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In the previous edition of Food For Thought we discussed the concept of Italian food and began an overview of the country’s cuisine, region by region. In a nutshell, there are many different styles of Italian food varying with the area of the country in question. Spaghetti and meatballs is but one conspicuous star in the universe of Italian food. If anything unifies Italian cooking it is the reliance on fresh, local ingredients, and preparing them in a skilled, yet straightforward manner without any fanfare. Having previously reviewed Piemonte, Val d’Aosta, Lombardia, Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli, we continue our culinary perusal of Italy with the remaining regions.
Liguria, much like its French neighbor Provence, is dominated by the use of seafood, olive oil, herbs, and vegetables, (particularly artichokes, olives, asparagus, leeks, and tomatoes). The birthplace of Christopher Columbus boasts two classics of Italian fare: pesto, a basil and olive oil sauce and focaccia bread, a bread based on a pizza-like dough.
Emilia-Romagna is a serious contender for the gastronomic center of Italy. Here egg-based pastas dominate, as opposed to the water & flour mixtures of the south. Butter and/or cream and not olive oil are the lipids of choice. But oh, the decadence doesn’t stop there. Emilia-Romagna is home to all kinds of luscious hams and pork products such as mortadella, culatello, pancetta, and the iconic prosciutto di Parma. Just as important is the Parmesan cheese, considered by many to be the “King” of all cheeses. Balsamic vinegar, various other meats and game, and inland freshwater fish are other well known delights.
Tuscany, another particularly beautiful region, cannot even be contemplated without its two preeminent elixirs: olive oil and wine. Here we cross the butter boundary into some of the best olive oils in the world. Vegetables, vegetable soups, legumes, mushrooms, and herbs begin our Tuscan delicacies. Although the victuals are somewhat lighter, don’t forget Tuscany’s bread, cheeses, Florentine beefsteak, (Bistecca alla Florentina) and panforte, a dense cake of nuts, citrus and spices. Tuscany is also a major wine area. Here the Sangiovese grape reigns supreme and produces Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and many “Super Tuscans.” Rosso di Montalcino, (Brunello’s lighter brother), Montepulciano, Pinot Grigio, and others, add to Tuscany’s proud wine heritage.
Lazio, the home of Rome, naturally evinces culinary influences dating back to Roman times. Regulars include pasta, artichokes, beans, and organ meats. Lazio is also known for its antipasti. Two classic spaghetti dishes hail from here, spaghetti Puttanesca, a spicy tomato sauce of olives, capers, anchovies, onions and herbs, and Carbonara, a rich sauce of bacon bits, egg and Parmesan.
Umbria is Italy’s epicenter for black truffles; less expensive than white, but still so earthily alluring. Beans and lentils are the primary vegetables. Sausage and pork products are readily evident. And because of Umbria’s inland location, wild game and freshwater fish are common.
Marche, like other coastal regions, focuses on saltwater goodies. Brodetto is the classic fish soup from this littoral territory. Press inland however and we return to where pork rules, as evidenced by all kinds of sausages and other porcine offerings.
The regions of Abruzzo and Molise share many culinary threads. Here we start to encounter spicy dishes from the beloved peperoncino pepper. The use of saffron is also noteworthy. Because of the mountainous environment, sheep and goats are prized for their meat, milk and cheese. Pasta and vegetables are still notable, and sometimes intertwined with the mountainous fare such as ragu d’agnello, a pasta sauce made with lamb.
Campania’s cuisine is probably the one most familiar to Americans. This is largely due to the high numbers of immigrants from Naples and the surrounding areas that made America their home. Pizza, particularly pizza margherita, (the traditional tomato and cheese pie), tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and macaroni are Campanian fundamentals. Notice I said macaroni and not pasta. Macaroni is fabricated from flour and water and not eggs as in northern Italy. Maccheroni alla Napoletana is a pasta with meat sauce from Naples. Other readily identified offerings include insalata caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad) and mozzarella in carrozza, (breaded and fried mozzarella).
The food of Puglia is simple and rustic. Italy’s breadbasket, Puglia is a leading wheat producer and therefore a bastion of breads, pasta and other wheat products. Olive oil, vegetables and legumes all make their mark as well. Being on the coast, Puglia also maintains a substantial mussel and oyster fishery. There’s nothing like a big bowl of mussels, drizzled with olive oil, with bread for dipping in the juice! Pare it with a nice Soave and you’re in Italian heaven.
Basilicata, like Abruzzo and Molise, also relishes its chile peppers. To counterbalance, honey is popular here. Being next to Pulgia, Basilicata takes advantage of the nearby durum wheat pasta. But Basilicata is also well known for its reliance on pork and lamb. You’ll find ample sausage and mutton, and pigs still roasted on a spit.
Calabria, the geographical tip of mainland Italy is surrounded by neighboring cultures and they all exert their impact. French, Spanish, Greek and Arab influences can all be found in Calabria’s culinary landscape. Eggplants, oranges, legumes, raisins, and artichokes are plentiful. Murseddu is the traditional meat pie, (made of pork and liver). Or you can head for the coast and fish for swordfish. Either way you’ll find good eating at the “toe of the boot.”
The Islands of Sicily and Sardegna are also shaped by various Mediterranean influences. As islands they naturally rely on fish. Tuna is especially popular in Sicily. Both regions share a love for beans and pasta. Sicily is noted for squash, pumpkins, citrus fruits, melons, apricots, rice and saffron. In Sardegna, heartier comestibles such as pork, wild boar, rustic stews, and cheese are popular. Special mention should also be given to Marsala, the superb fortified wine of Sicily.
This concludes our culinary tour of Italy. This brief synopsis is obviously not meant not to delve deeply into Italy’s stupendous cuisines, but to illuminate the wide scope of the country’s culinary riches. Italy is diversity without complexity, freshness without regimentation, and tradition without culinary isolationism. It inherently satisfies our hunger as well as our soul. And THAT is Italian.