Italian cuisine is one of the most popular types of food in the Western World. One of the reasons for its popularity is its simplicity – many Italian dishes are cooked with between two to six ingredients in classic Mediterranean style.
Drenching in sauce or toppings (for pizza) is often the sign of a bad kitchen. The 20 regions of Italy have each developed strong tendencies and specialties, which means that a country smaller than Texas in size has a huge variety and styles of food. There’s simply a lot to choose from.
It would be impossible to describe even 20% of Italian cuisine in less than a short novel, so we won’t try to do that here. What is presented below is a summary of the flavor that Italian cooking represents.
Table of Contents
- 0.1 The Evolution of Italian Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
- 0.2 Traditional Italian Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences
- 0.3 Italian Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
- 0.4 Food for Major Italian Holidays and Special Occasions
- 0.5 List of 9 Italian Food Course Names and Meanings
- 0.6 List of 10 Popular Italian Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations
- 0.7 List of 22 Italian Spices, Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need
- 1 List of 21 Popular Italian Dishes Around the World
- 1.1 1. Pizza
- 1.2 2. Lasagna
- 1.3 3. Pasta All’Arrabbiata
- 1.4 4. Carbonara
- 1.5 5. Carpaccio
- 1.6 6. Ossobuco (Bone-in Veal Shank)
- 1.7 7. Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Tuscan T-Bone Fiorentina Steak)
- 1.8 8. Italian Style Stuffed Mushrooms
- 1.9 9. Polenta (Corn Mush)
- 1.10 10. Risotto al Nero di Seppia (Rice with Cuttlefish and Ink)
- 1.11 11. Ribollita (Tuscan Vegetable Soup)
- 1.12 12. Aubergine Caponata (Salad)
- 1.13 13. Pollo alla Romana and Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Stew in Wine)
- 1.14 14. Brodetto (Seafood in Broth)
- 1.15 15. Bottarga (Sicilian Caviar)
- 1.16 16. Vitello Tonnato (Roasted Veal in Tuna Sauce)
- 1.17 17. Focaccia (and other Breads)
- 1.18 18. Tiramisu (Italian Coffee Flavored Cake)
- 1.19 19. Gelato
- 1.20 20. Pan di Zenzero (Ginger Biscuits)
- 1.21 The Verdict … Italian Food Culture is Legendary
The Evolution of Italian Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Italian food has developed over almost 2,500 years. As with many Mediterranean cultures, food and culture were critical, as can be seen from cookbooks that date back to the 4th century BC, continuing on through the Roman era and on to modern times. Some of the major stages of development can be characterized as follows:
- Antiquity – This period can be roughly described as a 800 year period between the 4th century AD, when a Greek Sicilian named Archestratus from Syracuse writes the first semblance of cooking recipes, to the Roman era, when styles grew varied and complex – by the 1st century AD, cookbooks have been found with over 450 recipes, many calling for the heavy use of herbs and spices. Greek influences were felt in breadmaking and the production of cheese. A lot of meat and seafood-based recipes were common.
- Middle Ages – This period started after the decline of the Roman Empire and continued till the peak of the Renaissance. Significant Arab, Norman and Germanic cuisines were blending in with region cuisines at the time. Sicily developed a distinctive style of cooking, fueled by Spanish, Arab and Moorish influences, which many pinpoint as the real beginning of modern day Italian cuisine. Over this period, many master chefs emerged in the various regional kingdoms. One of the more famous cookbooks was written by Maestro Martino, who was the Patriarch of Aquileia at the Vatican. His works were adopted by many, including Bartolomeo Platina, who printed a tome in Venice using and contextualizing (with regional flavors) many of Martino’s works.
- Early Modern Era – By the middle of the Renaissance period, the influences of Rome, Venice, Ferrara and Florence became prominent in the development of Italian cuisine. The magnum opus of that period came from Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V, who in 1570 included 1000 recipes in his five-volume Opera. Besides the recipes themselves, Opera did much to describe styles and settings. This trend continued through the 17th century, when chefs such as Bartolomeo Stefani and Giovanni della Casa continued to publish works detailing the evolution of the cuisine through their mixes of traditional, regional and innovative recipes. The other thing that happened during this Early Modern Era was the discovery of the New World, which introduced a host of vegetables, herbs and spices into Italian food.
