who have never experienced an authentic Italian cuisine, the
food of Italy means pizza, spaghetti, ravioli, pasta parmigiana,
and minestrone—the plates that are most commonly served
in restaurants and homes in other parts of the world. Italian
cooking is as diverse as the places of Italy itself, which
extend from the snow capped Alps of northern Italy to the
deep blue waters of Sicily’s Mediterranean coast. There
are a variety of popular dishes each unique to people and
places that they come from. In the north there are the bagna
cauda (a garlicky sauce) of piedmont, risotto (saffron-flavored
rice) of Milan, fegati alla Veneziana (wafer-thin slices of
liver with onions) of Venice, pesto (a sauce of basil, pine
nuts, and oil) of Genoa, tortellini (meat or cheese stuffed
in little rounds of dough) of Bologna, and fagiolo all’uccelletto
(tomato and sage cooked together with beans) of Tuscany. Dishes
characteristic of central Italy include the abacchio al fomo
(roast lamb flavored with rosemary) of Rome and the sfogliatelle
(shell-shaped pastries) of Naples. Dishes that are common
to the south such as Calabria, include the tiella (a macaroni
casserole of vegetable). The people of Sicily enjoy maccheroni
con le sarde (macaroni with fresh sardine sauce), and Sadinians
favor a fish soup called buridda.
The fat used in the preparation of an Italian
cookery, either butter or olive oil determines the elementary
flavor of the food—extra virgin olive oil is a healthy
alternative. In the south the weather is warmer and the people
are poorer, but this is where olive trees thrive and cooking
is mostly flavored with olive oil. But in Rome on the other
had, pork fat is the most common additive.
Thriftiness and simplicity, two common characteristics
of Italian cooking—‘a little can be made to go
a long way’. Italy’s main staples are just that,
inexpensive yet tasty, rice and spaghetti can make a filling
dish to which only a smidgen of the more costly ingredients,
such as fish can be added. Thick delicious soups made of scraps
of meat, from fish and seafood, and from biennial herbs such
as carrots and other vegetables, eaten with a sprinkle of
graded cheese and fresh bread, to make a rewarding and inexpensive
Meat is considered a luxury, and is seldom
served as a large roast. Rather it is prepared in small, thin
trimmed slices (scaloppini), which veal is the best known.
Frittati, a filling omelet, requires only a few eggs, a little
flour and a handful of vegetables. Tomatoes smothered over
bread dough, layered with a few slices of cheese or sausage,
and a few dashes of herbs becomes a nourishing pizza. In the
north, pasta, such as macaroni or spaghetti, is often prepared
with cheese, rather than olive and garlic, or with pieces
of fish, as is in the south.
Because Italian cooks have such a profound
respect for the natural flavor and harmony of the food, they
use only the freshest of ingredients to ensure that the food
does not spoil by chemicals or refrigeration. As a result,
a visit to the market is done daily, or even twice a day,
for such items as bread, vegetables, and fruit.
A chief characteristic of Italian cuisine
is the texture and color of the food. Vegetables, such as
artichokes, broccoli, zucchini, and spinach, should remain
crisp, and tomatoes should retain their brilliant reds. As
well, yellow and green peppers should have a shiny luster,
and prosciutto (thinly sliced smoked ham) should have a rich
pink color. A plate of steamy fresh pasta should have a rich
Bread is a required ingredient to any Italian
meal, always made by a professional baker, due to the short
supply of wood and coal; it is almost never prepared in the
home. Fine-textured, and white as wool, Italian bread is shaped
into long loafs, except for the lower income class whom eat
less expensive round loafs.
Pasta, the best know staple of Italy, comes
in many shapes and sizes. The most common form is spaghetti.
Italian pastas from the north are most often homemade, with
thick and robust shapes. They include fettuccine and tagliatelle,
flat egg noodles, and ravioli, small pouches of dough filled
with spinach, cheese, or savory forcemeats. In the southern
regions, noodles are usually manufactured commercially and
without eggs, in order to be stored for long periods of times
in the warm climate. They include lasagna, broad flat bands;
various cylindrical shapes, long spiral shaped strands; and
cannelloni; large hollow tubes for stuffing.
In the south pastas are served with larger
helpings of tomato-base sauces and herbs, and in the north,
pasta is generally served with a simple dose of butter and
freshly grated Parmigiano (parmesan) cheese. In Italy, pasta
is served as a separate course rather than a side dish. Pastas
must be ‘al dente,’ firm to the bite and not overcooked.
The same principle applies to the preparation
of rice, firm but not overdone. Rice is commonly grown in
the north and served with seafood, meat, and vegetable sauce
or plain (in blanco), with butter and cheese.
