Italian Dining – Surprisingly diverse
Each of the twenty Italian regions has a distinctive set of flavours, recipes, products, and ingredients. In fact, the Italian regions were not officially united as a nation until the mid-19th century; therefore, each individual region has retained much of its exclusive identity. Climate and natural landscape have played a major role in shaping regional cuisines. Creamy risotto and other delicately flavoured dishes predominate in the Northern regions, while bright olive oil and tomato-based recipes rule the sunny South. Beef is best enjoyed as Florentine steaks in Tuscany, from choice cattle raised in the Chianina Valley. The city of Alba and surrounding areas of the Piedmont region are a top source for expensive truffle mushrooms, particularly pungent white truffles. Access to both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas makes fresh seafood dominant, though varied, throughout the peninsula. Such artisan products as wine, cured meat (salami), and handcrafted cheese can be found throughout Italy. The style and flavour of these delicacies varies greatly according to region. Cured meats, like the popular prosciuttos of the North and various salamis of the South, are used in such culturally significant dishes as the savoury Easter pies made throughout Central and Southern Italy. Cheeses range from the soft, mild Buffalo Mozzarella of Campania to the hard, salty Pecorino Romano of Sardinia. These products often carry names indicative of their origins, such as the increasingly popular Grana Padano (a grainy cheese from the “Padana” or Po Valley of the Lombardy region). Location is so important to many Italian food products that laws exist to protect the authenticity of products made in a certain region. For example, any vinegar labeled Modena Balsamic vinegar must be crafted in the town of Modena, and any cheese labeled Parmigiano Reggiano must be produced in one of several provinces in Emilia-Romagna.
Pasta is also unique from place to place. Fresh homemade pasta abounds throughout Italy and is often simply dressed, so as not to overwhelm its delicate flavour. Dried pasta is most popular in the South and can be adorned in countless inventive ways. Local cooks will still argue for hours over the proper name, preparation, and origin of particular dishes. Italian food is always a matter of regional pride. But if one were to try and sum up this diverse cuisine, Italian cooking can best be described as a celebration of local flavours held together by a singular appreciation of high-quality, seasonal ingredients, presented in elegant simplicity. Across all regions, Italian dishes are straightforward preparations of a few choice ingredients, which are artfully combined. Italy is unified by a national concept of classic meal structure. Rather than serving up everything in one or two courses, Italian dinners traditionally include an array of many small plates enjoyed in succession, giving diners an extended time to savour food and company. Meals progress from antipasto (appetiser), to a first course of pasta or other starches, a main dish of meat or fish with a simple side of vegetables, followed by salad, cheese and fruit, coffee, and possibly a digestive (like grappa or sambuca liquor), these time-consuming meals arguably inform the Italian understanding of food as a sensory bliss beyond mere nourishment.
Dessert is sometimes served at the end of a special meal, but more often is enjoyed on its own as a midday snack. Characteristically, Italian dolci are restrained in terms of sweetness. Cookies, cakes, pastries, and tarts can be savoured with coffee as a daytime energy boost. The ever-popular tiramisu literally means “pick me up” and is composed of sweetened mascarpone and Marsala with espresso-soaked lady fingers. Some sweets are more specific to holiday seasons, such as panettone, a buttery egg bread laced with dried fruit and candied citrus, eaten around Christmas. Gelato is a popular year-round dessert. This rich, intensely flavoured Italian ice cream can be enjoyed anywhere at any time. The most exceptional Italian contribution to the field of pastry is probably the Piedmontese invention of gianduja (a sweet chocolate containing 50% hazelnut paste). Gianduja is used as an ingredient in innovative desserts throughout the world. It even inspired the creation of Nutella, one of Italy’s many popular food exports.
Coffee, particularly espresso, enjoys widespread popularity and cultural significance throughout Italian cities. The vast range of espresso drinks served in Italian cafes has been mimicked in coffee houses throughout much of the world. Many people misunderstand the term espresso. Rather than referring to a specific style of coffee bean or roast, espresso is simply a thicker, concentrated extraction of coffee through a highly pressurised brewing process. The barista, responsible for preparing espresso drinks in cafes, is a highly regarded career position in Italy. Street foods, such as gelato and panini sandwiches, are also popular in the hectic metropolitan cities.
But no street food is as ubiquitous in Italy as pizza.
Despite pizza’s global status, most international pizzas bear little resemblance to the thin, crunchy crusts invented in Naples. Served with only a minimal topping of garlic and herbs or fresh mozzarella and basil on sparsely smeared tomato sauce, this tasty, wood-fired bread has a distinctive flavour. A somewhat wider variety of pizzas can be found throughout Italy today. Nevertheless, the classic Naples pizza remains a perfect symbol of the beautiful simplicity intrinsic in Italian cuisine: the clever uncomplicated preparation of a few delicious ingredients to render a truly world-class dish that is at once humble and supremely epicurean.