- Modern Era – The Modern Era of Italian cuisine started in the 18th century, continued through the unification of Italy in 1861 and has continued to this day. Many influences, including strong French, African, Spanish and Arab influences. Interestingly enough, one of the things that happened in the Modern Era was an emphasis on traditional, regional cuisine. The authoritative classic on modern Italian cuisine was published in 1891 by Pellegrino Artusi – La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well).
As the brief history above shows, Italian cuisine not only has diverse influences and many regional roots, let’s continue with the most impactful highlights.
Traditional Italian Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences
There are 20 regions in modern day Italy, but as described above, they evolved mostly as autonomous countries or regions between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and the reunification in Italy in 1861.
As a result, Italian food culture was not only influenced through climate and the availability of raw ingredients (from meat and seafood to herbs and spices), but also as a result of a region’s insularity or influences, as also geo-political considerations. Here are brief reviews of a few factors that have helped influence Italian cuisine.
Though modern Italy has 20 regions, they can be combined into 5 macro-regions, as follows:
- North Western Italian Cuisine (Aosta Valley, Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont) – The main city in North West Italy is Milan. North Western Italy is heavy with rice dishes and polenta. Lombardy produces risotto, for example, flavored with saffron. Cooking with melted butter and sage is also a specialty of the region, as are the variety of well-known cheeses found there. Liguria is known for herbs and vegetables (as well as vegetables).
- North Eastern Italian Cuisine (Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-South Tyrol, Veneto) – The main city in North East Italy is Bologna. The use of rice slows down as you move from the Northern regions down towards the south. The use of pasta increases. Similarly, the use of butter is less, with more olive oil creeping in. A lot of unusual meats, including horse and donkey meat, may be consumed. Christmas cooking, such as cakes, are common.
- Central Italian Cuisine (Lazio, Marche, Tuscany, Umbria) – The main city in Central Italy is Rome, which exerts a strong influence due to its history. Tuscan cuisine is renowned for its simplicity – lots of bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, legumes and fresh fruit are used. There is a strong peasant, rustic food culture – which for example created ribollita described below. Use of inexpensive vegetables is common. Roman style dishes are common, including thin crust pizza romano.
- Southern Italian Cuisine (Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise) – The main city in South Italy is Naples. Southern Italian cuisine uses olive oil almost exclusively to cook. The use of crushed pepper is also common. Grains (therefore breads). Pasta, meat and seafood are staples of Abruzzo and Molise, along with lots of lamb dishes. Use of mushrooms and pasta is common. Apulia produces major amounts of wheat and fresh vegetables, including zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas, lentils, beans and broccoli. Abundant fish and seafood are common. Pork is the most common meat used in Basilicata. Neapolitan pizza is from the Italian South.
- Island Cuisine of Italy (Sardinia, Sicily) – The main city in Sicily and Sardinia is Palermo. The island cuisines show strong influences of Greek, Spanish and Arab influences. Abundant seafood and many fresh spices and herbs (including saffron, which is not commonly used) are found. One of the red wines used in cooking is Marsala. Sardinia has much of the same cuisine and ingredients, with a few twists such as suckling pig and wild boar.
Italian Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
Italian cooking has been influenced by almost every major culture on earth, starting around the 4th century BC. Phoenicia, India, Arabia, Greek, Spanish, Normans, French, German and North African cooking and flavors play a strong role. After the 16th century, the discovery of the New World introduced a whole host of new vegetables and spices, including such staples such as tomatoes, potatoes and corn – that have now become a staple of Italian cuisine.
Food for Major Italian Holidays and Special Occasions
Traditional and holiday meals are often specialized based on regions. Some of the commonly observed traditions include:
- La Festa di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Day, March 19) is celebrated with fanfare in Sicily. Fava Beans and zeppole (Sicilian pastries) are eaten. Other customs include wearing red and giving food to the poor.
