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There’s many things that make Italian culture famous around the world but none more so than the cuisine. You may not be an art buff with a deep understanding of the roots of the Renaissance and the finer points of the work of Botticelli, but one thing is for sure, you certainly know what toppings you like on your pizza! The culture around food and the laidback Italian lifestyle are two key reasons why many expats choose to live in Italy.
Italian cuisine is incredibly diverse and encompasses some of the best loved dishes on the planet; just think, pizza, pasta, seafood and salads! It’s quite remarkable, but the cuisine of Italy actually predates the country itself.
Italian food is hugely popular in the United States with every strip mall having a pizza joint or Italian restaurant or deli, making the cuisine one of Italy’s most successful exports. However, contrary to what most people think, Italian food is not one single thing, and instead, is made up of many regional cuisines.
What Is Italian Cuisine?
Italian cuisine is a variety of Mediterranean cooking that is central to the style of preparing food in the entire Southern region of Europe. The ingredients, style and techniques that are used date far back into antiquity and although there are many regional variations they all share some common roots.
The methods and ingredients of Italian cooking evolved over many years, and although the techniques remained fairly consistent, huge changes took place in the 18th century with the colonization of South America. Once this took place a whole array of new ingredients found their way onto the plates of Italians, including potatoes, tomatoes, sugar beet, maize and capsicums.
This transformed the ancient traditions of Italy – who could imagine a pizza without tomato sauce? This influx of new ingredients, even on top of the amazing diversity of local ingredients that Italy is famous for, did much to make Italian cuisine the world’s favorite; and so whether it’s a romantic dinner in a fine restaurant or a session of binge watching a Netflix series, Italian food is the go to choice for most of us.
Less Is More – But Only If It’s Done Right.
One of the characteristics of Italian cuisine is that most of the dishes focus on simplicity and only contain somewhere between two to five ingredients. The quality of the ingredients is vital for the outcome of the dish; and although many dishes are quite simple the carefully selected flavors combine to create truly mouth water recipes.
The Most Iconic Regional Cuisines Of Italy.
Italy is made up of 20 regions with each having its own traditions, heritage and local cuisine. Some regions however, have more iconic dishes and cooking styles than others, and so we’ll explore the regional cuisines that have made Italy famous for its food the world over.
Cuisine Of Abruzzo.
Located between the Adriatic Sea and Lazio, the region of Abruzzo is the home of some of Italy’s favorite dishes. The region is divided between mountain pastures and coastlines, so seafood is often on the menu.
However, the region is most famous for its rustic lamb dishes, which include lamb ragu and grilled lamb steaks. The arrosticini is one of the region’s most unique dishes that is made by skewering diced lamb, lamb fat and herbs on wooden skewers. The arrosticini is then served with cauliflower, pickled aubergines, artichokes and soft sheep cheese.
Cuisine Of Calabria.
Calabria is the region on the tip of the boot of Italy and is made up of rugged mountains and highlands. Aubergines are one of the main crops of the region as are the chilies which are grown there and play an important role in many of the dishes of the region.
One of the most famous cuisines of Calabria is the nduja, which is a spicy sausage that can be spread on bread or else served in a pasta dish. Another staple of the regional diet are sardines which are used to make the delicious pasta Con le Sarde, with raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs.
You can also find some of Italy’s best cheeses in Calabria; particularly the Monte Poro Pecorino, which is made from sheep’s milk that is often aged to heighten its flavor. The aged Monte Poro Pecorino is defined by the thick yellow crust that develops over time.
Of course, due to the fact that the region is a coastal one, seafood is a signature of Calabrian food, particularly the swordfish that is traditionally slow roasted in a simple pickle sauce.
Cuisine Of Campania.
The culinary tradition of Campania is hugely rich with its dark volcanic soil helping to grow some of the finest crops in the country. The capital, Naples, is home to the lovely buffalo mozzarella and was actually the original birthplace of the pizza!
The Campanian pizza is made in three different ways; the Marinara with oregano and garlic, the Margherita, with basil and tomato, and the Extra Margherita which has oregano, garlic and mozzarella toppings.
As well as the famous pizzas, the region is also known for the rustic dishes of cooked rabbit. The Ischian rabbit dishes are cooked with wine, spices and fresh herbs. The region also produces a nice selection of seafood that tourists always enjoy.
Cuisine Of Emilia Romagna.
Located on the coastline between Venice and Florence, Emilia Romagna is home to some wonderfully tasty dishes with markets of fresh ingredients in all the major cities, including Piacenza, Bologna and Parma, to name but a few.
The city of Parma is where Prosciutto di Parma is traditionally made, which consists of thinly cut cured ham and Coppa, another type of cured pork which is usually eaten as an appetizer before dinner with a glass of local wine.
