Italian Food in Italy

Nouvelle Italian cuisine - something fishy in Tuscany, Italy

Nouvelle Italian Food, something deliciously fishy in Tuscany.

Eating Italian Food – in Italy!

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 Italian food specialities

A few of the foods to seek out while traveling in Italy 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.

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.

Rare beef and celery as antipasto, Lucca, Italy

Rare beef and celery as antipasto, in Lucca, away from the coast!

On the coasts Italian Food 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.

When looking for Italian Food: Don’t…

– eat on main squares (piazzas) in popular tourist destinations if you respect your stomach and your wallet.

– eat within a couple of blocks of main tourist attractions.

– 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)

– 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)

Do…

Basilica of San Michele in Foro, Lucca, with a glass of prosecco, Italy

Lucca town centre and a couple of proseccos, low-cost champagne.

– 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 Italian 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.

Coffee

The name cappuccino is derived from the Capuchin friar whose traditional clothing is a similar mix of brown and white.
Coffee, generally of a very high standard but – for some – an acquired taste, is an endemic part of Italian life with its own vocabulary and variations.

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.

Italian Food – Pizza

Making a giant pizza in Rome, Italy

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.

So what to eat in Italy?

Antipasti including raw squid, Italy

Antipasti including raw squid.

Having worked out where to dine and how to behave, the next step is to decide what to put on your plate from the plethora of choice as outlined above, bearing in mind the regional strengths and preferences.

A traditional family dinner in Italy begins with appetisers (antipasti), followed by a pasta dish, some salad or cooked vegetables, a main course of meat or fish, cheese and fruit, and a dessert. Bread and/or grissini will also be on the table, of course.
The adults conclude with a liqueur (digestivo) of some kind such as grappa or limoncello, the latter probably home-made (for this purpose pure alcohol can be bought legally in Italy).

The menu will always vary with the seasons and the locality because of the sanctity of fresh local produce.

Wine and water are served with the meal, the two being mixed in varying proportions for younger diners. Though it may sound excessive and takes a while to complete, the key is moderation in all food and drink.

A proper meal in an Italian restaurant may include the same options, though you will not be expected to chomp your way through the menu as if it was a family affair. Anything from just a main course to antipasti, pasta and main dish would be acceptable.

Antipasti

Bruschetta: tomatoes topped with Grana Padano cheese as antipasto, Italy

Bruschetta: tomatoes topped with Grana Padano cheese as antipasto. Photo by Takeaway.

Antipasti (starters) are there to whet the appetite and they will reflect the regional differences. They can include a mouth watering selection of charcuterie, sea-foods and prepared vegetables – more of either surf or turf depending on where you are.

Salami will generally feature somewhere on the antipasti menu – it can be rather prosaically described as raw meat cured in a sausage. There are two basic types – from Milan and from Naples. The former uses meat that has been more finely diced whilst the latter comprises larger chunks. In both cases, the salami can be eaten younger when it will be softer (morbido) or firmer (stagionato), when it has matured. The latter with its richer flavour and better bite is generally prefered.

Prepared meats may also include sausages with meat that has been cooked, such as mortadella, or thinly sliced prosciutto (cured ham). Worth watching for is the word nostrano (ours) as it should indicate something that has been home or locally made.

Seafood ingredients could be salty anchovies, sliced octopus in a gelatine, bianchetti prepared in various ways, and shell fish in season (try the tartufi which are not truffles but a type of clam).

Vegetables can cover a wide range from tiny artichoke hearts in oil, through fried courgette flowers to seasonal mushrooms prepared in many different styles. At this stage of the meal the classic carbohydrates will be grissini or bread but foccacia or even fried dough balls may be offered. Cheese is less frequently served as part of the antipasti but, if so, the offering will be driven by local availability.

Pasta

Spaghetti alle vongole, always on demand. Photo by Alpha.

Spaghetti alle vongole, always on demand. Photo by Alpha.