- Easter Sunday is a big feast all over Italy, usually celebrated with lamb. A typical breakfast in Umbria or Tuscany will include boiled eggs, salami, wine, Easter Cakes and pizza. The most common cake eaten is Colomba Pasquale.
- Christmas Eve, Italians will often have a light dinner – a symbolic fast. Ginger cookies and cakes, including panettone and pandoro, are common.
List of 9 Italian Food Course Names and Meanings
Italian cuisine has evolved in stages – over a couple thousand years, but with strong influences from other cuisines as well as regional variations. Meals are often served family style in elaborate fashion, even though you will get single serve portions in a restaurant. The typical table setting involves the following stages:
- Aperitivo – This is an appetizer before the main meal, usually consisting of a drink such as a Prosecco, Campari, Spritz, Vermouth or similar beverage.
- Antipasto – A before the meal course, served hot or cold, often cheeses, meats, sliced sausages, marinated vegetables or fish, served with bruschetta and bread appetizers.
- Primo – This is the first part of a main meal – a heavy course with pasta, gnocchi, risotto or soup, served with a sauce such as ragu.
- Secondo – The main dish, meat or seafood with potatoes – veal, pork or chicken in the north are common, seafood is often the fare of choice in the south.
- Contorno – Italian side dishes, usually a salad or boiled vegetables.
- Formaggio e Frutta – Fruits and cheese are the “first dessert” served.
- Dolce – Sweet desserts, such as tiramisu, cookies and ice cream.
- Caffee – An essential part of an Italian meal
- Digestiva – Italians like a digestive drink after coffee, such as grappa, amaro or sambuca.
List of 10 Popular Italian Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations
- Pasta – Italy is the original home of pasta. Due to its long tradition and often bitter rivalries, each of the 20 regions of the country has its own unique pasta style. Some well-known ones include Penne (pen or quill like pasta from Campania); Chitarra (long, thin pasta from Abruzzo); Gigli (fluted pasta from Tuscany); Strozzapreti (short, twisted pasta from Emilia-Romagna); Orechiettee (“little ears” pasta from Puglia) and Trofie (small, rolled Genovese pasta from Liguria). Other styles include long and skinny pastas such as spaghetti or linguine, long ribbon pastas such as fettuccine, shell pasta such as conchiglie, other twists such as fusilli and other tube pastas such as rigatoni, macaroni and tortiglioni.
- Grilled Dishes (Piatti alla Griglia) – Steaks and grilled dishes in different styles are common in Italian cuisine. Cuts of meat are often specified to a T, due to strong regional preferences, such as the Fiorentina Steak described below.
- Casseroles (Casseruola) – Italians are famous for casseroles. There is a great variety, with meat and cheese bases. Among the common ones are Baked Ziti, Parmigiana from Puglia, zuppa Gallurese (which is not a soup even though it’s called Zuppa), Tiella and Smacafam.
- Soup (La Zuppa) – There are a rich variety of stews and soups that are found in Italian cuisine, including favorites such as ribollita, ossobuco, brodetto, pollo alla romana and pollo alla cacciatora, all described below.
- Risotto – A common starch in Italy, along with pasta and polenta, the creamy, luxurious version of rice dishes is risotto. Though Italians eat much more pasta and polenta than they do rice, they do grow the most rice in Europe. Northern Italy, especially Lombardi and Piedmont, are where most of the action is at – for example, the famous Arborio and carnaroli varieties of rice are grown there. Risotto is created by mixing rice with stock and stirring till it reaches a semi-liquid, velvety state, which can then be infused with other flavors, such as the Risotto al nero di seppia described below. Other famous risottos include risotto alla Milanese, which is infused with saffron, and risi e bisi (with pancetta and peas).
- Bread (Pane) – As described below, Italy has a rich variety of thick and thin crust, salted and unsalted breads that are baked in different styles. They could be had in panini style sandwiches, while some, such as focaccia (described below) can be had by itself with a topping or three. Most of the grains are grown in the South.
