An Introduction to Italian Cuisine
Italian food is more than just pizza and spaghetti. There’s a wide range of ingredients, flavors, and dishes to experiment with in your own home.
How many of us have dreamed of casting aside everyday life and running off to a villa in Tuscany to soak up perfect sun-dappled views while the wine flows and the pasta bowl never seems to empty? Unfortunately that dream is usually rudely interrupted by the alarm clock. While we may not be able to do much about the lack of gorgeous vistas, the true flavors of Italy can be brought to life anytime the mood strikes.
“Italian food is bold and satisfying without being heavy. It’s rich and textural and uses a whole palette of flavors,” says Michael Chiarello, the chef and owner of Bottega, in California’s Napa Valley, and author of the cookbook Bottega. “Enjoying Italian cuisine is more experiential, not intellectual. It comes from a more emotional place that’s very evocative.”
And it evokes so much more than big plates of meatballs and chicken parmigiana. When Italian immigrants first arrived on American shores, they couldn’t find their trusty olive oil, dried porcinis, prosciutto, and balsamico, so they adapted to the ingredients that surrounded them, which resulted in far more meats and sausages in dishes, along with a healthy helping of garlic. And thus American-Italian food was born. But to mistake that for authentic, traditional Italian cuisine would leave your tastebuds with only half the story.
“Italian food is really a celebration of produce, and protein is a secondary thought,” says Chiarello. A typical Italian meal will start with a big plate of antipasti, which are predominantly vegetables (like pepperoncini, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts) and a selection of cured meats (like prosciutto and capicola). Then it moves on to a small pasta dish, which is followed by a light protein—perhaps a leg of lamb, simply but deliciously prepared. “As the meal progresses, it gets more simple,” says Chiarello. “Italian meals tend to have a reverse crescendo.”
From that initial crescendo to the last savored bite, every authentic Italian dish is built upon the most basic yet most flavorful ingredients. “Traditional products are very important in the flavors of Italy, which, at their best, are based on seasonality and locality,” says Lidia Bastianich, the chef and owner of Felidia, Becco, Esca, Del Posto, and Eataly in New York City and the author of Lidia’s Italy in America($35, amazon.com. Her website is lidiasitaly.com.) Olive oil is the cornerstone of most Italian cooking (to braise, fry, and drizzle), then come the vegetables. Garlic and onion are the familiar go-to’s, but intense green vegetables are often stars on the plate. Balsamic vinegar always claims a prime spot in an Italian kitchen, and you would be hard-pressed to find a cook without a wedge of Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano within arm’s reach.
Some might be surprised to learn how much of a staple fish is in the Italian diet, whether it’s fresh from the sea or canned in oil, like sardines. Cured meats are also plentiful. The Italians are big fans of preservation, turning pork into sausage and salami, olives into extra-virgin olive oil, grapes into wine, and vegetables into pickled vegetables. They’re firm believers in taking the time when you’re trying to make the deliciousness last. Have cod and a pile of salt? Make salt cod. “The traditional Italian flavors are so intense that you don’t need a lot of anything. A moderate amount will go a long way,” says Bastianich.
Enter the ever popular starches, which are used as a vehicle for other flavors—from Arborio rice, which makes the creamiest risotto, to fettuccine, tortellini, and ziti. When preparing Italian cuisine at home, spring for the best pasta that you can afford. That is, of course, unless you’re feeling ambitious and want to make your own.
It’s much easier to make pasta than you think. Although there are an abundance of fancy gadgets out there—gnocchi boards, hand-cranked extruders, and cavatelli machines—all you need is a food processor, a rolling pin, and a smooth, comfortable surface. “Pasta is one of the simplest elements to do, but people are frightened of it,” says Bastianich. Start out by combining flour and water, then build on that. Add some egg and some olive oil, whirl it all in the food processor, and dough forms. (Tip: When the dough starts to pull off the side of the processor, it’s ready.) Next, use simple logic. If the dough is too sticky, add flour; if it’s too dry, add water. Let the dough rest, then roll it out and cut it. It’s that simple.
Whether or not you opt for making your own, starting with simple pasta dishes is a great way to bring the flavors of Italy to your table. Try recipes that have just two or three ingredients, make a five-minute sauce, and go from there. “Listen to your palate. If it says to lighten up on the anchovy flavor, do it. If you want to make a dish lighter, add vegetables, like broccoli shoots,” says Bastianich. It’s a flexible science.