– First, Italians like their pasta al dente  i. e. with some bite to it. North Americans in particular may feel that the pasta is almost raw as a result since the cooking instructions for exactly the same make and brand of pasta across the Atlantic are up to 50 % more time than in Europe.

– Second, there are many different shapes and sizes of pasta, which do not so much reflect artistic creativity in the land of Leonardo da Vinci as specific design for the type of sauce it accompanies (the more complex the shape, the more sauce it picks up).

– Third, there is both fresh and dried pasta, the former originally made at home with egg – it has a shorter cooking time and fills you up more.

– Fourth, there is pasta across the country but each region has its own preferences so – try the local variations!

– Lastly remember, there is no such thing as spaghetti bolognaise in Italy, as it is a dish invented/named elsewhere – the closest equivalent would be spaghetti al ragu.

Carbohydrates there is an interesting range of choice in Italy.

Wheat from the north plays its part in bread, grissini, pasta (Durum), pizza, foccacia as well as in biscuits and crackers.

Rice from the Po valley especially gives birth to fantastic risotto dishes of all kinds such as meat, seafood and mushroom, and turns up in some desserts.

Polenta, a starchy meal made from corn or chestnut flour, can be served as it comes with a tasty sauce or allowed to “set” and cut into pieces which are then fried as an accompaniment.

Sauces – Nowadays in many restaurants styles may be mixed, more so in the developed, northern parts of Italy. Traditionally, sauces were richer and creamier in the north (using butter), the centre used more olive oil and herbs, while southern food tended to be hotter and spicier reflecting a Mediterranean and African influence.

The history of sauces in Italy goes back to the Middle Ages when the concept was to enhance the flavours of the food, be it meat or fish, rather than to cover them up. Frugality, or rather getting the most out of the ingredients, was also key. The twin goals of extracting flavour and exploiting all the nutritional value meant that, for centuries, meat has been dressed with a sauce made from its own juices and fish has been cooked in a stock made from redundant pieces such as the head and tail.

Ah, you may say, that approach is hardly unique and is followed elsewhere, notably in France. Indeed, but a good case can be made that modern French cuisine owes a tremendous amount to Italian cooking centuries ago thanks to the Medicis in the 16th century, specifically Catherine de Medici. Her cooks influenced French cuisine through their recipes, while Francois La Varenne wrote Le Cuisinier Francaise (The French Chef), which is the first complete guide to French cuisine. He studied in the Italian kitchens of Marie de Medici.

Italian Food: Main courses

Prawns and squid-ink-soaked pasta, Italy

Prawns and squid-ink-soaked pasta.

Main course – by now most people would be sated but tradition requires us to plough on with a meat or fish course. The alternative for those faint of heart or thick of waist is to miss out on the pasta dish and proceed directly to the principal event.

Location will determine the thrust of the menu – flesh, fish or fowl – and the time of the year will decide the precise nature of the offering. It is difficult to overstate the regional impact but perhaps an example will bring it home.

In the village of Moneglia, a village of maybe 2000 people in winter, there are two fishmongers that offer a staggering array of fresh produce from the sea (I’ve seen not one but two whole swordfish on a slab in one of them).

In Ponte A Moriano, a slightly larger place a little over a 100 kilometres away, there isn’t a single fishmonger but there are two butchers with a fantastic choice of fresh and cured meats, including some great sausages. If you’re lucky enough to be invited home to eat in Moneglia it is inconceivable that fish or seafood will not feature on the menu, but if you enjoy the same privilege in Ponte A Moriano it would be insulting if a good steak were not served.

That said, the approach to cooking the respective dishes is essentially similar – simple, straightforward preparation that is designed to let good, fresh ingredients speak for themselves. From the sea or the land to the plate with as little messing about as possible. The presentation can occasionally be somewhat fancy – fish covered in salt for cooking and then cracked open, or a large T-bone for two carved at the table – come to mind, but the focus will be on the flavours of the produce.

