Many people do not realize that there is more to Italian food than just pizza, pasta, and spaghetti. In fact, the culinary landscape in Italy is more varied than in countries many times larger. Today in Italy, there are in excess of 19 different regions each boasting their own flavor profiles and that emphasize different local ingredients. Even though there are subtle differences in the cuisines between these regional areas,this country’s culinary diversity is astoundingly varied, though there are some dishes that stand out in each of the North, Central and Southern areas as local specialties. By and large the country’s flavor and ingredient profiles can be split into three areas.
Northern Italian cuisine features ingredients such as potatoes, rice, corn, fish (cod or baccala), pork and cheeses and flavorsare derived from nuts, cheeses, basil and butter. Interestingly enough, tomatoes are absent in the majority of regional dishes in the North and cream sauces using various cheeses are more common. Risotto and polenta are more common than pasta.Northern Italy is famous for its celebration of antipasto, and restaurants in the North can serve as many as 20 different kinds at any given time. The most famous of these dishes is bagna cauda, which is a dish of vegetables that are cooked in oil, anchovies and garlic. Sauteed cabbage is a common side dish in the north and it is known as “cavolo cappuccino”. Also found frequently on menus in the North is “svizzera”, which is pan-roasted Milanese style beef with a cream based sauce.
To most people, the majority of familiar Italian flavors come from central Italy. Stuffed pastas dusted with melted Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar and roasted meats are some regional flavors and ingredients. This area uses ubiquitous fish in slow cooked dishes, and meats are slowly roasted to coax out maximum flavor. Spices such as rosemary, oregano and basil lend themselves to slowly braised or roasted dishes.Central Italy has regional dishes such as minestrone soup, lasagnas of every description, crostini (thinly sliced toasted bread with a white bean dip), “saltimbocca”, and a variety of filled pasta dishes.
The South of Italy makes prodigious use of olive oil and slowly simmered tomato sauces coat numerous fish, meat and pasta dishes. Here you’ll find the best wine, produce and citrus. Capers, olives and fresh herbs abundantly season foods from this region.SouthernItaly is famous for peasant dishes such as “zuppa di pan cotto” which is a simple but delicious bread soup, eggplant parmesan and “spaghetti alla puverielle” which is spaghetti served with a sunny-side up fried egg. Pizza is also omnipresent in the South, and remains a popular street food, though it is often just the crust with a rich tomato sauce and cheese with few “toppings”. Also “pasta puttanesca” hails from this area and is an important regional dish.
Bread plays an important part of meals no matter where in Italy you are. Tuscan breads are some of the best in the world. The largest meal of the day is after noon, but every meal is accompanied by freshly baked yeast breads such as hearty rolls, focaccia, or slices from a thickly crusted loaf. Like cheese and wine, bread is an important part of the Italian food culture. Desserts are also delicious in Italy, though they tend to be less sweet in nature than some other European desserts. Items like biscotti, gelato, panna cotta, and cakes made with chocolate or fruits are very much icons of Italian food.
Of course, Italy is known the world over for cappuccino (don’t ever drink it past 11:00 a.m. or slowly sip it with a breakfast pastry), wines of all varietals and myriad cheeses. When in Italy savor your food, enjoy your coffee, talk while eating but never chat over coffee and never, ever ask for an ice cube for your glass of wine and you’ll do just fine.
No matter where you eat in Italy, you’ll find great regional dishes that may or may not be familiar, but they certainly will be delicious.