Long before Italy became the nation we now see, she was divided into constantly warring city-states which shared few cultural traditions and no spoken language.
The Italy we know today was formed in 1861. The Italian we hear was not commonly spoken by a majority of the population until after World War II, and Italians still identify themselves regionally before all else.
The geography of the boot reinforces regional integrity: a spine of mountains cuts Italy in half from guzzle to zatch, while the mountains are echoed in countless deep valleys, all difficult to access. The result is a map made up of small communities with farms, recipes, and cooking methods that have developed in relative isolation for hundreds of years.
Americans know northern and southern Italian fare as well as something called “Italian food,” which involves lasagna and cannoli. With their history, though, Italians know of no such thing. They only recognize regional fare, like that of Venetia or Rome or Tuscany.
In spite of regional differences, Italian food in general is often characterized as being flexible and innovative, building itself on a model of theme and variation. So, no two gnocchi with Bolognese sauce will be quite the same from any two kitchens. Compare this to a classic French béarnaise sauce which, so the cliches hold, should be as constant as the morning star, no matter who prepares it. Thus, the best in Italian cooking is not only found in the finest Italian restaurants but in the pots of home cooks as well.
For all of its variation and its celebrated incarnation in the home, Italian cuisine has had a profound influence on cooking and eating throughout Europe, and particularly in France.
In 1533, Catherine de Médicis married the future Henry II of France and brought to her new home cooks and pastry-makers who lay the groundwork for French haute cuisine. Moreover, it seems that the Italians were the first in Europe to use a fork (Venetians) and the first to consider both the order of courses — which presented an array of dishes — and the relationship of the dishes served (Florentines). And, finally, these busy Italians brought sweets, preserves, and fruit pastes to the western world.
An Italian Meal
Photo by jeffreyw
As Italian cooking depends on theme, variation, and quanto basto (just enough), so too with the classic Italian meal. Save for the rare exception (such as ossobuco e risotto, served as one dish Milanese style), there is no dominating main course. Instead, a series of small courses that play off each other are presented. During an ideal dinner, participants experience the crisp and the soft, the complex and the simple, the pungent and the mellow.
To whet your appetite, and to introduce a theme, antipasti are sometimes served. This could be prosciutto di Parma with melon, Tuscan crostini smeared with liver spread, or vegetables dressed with olive oil.
The first course (primi or minestra) can be a risotto, a soup, or a pasta served in a broth or sauced. No matter what is served first, it is served in a bowl, and it always, always precedes the meat, fish, or fowl course.
When dining out in Italy, the choice of a second course (secondi) is made after you’ve eaten the first course. This way, a diner can evaluate the experience of the first course and decide on its best counterpoint for the second. One or two vegetable dishes (contorno) often round out this course.
After the vegetable dishes are cleared, and the second course completed, salad is served.
The meal closes with a sweet (dolci), often fresh or marinated fruit.
For example, “fish” is the theme of this meal composed by Marcella Hazan. The antipasto is tiny boiled shrimp served warm and seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley. Next (primi) comes a squid and clam risotto to make “peppery comments.” Then (secondi), a turbot baked with potatoes and garlic is served. After the turbot, a bitter salad of radicchio and field greens cleanses the palate. The closing course is fresh fruit sliced and served in wine.
For more on classic Italian cooking, dip into Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan. (Knopf: 1993) See esp. pp.649-665.
Some Italian Dishes
Photo by StoryTravelers
A list of Italian dishes that make up an important part of the Italian cuisine repertoire.
Saffron-colored zucchini blossoms are served deep-fried, sometimes filled with ricotta and herbs before frying.
A round omelet, a frittata is thicker than its French cousin and often has the ingredients — such as artichokes or asparagus — mixed into the eggs instead of nestled between folded halves. Frittatas are often sliced and served cold as an appetizer.
This is a Florentine bread salad, in which stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water with tomatoes and onions. The bread is then wrung out, and tossed with tomatoes, onion, basil, and olive oil.
