“Through the art of eating, an Italian meal becomes a precisely orchestrated event, where the products of the season, the traditions of place, the intuitions of the cook, and the knowledgeable joy of the participants are combined into one of the most satisfying experiences of which our senses are capable.”Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cookbook
Italian cuisine is one of the oldest and influential cuisines in the world. Italian cuisine is art…the art of cooking and, just as important, the art of eating. Traditional recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. Italian cuisine is synonymous with freshness. The simple, direct Italian approach to cooking is antithetical to the precise, cerebral approach of classically trained French chefs.
Italy officially consists of five culinary regions, each with its own local ingredients and specialties. This can also be further grouped into three totally different culinary regions – north, central, and south – each with its own cooking styles, ingredients, geography, and history. These regions do share a lot of foods and dishes in common. For example, pasta and cheese is everywhere, but olive oil and tomatoes aren’t.
Northern Italian Cuisine
This region stands apart from the rest of Italy. Besides being defined by mountains, valleys and cooler temperatures, it has less Mediterranean influence and is more influenced by the rest of Europe, especially the bordering Austria, France, Slovenia, and Switzerland.
Most dishes use butter rather than olive oil and instead of tomato-based sauces, cooks use wine or broth as the cooking liquid and fresh herbs to add flavors. Cooking methods range from boiling and frying to stewing and slow braising. Pasta even takes a back seat to polenta (corn meal) and risotto (rice). Excellent cattle and hog breeds make beef, veal and pork the meats of choice. Vegetables are of the heartier cool weather varieties. Besides Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the region boasts other world famous cheeses like Fontina, Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, Taleggio, and Asiago. Of the many unique cuisines in this region, two stand above the others: Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.
Though less known internationally, this area represents the pinnacle of Italian cuisine. Its elegant cooking styles, superior beef and pork, and classic Italian ingredients are special. This is the region that produces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Mortadella (bologna), balsamic vinegar, and Lambrusco wine. Whereas southern Italy is known for its dried pastas, this region is known for making sheets of fresh pasta that is either into strips to make tagliatelle and pappardelle, used whole to make lasagna, or turned in to stuffed pastas like tortellini and cappelletti(“small hats”). The high quality pork here produces some Italy’s best hams and salamis, including prosciutto, zampogna, and cotechino. Moving east into Romagna, the landscape flattens and wetlands begin, producing superior duck, freshwater fish, and seafood from the Adriatic coast.
Piedmont has a refined cuisine, owing to its being ruled by future kings and the dishes prepared in the royal kitchens. Piedmont is home to the short grain Arborio rice used to make risotto, and is also home to two types of wild mushrooms prized the world over: porcini mushrooms and white truffles. Elegant desserts like panna cotta and gianduiotti (a creamy chocolate-hazelnut candy from Turin) are popular. Piedmont also boasts some of the world’s finest wines, including Barbera, Barbaresco, Barolo, and Dolcetto.
Notable North Italian Dishes – Tagliatelle Bolognese (flat fresh pasta with meat sauce), Fonduta (Fontina cheese fondue with white truffle shavings), Bagna Cauda (warm garlicky anchovy dip), Risotto Milanese (slow-cooked rice with cheese), Bollito Misto (boiled meats and vegetables), Osso Buco (braised veal shanks), Chicken Cacciatore (hunter’s chicken with vegetables), Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal with a sauce of boiled egg yolk, tuna, capers), Grissini (thin breadsticks), Pesto Genovese (basil sauce), Tortellini en Brodo (clear soup with stuffed pasta), Zabaglione al Moscato (light pudding), Torta Barozzi (flourless chocolate cake).
MHT Northern Italian Recipes:
Central Italian Cuisine
Central Italian food is derived from farming traditions, resulting in a long history of dishes with ingredients like potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, maize, and sugar beets. Internationally famous cheese, meats, and vegetables are steeped in olive oil, and hardy meat-forward sauces grace plates. In the summer, the central regions become hotter than the north, providing the right climate for tomato-based sauces. The chilly winters yield leafy greens, such as kale. Braised meats and rustic stews are classic holiday dishes.
