28 Mar 2011

Introduction to Italian Cuisine


Every nation has her own culinary customs which reflect centuries of history of that country. Food is created and through a series of factors, it self transforms, while maintaining a common link among them.

The history of cuisine is a very important factor which allows us to understand, through the events that actually happened, the reason behind the changes in the recipes (sometimes even radical changes), and the consequence of these changes –  all which relate to the innovation of the feeding of mankind.

In fact, the culinary models reconstructed through a study of very old recipes, like any other popular tradition, allows us to analyse the structure of society, which can therefore be observed and –most importantly– be constituted as a part of continuity of one generation to another.

As a result, we will therefore not only have historic news about food but more interestingly, about time, date and place.

Italian cuisine have been influenced by many foreign elements as Italy was invaded by other countries in the past. The influence of the Germans, French, Spanish and Arabs, with their own diverse cultural traditions, has without doubt diversified the cuisine of each Italian region.

We have to stress that communications between two enclosed region – for example, Piedmont and Liguria – have allowed the enrichment and transformation of the original cultural baggage linked to cuisine of every single region.

For example, the original “bagna cauda” (a typical dish from Piedmont made of garlic, oil and anchovies) had only one ingredient – garlic. During the olden times in Piedmont,  garlic was cultivated in large quantity. This was because of laws related to agriculture – i bandi agresti – made it obligatory for every head of the family, proprietor of a piece land , to plant at least 100 heads of garlic. The anchovies and oil, on the other hand, were introduced in Piedmont through the salt route, which came from Liguria. This is an example which illustrates clearly how a regional recipe came to be created: not always and exclusively with products in the proper territory, but also with products coming from neighbouring lands.

The Italian regional cuisine, for all these reasons, is particularly varied and has dishes of thousand different flavours, for example:

·         Some specialties from Piedmont have French origin (the Savoia came from neighbouring France);
·         In Trentino, it is possible to taste excellent dishes of Austrian origin (this land in the past belonged to Hasburg Empire);
·         Spices, pine nuts and grapes are used in Sicilian cuisine as a consequence of Arabic influence.

We can therefore say that the evolution of cuisine through the centuries, from sophisticated rennaisance flavours to triumphant courses in the 19th century until today, has been a pleasant journey, not only in gourmet terms, but also interesting because the cuisine help us understand the history  of Italy and her people.

In north Italy, rich in mountainous pastures, butter is always the preferred condiment in the past and even today. In the past centuries, butter was used almost exclusively for the rich and wealthy, as it was considered, the most expensive ingredient.  In the kitchen of the poor, food was cooked with lard and strutto (melted and reconstructed pig fat). They also used goose fat.

In centre and south Italy and in the islands, (where there are more cultivation of olives), in the past like the present, olive oil and extra virgin olive oil are prevalently used as the main ingredients of the Mediterranean diet.

It is noted that in Italy, there were cultivation of olives and the production of olive oil since the olden times. This ingredient is always appreciated for its excellent quality and for its high dietetic value. Italians are among the major producers and consumers of olive oil.

Other than butter and olive oil, when we speak of regional cuisine, one thinks immediately of sevaral important basic products, which without doubt, represent the good image of typical Italian cuisine: pasta, rice, parmesan cheese, polenta, tomatoes and products derived thereof.

Naturally, other products worthy of note are preserved meat and cheese – which are of excellent quality. Each region in Italy has vast production of these two products. Italian fruits and vegetables are also numerous and of high quality.

The culture of the people is also made of flavours, each Italian region has some dishes with specific characteristic and different aroma.
Until today, after centuries, the food of each single region reflect, partly and sometimes, totally, the diverse character of mankind. Territorial habits and characteristic environment and surrounding have always influenced Man and the choice of food.

Agriculture and pasture are dominating components in the economy of the region of Aosta Valley. These two characteristics are also reflected in the culinary customs..

The robust mountain cooking in this region use butter as the main condiment. Like all other mountainous regions, it is also defined as cuisine for surviving because in the past, the long and bitter winter months, passed in mountain huts submerged under the snow, have created the necessity to have food which can be conserved for long periods.

Other typical products are meat, salted and dried in a way that the leg of chamois and Ibex are used. The meat prepared this way is called mocetta.