- Cheeses – Italy has the highest variety of cheeses in the world, which makes for a very long list (over 2500 cheeses). Grated cheese, or cheese added to sauces, stews or dishes, is extremely integral to many preparations. Some of the best known and used cheeses are Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola (blue), Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Ricotta (cottage cheese), Asiago, Caciocavallo, Caprino (goat cheese), Crema (cream cheese), Fior, Formagella, Formaggio, Provolone, Robiola and Tomino.
- Fruits and Nuts – Italians prefer fresh fruit and nuts as snacks, as ingredients in sauces and sprinkled on salads. Different versions of nuts are often found in different regions. Pine nuts, almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts are popular. Among fruits, olives and grapes are well known, along with oranges and a wide range of citrus fruits.
- Vegetables and Salads – A wide variety of vegetables, such as tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, spinach, potatoes, capsicums, sugar beets and assorted leafy and salad greens are common for use in Italian dishes, either as core ingredients or garnish. Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of tomatoes, even though the vegetable is not native to the country – tomatoes are native to Mexico and were introduced to Italian food culture in the 16th century. There are many types of fresh salads, a slightly unusual variety, aubergine caponata, is described below.
- Desserts and Pastries – The range of Italian desserts is breathtaking. Several of the popular items, including the iconic Truffles, Tiramisu and Gelatos are described later.
List of 22 Italian Spices, Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need
Italian food has a distinctive taste. Typically, herbs (erba) spices that are used, such as basil, are ones whose flavor stands out in contrast with light cooking, vinegar, cheese and tomatoes. The first eight spices listed below, especially, are the cornerstones of Italian cooking.
- Basil (Basilico) – Basil is possibly the most used herb in Italian cuisine, both in fresh and dried form. Its flavor complements light Italian cooking – for example, in making basil pesto. Fresh basil is most often used as a garnish or added to cold dishes and salads (e.g. Caprese salad), while dried basil is used in soups, stews and other dishes that cook for a while.
- Garlic (Aglio) – Garlic is also ubiquitous in Italian cooking, used in sauces, dressing, breads (garlic bread for example) and a variety of other uses. It is used fresh, either as cloves or in chopped form.
- Oregano (Origano) – Oregano is typically used dried to enhance its spicy and pungent flavor. Oregano is a common ingredient in Sicily and Southern Italy. It is also common in tomato-based pasta sauces we see everyday.
- Rosemary (Rosmarino) – A rosemary sprig can add a peppery, woody, slightly floral flavor to Italian chicken dishes, bread and a host of other preparations.
- Thyme (Timo or Thymus) – This member of the mint family has a lemony flavor that goes extremely well with dishes and rubs where lemon is used. It can be used on meats before roasting or added to vegetables (especially potato or root vegetables). Thyme is used both fresh and dried in Italian cooking.
- Parsley (Prezzemolo) – One of the commonest flavoring herbs used in Italian cooking, Italian (flat-leaf) parsley is found in practically every soup, pasta and sauce recipe. Curly-leaf parsley is better for chopping and garnishing.
- Pepper (Pepe) – The most common spice used is pepe nero (black pepper) but some preparations use pepe bianco (white pepper). Ground pepper spices up Italian cuisine in ways that are similar to most other cuisines. Parsley provides a contrast to spices.
- Hot Pepper (Peperoncino) – Hot peppers are used to spice up some dishes such as the well-known variation of Pasta All’arrabbiata described below.
- Sage (Salvia) – Sage has a naturally warm fragrance, which adds an aroma to rich pasta dishes such as gnocchi, risotto and ravioli. Fresh sage, lightly cooked in butter sauce, is considered a delicacy.
- Bay Leaves (Foglie di Alloro) – Bay leaves have a complex spicy flavor. Though you would never taste it directly, bay leaves are used to flavor many soups, stocks and stews, along with pickled vegetables and braised meats.