Day-old polenta is a wonderful antipasto when sliced, deep-fried, and salted.
Suppli al Telefona
This is a deep-fried rice croquette with a mozzarella filling. When you bite into it, the hot cheese stretching down from your chin resembles the cord of a telephone.
Pappa al Pomodoro
This lovely and simple bread and tomato soup works only when the bread is excellent, the tomatoes red and ripe, and the olive oil top-notch. These elements carry the soup’s flavor, aided only by a bit of chicken stock, garlic, and basil.
Ravioli Nudi di Pesce
These “naked fish” ravioli are essentially a filling without a pasta pillow-case to surround them. Raw fish is ground and bound with egg yolks and flour. The mixture is rolled into balls that are then poached.
Ribollita means, literally, reboiled. It is a Florentine soup made by enriching and reheating yesterday’s minestrone with good peasant bread.
Risotto alla Milanese
Risotto, the Italian rice specialty, is prepared by mixing hot stock into arborio rice(short, fat, Italian-grown rice) that has been sautéed in butter. Risottos can take any form, some soupy, others rich and solid. When tinged with saffron, Risotto alla Milanese wears one of its most famous and ancient guises.
Risotto con le Zucca
This risotto builds from a base of pumpkin (an Italian favorite) that has been sautéed with onions and simmered in chicken stock.
Timballo di Piccioni
Tortelli al Coniglio
This is circular or sqaure twists of pasta stuffed with potatoes and Parmesan cheese. The light sauce is made from rabbit stock, rabbit liver, pancetta, wine, and vegetables.
Trippa alla Fiorentina
Tripe that has been cut into long, thin strips is boiled until tender, then stirred into a light stew of vegetables, wine, and herbs — parmesan tops the dish.
Meaning “little rags,” this well-known Roman soup is made by stirring a raw egg, Parmesan, and lemon batter into hot broth — like hot and sour soup or egg-drop soup, the egg breaks into stringy fragments as it poaches.
A loin of pork is split and filled with a mixture of black pepper, garlic, and rosemary. It is then tied back together and roasted.
An ancient dish, famous in Modena and surrounding areas, is, as named, mixed boiled meats, including chicken, beef tongue, and pig’s foot. The meat broth is rich and the meat super-tender.
Pollo alla Diavolo
A dish shared by Rome and Tuscany to the north. A whole chicken is flattened, rubbed with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and perhaps some rosemary, and grilled over hot coals.
A relative of bollito misto, fritto misto is a collection of sweetbreads, vegetables, cheeses, chicken, and other croquettes breaded and deep-fried. It is served in a great mound.
Ossobuco’s literal translation, “mouth, or hole, in the bone,” aptly describes this dish. Veal shanks are halved to reveal the inner marrow, then braised with pancetta (Italian bacon cured with spices, not smoked), wine, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and celery. Special spoons are used to scoop out the marrow.
Pastello di Pesce
This recipe predates the return to culinary simplicity that marks the Renaissance — a fact that may be obvious from the many spices used to flavor the fish, including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, and cayenne pepper. The fish is rubbed with these spices and baked in pastry.
Pollo alla Cacciatora
This is a pan-Italian dish, a rustic preparation of fowl — traditionally game — that has migrated to all other meats. It is a stew full of aromatic herbs, garlic, wine and olive oil.
A Roman specialty, a breaded veal cutlet with sage is fried so it “jumps into your mouth.”
Medieval peasant cooking often relied on nuts to make flours and to thicken sauces — this cake is made from chestnut flour, pignoli nuts, and raisins.
Timballo di Pere
A pastry shell of sweet dough is baked then layered with whole pears poached in wine and whipped cream. Then, the dish is covered with a pastry lid.
This delicate, all-purpose dessert combines egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala over simmering water until they thicken into a frothy custard. It is known in France as sabayon.