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Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Cuisine of Italy

The majesty of Rome, the canals of Venice, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italian sun, wine, pasta and pizza to name a few things why I love Italy. The cuisine of Italy is best looked at region by region:

Friuli-Venezia Giulia shares many traditions with the bordering former Yugoslavia. From this region come the famous San Daniele del Friuli hams. San Daniele is world famous for its manufacture and expertise of Prosciutto (Italian word for ham). In the northern region Carnia is known for its bacon and Montasio cheese. Wine favorites are Collio, Grave del Friuli, and Colli Orientali. The dishes of this region have been influenced by Austrian, Hungarian, Slovene and Croatian dishes. Beer halls feature Viennese sausage, goulash (a spicy Hungarian dish made of beef, onions, red peppers and paprika) and Bohemian Hare.

The desserts of the region are flour based, such as strudels (pastry usually filled with fruit). A staple used in stirred dishes, baked dishes and can be served with sausage, cheese, fish and meat is polenta (boiled cornmeal). Pork dishes can often be spicy and are usually prepared over the open hearth called the fogolar.

Veneto is known for risotto (a rich and creamy traditional Italian rice dish). A dish where the added ingredients differ according to location, with fish and seafood added closer to the coast and pumpkin, asparagus, radicchio and frog legs further from the Adriatic. Beans and other legumes are seen in this area offering a dish which combines beans and pasta pasta e fagioli (some versions include cannellini beans, elbow macaroni, olive oil, garlic, onion, spices and stewed tomatoes or tomato paste). Veneto features heavier dishes using exotic spices and sauces. Here you can also find ingredients like stockfish or simple marinated anchovies. However here they eat more meat and sausages such as the famous sopressata (Italian dry cured salami) and garlic salami. Prized are vegetables from Treviso radicchio (a leaf chicory with a bitter and spicy taste) and asparagus from Bassano del Grappa.

Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol was known for simplicity in cuisine prior to the Council of Trent in 1550. The prelates of the Church brought the art of fine cooking to this region. A specialty of the region is fresh water fish. Later the cuisine of the Republic of Venice and the Habsburg Empire was adopted. Alpine traditions which include Slav, Austrian and Hungarian cuisines can be found in Alto Adige. Here a regular Sunday dish is goulash. There are also potatoes, dumplings and homemade sauerkraut called crauti as well as the national pasta, tomatoes and olive oil.

In Lombardy a popular ingredient is rice which is often found in soups as well as risotto. Cheese is a popular course with robiola (a soft-ripened cheese made of a blend of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk), crescenza (buttery with rich slightly tart flavor), teleggio (has a strong aroma, but the flavor is comparatively mild with an unusual fruity tang), gorgonzola (a veined Italian blue cheese) and particularly important is grana padano (a semi-fat hard cheese). Butter is chosen over oil and cream is used in generous amounts. Among the working class single pot dishes are popular. In Mantua village festivals feature tortelli di zucca (ravioli with pumpkin filling) accompanied by melted butter and followed by turkey stuffed with chicken or other stewed meats.

Val D’Aosta features bread thickened soups as well as cheese fondues called fonduta which are typical of the Alpine region. Another popular staple is polents along with rye bread, smoked bacon and game meats. Other important ingredients are butter and cream used to create stewed, roasted and braised dishes.

In Piedmont seasonal gathering of nuts, fungi, cardoons (a thistle-like plant) as well as hunting (especially wild game) and fishing take place. Important to the region’s diet are truffles, garlic, seasonal vegetables, cheese and rice. Wines such as Barolo (typically smells of tar and roses and must age at least 5 years), Barbaresco (has bouquets of roses or violets with flavor notes of cherry, truffles, fennel and licorice), Nebbiolo (mature to reveal complex aromas and flavours (violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco, prunes) and Barbera (robust red wines with intense fruit and enhanced tannic content). Prized cheeses of this region are Gorgonzola and Castelmagno (a semi-hard, half fat cheese). Filetto Baciato is the reģions style of prosciutto made from pork fillet or other lean portion of pork marinated in white wine, coated with a salami paste and stuffed into a casing to age for six months.

In Liguria fresh herbs and vegetables as well as seafood are used in the cuisine. Popular are savory pies and cakes. Ingredients such as onions and olive oil are used. Ligurians don’t have soil suited to wheat production so they make the most of chickpea flour in farinata (a thin, crisp, pizza-like pancake ) plain or topped with onion, artichokes, sausage, cheese or anchovies) and polenta-like panissa. The hilly or mountainous districts use chestnuts as a source of carbohydrates and sugar. Pastas include corzetti, pansoti (a triangular shaped ravioli filled with vegetables), piccagge (pasta ribbons made with a small amount of egg and commonly served with artichoke sauce or pesto. There are also boiled beans, potatoes and trofie, a Lingurian gnocchi (an Italian dumpling).

Emilia-Romagna is well known for its cured hams and mortadella (made of pork saugage and spices). A main ingredient in the cuisine is Parmesan cheese. Here you can also find culatello (a special variety of prosciutto), lasagna and tortellini and balsamic vinegar is produced here.

In Tuscany the cuisine is kept simple offering bread, cheese, crisp vegetables, mushrooms and fresh seasonal fruit. An intergral ingredient in olive oil. In San Miniato white truffles appear in October and November. Beef of the highest quality comes from the Chiana Valley, specifically a breed known as Maremma used for the famed T-bone steaks known as Florentine steak. Pork is also found in Tuscan cuisine.

