While the whole world seems to be in a rush, Italy’s culinary culture stands apart, preserving tradition, using local produce and treating food as an experience that needs to be savoured slowly.
With food at the very heart of Italy’s idea of “La dolce vita” or “the good life,” it is not surprising that there is more to Italian cuisine than meets the eye. Pizzas, pastas, gelatos and cheese accompanied with a glass of fine Italian wine may be some of the things that have left an indelible stamp across the world but a culinary journey through Italy will reveal vast regional variations with one common thread — the offerings of the land that gave birth to the slow food movement reflect a philosophy of life. One of Italy’s most iconic chefs, Massimo Bottura said, “I close my eyes and I want to understand where I am, cooking is about emotion, it’s about culture, it’s about love, it’s about memory.”
Let’s travel to different regions of Italy and understand the finer nuances of this cuisine that stays tuned to its heritage and defines the essence of living in a way that people in other countries may not have fathomed.
North to South
Chef Ritu Dalmia, who owns the Italian restaurant Diva in New Delhi, has spent a large part of her life in Italy. She has two restaurants in Milan and tells us that the flavours in North Italy are more subtle. “They are more meat and butter oriented. As you travel south you will realise that olive oil gets more and more important. Desserts are more delicate up north while in Sicily they can be overly sweet,” she says. Pasta rules in the north while the south is more of a risotto eater. And it doesn’t stop there — even the cooking techniques differ. In the north, for example, pasta is cooked for a slightly longer duration compared to the south but everywhere, fresh, local produce dominates as Italians stick to their roots in preparing their food.
This scenically stunning region in northwest Italy is all about bold red wines like Barolo and Barbera, expensive white truffles from Alba and sweet hazelnuts that gave the world the beloved Nutella. Italy’s second-largest region is the birthplace of the slow food movement that began in 1989 and put the preparation of food at the heart of a gastronomical experience. In a counter to the modern-day mantras of speed and convenience, it is all about taking it easy, spending time cooking the meal, eating local and preserving age-old techniques. Obviously, its food offerings are a class apart.
Those visiting here must sample the fresh handmade pastas, especially Agnolotti — similar but smaller than a regular ravioli and usually filled with three kinds of meat and a few vegetables. Interestingly, this is made by folding over a single sheet of pasta on the filling, whereas a ravioli is made by using two sheets.
The white truffles of Alba are the most expensive and usually served shaved on pasta dishes. Known as the ‘Diamond of Alba’ because they sell for thousands of euros per kilogram, they grow from October to December and are hard to find.
Home to the fashion capital Milan, Italy’s fourth largest region in the north shares its border with Switzerland. Although famous for butter, gourmet cheeses like mascarpone and gorgonzola (blue cheese), this rice-growing region is famous for its Risotto alla Milanese that needs no introduction. This classic, creamy rice dish is stained yellow thanks to the use of saffron. Being a prosperous region, meats such as beef, pork and veal are predominant here but when it comes to pasta, visitors must sample the local Tortelli — pasta stuffed with pumpkin. Cotoletta, a cutlet made of thinly pounded veal is another superlative dish from this region.
In this central region that boasts of dreamy sunsets, a stunning coastline, rolling vineyards and patchwork fields, sipping wine and nibbling cheese while watching a Tuscan sunset in its cultural capital, Florence, is something that many want to tick off their bucket list.
Meat-lovers, if you’ve never associated Italy with steaks, then you are in for a treat as Florence is famed for its Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a T-bone steak of Chianina beef known for its tenderness. They are very particular about the cut here, which needs to be three fingers wide, so when it is grilled it gets slightly charred while remaining juicy and succulent on the inside. And this steak is never served medium or well done — it has to be rare.
Tuscans love their bread and really enjoy Fettunta — a slice of local, saltless bread soaked in olive oil. While talking of this region how can we leave the famous Tuscan wines behind? Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano and Chianti are the most popular.
Naples and Campania
Home to some great street food, Naples is the birthplace of the classic, beloved Neapolitan Pizza —traditionally cooked in a very hot, wood-fired oven and freshly tossed with toppings like raw tomatoes, basil, olive oil and mozzarella cheese. The crust is thin and the dough puffs up on the sides, almost creating a leopard print when it is charred. Generations of the same family have been groomed in making these flatbreads and in a rare tribute, the art of Neapolitan pizza-making called ‘Pizzaiuolo’ was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.
There are two types of Neapolitan pizza — Pizza Margherita, made with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil, and olive oil and Pizza Marinara which skips the cheese and basil and has tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and oregano.
According to an interesting legend behind Pizza Margherita the baker Raffaele Esposito, who ran the Pizzeria di Pietro, was told to make a pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy when she visited Naples. To impress her, he made one with mozzarella cheese, basil, and fresh tomatoes — white, green and red — representing the colours of the Italian flag and named the pizza after her.
In Italy pizza is usually relished on a Sunday, the day many Italians don’t cook at home. Considered more like street food, it is never eaten as a main dish for a meal. Also, a pizza is served whole and never sliced.
