What could be simpler yet more classically Italian than Cacio e Pepe, a dish of linguine with Romano cheese and black pepper? Photo courtesy of barilla. From its northern border to the tip of its boot, the diverse range of regional styles and ingredients brings distinctly authentic flavors to the menu
By Robin Schempp
North America seems to serve and adore Italian cuisine more than any other. From upscale, white-tablecloth restaurants to quick-serve sandwich and pizza joints, chic wine bars with small plates and homey family-style establishments, Italian-inspired menu items appear in our menu lexicon as often as our native cuisine.
The current propensity for ingredient-driven fare that’s true to its tradition, authentic, regional Italian food is emerging from U.S. kitchens. Italian restaurants with all-American chefs have begun highlighting region-specific Piedmontese, Ligurian, Calabrian or Sardinian foods, and menus differentiate among regional ingredients and culinary culture characteristic to diverse areas of Italy, from the mountainous north to central villages and southern coasts. Accurately adopting Italy’s provincial cuisines presents an opportunity to add an air of sophistication to your menu with relatively little cost or labor.
What follows is a culinary primer of Italy’s 20 regions, starting with an overview of each major section of the country — Northern Italy, Central Peninsula, Southern Boot and Islands — broken down by culinary sub-regions, highlighting an ingredient or dish from each that represents a menu-development opportunity for American chefs.
If one’s idea of Italian food is all about tomatoes, basil, olives and pizza, a little time with the northern border cuisines will dispel that Mediterranean myth by reminding you of the multifaceted gastronomy of the French-, Swiss- and Austrian-Italian foothills. The ingredients in much of this hearty Alpine cuisine distinguish it from the fare on the peninsula. The land-based tradition of dairy farming and cattle and pig ranching means butter is used more often than olive oil, meat more than seafood, and cheese and sausage prevail. Pasta often gives way to potatoes, polenta, gnocchi or risotto.
And, other than the truffles, if anything is the signature of this region’s cuisine, it might be the cheeses, such as creamy Gorgonzola and mascarpone, buttery Crescenza, fontina and Grana Padano, hard Alpines and beautifully “stinky” washed-rind Robiola, Taleggio or Toma. Cheese is included before, during or after most meals in Northern Italy.
While the capital city of Turin holds tight to its gastronomical heritage of cooking for kings, the region’s cuisine is juxtaposed by the more-robust peasant ingredients and cookery of the mountains and lakes.
> Aperitivo: Turin, home of big brands like Martini Rosso and Cinzano, is Italy’s capital of aperitivo, which Italians drink with food and before meals. An entire culture of light aperitivi cocktails in variations containing splashes of off-bitter or botanical liqueurs, vermouth, Prosecco, wine or seltzer, often accompanied by light finger foods. The American happy hour could benefit from lighter, dryer cocktails with lovely Italian canapés.
Heavily influenced by its Alpine valley terrior and Franco-Swiss border, this cuisine is robust and reliant on cheese, cured meats, substantial soups, nuts, fruit and mushrooms.
> Fondua or Fonduta, made with milk from this side of the mountain, often with the essence of truffle or mushrooms, is served as a topping or sauce for antipasti, polenta or pasta — a more versatile option than Swiss fondue.
Rice and polenta readily surpass pasta, as does the use of cream, animal fat and butter. Quintessential dishes include osso buco, anything “alla Milanese” (breaded and fried), classic risotto alla Milanese or riso al salto, a crispy fried (leftover) risotto cake used as a base for an appetizer or side dish.
> Gorgonzola with perfectly ripe pears or honey and amaretti makes for a simple yet impressive dessert.
Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this mountainous wine-growing region has a distinctive Slavic or Germanic stick-to-the-ribs food history. Italian meats and root vegetables are used for twists on goulash, sausage, sauerkraut and strudel, and vast grain fields provide corn for polenta. The Adriatic harbors naturally tend toward more seafood — though often in hearty chowder-like preparations. Foods are paired with the region’s superior white wines.
> Orzotti, or barley risotto, is more cost effective and forgiving than its Arborio sister, and with a palate-pleasing, toasty texture and flavor — overall, a delightful departure for a restaurant menu.
The plains of the Po River provide corn, rice, greens, grazing and game, while the coast offers an abundance of fish and shellfish, together setting the cuisine. Risotto reigns supreme, as do the region’s Asiago, Grana Padano, provolone and Taleggio cheeses. Quality cattle were likely the inspiration behind the Venetian creation of carpaccio.