Salad and vegetables

Not much to say here except that, unsurprisingly, they will reflect the region and the season. Presentation tends not to be the strongest point for these dishes, although verdure alla griglia (grilled vegetables) can look quite appetising on the plate and generally taste good. Not a bad, lighter option as a starter incidentally.

Any halfway decent restaurant will automatically serve olive oil with these dishes but you may have to request balsamic rather than wine vinegar – it’s definitely worth the effort in my view as you get a delicious sweetness with a streak of acidity which enhances the flavours of the greens.

Cheese and fruit – fruit is not a “must” if you’re at a restaurant where the choice of fresh fruit can be poor. (At a private home, on the other hand, fruit would normally be served even if it’s only some grapes. )
That surprising situation possibly reflects local demand and supply chain logistics in Italy. (When you buy fruit there – be it in a supermarket or at a market stall – it will generally be ready for eating, if not today then tomorrow – so the shelf life is short compared, say, to the United Kingdom. It’s the downside of having fruit that is tasty and ripe. )

Before passing on the fruit, though, check what’s available and its provenance. If there’s more than a Macedonia (fruit salad) on offer, it will almost certainly be some seasonal fruit which could look ugly (Italian fruit is not grown for beauty but for taste) but which should be delicious – sweet, juicy and mature.
Peaches are a case in point (and a well made Bellini cocktail of Prosecco and fresh peach juiceis worth ordering), as are frutti di bosco (forest fruit), normally including delicacies such as tiny, wild strawberries. Don’t miss them if they’re in season !

Cheese (and wine) is, of course, another story as Italy has a super selection of hard and soft regional cheeses which often make for a delightful interlude, accompanied by a glass of red, white or sweet wine. This course provides an opportunity to pause. . . . and change bottles !

It could also be the last course for the evening. As usual, the selection will tend to be regional but Parmesan (fabulous with Prosecco before the meal) and Pecorino, a hard-ish sheep’s cheese, (best with a full bodied white wine) are widely served in north Italy. It is not unusual to have a portion of honey on the plate to go with the blue cheeses which is where Gorgonzola reigns supreme.

There are a couple of styles – dolce (sweet) and mountain, which is stronger (tawny Port is a good pairing). Taleggio, one of the stracchino cheeses made from “stracca” (tired) cows is a comfortable companion to a light, fruity red wine.

By comparison to France, there may not be a big cheese selection but the presentation can be impressive – for instance, a whole Pecorino sliced in half a served with some implement to scoop out the cheese inside. Cheese is a good alternative to dessert.

Dessert

Cannolo, a Sicilian dessert consisting of a pastry tube stuffed with some sweet filling possibly involving ricotta cheese, Italy

Cannolo, a Sicilian dessert consisting of a pastry tube stuffed with some sweet filling possibly involving ricotta cheese or custard flavoured with vanilla, orange or cinnamon and more. Photo by Paolo Piscolla.

Dessert – the sad truth for those of us who have a sweet tooth is that desserts are the weakest element in the Italian cuisine. It is one glaring weakness compared to French food.

There is no doubt that the “gelato” (ice cream) is world class with some occasionally outstanding and unusual flavours.

There are also some memorable and unique dishes such as Tirami’ Su (pick me up) or Zabaione (also called Zabaglione), both with alcohol bases, and some delicious “torte” (such as torta di mele or apple-tart, and more nostalgically torta della Nonna or grandmother’s tart).

An exceptional chocolate mousse smothering white chocolate chips and a caramel-nut melange, Lucca, Italy

An exceptional chocolate mousse smothering white chocolate chips and a caramel-nut melange. This and other astonishing and creative cuisine was found in Lucca.

From time to time there may be some small rather dry biscuits (biscotti), which benefit hugely from being dunked in a sweet wine (such as the Pantelleria).

The one saving grace of the generally disappointing Italian Food dessert scene is that the order of Italian dishes (cheese before pudding) means that you can move effortlessly into an espresso and a grappa without having that disagreeable clash of cheese and coffee (a peculiarly British combination which probably explains the traditional popularity of Port as the only way of washing the two down).