.
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The real joy of Italian cuisine is its freshness, the diversity of the ingredients and regional variety, though finding cuisine that does not involve pasta or pizza can be tricky, not to mention expensive.
There are significant differences between north and south Italy. Forget about spaghetti or pizza in tomato sauce, they are not really Italian cuisine but Neapolitan (from Naples), though supreme pizza and pasta can be easily found in anywhere in the country.
The north style is generally rich in creamy sauce (using butter), the centre prefers olive oil and herbs, while southern food tends to be hot and spicy.
Everyday food in the south is pasta while polenta (corn meal, a sort of porridge eaten with pasta sauce) is more common in the north.
Regional specialities worth seeking out are: pesto sauce and anchovies in Liguria, white truffles and wine in Piemonte, Tuscan wine in Tuscany, pizza and pasta vongole in Naples, pork dishes such as ham and salami in Emilia-Romagna (best known for Parma ham and Parmesan cheese), and sweets such as cassata (ice cream), cannoli (fried pastries with ricotta and chocolate) in Sicily.
Big cities have no shortage of ethnic or non-Italian food, but small towns can have conservative tastes and an unusual aversion to hamburgers.
Some hints on eating well in Italy from Daniel Nash Secondo.
Sometimes the content of Italian food can vary strikingly not just regionally but even on a local basis, driven by the topography and nature's consequent bounty.
A good example is Liguria, characterised by its steep, rocky coastline collapsing into the Mediterranean on either side of the capital city, Genoa.
A Ligurian pizza with pesto, pine nuts and parmesan cheese.
On the coast the cuisine is typically dominated by fish, which may be fresh or traditionally preserved such as anchovies or stoccafisso (dried cod), and sea-food which may be served on a stand alone basis or as part of a sauce with pasta.
Only a few kilometres inland but way up the hill-side, the menu will tend to more of a carnivore's delight with meat and game taking pride of place. In both cases there will be common Ligurian ingredients such as pinoli (pine nuts), harvested from the typical trees of that part of the world.
Despite this fertile feeding ground, finding great cuisine that does not involve pasta or pizza can be a bit tricky (not to mention expensive) for visitors if care is not taken in choosing restaurants. Here are some fairly basic Do's and Don'ts which can be used as a guideline:
- eat within a couple of blocks of main tourist attractions.
The Pantheon, Rome; if you want fine Italian food, don't eat here!
- avoid restaurants that display their menus outside in languages other than Italian.
- step off the main thoroughfares to find smaller restaurants in the back alleys with a mainly Italian clientele - remember the quality of the food is much more important for Italians than a great location or view.
- seek out venues offering seasonal ingredients such as mushrooms anywhere in the autumn, bianchetti (whitebait) on the northern coast in the new year or Sardo, a fresh cheese from Sardinia in the spring time.
- choose fresh food as opposed to dishes made with frozen ingredients e.g. the menu of the main restaurant in Pisa airport marks any dish that is not fresh with an asterisk.
- for a nourishing and economic feed at midday, although possibly rather unexciting from a gastronomic viewpoint, look for the lunchtime specials that are patronised by middle management and blue collar workers alike, admittedly in different locations: signs say pranzo di lavoro.
- remember to take your receipt out of the bar, café or restaurant with you as required by law; if a VAT inspector checks outside and you don't have it both the proprietor and you could be in trouble! By the way, this rule applies to all establishments in Italy where you make a purchase.
Lucca town centre and a couple of proseccos, low-cost champagne.
To 'Eat like an Italian' and to escape any hint of bruta figura (looking like a yokel) rather than just to nourish the body and soul there are some don'ts including:
- don't drink alcohol on an empty stomach (there should always be nibbles of some sort - Italians prefer thinly sliced salami, local olives, small chunks of Parmesan or foccacia to crisps or peanuts)
- don't get rollicking drunk even though there is always wine on the table and a digestivo after the meal is almost de rigeur (just the one !)
- never sprinkle grated Parmesan on a seafood pasta sauce - it's only used for a ragu or meat sauce (so, if you are offered cheese with a seafood dish, you know you are in the wrong place !)
- never drink cappuccino after 11 am as, with its milk content, it's a morning beverage (so when a companion orders one at the end of dinner, you know you're in the wrong company)
A classic Italian macchiato (expresso with milk).
If you order "un café, per favore" you will be brought an espresso, not a coffee with milk. If you wish to tone it down a little you should ask for a "macchiato" which literally means spotted or dirty due to the dash of milk added to the espresso.
If you're hard core, only a ristretto (restricted) will do - a smear of strong coffee in the bottom of a tiny cup.
Spectacular pizza construction in Rome.
The ubiquity of pizza in Italy cannot be overstated - a brass plaque alongside the huge pizza oven in the garden of the US ambassador's residence in Rome, officially called Villa Taverna, reportedly reads 'In Vino Veritas, In Pizza Amicizia - there is truth in wine, friendship in pizza'.
Pizza may, of course, be eaten by hand like any fast food. Most people make do with one hand but I have seen pickier eaters use two.
The more fastidious may first cut off and consume with a fork the runnier end of each slice to avoid its contents ending up in their lap, whilst others may prefer to fold it over as a kind of sandwich. The doubled over version of pizza, known as calzone which literally means 'trouser', makes the whole process much less messy but also much less fun.