- Marjoram (Maggiorana) – Marjoram has a similar flavor to oregano, but is milder, also floral and woodsy. Dried marjoram, which has a stronger flavor and aroma, is often used in salad dressing, marinade and sauces. Fresh marjoram is also used in certain recipes.
- Onions (Cipolle) – The use of onions in Italian cooking is very specific. The favorite variety used are the dry Cippolini onions – which have a delicately sweet flavor and can be used as garnish after roasting whole, as well as chopped up and added. Traditional onions are also used in what is called the Italian holy trinity, described below.
- Chives (Erba Cipollina) – Chives have an oniony flavor but are more delicate. As such, they are used in fish, tortilla and cold dishes.
- Other Common Herbs and Spices – Other common flavorings, herbs and spices used in Italy include limone (lemon), lime, zenzero (ginger), pinoli (pine nuts), paprika, finocchietto (fennel), menta (mint), sedano (celery), saffron and curcuma (turmeric). These are used by themselves, or in combinations or pastes, as illustrated on this list. Some specific spice mixes are highlighted next.
- Italian Seasoning – Italian seasoning is a mixture of ground herbs that are used to spice dishes. Typical ingredients include basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and coriander. The specific blend often varies – with additions, subtractions and alterations – based on the manufacturer and the style of cooking.
- Pesto alla Genovese (Pesto Sauce) – This style of pesto originated in Genoa, the capital of Liguria. It is made from crushed garlic, pine nuts, coarse salt, basil leaves and hard cheese (such as Parmesan or Sheep’s Milk) – blended in olive oil.
- Soffrito (Carrots, Onions and Celery) – This Italian Holy Trinity is prepared by slowly cooking chopped carrots, onions and celery – the base is added as flavor to a variety of soups, stews and sauces.
- Gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and parsley) – This mixture, perfected in Milan, is served with hearty meat stews such as ossobuco described below.
- Ragu (Meat Sauce) – Ragu is a Bolognese sauce, and is used in many dishes including lasagna. The classic ragu sauce is made with ground beef or veal (occasionally pork), soffritto, tomato paste and white wine. Variations are possible based on taste – basil is sometimes added.
- Olive Oil (Olio d’Oliva) – Olive oil in all its various forms (Regular, Virgin and Extra Virgin) is a fundamental part of Italian cooking. It is used to mix sauces, cook bases, as garnish and in many other ways. While Sunflower Oil, Corn Oil and others are sometimes used, as is margarine and other oleos at times, olive oil is the heart and soul of Italian cuisine. Northern Italians tend to use butter occasionally, as opposed to southern Italy, which uses olive oil almost exclusively.
- Cured and Fresh Anchovies (Acciughe and Alici) – Anchovies are a tiny fish with a distinctive flavor and plenty of heart healthy properties – as such, they are used in many types of Italian cooking. There is a general belief that some of the best anchovies in the world come from Sicily and Calabria (the very tip of the boot on the peninsula). Acciughe is cured in brine and often preserved in olive oil.
- Balsamic Vinegar (Aceto Balsamico) – Like olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette is an essential part of Italian cooking. It is used in bases and drizzles.
- Truffles – This famous fungus is native to certain regions in Italy, such as Umbria, Tuscany and Piedmont and practically nowhere else in the world. As a result, truffles are considered a delicacy. Fresh truffles can be had in the fall at events like the sagra festival or had in frozen or dry form (not as good, but better than nothing). Truffles can be thin sliced and put on pasta, polenta, risotto or omelets, or sprinkled on steaks or meat dishes.
All of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of pastas, stews and regular dishes, or used as garnishes, or served mixed in with other ingredients.
List of 21 Popular Italian Dishes Around the World
A tour of Italian cuisine will be incomplete without sampling some of the famous dishes, breads, pastas and salads mentioned below. While styles and spices may vary from region to region, many of these have universal appeal and should be easy to find in your favorite Italian restaurants. There are too many dishes and variations in pastas, pizzas and some other standard preparations, the list below has been culled to highlight some distinctive cuisine.
