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Apart from its beauty and diversity, Italy is famous for its excellent food. It's not all pizza and spaghetti - although the best pizza I have tasted is in Naples - Italy has a whole multitude of delicious, regional produce and dishes which are often typical of a particular town or village.
Geography plays a large part in defining regional culinary styles and differences - climate, border countries in the north, mountains & valleys, the coastline, plains and rivers. History too, with invaders all leaving their mark to make Italy the unique gastronomical country which we all know and love.
The sea is very important in Italian life so fish and seafood form a large part of the Italian diet. Geography and climate affect not only the type of seafood caught but also the ingredients used in cooking it. For example, in Venice, located in the cooler north of Italy, where rice is grown, seafood is commonly served with risotto while further south it would accompany pasta. Along Italy’s coastline, every region has its own variation of a fish soup, known by different names. In Liguira, it is called burrida; in Tuscany, cacciucco; in Venice, brodetto; on the Neapolitan coast you will find impepata di cozze e vongole (mussels & clams) and in Sicily, ghiotta Trapanese, a seafood broth served with couscous. If you are staying by the sea in Italy, you have to try antipasto di pesce (a starter of fish dishes) and the popular fritto misto, mixed seafood dusted in flour and deep fried, served with lots of lemon.
Let me start with my home region of the Amalfi Coast, not only famous for its excellent fish dishes like sarago all’acqua pazza – sea bream delicately cooked with cherry tomatoes, basil and garlic – this has to be one of my favourite fish dishes when I go home. I also love totani & patate, a dish of squid and potaotes, it may sound an odd combination but I urge you to try it. Octopus is a must in either a salad or with pasta. Lemons dominate this region and this delicate almost sweet tasting citrus fruit known as sfusato Amalfitano is used in a variety of dishes, from a simple spaghetti to an array of desserts and cakes – try delizie al limone at the pasticcieria for a real treat. This is also the region for authentic bufala mozzarella simply enjoyed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and local San Marzano tomatoes as a starter or light lunch. Look out for mozzarella wrapped in lemon and gently grilled as well as parmigiana alle melanzane – an aubergine dish with tomato sauce, fresh basil and mozzarella, and gnocchi alla Sorrentina oozing with melted mozzarella. You can’t beat Naples for street food - calzone, pizza fritta, panzerotti, zeppole e graffe. At the pasticcierie, baba is a must and if you’re feeling adventurous go for melanzane al cioccolato (aubergines with ricotta and chocolate). If you are travelling to the island of Ischia, be sure to try the rabbit stew, coniglio all’Ischitana.
Moving east to charming Puglia, sometimes referred to as “the table of Italy” for its authentic produce and tastes. Probably the most popular dish in Puglia is orecchiette, a handmade pasta made from durum wheat flour and water resembling little ears. When cooked it retains its bite well and is traditionally dressed with cime di rape, a type of broccoli native to southern Italy and sprinkled with local pecorino cheese (watch my video recipe for making it here). Cheese is excellent in Puglia and it is really worth taking the time to try as many as you can while you are there. From the mature, hard varieties to the soft and buttery award-winning Burrata – a cow’s milk mozzarella with a delicately oozing creamy filling inside. Try Caciocavallo Podolico made from cow’s milk from the Gargano for a strong, mature cheese or Canestrato Pugliese made from sheep’s milk. If you are in Lecce, try Marzotica made from a mix of cow’s and sheep’s milk. Other names to look out for are: Manteca (soft & buttery), Pampanella wrapped in fig leaf, Fallone di Gravina, Cacio, Pecorino Stagionato and Ricotta Forte to name a few. When I am in Puglia, I love to buy a couple of varieties and enjoy them with local olives and taralli (savoury biscuits) or the famous Altamura bread and of course a glass of local red for a memorable lunch – just like the farmers of the area do - under the shade of a tree.