Typical dishes: Fondue, soup made of rice and turnip, zuppa alla valpellinese (cabbage soup), carbonada (stew with meats and vegetables).

The cuisine from Piedmont are delicious, substantial and rich in flavour and diverse aroma. There are thousands of vineyards in Piedmonte and among the quality vintage wines are the Barbera, Barolo, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.

Piedmont cuisine was created not only by the farmers but also by the nobles.
Products and typical dishes: capsicium from Carmagnola, asparagus from Santena, white truffles from Alba, hunchback cardoons from Monferrato and chestnuts from Cuneo. There is also a large production of cheese (gorgonzola, tome, robiole, raschera , castelmagno, etc.)
Typical cuisine in this region are cuisine for autumn:
- Bagna cauda (A sauce made of olive oil, butter, garlic, chopped anchovies and thinly sliced white truffles. This is served in little bowls on individual heaters with a selection of raw vegetables which are dipped into the mixture)
- Selvaggina al civet (stew of game animals – chamois, hare, wild boar, beaver)
- Bollito misto (boiled beef, chicken, veal and ham served with cabbage or onions)
- Tajarin con tartufi (Tagliatelle with truffles)
Among the desserts, there are the hazelnut cake from Langhe, the Bonet (chocolate cream made of chocolate, rum and amaretti), Panna Cotta, chocolates, and the famous Gianduiotti (chocolate with hazelnut).


Lombardy is a region where diverse tradition and culture have merged with the passing of time. Naturally, this interlace of tradition is also found in the cuisine.
Typical dishes:
Various risotto, among which the most typical is the yellow one with saffron, pasta (ravioli) stuffed with pumpkin, zuppa del pavese (soup prepared with slices of toasted bread, eggs and boiled broth).
For second courses, the most typical are Cotolette alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet) and Ossobuco alla Milanese (braised veal shank). The braised veal is also very delicious.
There are also some very delicious dishes of fillet of breaded perch, tench with green peas and trouts with mushrooms.
The cheese are also exquisite, among which are the gorgonzola, taleggio, grana padano, mascarpone and stracchino cheese.
Panettone originated from Milan, which thanks to the big industries, have become the national dessert recognised even abroad.

Liguria, being a land next to the sea, has cuisine very influenced by inland with strong presence of vegetables, mushrooms and aromatic herbs: among which the basil reigns, the most important ingredient for preparing the famous Pesto alla genovese sauce.
This land which faces the sea is also hilly and allows olives to be cultivated, hence producing very good oil used abundantly in the cuisine.
Therefore, in this region, there are seafood cuisine and also cuisine from the hills.
Typical dishes:
Torta pasqualina (a savoury pie made with puff pastry and filled with leaf vegetables-chard, spinach, borage), verdure ripiene (stuffed vegetables), trofie pasta with pesto and potato and french beans, pansotti di magro con salsa di noci (stuffing made from vegetables cooked in the oven with nut sauce),  cima alla genovese (a stomach pouch of heifer stuffed with vegetables, ricotta cheese, pistachio, cheese, tongue etc, sewn and cooked in water or in the oven), salted cod or stockfish cooked in various ways and burrida (fish soup)
Two other important specialties are the focaccia bread and the farinata.


The Venetian cuisine is influenced by the Nordic and the seafarers. Therefore, it is a blend of the East and the West, not forgetting the spice route which brought to Venice precious and aromatic cargo of cloves, cinnamon and pepper.
Like all the other regions, the poverty of the people taught them to sharpen their ingenuity. They tried to make use of poorest ingredients such as beans, green peas, polenta (cooked cornmeal), stockfish or salted cod and convert them into dishes which are rich in flavour.
Typical dishes:
Among the first courses are: risi e bisi (rice and fresh peas), risotto with liver, risotto with prawns, soup with legumes and tripes.
Among the second courses (seafood base) are: anguille in carpione (eel in carp), sarde alla brace (grilled sardine), brodetto di cozze (broth of  mussels), scallop baked au gratin, and stockfish cooked in various ways.
For vegetables, there is the famous red radish of Treviso (which is excellent for salad), grilled or fried.
For desserts, Veneto is famous for the Pandoro cake and the Baicoli biscuits.