All discussion of Italian cuisine has got to start with what is perhaps the most well-known symbol of Italy. Known all over the world for its Neapolitan (thick, fluffy crust – smaller size) and Roman (flattened, paper-thin crust) style pizzas, Italians love to argue over whether Naples, where Queen Margharita was stunned by the combination of tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese in 1889, is the birthplace of the pizza or not. Regardless, pizzas are now common all over the world, often with local variations. The main thing about an Italian pizza? Don’t overload it with ingredients, a good pizza defines itself by the texture and flavor of its dough and its finish.
Lasagna is a wide, flat pasta noodle baked in layers in the oven. Its origins are not precisely known, but its popularity was heightened in the Emilia-Romagna region where the preparation was transformed through the addition of ragu (meat sauce) which made it into a rich, complete meal. Traditionally, tomatoes were not in the base, so even today, classic lasagna should only have a hint of tomatoes. The main ingredients are ragu, bechamel sauce and a mix of mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses.
3. Pasta All’Arrabbiata
A staple of the Romans. Cooked with lots of tomatoes, the recipe contains a ton of red pepper flakes to spice up the dish. Other ingredients include basil leaves, garlic and sea salt to taste, cooked in extra virgin olive and poured over penne or other pasta for a delicious but fiery serving. Grated cheese is often added on top.
This is a simple spaghetti dish, made with eggs, pecorino cheese, cured guanciale and black pepper. If you thicken the sauce with cream or use bacon instead of guanciale, the difference may be significant. This is a specialty dish from Rome, and you know what they say about doing as the Romans do.
This is a raw meat or fish dish, usually made from thinly sliced pieces of beef, veal, venison, salmon or tuna. Invented less than a 100 years ago in Venice, the beef version is traditionally served with lemon, olive oil, white truffle and Parmesan cheese. The other meats and fish options emerged later, though the standard recipe still calls for olive oil, lemon or vinegar and salt. Black pepper is often added in seafood.
6. Ossobuco (Bone-in Veal Shank)
The famous ossobuco alla Milanese is a bone-in veal shank, slow cooked in a white wine, vinegar and meat broth. When served, the meat should be falling away from the bones. The dish is traditionally served with gremolata and polenta. Many restaurants do not serve this dish, since it requires three hours or more of cooking time. The origin of the dish may be Milan, though Lombardi and other regions also lay claim to it.
7. Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Tuscan T-Bone Fiorentina Steak)
The Florentine T-Bone Steak is very, very region specific – a specific part of a specific breed of cow, prepared just so based on Florentine traditions. The meat is cut in thick (at least 5″) slabs from the loins of the muscular, big boned Chianina cow raised in Tuscany. The inside is by definition going to be rare due to the thickness of the slab, unless you want to completely char the outside. These days, you may get other types of cows, and the meat may be from a higher or lower portion of the cow. Traditionally, the steak is often served in family style settings, with simple fresh, leafy vegetables and a side of bread.
8. Italian Style Stuffed Mushrooms
The recipe calls for porcini and button mushrooms, bacon or pancetta (cured pork belly meat) and anchovy, first boiled and then cooked in olive oil with garlic, basil, anchovy, parsley, egg, marjoram, pepper, milk and breadcrumbs. Salt is added to taste. Other herbs, such as mint, onions and sage may be used in variations. These are Thanksgiving favorites for many families. Here’s a recipe.
9. Polenta (Corn Mush)
Traditionally made from acorn or buckwheat starch, polenta made with corn became popular after the latter was introduced into Italy in the 16th century. It is very similar to grits eaten in the southern US states and has the same types of uses. Polenta is often served with spicy dishes, fritters can be made from it. Like pasta, polenta is a comfort food during winter, popular in Milan, Venice, Turin and other areas.
10. Risotto al Nero di Seppia (Rice with Cuttlefish and Ink)
This risotto dish is from Venice and considered to be a feast for the eyes and palate. First, fresh squid is grilled along with its own ink with wine, garlic, tomatoes and onions until tender. This broth is the heart of the dish. The rice is toasted and cooked with onion and fish stock. Halfway through, the mix with the squid ink is added – sit back and relax till the blue-black color is infused.
