Food writer par excellence, Victor Ribaudo, offers this lovely tribute to his beloved Italy. Food photography by the incomparable Bill Brady. What a perfect introduction to my recipe for Northern Italian lasagne, the following post.
Italy. One country, yes. As for one cuisine, well, that’s another story. After all, Italy was only united in 1861. No wonder regional dialects are, in some places, still spoken among family and friends.
It’s also no surprise that each region has developed its own particular style of cooking. As for myself, I grew up in a Southern Italian household. Lots of the same fare you are no doubt familiar with. Nevertheless, the Sicilian half of my heritage did introduce me to some not so familiar flavors, as “typical” Italian cuisine goes.
But I get ahead of myself.
Let’s begin at the top of the boot. Northern Italy is a beautiful part of the country. Lots of pastures, mountains, lakes and coastal areas. The cuisine here does not live and die for the tomato. In fact, you’ll find many similarities to French cuisine in these parts. Brown sauces, buttery dishes, truffles, bacon and other cured meats, such as speck…as well as dumplings and yes, sauerkraut. Of course, rich polenta – a corn meal mush – rules in Northern Italian fare as well. That’s not to say that they don’t enjoy pasta. Nevertheless, a good polenta served with your ossobuco in Milan…well, there’s nothing more satisfying.
To be more specific, each region within the Northern Italian geography lays claim to certain specialties. Venice, for instance, loves its risotto. This is a rice dish usually served with fish or seafood, but often adorned with peas or beans. I enjoyed a particularly good one at an outdoor café, with a view of vivid flowers billowing from neighboring window boxes. Quite a treat!
Milan, and the Lombardy region, is famous for its single pot stews, pumpkin filled ravioli and yes, of course, vitello Milanese – a breaded and sautéed veal cutlet served with a squeeze of lemon. Simple, but actually very exquisite. In Liguria, the focaccia takes center stage. Basically a pizza dough, it’s rolled out and baked with a variety of toppings, such as olives, tomatoes and cheese. I found it everywhere, including Portofino, one of my top 10 most romantic getaways. But that’s another article.
As we move down the map, we enter what is often considered Northern Italy but is actually the Central part of the country. In many respects, the cuisine here is similar to that of its Northern counterpart, but there are some specialties that one must indulge in when visiting.
Tuscany is its most famous region, and here you’ll enjoy a multitude of hearty dishes. One in particular comes to mind. While traveling the verdant Tuscan countryside, we happened upon a vineyard that served us a spectacular dinner with wine pairings. It was here that I was introduced to ribollita, a gorgeous vegetable soup thickened with day old bread, and served with a hefty pouring of extra virgin olive oil. Glorious! This is also a very pastoral region, so when there, be sure to indulge in the beef. Tuscan steak is a much beloved choice, simply pressed with peppercorns and grilled to perfection. The olive oils here are also famous. Be sure to sample when traveling.
Emilia-Romagna, featuring that jewel of a city, Bologna, is a region rich in cured meats and cheeses. Reggiano-Parmiggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella – sound familiar? My favorite dish while visiting was lasagna – prepared the Central Italian way with a creamy béchamel and luxurious Bolognese sauce (unlike the ricotta and tomato ragout this Southern Italian grew up with.) Simply outstanding.
Lazio, home of everyone’s eternal city, Rome, boasts a very robust cuisine. Take pasta alla carbonara, featuring a rich sauce of guanciale bacon (from the pig’s jowl or cheeks), onions, egg and cheese. Or pasta all’amatriciana, a spicy dish laden with tomatoes, guanciale bacon, cheese and crushed hot pepper. Hearty indeed!
Now to the South of Italy. Here, tomatoes and pasta reign supreme. So do the olives, peppers and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. Depending on where you’re situated, seafood is also a common ingredient.
Let’s begin with Campagna, and its shining city of Naples, because everyone loves it. From the noted Posillipo section to the romantic Isle of Capri. Everyone adores the cuisine, as well. In fact, this is the cooking that most Italian restaurants here in America feature. Lots of pastas with all types of tomato sauces are the main feature.
Seafood also plays a major role here, especially clams, mussels, crabs and calamari. Oh, don’t forget the pizza. A simple margherita, with buffalo mozzarella, marinara sauce and fresh basil, is shear heaven.
Puglia is famous for its olives and orecchiette (ear shaped pasta). I actually had one of my most delicious food experiences here, in a small town near Bari. Orecchiette pasta – perfectly al dente – dressed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, sausages and broccoli rabe (a bitter, turnip-green type of vegetable) was so marvelous that I’ve insisted on having it at least twice a month since.
Basilicata – my Mom’s home region – and Calabria, to the South, offer lots of hearty, tomato-based dishes, many featuring fresh vegetables. Ciambotta comes to mind. One of my grandmother’s favorites, this is a stew of fresh tomatoes, potatoes, onions – and well, just about any veggie – that is served as a side dish, sprinkled with grated Reggiano- Parmigiano cheese. You’ll love it. Lamb is often on the menu in my Mom’s home town of Ferrandina, studded with pockets of garlic and rosemary and roasted, often on a spit, or braised in stews. Very rich. You’ll also find that that spicy peperoncini peppers are used here more so than in other regions.
At the bottom of the boot lies Sicily, my Dad’s turf. The cuisine here is in many ways different than that of the other Southern regions. That’s because of the many influences past conquerors have had on this beautiful island. Greek, Norman, Spanish and Arab visitors have all influenced the cooking of these hearty people. So you’ll often find raisins, saffron, nuts, cinnamon and nutmeg throughout the savory offerings, as well as the sweet. Some of my favorites? Arancini are softball sized rice balls, filled with a center of chopped meat in red sauce, peas and mozzarella cheese, then breaded and fried to a golden-orange color (that’s how they got their name, meaning “little oranges”). Or pasta ch’i sarde e finocchio. This unique dish combines fresh sardines, wild fennel leaves, saffron, raisins and pine nuts with pasta. It is often topped with toasted breadcrumbs. See, I told you…different.
Well, I’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg, or boot, if you will. The point is, nonetheless, that eating Italian is so much more than a meatball sub. It’s an experience of regional – and epic – proportions. I hope you get to enjoy the journey. And be sure to send a postcard or two!