I have a fascination with the islands of Italy – although close to the mainland and very Italian in their traditions, they are far removed in feel and culture. Sicily, a gem lying in the balmy waters of the southern Mediterranean, made it an easy stopping place for all who sailed the sea – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish all left their mark on Sicilian architecture and culture, but the greatest evidence of their historic presence is in Sicily’s food. For me, the food of Sicily is probably the most eclectic in all of Italy. Couscous from north Africa, sauces of agrodolce (sweet & sour) and the use of pine kernels, almonds, raisins, cinnamon and other spices – mostly Arab-introduced flavours which are alien to the rest of Italy. Of course the balmy climate is excellent for growing olives and if you like pungent olive oil, then you will love the Sicilian variety. Vines, almonds and citrus fruits grow in abundance – their blood red oranges are the best! A salad of raw fennel with oranges and fresh anchovies is delicious. Almond-based pesto is delicious in pasta dishes and wild fennel is used in abundance with freshly caught swordfish and tuna. If you have a sweet tooth, then Sicily is your destination; wonderful ice cream,(it is said ice cream originated from Sicily) granita, marzipan, candied fruit, cakes and desserts. Be sure to try cannoli Siciliani, fried pastry tubes filled with ricotta and candied fruit or cassata, sponge with ricotta and marzipan, beautifully decorated with candied fruit – this is Liz’s favourite sweet treat! If you hire a car when in Sicily, I suggest you visit the hilltop village of Erice, west of Palermo in the Trapani region, where you will find the amazing Pasticcieria di Maria Grammatico. Maria started the pastry shop in the late 1960s with literally a bag of almonds after leaving the convent, where she was taught the art of pastry-making. It is now a famous pasticcieria selling almond-based pastries and other Sicilian sweet specialities and they even hold cookery classes. In Palermo I recommend the wonderful Pizzo e Pizzo deli for the largest variety of Italian cured meats and cheese and you can eat at the restaurant.
Despite being surrounded by water, Sardinia is not known for its fish; historically, from fear of invaders, locals preferred to live inland among the remote rugged mountains tending their sheep. As a result, meat features heavily in the Sardinian diet and excellent lamb, mutton, goat and pork dishes are common - try porceddu (roast suckling pig) flavoured with mirto, a native wild herb. The herb of the same name is made into a liqueur which Sardinians enjoy as an after-dinner drink. Try culurzones, a type of ravioli filled with potato, pecorino and fresh mint or malloredus (a pasta shape known only on the island) with a ragu of lamb. Sheep and goat’s milk cheese is very popular including the famous Pecorino Sardo. Sardinia’s highly prized specialities are bottarga, preserved tuna roe which is shaved over pasta dishes and mosciame, air-dried tuna served as a delicate starter. Be sure to try pane carasau, a wafer-thin flatbread traditionally made for shepherds to take with them to the mountains as it is dried and lasts a long time. A dessert, unique to this island, is sweet-filled ravioli known as seadas and drizzled with local honey.
If you are travelling to Tuscany and Umbria, then wild mushrooms and truffles are a must. Dishes in these central regions are rustic and hearty featuring a lot of game such as rabbit, hare and wild boar. For excellent meat, a visit to Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop in Panzano in the heart of the Chianti countryside in Tuscany is a must. Enjoy his excellent bistecca alla Fiorentina at his nearby restaurant.
Last but by no means least, is the capital of Italian gastronomy, Bologna – also known as “La Grassa.” If you are seriously into Italian food, a trip to this city and its region is a must. Who has not heard of prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, tortellini, ragu Bolognese - need I say more? Try the typical focaccia of the region known as tigelle or crescentine filled with cunza a traditional mix of pork fat, rosemary and garlic.
I could go on and on about Italian food, but that would require me to write a book on the subject - alas here I am limited to space - I hope I have given you some idea on regional Italian food. Every time I visit Italy, it is a revelation and I hope you too will find specialities which you will enjoy and perhaps share with us all at Citalia.
Happy travels and Buon Appetito!