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Italian cuisine favours simple recipes that celebrate the natural flavours of the ingredients, which means high-quality produce is essential. Many Italians try their best to practice locavore, the principle that says food should be sourced as locally as possible. Here are some classic essentials you are likely to find in an Italian kitchen.
Some variation of this list—which rolls off the tongue perfectly—is the core of nearly all Italian dishes. There will most likely be two types of salt, something low-grade for pasta water and something kosher for everything else. Peppercorns are used for fresh grinding and occasionally for toasting. Garlic is always fresh. Having the right olive oil is very important—a designation of extra virgin means the olives have been picked at the earliest harvest, which improves the flavour. Olive oil doesn’t age well, so in Italy, you won’t find it in clear glass. It’s typically decanted from a large tin.
Unsalted butter is often used instead of oil in the rich recipes of Northern Italy, where wine-based sauces and broths tend to replace tomato-based sauces.
Prezzemolo, basilico, rosmarino, salvia, origano (parsley, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano)—these fresh herbs are probably the most common in Italian kitchens. Parsley is used everywhere, including paired with garlic in seafood recipes. Basil brings freshness to any dish, perhaps most famously in Salada Caprese, where it unites with tomatoes and creamy mozzarella. Rosemary is considered a friend of roast meats and roast vegetables. Sage is often used with pasta and gnocchi. For example, butter and sage often tops ravioli. Dried oregano is more flavourful than fresh, and it is used mostly in Southern Italian and Sicilian dishes.
A dash of white wine added to spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), a glug of red for Brasato di Guanciale di Manzo (braised beef cheek stew), a bottle on the table—wine is a huge part of Italian culture. In the countryside, many homes have a small plot of vines to make a modest supply of table wine each year. For everyone else, the supermarkets and enotecas have amazing and affordable options. Italians favour native wines; in the supermarket, you would struggle to find something from a New World region. At an enoteca, there are more options.
You will nearly always find these punchy, pickled little berries in jar at the back of the fridge. Their sour piquant flavour is often balanced with smooth, creamy dishes, such as in Veal Vitello (cold veal with tuna mayonnaise sauce and capers). They are a typical garnish for cold dishes, such as salads, and they’re also the star in hot meals, such as pollo piccata and pasta puttanesca.
Tinned (or jarred) anchovies are a store cupboard favourite. These intensely salty preserved fish are the secret background flavour of many Italian sauces, including puttanesca and salsa verde. They are also a popular topping for pizza or toasted bread. Meso ovo (egg with anchovy on a crostini) is a classic Venetian cicchetti.
Tomatoes are king in Italian cooking. The taste of a fresh Italian tomato picked during its natural harvest season tastes and smells so different from the kind exported to supermarkets. Typically, tomatoes grown for mass distribution have been genetically modified to be harder, which reduces damage in transit. They are also picked too early, which lessens the flavour. A natural tomato is soft, fragrant, flavoursome, sweet, juicy and a very bright red. There are a hundred variations of the simple pasta al pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce).
Mushroom season runs April to early November but varies in each region. Wild mushrooms are considered a delicacy and are a special treat to cook with. Chanterelle mushrooms have beautiful folds and come in many shades of yellow. They have a rich, nutty flavour and are sautéed or added to a creamy tagliatelle. Porcinis have a meaty texture and pleasing earthy taste. Dried porcini mushrooms are a cupboard staple all year because they make delicious stock that can be used in dishes such as risotto ai funghi (mushroom risotto).
Three staples for Italian cooking are Parmigiano reggiano DOP, Ricotta and Mozzarella di Bufala. Parmigiano Reggiano DOP is produced exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna region. Ricotta is used in just about everything—as a pastry or pasta filling, as pasta sauce and in desserts. Mozzarella di Bufala is of course the base of many pizzas, but it is quite rare that a modern family would make their own pizza at home. In your average Italian kitchen, Mozzarella is used in lasagne, toasted panini or special dishes, such as fiori di zucca ripieni (tempura courgette flowers). A high-quality Mozzarella di Bufala a Campania DOP is best served alone with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Salumi is an umbrella term for all prepared meats and encompasses everything from small piccante salamino (pepperoni to non-Italians), fresh salsiccia (all-meat sausage) or an entire leg of prosciutto (ham). The varieties are endless, and each region has a special preparation. For example, the distinct aromatic flavour of Udine’s Prosciutto di Sauris comes from their smoking method—traditional smoking rooms that use beech wood from local woodlands. This ham pairs well with soft red wine at aperitivo hour. But there are also many wild game salumi and bresaola is made from beef. Bresaola is often served with rucola (rocket salad) and finished with shavings of a hard cheese, such as Parmigiana-Reggiano.
Pasta dominates meals all over Italy, but there are many wonderful regional differences. Traditionally, long and flat dried durum-wheat pasta was from the South. The North is known for fresh egg pasta in cylindrical, stout shapes and sometimes stuffed. Fresh pasta isn’t necessarily superior to dry. They both have benefits. Most kitchens have at least three types of pasta to pair with the appropriate dish. For example, typical Roman dishes, carbonara and cacio e pepe, require something like Tonnarelli. A wide rigatoni is used for a traditional Emilia-Romagna meat ragu. Small shapes, such as stellina, feature in soups and stews.
Polenta and rice are synonymous with Northern Italian cuisine, particularly in winter. Fragrant saffron risotto is a delicious Milanese tradition, and Hungarian-inspired goulash served with polenta is typical of the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region, where bordering Austria heavily influences the cooking.
Bread will always be on the table for meals with soup and stews, but also to mop up leftover pasta sauce to fare la scarpetta (making the little shoe). Bread is used in cooking, too, especially in Tuscany where old, dry bread is added to soup or used in panzanella, Tuscan bread salad. These are typical cucina povera recipes that use up leftover ingredients. Each region has a traditional bread, so the variety is endless. Tuscan bread is particularly hard and unsalted, sweet soft focaccia is from Liguria, and crusty Genzano loafs hail from Puglia.
Most beans are harvested in the summer, so from June each year, markets are brimming with punnets of freshly picked pods. Borlotti and cannellini beans are most commonly used throughout Italy. Before cooking, borlotti beans are very pretty; their outer shells are a deep pink and bright green marble, and the kidney-shaped bean inside are a marbled deep purple and cream. Once cooked, they turn brown with a rich flavour and potato-like texture. Cannellini are pale and nutty. Both are used to bulk up soups and stews in winter. In summer, they feature in refreshing salads.