> bitter greens and chicories: Radicchio di Treviso (the long type, resembling red endive), in particular, is favored not only in salad but frequently as a side dish, braised or grilled and simply garnished with salt and olive oil.
Emilia-Romagna is the source of many of Italy’s most iconic ingredients and dishes: Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, Bologna (mortadella di Bologna), aceto balsamico and fresh, eggy, flat and stuffed pastas. It’s also known for Bolognese sauces, lasagna and veal Parmesan.
Considered to have the country’s most lavish cuisine, Emilia-Romagna also is home to the capital of gastronomy, Bologna, known as La Grassa (the fat) for a reason. Prized hogs make famed salami, Zampone and Cotechino sausages and Culatello, a cured rump muscle.
> This is the area from which to import the finest ingredients and let them stand. What menu couldn’t benefit from a plate of prosciutto and perfectly ripe musk melon, crumbles of aged Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh figs drizzled with a bit of sweet balsamico and a wedge of Grana Padano with savor di frutta (a preserve of fruit and nuts), accompanied by a glass of Lambrusco or Trebbiano, or the green-walnut Nocino liqueur.
This region, with its rocky “Riviera,” lush interior and sun-baked hills, is emblematic of Italy’s gastronomy only in the range and protection of its regionality. The seafood-centric coastlines offer their bounty, and the unpretentious yet rich interior farmlands boast a tradition of micro-regional heritage crops, including grains, greens, vegetables, nuts and fruits. Together, they define not only the cook’s ingredients but technique.
Ligurian cooks rely on the sea and a whole lot of help from land-based olives, nuts, herbs, greens, poultry and meat — not to mention the glorious Genovese green pesto, which flavors minestrone and trenette or trofie pastas. While this is still a humble cuisine featuring savory tortas, fish soups and resourceful preservation of meats, produce and seafood, more aggressive seasoning from the fruit of the land (herbs, oils), sea (sardines, anchovies) and trade route (spices) distinguish this food from that of the north.
> Farinata, a chickpea-batter pancake-type tart or flatbread, is an unassuming yet incredibly satisfying bar snack or side, simply sprinkled with salt and pepper and maybe rosemary, or fried with onions.
Legumes are a staple of Central Italy, where chickpeas, white beans and lentils make their way into salads, soups and pasta dishes. Photo courtesy of bush brothers. TUSCANY
Italian cookery may have been born at the court of the Medici, upon Caterina’s 1533 marriage to King Henry II, who introduced the concept of recipes. Tuscany defines Italian cuisine for Americans, perhaps because it resembles our own eating habits: beautiful, big wines, big meats, big cheeses and big meals. That said, its top culinary trait is care for and about ingredients, whether subtle or showy.
> Fagioli (beans) are sexy, craveable, and delicious when spun in Italian — and specifically, Tuscan — preparations. Try fagioli all’uccelletto (white beans sautéed with garlic, sage and tomatoes), fagioli con cavolo nero alla Toscana (with Tuscan kale), ribollita (vegetable soup with bread) or any protein “con cannellini.”
In Italy’s landlocked “Cuore Verde” (green heart), Umbrians import little yet share their gastronomic wealth of egg and dry pastas, such as strozzapreti, heavily salted salato prosciutto and salami, black truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts, ample produce, poultry and meats, not to mention renowned Orvieto, Torgiani Rosso and Montefalco wines.
> Lentils are one of the world’s oldest edible plants, and Umbrians take pride in their heritage strains. Like beans, lentils are a match for any menu and season and are commonly braised or stewed. They serve as a base for a fried egg or other protein or get combined in soup or salad with local farro or tubetti noodles.
Marche is happily stuck between culinary influences of the coast and fertile land of the north and south. As such, its cuisine relies on a wide spectrum of seafood, game, poultry and pork preparations. This area also lays claim to porchetta, which is both a dish (seasoned, roasted pork) and preparation style. Local white Verdicchio or Vernaccia wines accompany Marche fare.
> Taking one or two diverse signature preps to which any protein can be added is a brilliant menu strategy. Marche’s Potacchio (tomato, onion, white wine and rosemary) and Porchetta (wild fennel, salt pork, garlic and rosemary) are great examples and work for most seafood, poultry, meat and even vegetables.
LAZIO AND ROME
Specialties of the Eternal City take advantage of its ancient history and Lazio’s surrounding terrain. Legendary pasta dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’ Amatriciana and gnocchi alla Romana are standard for locals and tourists alike, as are panzanella and bruschetta. Chicories and salad greens, cruciferous vegetables and olives are served simply while the heralded carciofi (artichokes) follow the region’s heritage, done either alla Giudia (Jewish style) or alla Romana (fried with garlic and parsley).