11. Ribollita (Tuscan Vegetable Soup)
This traditional Tuscan dish has peasant origins, as can be determined from its name – which means re-boiled. The soup, often used as a starter course, is thickened with bread rather than meat, making it an aberration among hearty stews. For best flavors, try the ribollita around the autumn harvest season, when freshly harvested hearty vegetables make the flavors explode in your mouth.
12. Aubergine Caponata (Salad)
A stunning Sicilian concoction of aubergines, pine nuts, raisins, olives and capers in a rich tomato sauce. It has been described as a cooked salad. Other ingredients, such as celery, could be added. It is often served with capon, which translates to mahi mahi fish for local Sicilians.
13. Pollo alla Romana and Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Stew in Wine)
This stew is made by cooking in peppers, tomatoes and white wine. Pollo alla cacciatora is a more rustic version of this or “hunters” stew, with plenty of rosemary, garlic and using a red wine base.
14. Brodetto (Seafood in Broth)
Brodetto is a fish or seafood stew – sometimes called a dish in between a soup and a stew – cooked in a rich tomato brother flavored with wine and garlic. It has also been called “stew of the seven fishes” since mussels and other shellfish are mixed in with other chunks of fish. It is usually served with rice or gnocchi.
15. Bottarga (Sicilian Caviar)
In early Fall, southern Italians salt and press grey mullet roe, leaving it to air dry for up to six months. The resulting concoction turns orange or bright amber. When sliced thinly and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, or grated over pasta, this caviar will impart a savory, salty and smoky flavor that is unmistakable. This dish has become a much-coveted delicacy in recent times.
16. Vitello Tonnato (Roasted Veal in Tuna Sauce)
This sumptuous Northern Italian deal presents roasted veal in anchovy-spiked creamy tuna sauce. The flavors mix surprisingly well, given what may seem an odd combination of ingredients.
17. Focaccia (and other Breads)
Bread from an Italian bakery is often one of the most pleasurable experiences in the world. Apart from standard fare such as garlic bread, regional breads are distinctly different. For example, the famous flat focaccia bread from Genoa (Liguria) is made super-salty, drizzled with olive oil and can be eaten by itself with toppings such as zucchini, cheese or olives. On the other extreme, Tuscan bread is made without salt – the result of a salt war between the regions. It is therefore best eaten with olive and salt on the side. Sardinian bread, pane carasau, is made paper-thin and toasted after baking, making it crunchy. Bruschetta and/or bread sticks are common parts of antipasto served in Italian restaurants.
18. Tiramisu (Italian Coffee Flavored Cake)
This cake is made from ladyfingers (savoiardi), dipped in coffee grinds and layered with a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese, flavored with cocoa. The Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions often claim to have originated this delicious dessert.
While this could be similar to ice cream, most people understand the core differences. Gelato has significantly lower butterfat than ice cream (4-8 percent vs. 14 percent for the latter). Also, gelato has a much higher density than ice cream – the latter includes air and water introduced that inflates the volume. As a result of these factors, gelato has a shorter shelf life, tends to melt in your mouth and has a much sweeter, fruitier taste compared to ice cream. Unfortunately, good gelato will not last very long before it loses its texture.
20. Pan di Zenzero (Ginger Biscuits)
This popular set of baked goodies are traditional for Italian Christmas celebrations.
There are variations of many of the dishes outlined above. But enjoying them in their original forms is something that will allow you to savor the essences of Italian cuisine.
The Verdict … Italian Food Culture is Legendary
Italian being one of the favorite cuisines in the US, for both home cooking and dining out, the dishes, spices and preparation styles mentioned in this article will be an inspiration for many aspiring Italian chefs.
We hope, however, that the discussion has given everyone something to chew on in terms of the rich culture and traditions that lie below a simple pasta dish you may prepare, or an Ossobuco that arrives at your table the next time you visit your favorite trattoria. Buon appetito!