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This is the first half of a two-part article on the foods of Italy. Ask the average American what comes to mind when they think of Italian food and they’re likely to report pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, and other pasta/tomato sauce based dishes. This doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface of real Italian food, let alone do it justice. This is because there is no singular Italian food. There’s not even one general rubric of foods and dishes that are distinctively Italian. Like French food, there is an array of Italian foods based on the region of Italy in question.
Geography, physical location, and climate, collectively form the underpinnings of a cuisine. A region’s natural resources and proximity to other resources and cultural influences, shapes a cuisine’s basic nature. Every geographical area and microclimate has its own distinct food sources. Even though Italy is a relatively small country, its geography is heterogeneous. From coastal areas to inland mountains, from colder alpine regions to the balmy, Mediterranean climate of the south, Italy encompasses numerous microclimates and terrains. However, if there is any single culinary concept that does unite Italy, it’s a reliance on fresh, locally grown, seasonal ingredients. Therefore, with multiple terroirs, and a tendency toward exclusive reliance on that particular terroir’s bounty, several divergent cuisines are born.
One other generalization can be made about Italian cuisine. Italian cooks’ insistence on fresh, high quality ingredients trumps all other culinary concerns, such as technique. In contrast, the French, (who also care about quality ingredients), give high priority to technique and aesthetics. The average Italian cook will not be as anal or pedantic, and thus not burden themselves with excessive methodology or unnecessary plating artistry. High quality food that is prepared correctly, but in a simple straightforward manner is a hallmark of Italian cooking.
With only a little further ado, let’s discuss the regions of Italy and their culinary highlights. Please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive or exclusive. Just because eggplants are very popular in Calabria doesn’t mean you won’t find them elsewhere.
Let’s begin in the north, the area of Italy where you’re most likely to encounter dishes that run counter to the American concept of Italian food. Piemonte, at the foot of the Alps, is a beautiful area of hilly, sprawling countryside.
The white truffle is the quintessential icon of Piemonte. These expensive, fungal jewels are harvested in the fall and impart an addictively heady, earthy, almost indescribable dimension to food. They pair magically with eggs, pasta and raw beef, but this is just the beginning. Piemonte is also known for its Gorgonzola, Castelmagno, (a local blue cheese), zabaione, vinegar, rice and risotto dishes, wild game, and braised meat dishes, such as Bollito Misto, a stew of four to five different meats. Piemonte is also home to Italy’s most important wine region, producing the classic Barolo, (a.k.a. the King of Italian wines), as well as Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, Spumante, and others. A recent lunch I enjoyed in Alba exemplifies the cuisine of Piemonte: Ravioli with truffles, followed by quail, and washed down with a local Barbera. The experience bordered on mystical.
Val D’Aosta is a small, mountainous region just north of Piemonte. Bordering Switzerland, the Alpine influences are poignant and Chef Boyardee is nowhere to be found. Fontina cheese, (used to make their version of fondue, called fonduta), beef, veal, game, meat stews, rye bread, bread soups, polenta, butter, and cream are the Val D’Aostan staples. And while American food neurotics are cringing at all this red meat, fatty dairy products and carbohydrates, the reality is this: northern Italian men and women enjoy a life expectancy two years greater than their American counterparts. Contemplate that as you choke down your salad with no dressing and soy milk.
Milan, the largest city of Lombardia, is the namesake of Milanese, meaning to dip food, usually thin pieces of meat, into beaten eggs, then breadcrumbs, and then sauté it in butter, (which is generally preferred to oil). God I love Italy. Lombardia is also well known for its rice and risotto dishes, cream sauces, post meal cheese course, use of saffron, pumpkin ravioli, (tortelli di zucca), asparagus, sausage, tripe, organ meats, geese, freshwater fish, panettone, and my all time favorite: osso buco, (braised veal shanks).
In Trentino/Alto Adige, we again see the Alpine influences as well as Slav, Austrian and Hungarian: cabbage, sauerkraut, goulash, strudels, potatoes, dumplings, barley, and apples. Clearly not what you’d order at your local neighborhood pizza shop.
The Veneto, being on the coast, naturally embraces delights from the sea. All kinds of seafood are relished here. But the Veneto is quite diverse culinarily speaking. It is also renowned for its vegetables, grains and meat as well. Risotto, especially from Vialone Nano rice, and polenta are staples. Common vegetables include winter squash, radicchio, asparagus, beans, and other legumes. Pasta e fagioli, the time-honored bean, vegetable and pasta soup is popular here. As you move inland heartier and meat based fare starts to dominate. Pork products and sausages are found including the wonderfully decadent sopressata. Duck and various game birds make their mark as well. The Veneto is also an important wine region, highlighted by Soave, Bardolino, Prosecco, (a delicious Italian sparkling wine), Valpolicella and the flagship Amarone.
Friuli, the north-eastern most region of Italy is hallmarked by Austrian, Hungarian, Slovenian and Croatian influences. These include but are not limited to Viennese sausages, goulash, and strudel. Beans and bean soups, such as the classic Jota, (pronounced yota), corn and polenta, and Montasio cheese, used to make the famous cheese wafers called Fricos, are Friulian mainstays. Pork products are also noteworthy and the famous prosciutto di San Daniele is proud to call Friuli its home. Friuli also grows a wide variety of grapes and makes white and red wines in varying styles. Special mention should be given to Ramandolo, a sweet dessert wine and grappa, the inimitable Italian brandy.
In the next edition of Food For Thought we will conclude our culinary tour of Italy.