> “When in Rome” is likely a gastronomic adage that applies to all of Italy and its respect of heritage and authenticity of place. So, when in Rome, do not ask for separate pasta cuts or sauces from traditional recipes, inter-mix or reorder courses, pour overflowing glasses of wine or request milky espresso!
This land of long daylight, season and volcanic fertility is referred to as Mezzogiorno or “garden of the Mediterranean.” Hence, dishes are reliant on crops like greens and nightshades, wheat, tree fruit, citrus, tomatoes, olive oil and nuts and, often but not always, seafood. As this is the least wealthy of Italian regions, its cuisine takes on a particular peasant style. Shepherding is the main animal production, so meat, where eaten, tends to be lamb or goat, and cheeses are from the same. Pasta is made with the acclaimed local durum wheat. Perhaps because the main foods are lighter, sweets are often more plentiful and rich.
Campania and its main city, Naples, are home to arguably the world’s most beloved foods — pizza and spaghetti — and Italian icons like San Marzano tomato-based marinara and puttanesca sauces, mozzarella di bufala, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna and wedding soup.
> Enoteche, Aperitivo or Antipasto: The Italian alternative to tapas is not all crostini and bruschetta; try deliciously easy Campania specialties like mozzarella en carrozza (fried in bread) or polipo alla Luciana, baked octopus and tomatoes.
Those in the center of the boot’s instep do eat some meat but save most of it for the making of fine cured meats. Cheeses include pecorino, caciocavallo and creamy pasta filata (pulled-curd cheese), sometimes filled or wrapped with salame.
> Savory cheesecakes, as a first or shared course, side or entrée, are a good takeaway from this region. Torta di Latticini is a cheesecake of ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino and prosciutto.
CALABRIA, ABRUZZO AND MOLISE
These regions share traditions of salumi, salt-cured fish, artisan pecorino, caciocavallo, scamorza and other cheeses and of preserving cheeses and vegetables in oil, brine or salt. Cornmeal and polenta are widely used, often fried, a favorite technique. The coast is awash in seafood dishes, while homey meat preps are favored in the hills. Fiery diavolino peppers enliven tomato sauces.
> Roasting fleshy fish coaxes out the flavors for which this region is known. Pesce alla Bagnarese is roasted in a casserole with olive oil, lemon, capers and chopped parsley.
Olives, grapes, beans (including fava), other produce and shepherding are as serious as fishing along the many miles of coastline, providing all manner of frutti di mare and the region’s prized sea salt.
> Tiella, both an earthenware baking dish and a recipe, combines multiple starches, including rice, potatoes, bread crumbs and vegetables, flavored with seafood, special mushrooms or cheese, sometimes gratinéed with pecorino or caciocavallo.
Sardinia and Sicily have distinct histories and therefore share few culinary traits. Sardinia tends to turn inward toward the agricultural center of the island with culinary cues from the Phoenicians, Romans, Spaniards and Austrians, while Sicily’s lush land in the center of the Mediterranean made it a stopover for more empires, Greeks, Arabs and Normans included.
Traditional shepherding, farming and gathering culture means dishes typically feature the meat and cheese of sheep and goats. Pastries are made with local cheese and famous bitter honey, and from the sea comes the ingeniously unique bottarga, preserved roe of tuna, mullet or bass.
> Fregola Sarda, a toasted semolina-based, couscous-shaped pasta, most commonly stars in Fregola con Vongole (with clams and tomatoes), but also makes a hearty soup or risotto-style side dish.
Sicily boasts one of Italy’s most sophisticated but eclectic cuisines, made up of abundant produce, seafood from perhaps the world’s best fish markets and unrivaled artisan products. With the “what-grows-together-goes-together” motto, few rules exist around sweet-savory blends, making this the land of Agrodolce.
> Gelato, made with milk rather than cream, is not only more creamy than its higher-fat counterpart (a feat of technique) but has less fat and often less sugar. Italian fruit, nut, chocolate, cream and more unique flavors (rice, Gorgonzola, truffle, Marsala, zabaione) shine through. Similarly, Sorbetto, Granita and Ices are defined by Sicily’s bittersweet citrus and strong coffee and vastly differ from the tutti-frutti amalgamations we often serve. What better not-too-sweet ending to bring Italian sophistication to your offerings?