Finally, remember that good Italian food starts with the shopping. Make quality ingredients a priority when you’re bringing Italian cuisine to your kitchen. And when you find a dish that you love, stick with it. “Practice until you can do it with your heart and hands only—just like the Italians do,” says Chiarello. Once that dish is perfected, move on to a new one or a new technique and soon you’ll have a slew of delicious meals at your disposal.
FOODS OF THE ITALIANS
Although Italians are known throughout the world for pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce, the national diet of Italy has traditionally differed greatly by region. Prior to the blending of cooking practices among different regions, it was possible to distinguish Italian cooking simply by the type of cooking fat used: butter was used in the north, pork fat in the center of the country, and olive oil in the south. Staple dishes in the north were rice and polenta, and pasta was most popular throughout the south. During the last decades of the twentieth century (1980s and 1990s), however, pasta and pizza (another traditional southern food) became popular in the north of Italy. Pasta is more likely to be served with a white cheese sauce in the north and a tomato-based sauce in the south.
Italians are known for their use of herbs in cooking, especially oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, rosemary, and sage. Cheese also plays an important role in Italian cuisine. There are more than 400 types of cheese made in Italy, with Parmesan, mozzarella, and asiago among the best known worldwide. Prosciutto ham, the most popular ingredient of the Italian antipasto (first course) was first made in Parma, a city that also gave its name to Parmesan cheese.
- Keep it seasonal
Wherever possible, ingredients should be bought in season as the typical Italian diet uses fresh produce. This helps to give dishes a fantastic flavour and means you don’t have to add loads of fat, salt or sugar to improve taste. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are also usually more nutrient dense and therefore better for you. Italians love to wander around local markets to select their ingredients – it’s part of enjoying food.
- Don’t overdo the pasta
When you are preparing to cook pasta you shouldn’t allocate more than 120g of dried pasta per person. Often people make the mistake of throwing the whole bag of pasta in the pot and end up cooking and eating far too much. Also take care not to overcook your pasta as al dente (firm to the bite) pasta has a lower glycemic index than soft, overcooked pasta – so it is good for filling you up and keeping you satisfied for longer.
- Change your oils
Swap your regular cooking oil for a good quality olive oil. Olive oil is much better for you than many regular cooking oils and definitely better than cooking with butter or margarine if you are trying to be healthy. Virgin olive oil is high in good fats like monounsaturated and omega 3 as well as containing anti-oxidants.
Try to eat at least two portions of oily fish a week. Fish is a very important part of the Italian diet and we are also use a lot of shellfish, which are high in nutrients – you can’t beat a tasty seafood platter.
- Make mealtimes an occasion
Every mealtime in Italy is a big occasion, and as a result we are very aware of and appreciate the food we consume each time we sit together. Avoid TV dinners and other distractions and concentrate on what and how much you’re eating to help control portion sizes.
- Cook from scratch
The satisfaction you’ll get from your food will be much greater if you manage to cook a couple of meals from scratch each week. You’ll also know exactly what’s going into your pot and onto your plate. Make your own sauces and meatballs from scratch, and at the weekend, when you have more time, have a go at making your ownpastry and pasta.
- Watch your sauces
Italians lightly coat their pasta instead of drowning it with sauce. Excessive smothering just piles on the calories and fat content without adding any extra flavour. If you’re watching your weight, avoid tube shaped pastas such as rigatoni and penne as they soak up a lot more sauce.
Swap your calorific dessert for a nice healthy fruit salad. If you buy your fruit when it is in season you’ll find the sweetness will conquer any sugar cravings.
- Salad dressing
When dressing your salads use a good quality and flavoursome balsamic vinegar so that you can reduce the amount of oil you mix with it. Balsamic vinegar is low in calories and to make a healthy dressing just mix it with a little virgin olive oil as a replacement for creamy salad dressings or mayonnaise.
To add plenty of flavour to grilled steak or grilled fish use a gremolata instead of a creamy or oily sauce. A gremolata is an Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, fresh parsley and lemon zest and when it is sprinkled on top of your fish or meat at the end of cooking it adds huge amounts of flavour without the calories or fat.