The history of the cuisine in Emilia Romagna is ancient, with the balsamic vinegar that has been continuously produced since the days of the Roman Empire being a perfect example of its heritage! This is frequently drizzled over fresh strawberries or else a plate of mashed potatoes and cow’s milk, known as a stracchino con patate. Another famous regional dish that heralds from Modena is the tortellini and the tortelloni, both of which are stuffed with a wide range of tasty fillings.
Cuisine Of Lazio.
Lazio is one of Italy’s central regions and home to the nation’s capital, Rome. The traditional cuisine of Lazio is fairly frugal but it still maintains the strong flavors you’d expect. The countryside of Lazio is largely agricultural land and is sometimes referred to as the garden of Italy, producing huge amounts of excellent fruit and vegetables.
One of the region’s favorite dishes is pasta with fried cauliflower or artichokes and herbs. Other signature dishes of the region are the penne alla arrabiata and the carbonara. Carbonara in Lazio is made with spaghetti that is mixed with beaten eggs and small pieces of finely sliced cured pork.
Lazio is also renowned for its Pecorino, which is a delicious hard cheese that is made from goat’s milk and is used in a wide range of dishes. Pecorino can be eaten with bread or grated onto pasta or seafood dishes.
Cuisine Of Tuscany.
The tradition of Tuscan food originated in the concept of ‘cucina povera’, or poor cooking in English. This does not mean that the food is poor in quality but instead that it is made from simple ingredients that don’t cost a huge amount of money. The food relies on high quality ingredients that are combined to bring out the very best flavors in each other!
Cured meats, known as affettati misti are a regional classic, as is crostini di fegato, which is made of thin pieces of toasted bread topped with a rich tasting chicken liver pate.
Another fantastic rustic favorite in Tuscany are the soups, including the ribollita, which is a vegetable and bread soup. The papa al Pomodoro is a Tuscan tomato soup that is ideal for the cold winter nights in the countryside.
For hot summer days the Tuscan classic is the panzanella, which is a unique salad mix made of fresh leaves, onions, tomatoes and pieces of bread soaked in regional balsamic vinegar, topped with a splash of olive oil.
One of the Italian nicknames for the people of Tuscany is ‘mangiafagioli’, which literally means ‘bean eaters’! But there’s a good reason for this because Tuscans do love to use beans in their cooking, particularly the cannellini beans. Fagioli con salsiccia is a lovely dish made from cannellini beans that are slowly stewed with garlic, tomato and, the regionally grown herb, sage.
Another classic element of the Tuscan diet is the beautiful range of locally produced wines, which include Montepulciano and Chianti.
Cuisine Of Verona.
Located to the East of the beautiful Lake Garda, Verona has a proud food tradition, with the region being famous for its top winemakers!
One of the best local wines is known as Amorone which is often used with the Vialone Nano Veronese, a rice that is used to make risotto all’amarone. The resulting flavor is heartwarming and perfect for an evening meal.
Rich stews with intense flavors are another favorite of the region, with the brasato all’amarone, a beef stew that is slowly braised in wine, being one of the region’s best exports.
Another more unusual dish from the Verona region, is the pastissada de caval, a unique horse meat stew which is still made using the traditional spices that were used way back in the medieval times!
It’s not just hearty dishes that makes Verona a food lover’s paradise because the Pandoro is a delicious sweet brioche type cake that is sprinkled with tasty sugar. This is the go to option for Christmas deserts in the region, as well as New Year’s Eve family celebrations.
Cuisine Of Lombardy.
Located near the North Eastern Swiss border, Lombardy is one of Italy’s wealthiest regions and the cuisine certainly reflects that. The Po River, in Lombardy, has a lot of rice paddies growing along its banks, which is why risotto is one of the regional classics, with the signature dish of the region being the Risotto alla Milanese.
This is cooked in the traditional style with a topping that uses saffron, one of the most luxurious herbs in the world! The risotto is also made using very slow cooked beef, which is so well cooked that it’s nicknamed the ‘meat butter’, due to its soft texture that melts in your mouth.
Meat plays a significant role in the cuisine of Lombardy, with pork, beef, and of course, veal being regulars on the menus of homes and restaurants in the region.
The Veal Milanese, is extremely decadent and is made by flash frying veal in egg and breadcrumbs. It ends up tasting quite a bit like a German schnitzel, although it’s a little richer in flavor; but it also reminds you of the close proximity and culinary influence of Germany and Switzerland to the North of the region.
Italian Cuisine Is Defined By Its Unique Regional Histories.
Despite what many people in the West believe, the cuisine of Italy is not one monolithic entity and is, in fact, made of a fascinating patchwork or regional specialities and styles.
Every region in Italy is extremely proud of their culinary heritage and although there is more ‘fusion’ food on the menus of modern restaurants in Italy, catering primarily to tourists, most locals still subsist almost entirely off the traditional foods of their locality.
As an Expat, or visitor, to Italy, you have the opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of food throughout the country, and even if you primarily stay in one or two regions, there is still a magnificent range of dishes to discover.