The remarkable history of Central Italian cuisine dates back to the 4th century BC and has evolved with a continued commitment to using products without waste due to their heritage as poor farmers from Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria, Lazio, and Abruzzo. Recipes collected in the 1st century AD within the Roman cookbook Apicius, reveal a refined love of gastronomy, luxury, and refined culinary habits.
The cuisine of Lazio acts as the meeting point between the traditionally rich ingredients of Northern Italy, and less refined cuisine of Southern Italy. Lazio is where the ancient city of Rome sits. Common ingredients like artichokes, prosciutto, eggs, chicory, and olives are abundant. Culinary customs date back to before the Roman Empire. The traditional cuisine of Rome relies more on meat and butter rather than the stereotype of all Italian pastas being dressed in tomato sauce. It focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients brought together through deceptively simple preparations. Common ingredients in Rome include peas, artichokes, fava beans, lamb, goat, and cheeses. The expansion of the Roman Empire exposed Rome to international flavors, cooking techniques, and eating habits that influenced the cuisine for over two millennia. Locals cook with olive oil instead of the butter, and sauces adorn pasta and range from simple cheese with pepper to elaborate recipes including butter, egg, and pancetta. Beef and pork are used in a variety of ways throughout the region, from sausages to cured meats. Sheep’s milk creates pecorino cheese while ricotta cheese helps stuff delicious desserts.
Tuscany is by far one of the most famous regions in Italy and is responsible for a significant portion of the contemporary Italian cuisine known around the world. Its cuisine consists of simple ingredients forming complementary, elemental flavors derived from quality meats, vegetables, fish, and produce such as legumes, kale, artichokes, peas, and tomatoes. The cuisine presents straightforward ingredients based on traditional recipes that have defined regional cooking for centuries. Classic meat dishes are made of countryside game such as chicken giblets, rabbit, or tripe. The wines of Tuscany are some of the most famous in the world, most notably Chianti Classico (red) and Vernaccia di San Gimignano (white).
Notable Central Dishes –Bruschetta (Tuscan bread topped with tomato-basil), Umbrian Prosciutto di Norcia (cured ham), Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish artichokes), Tuscan Bean Soup, Minestra di Lumachelle (hearty broth with egg pasta and cheese), Brodetto (fish soup), Pesto Genovese (olive oil, garlic, basil sauce), Bracciole (Rolled beef in tomato sauce), Bucatini All’amatriciana (hollow spaghetti in spicy tomato sauce), Spaghetti alla Carbonara (spaghetti in pancetta egg-cheese sauce), Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper spaghetti), Panzanella (bread salad), Biscotti (twice baked cookie), Tiramisu (layered coffee-soaked biscuits with Mascarpone).
MHT Central Italian Recipes:
Southern Italian Cuisine
The cuisines of Naples and Sicily are what the rest of the world considers “Italian Food” due to tremendous number of Southern Italians who emigrated in the last two centuries, especially to America, Argentina, and Uruguay. From the pizza of Naples to the countless types of dried and fresh pasta, the food of the South is the soul of Italy and accounts for a great part of the history of Italian cuisine. Here, you will find rich and spicy tomato sauces and the almost exclusive use of olive oil in cooking. In fact, some of the best olive oil comes from these regions, but very little of it is exported. The South is home to citrus fruits, fields of durum wheat for pasta, olive groves and vineyards. The sea is used to its fullest extent, with all manner of seafood enjoyed, from tuna to anchovies, and clams to sea urchins.
Pizza! This one simple dish invented in Naples has cemented its place in the world. But pizza is only one of its long list of popular foods. Durum wheat pasta, especially spaghetti, and tomato sauces, are all from Naples. Blessed with volcanic soil from Mount Vesuvius, the region produces the San Marzano plum tomatoes that give red sauces their richness, and olive trees producing the olive oil used in most dishes.