The ingredients most significant in the Trentino cuisine are: smoked meat, speck, black bread, mountain butter, wurstel (sausage).
Most of the dishes are pork based or of game animals which are accompanied with apple or berry sauce.
The preparation of most of the dish are inspired by cuisines of other Alpine areas especially those of the same geographic area and previously occuped by the Hasburg empire such as Hungary.
Typical dishes:
Among the specialties most characteristic are the Knodel, which is served with broth similar to minestra, however the side dish comes with meat. The polenta in this region is served always and not only during the winter season.
Also very common is Gulash, a plate of Hungarian origin, very spicy and made of beef, tomatoes and paprika.
Among the desserts, krapfen, the marmalade tartlet and the apple fritters are delicious.


Friuli Venezia Giulia is a region which has a very singular cuisine, composed of diverse testimonial of the past.
The Slavic and German influence is noted above all in the minestra and the soup. Jota (mixed vegetable soup with sour cabbage “craut”) is a clear sign of Nordic cuisine. On the other hand, sardine with sweet and sour sauce and various fish soups are typical Latin and Mediterranean taste.
The skewered game animals, prepared in the hearth,  are also delicious.
Among the desserts,  there is the putizza (rich dessert of ingredients similar to croissant paste, stufed with nuts, raisins, pine nuts, candies and choccolate).


In this region, the cuisine is very varied, rich and savoury.

Emilia Romagna is made up of two zones which are very different from one another: Emilia with its  vast expanse of fertile pastures and large orchards and Romagna, which stretches along the Adriatic sea and is an area rich in seafood.
These different characteristics, like what happened in other regions geographically composed of sea, pastures and mountains, also influence the cuisine. The fresh pasta of Emilia Romagna is one of the most important gastronomic elements. Each city boasts of her own specialities:
-          In Bologna: tortellini (small stuffed rings of pasta), lasagna and  tagliatelle with meat sauce
-          In Ferrara: “Cappellacci di Zucca” (Homemade pasta filled with butternut squash and walnuts)
-          In Piacenza: the tortelloni (large ravioli)
-          In Parma: the anolini
The high quality and indispensable condiments are the Grana Padano and Parmigiano cheese (vintage and antique products of medieval origin).
This region can be considered the plae of origin of the “insaccati” (wrapped food products): the culatello (cured pork loin), salame di felino (salami with medium grain), raw prosciutto of Parma and Langhirano, mortadella ham of Bologna.
In this land, dishes with pork meat triumph..
Typical dishes:
Other than the first courses which are savoury and rich in condiment, this region has excellent second courses as well: baked veal shank, pork trotters with lentils, mix of grilled fish and meat, and fish broth.


The Tuscan cuisine is simple and basic, with no frills or finery nor accompanying sauces. However it is rich in intense flavour and of excellent olive oil, which is produced abundantly in this region. Most Tuscan food originated from the countryside, between vines and olives, atriums between the sea and the forests.
Meat is used a lot, a classic is the enormous beef steak “Fiorentine style” (you can still find meat of the old “Chianina” breed). There are also a lot of dishes of game animals which are very savoury. A stew dish made of many types of different meat is Scottiglia, of medieval origin.
Typical dishes:
Tuscany is famous for the canape with chicken liver pate, bruschetta, panzanella (bread and tomato salad), various soups including ribollita (mixed vegetable soup), acquacotta (soup of porcini mushrooms and tomatoes),  minestra di farro (pearl barley soup) and bean soup.
For seafood dishes, the Caciucco seafood soup and the red mullet Livorno style are excellent.
The desserts are exquisite: cantuccini (almond biscuit) dipped into a sweet wine called Vin Santo, Ricciarelli from Siena (cookies made of ground almond) and the famous Panforte (a rich, dense, flat fruitcake) . All the desserts originated since the olden times.