Veal, white and bland from milk-fed animals,
is the favorite meat of Italy. Most often it is cut into thin
slices (scaloppini) that are sauteed in butter and served
with a sauce prepared with wine, tomatoes, or lemon. Beef
is more rare than veal, but is prepared in small, fat-trimmed
cuts rather than in large thick steaks. Pork is processed
in countless ways, served as roasts and chops, including the
famous Parma ham and the many kinds of salami. Lamb, chicken,
duck, goose, and turkey are luxury foods rather than ordinary
Seafood is common along the coastal cities
and towns. In addition to the common verities of fish, Italians
eat eel, squid, octopus, clams and codfish. Typical seafood
dishes include zuppa pescare, a fish soup made from anything
at hand; pesce fritto, fried fish; and baccalá in urrido,
dried codfish with tomatoes.
Cheese is an Italian staple, rich in proteins,
frequently substitutes for meat. There are dozens of varieties,
ranging from creamy ricotta and the bland, semi-soft bel paese
to the green-veined Gorgonzola, and the hard, grainy Parmesan
that is grated for dashing lightly over other foods.
Vegetables play an important ingredient in
the daily diet, often as the main dish of a meal. From artichokes
to zucchini, they are prepared in many tasty and imaginative
ways. Fresh fruits are standard for ending an Italian meal.
Some sweets, such as zuppa inglese, a custard-covered
rum cake, or crostata, an open-faced fruit pie are made from
the Italian kitchens of jubilating country folk, during times
of celebration. However the pastry, the most important form
of desserts, cookies and cakes are most often made at small
bakeries on about every other street corner throughout the
country. Similarly, gelati, the ice creams and fresh fruit
ices are prepared in specialty shops.
Italian foods are fragrant with seasonings,
including the flat-leafed parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme,
sage, and marjoram. Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron
are popular spices. The dishes that are pungent with garlic,
which is so often associated with Italian cookery, are from
southern Italy. Throughout the country, lemon juice and rind
are used to whet the appetite of many meat and vegetable dishes.
An Italian meal is not complete without the
wine of the land. Homemade or local wine, sometimes diluted
with water, accompanies almost all Italian meals. One of the
best-known wines is the Chianti, a robust red vintage from
Tuscany, but other regional wines, such as the sparkling white
Asti Spumanti (from Piedmont), Soave (from Verona), Lacrima
Christi (from Naples), as well as various Italian vermouths,
are equally enjoyable. Liqueurs, such as Strega, are also
Italian coffee, a favorite beverage is pungent
and dark-roasted. Demitasse coffee (café espresso)
is taken black, with sugar. Coffee or tea to follow the meal;
neither is ever served with a meal. Fruit syrups, sodas, and
colas are popular soft drinks.
Italian cookery has its origins in Greek,
Middle Eastern, and Roman cuisine. The Romas, who enjoyed
good food, adopted many of the food habits of their slaves—for
example, the use of spices and sweet sour sauces for game
and vegetables came from the Middle East.
Through the centuries, Italian cooking reached
heights of refinement. In 1533, when Catherine de’ Medici
married the French dauphin Henry (who later became King Henry
the II), she took to the French court her skilled Italian
cooks. They astounded the French with their cakes, cream puffs,
and ices and with their refined methods of preparing meats.
They also introduced unknown vegetables to the French, such
as artichokes, broccoli, and peas. This Italian influence
marked the beginning of the haute cuisine of France.
Simple, exquisitely prepared dishes are Italy’s
contributions to the world of good food. Italian restaurants,
which serve basically the same foods that are cooked at home,
though more subtly prepared, are best known for their pasta
dishes. These include slender linguine with clam sauce, green
spinach noodles, and broad lasagna stacked with multiple layers
of various cheeses, meat and tomato sauce. Thin veal scalloppine,
cooked for a few minutes in butter and sprinkled with lemon
juice, and veal Parmigiano, a breaded cutlet topped with Parmesan
cheese, are other international favorites. The most popular
Italian dessert is zabaglione, a wine-flavored custard. Spumoni
and tortoni, Italian ice creams are also popular.
Breakfast for the Italians is simple: coffee
with hot milk and a roll or bread with jam, or merely black
coffee. The primary meal, traditionally served at noon, often
begins with antipasto (appetizer) that includes such delicacies
as tuna fish, marinated mushrooms, pimiento, black olives,
prosciutto, radishes, and anchovies. Either a dish of rice,
fish or soup follows this. The main dish is a plate of meat
or fish, such as codfish, veal roast, pork chops, or small
steaks, accompanied by a vegetable or salad. Dinner is concludes
with a dessert or cheese and fruit, and café espresso.
The evening meal is light, usually consisting of a soup, perhaps
a vegetable and rice combination, and an omelet or cold meats.
Cheese and fruit are also served.