Italian Food – Pizza
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.
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.
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.
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.