Umbria is the only region in Italy which does not have a seafront. Therefore, the main ingredients  to prepare Umbrian dishes are found in the fields, the gardens and foresty hills, rich in mushrooms and truffles.
Like Toscany, there are many soups for the first course.
Norcia is a place famous for the black truffles (the whites on the other hand are found in the Langhe in Piedmont). The cheese and preserved meat are exquisite.
The local freshwater fish (trouts, pike, carps) are cooked mainly in embers and seasoned with local oil which are of very good quality.
The porchetta (roasted pig) cooked in the oven and flavoured with wild fennel is delicious. There is also the custom to cook “porchetta” with furry game animals and deboned rabbits.
The dessert more well known in this region is the Torcolo of Perugia, a dessert in the form of a ciambella (ring cake) rich in candied fruits, dried fruits and anis seeds.

The landscape of Marche is a pleasant contrast to the vast greens which descend to the Adriatic sea. In this region, stuffed food is prevalent and like all other regions in central Italy, cooking with skewers is very much used here (this method of cooking originated from this part).
Typical dishes:
From the porchetta stuffed with different aromatic herbs to macaroni filled with chopped mixture of cookied prosciutto and chicken giblets to the famous Ascoli style olives, known since the era of the Roman empire.
Among the second courses, there are skewered meats of lamb, of pigeon, of mixed pork meat and of eel.
Among the excellent desserts are the biscuits made of pastry and fresh fruits.


The cuisine from Lathium has always been simple even though Rome had among its residents, noble and bourgeois families.
Typical dishes:
Lamb is very much appreciated in this region. Among the second courses, there are skewered legs of lamb, polpa agnello alla cacciatore (tender slow stewed lamb meat with “Hunter sauce”), “abbacchio” roasted suckling lamb meat with potatoes. Another delicious dish, with ox meat however, is oxtail cooked in a rich tomato sauce “Vaccinara style”.


In Abruzzo, like other Italian regions, there are two precise gastronomic characteristics: cuisine of the land and cuisine from the sea.
Since centuries, there is a ritual in this region called the Panarda, a huge feast that was part of the tradition of the olden times. Today, it is still repeated, in big festivals of particular importance.
It is a long lunch which begins at noon and ends in the early hours of the night (in practice, all the regional specialties are served).
A precious ingredient is produced in Abruzzo – saffron – a spice which originated from Asia. The biggest production of saffron is in this region.
In the mountainous pastures, there are abundant sheep and goats, and therefore there is notable production of pecorino and scamorza cheese.
Typical dishes:
Among the first courses: casserole of macaroni with  scamorza cheese and potatoes, ravioli of ricotta cheese and sausage, soup of wild herbs and bread, spaghetti alla chitarra (fine spaghetti).
Among the second courses, the specialties are of lamb and fish based.
One of the most notable desserts is the Parrozzo (rich chocolate cake).


Molise is the second smallest region in Italy after Aosta Valley.
It is prevalently a mountainous terrain. It only became an autonomous region in 1963. Before, it was a part of Abruzzo.
Typical dishes:
Molise is known for its spicy preserved meat, almost all are pork and chilly based, and for its cheeses.
The fish based specialties are excellent – soup, fritters and grilled..
The torrone (nougat) is excellent in Molise as almonds and hazelnuts are produced in abundance..


In this beautiful region facing the Tyrrhenian sea, the sun gives colour, flavour and aroma which are incomparable.
The cuisine of Campania, or more precisely Napoletan cuisine, as it is the capital of the region and had imprinted the cuisine throughout all of this region, is a vast cuisine which is developed with products typical of the territory. Tomatoes were first grown in Campania and therefore, we need to consider this region as the place of origin of specialties made with tomato base.
Typical dishes:
Pizza, rich in mozzarella and oregano, is definitely the most famous specialty of this region, not to mention the numerous condiments of tomato base for spaghetti and macaroni.
Among the first courses, there is the famous baked casserole of pasta accompanied with excellent meat sauce, cooked over very slow fire for hours and hours.
Most are seafood and fish based dishes. Among the second courses, there is the characteristic polpettone di carne (meatloaf).
The cheeses (mozzarella, scamorza, caciocavallo, provolone) and fruits and vegetable products are excellent.
For desserts, the most representative is definitely the pastiera napoletana (a classic Easter grain pie).