Umbria dishes are prepared with simple techniques of boilin and roastin adding olive oil and herbs. In the spring and summer vegetable dishes are popular while in the fall and winter there is meat from the hunting season and black truffles. Sausage making is very popular producēs by the Norcini (Umbrian butchers, native of Norcia). Lenticchie di Castelluccio are prized lentils which are found in Castelluccio and prized throughout Italy. Known for their production of high-quality spelt (a species of wheat) are the reģions of Spoleto and Monteleone. The cuisine also uses freshwater fish such as lasca, trout, freshwater perch, grayling, eel, barbel, whitefish and tench.

On the coast of Marche there is an abundance of fresh fish and seafood. In the inland regions wild and domestic pigs are prized made into sausages, ham and other delicacies. Hams here are not thinly sliced, but cut into bite sized chunks when served. Before being roasted or placed on a spit suckling pigs, chicken and fish are often stuffed.

Lazio is the region to go to for hearty pasta dishes like the renowned amatriciana pasta dressing, based on spicy red pepper and guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig's jowl or cheeks). The region prides itself on using lesser known cuts of pork and beef in tasty dishes like the entrail-based pajata and coda alla vaccinara (a stew made with "oxtail"). There is also some Jewish influence in the cuisine of this region. Local vegetables, especially globe artichokes, are popular in the Roman cuisine.

Abruzzo and Molise this region makes use of chilies (peperoncini) and in Abruzzo they are called diavoletti („little devils") for the spicy heat they give to dishes. The local people here drink a strong, spicy herbal liquer called Centrebe („Hundred Herbs"). Central to the cuisine in Abruzzo and Molise are pasta, meat and vegetables. Lamb is frequently combines with pasta. There is a special tool used to cut the local pasta – chitarra (literally guitar), a fine stringed tool that the dough is pressed through. A famous dish is arrosticini, little pieces of castrated lamb, impaled on a wooden stick and cooked on coals. A favorīte spice of the region is saffron which is grown in the province of L’Aquila.

The region of Campania has high quality produce which includes tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, potatoes, artichokes, fennel, lemons and oranges. These vegetables and fruits take their unique flavor from the volcanic soil of the region. Fresh fish and seafood comes from the Gulf of Naples. Durum wheat is used in the production of the region’s pastas. Highly prized here is mozzarella which is made from the milk of water buffalo. The traditional pizzas of this region are extremely well known. There are great deserts. The most famous being pastiera (a type of Italian cake made with ricotta cheese), sfogliatelle (filled pastries that are shaped like shells or cones) and rum-dipped baba (a small yeast cake saturated in liquor, usually rum, and sometimes filled with whipped cream or pastry cream).

In the north of Apulia large amounts of garlic and onions are used. This region is known for its dried pasta which is made from durun wheat flour. The fresh vegetables here are tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, bell peppers, potatoes, spinach, eggplants, cauliflower, fennel, Belgian endive as well as legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans. Apulia is the largest producer of olive oil in Italy. Being close to the seas there is a lot of fish and seafood to be had especially oysters and mussels. Goat and lamb may also be eaten.

Basilicata uses a lot of pork in their cuisine. In the form of sausages or roasted on a spit by home cooks. Mutton and lamb are also eaten here as well as pasta made from duram wheat flour. Sauces accompanying the pasta are generally of meat or vegetable. Spicy peperoncini (mild peppers with a slight heat to them) are popular here and a bitter digestif Amaro Lucano comes from this region and is popular all over Italy.

Calabria has been affected by the constant conquerors and visitors to the region in the past. Arabs introduced oranges, lemons, raisins, artichokes and eggplants. Agricultural practices and skills in processing dairy products were introduced by the Cistercian monks. French rule under the House of Anjou and later Napoleon, as well as Spanish influence affected the lanuage and culinary skills. Cake became gato from the French gateau. Seafood dominates the cuisine with swordfish, shrimp, lobster, sea urchin, squid and others. Melons grow well in this region and are usually served in fruit salad or wrapped in prosciutto.

The cuisine of Sicily has been influenced by the Ancient Greeks, the Romans introduced lavish dishes based on goose, the Byzantines introduced sweet and sour flavors, the Arabs brought apricots, sugar, citrus, sweet melons, rice, saffron, raisins, nutmeg, clove, black pepper and cinnamon. Meat was introduced by the Normans and Hohenstaufens and with the Spanish came cocoa, maize, turkey and tomatoes. Seafood is also available here such as tuna, sea bream, sea bass, cuttlefish, swordfish and others.

Sardinia cuisine has much seafood such as rock lobster, scampi (the Italian name for the Norway lobster), squid, tuna, sardines and other seafood and fish. Suckling pig and wild boar are roasted on a spit or boiled in hearty stews of beans, vegetables and thickened with dry bread. Fresh herbs such as mint and myrtle are popular in dishes. Sardinian bread is made drier which keeps longer than high moisture breads. They also bake a bread called pistoccu which is made with only flour and water and is meant to travel distances with herders but is served at home with tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and a strong cheese.

Pasta e fagioli


4 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 16-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, drained, chopped
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed, drained
Salt and pepper
8 ounces elbow macaroni, freshly cooked
Grated Parmesan


Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Add parsley, basil and oregano and simmer until tomatoes soften, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes with back of spoon, about 15 minutes. Add beans and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Place pasta in bowl. Toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Pour sauce over and toss thoroughly. Serve, passing Parmesan separately. By Rasma Raisters

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