Italian food would not be the same without Campania’s spaghetti topped with pommarola, the famous tomato sauce. Campania is also the birthplace of modern pizza, as the world’s first Pizzeria (still in business) started on the streets of Naples. Campania’s most famous cheese is the Mozzarella di Bufala, made from the milk of local water buffaloes. Other popular cheeses include sheep’s milk Pecorino, Scamorza, Ricotta (both cow and buffalo versions), and Mascarpone. Parmigiano Reggiano has also found its way into the recipes of Campania, with meat and vegetable dishes served alla Parmigiana. Seafood is a staple of Campania’s coastline. While fish fried in olive oil is a favorite of Naples, other local dishes make use of octopus, cuttlefish, squid, clams and mussels.
The southernmost region in Italy is a large island rich in fruit such as lemons, blood oranges, tangerines, olives, almonds, and prickly pear. As a major trading port for ancient Italy, the island boasts a unique blend of mainland Italian cooking with influences from Arabia, Spain and ancient Greece. Ceci, or chickpeas, have played an important role in Sicilian history and are well represented in the local diet. Panella is a thin paste made of crushed chickpeas served fried, and maccu is a creamy soup made from the same bean. Pasta is an everyday staple, and is often served with a rich spicy tomato sauce. Sicily also loves its seafood with popular dishes including grilled swordfish or snapper, finocchio con le sarde (fennel with sardines) and seppia (cuttlefish) served in its own black sauce with pasta. The best known Sicilian meat dish is vitello al marsala (veal marsala) and is just one of many regional meat specialties that can also involve lamb, kid or rabbit.
Notable Dishes – Caponata (eggplant and olive antipasto), Insalata Caprese (tomato/mozzarella/basil salad), Vitello al Marsala (veal marsala), Finocchio con le Sarde (fennel with sardines), Maccu (chickpea soup), Pizza Margherita (pizza with tomato sauce, white mozzarella, green basi), Spaghetti Pomarola (spaghetti in tomato sauce), Cannoli (ricotta-filled pastry shells), Arancino (deep-fried rice balls with meat, tomato sauce, peas and mozzarella), pasta alla norma (fried eggplants in tomato sauce), limoncello (lemon-based after dinner drink).
MHT Southern Italian Recipes:
The Italian Table
The typical Italian meal consists of three dishes. When serving guests or eating in a restaurant, it is normal to start with a pasta dish or soup, followed by an entrée (mainly meat or fish), and then a dessert or some cheese. Salad is often served after the main course. Italy is an important wine producer, which is the drink that usually accompanies the salad.
Italian breakfast is light and usually consists of a cup of coffee (warm milk and cookies for children) and bread or rolls. Lunch is eaten between 11:30am and 2:00pm; dinner around 7:30pm. In the south, it is quite common to have dinner at 10:30pm.
Traditional Italian meals are a leisurely process — a time to share news of the day and enjoy the delicious results of the cook’s labor — and have several distinct courses. An full authentic Italian meal would follow this order:
- Antipasto: (before the paste) – Something to nibble on — such as a bowl of marinated olives and some fresh fennel for dipping in extra-virgin olive oil, sliced cold cuts, or a wedge of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano and some bread — perhaps served with drinks.
- Primo: A first course or appetizer. Usually pasta, rice, soup, or polenta. Served in small portions as the main course comes next.
- Secondo: The main course, often chicken, meat, or seafood. Usually fairly simple, especially if a rich pasta or rice dish has already been served.
- Contorno: The main course is usually accompanied by a separate platter of vegetables. This side dish is usually quite simple and highlights the simple goodness of the vegetable.
- Dolce: On most days, the dessert is a bowl of fruit. Some hard Italian cookies, called biscotti, for dunking, and dessert wine are another option. More elaborate cakes, tortes, and custards are reserved for special occasions.
- Caffe: Meals often end with a cup of espresso.