Puglia is one of the major producers of oil and grains.
A characteristic of cuisine from Puglia which probably sounds of ancient Greek influence, is that associated to a unique dish food which other regions normally serve separately.
In this region, plenty of vegetables are produced. There is therefore a continuous meet between pasta and vegetables. We must also remember that until a few decades ago, meat is not frequently eaten, very little times a month, and therefore, the daily meals rotate always around few available elements:  pasta, oil, vegetables and cheese.
Typical dish:
The firsh course most well known is the orecchiette (pasta in the shape of little ears) with turnip tops, baked pan of rice, potatoes and mussles, puree of broad beans accompanied with boiled wild chicory and seafood spaghetti.
As for meat based second courses, there are the veal cutlet and lamb meat cooked in various ways.
The seafood based dishes are exquisite: stewed octopus, stuffed squids, mussels baked au gratin.
The cheeses are excellent too.
The desserts most well known are  cassatine di ricotta and torta di grano.


Basilicata, also called Lucania, is a region protected/surrounded by stones. Matera is in fact called the city of stones.
Vegetation is reduced to essentials, but Basilicata is blessed with the two seas, Jonio and Tyrrhenian. Therefore, food of diverse aroma is found from the sea and the land that it touches.
The main products in this region are represented by cheeses (scamorze and provole) and preserved meat (capocolli, sopressate, salamini piccanti). The famous sausage called Luganega, apparently originated from this land.
In this region, like others in South Italy, there are a lot of food which is flavoured with “peperoncino”chilly.
Typical dish:
The first courses are often prepared with homemade pasta with tomato based condiments, lamb or pork.
For seafood based second courses, the most delicious are the grouper soup and the tortiera of salted cod.
There is also the cheese cake with sweet and salty ingredients.


The cuisine in this region is very varied, of base of swine and goat and delicious plates prepared with fish and vegetables.
Typical products, like other regions in the south, are sun dried tomotoes conserved with oil and peperoncino chilly.
The condiment of the first courses are very similar to that of neighbouring regions (meat sauce of lamb or sheep, seasonal vegetables, completed with ricotta and pecorino cheese).
Typical dishes:
An excellent simple dish is the pasta fritters, which is flavoured with sausage and pecorino cheese. Sheep and coastal fish are elements used in most preparations.
The roasted stuffed young goat is very delicious and so is tuna in sweet and sour sauce.
Among the desserts, there are the dried biscuits called Mustaccioli (of pastry base, honey and cinnammon).


Sicily is a land of thousand traditions, with the passing of numerous civilization. The Normans used stockfish for their dishes (until today, they are still very much used in Scandinavian countries), the Arabs enriched the Sicilian cuisine with ingredients such as sugar, spices, almond, pine nuts, raisins and candies.
Until today, couscous of Arabic origin is prepared in Sicily.
Tomatoes and eggplants are the vegetables most used in Sicilian cuisine.
The pasta alla Norma created at the beginning of the century in Catania, which was paid homage  in the opera of Bellini, was seasoned with pieces of eggplant and tomato sauce. There is a lot of casserole of pasta and rice in Sicilian cuisine.
Typical dish:
The choise of fish based dishes are vast: the fish most used are tuna, swordfish, anchovies and sardines.
Veal is not used much.
The tradition of Sicilian desserts use, above all, almonds, honey and ricotta cheese, taking cue from Oriental flavours. In fact, the deserts most well known are cassata, cannoli di ricotta and pasta di mandorle.


Sardinia is the Italian island furthest from mainland. The Sardinian people, because of this form of isolation, has learned to find the necessary ingredients for cooking from their own land.
The Sardinian cuisine like that of Sicily is composed of a lot of influence as this land has also passed through many civilizations in history.
The food is prepared in a way which is above all, simple with antique rules of use of natural resources. The sea provides splendid fish among which are the valuable lobsters. A product most well known is the Bottarga made of eggs of mullets dried and then pressed into a form of a tablet. This is used as an appetizer, sliced to thin pieces and seasoned with oil, or grated on seafood pasta and risotto.
Tradition requires that the young goat and the suckling pig to be cooked in skewers or in holes adjacent to heat sources.
Meat is flavoured with myrtle sprigs from local shrubs.
Most Sardinian desserts are of almond base like the amaretti di Oristano.

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