Here you can also taste pizza fritta — fried pizza dough stuffed with salami, dried lard cubes, smoked Provola cheese, ricotta and tomato. Then there is Cannelloni, the popular tube-shaped pasta also invented by a Neapolitan chef that is usually baked after it is stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables.
Rome and Lazio
From pizzerias kneading an array of Italy’s famed flatbreads and gelaterias offering the legendary frozen treat in mindboggling flavours to a simmered burger-style beef sandwich sold at eateries, Rome is a city where you revel not just in its culture but also its range of classic Italian treats.
While the thick-rimmed Neapolitan pizzas are widely available, the city’s authentic offering is the ultra-thin crust, crisp Pizza Romana, whose distinction is the crunching sound you hear when you put a pizza cutter through it. The typical toppings are tomatoes, basil, olive oil and mozzarella cheese. A classic that stands apart is Pizza Bianca, a white pizza with no tomato sauce at all.
If you want to try something revolutionary, then do not skip the rectangular-shaped Bonci pizzas that made their debut in 2003. Made in a blend of heritage stone-ground flours that take 72 hours to rise to produce a light and airy crust, it is cut into slices and sold by weight. Gabriele Bonci was named the ‘Michelangelo of Pizza’ by Italian Vogue while late American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has literally drooled about it on his show The Layover saying, “It’s amazing… You want it. You want it bad. Your life would be so much better if you have this right now. Leave your family. Abandon your children… You know you want it.”
But go beyond pizzas to sample Rome’s many temptations. Maritozzi — sweet buns that are stuffed with whipped cream and traditionally accompanied with cappuccino are a breakfast staple. Romans can’t get enough of Suppli — a fried snack of rice croquettes stuffed with beef and mozzarella that is a popular street food.
One of the most inviting dishes in this city is Allesso di Bollito, simmered beef sandwiched between breads that have been soaked in an appetising meat broth. Carbonara, a much-loved classic pasta dish, is spaghetti with pork, silky egg yolks, Pecorino Romano cheese and a twist of black pepper. There is no way your trip will be complete unless you have Gelato. You’ll be spoilt for flavours and there are gelaterias all over the city.
If it is known as ‘The Floating City’ and the ‘City of Canals’, then great seafood is obviously what Venetians are blessed with. Sarde in Saor — sardines with onions, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins — is a popular starter. Baccalà Mantecato is creamed salt cod fish which is served with polenta or grilled bread.
Carpaccio — slivers of raw meat or fish that are usually served with olive oil, lemon juice and onions with a few green leaves thrown around — was first created by Venetian restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani for a countess who’s doctor had recommended that she eat raw meat.
Ciabatta, which also comes from this region, makes for a good sandwich bread because it absorbs moisture well. Another classic is Risi e Bisi, a vegetarian dish made of rice, peas butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (hard cheese) that is somewhere between a soup and a risotto.
This rich land gave the world one of its top restaurants, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, Bolognese sauce and Parma ham. Parmigiano Reggiano, also known as the ‘king of cheeses’, is one of the best in the world. Made of cow’s milk that is aged for 12-36 months, these cheese wheels are nutty and used in a number of pasta dishes.
Time, air, salt and Italian pork are all you need to create one of the finest hams in the world — Prosciutto — Parma’s famous ham that is cured and aged. These rosy pink, paper-thin slivers of meat have white edges of creamy fat and almost look like a piece of art. Parma ham is eaten on its own or with fruits like melon and figs and, of course, cheese.
Modena, where Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin star Osteria Francescana has twice (2016 and 2018) won the accolade of the world’s best restaurant, is where balsamic vinegar comes from. Those familiar with it will know that it takes just a few drops of this dense, dark and slightly sweet vinegar to change the nature of any dish. People in Modena are in no rush to make it — the grape concentrate is left to ferment for months and years inside wooden barrels. The recipes and barrels are usually passed on across generations so the product you get in the end is really authentic.
When it comes to pastas, Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese (not to be confused with spaghetti Bolognese) is Bologna’s traditional, signature dish with beef and tomatoes as its key ingredients.
The Arabs, Greeks, Normans, and Spanish invaded this island many times but left their mark behind in the cuisine. Thanks to the Greeks, there are grapes and olives while Arabs brought in a variety of nuts and desserts.
Cannoli is the most popular dessert here — deep-fried, crisp pastry filled with sweet ricotta. Italy’s beloved gelato also comes from here. It has less fat content than a regular ice cream and is not served completely frozen, and the flavours are endless. Granita is a semi-frozen dessert that is interestingly eaten for breakfast with espresso and brioche. On its buzzing street stalls, what has made a name globally is Arancini — deep-fried, breaded rice balls with a stuffing that can vary from cheese and meat to vegetables. Locally, its legendary red prawns are served raw with a little dressing of lemon and olive oil. Modica’s spiced chocolate is also famous.
Next time you go to Italy follow the motto set by its cuisine — take it easy. After all, you’re in the land of slow-cooked pastas, matured hams and vintage wines where life takes on a relaxed pace, traditions are lovingly preserved and people relish what grows in their region rather than pine for the produce of distant lands.