An Introduction to Italian Cuisine
Italian food is more than just pizza and spaghetti. There’s a wide range of ingredients, flavors, and dishes to experiment with in your own home.
How many of us have dreamed of casting aside everyday life and running off to a villa in Tuscany to soak up perfect sun-dappled views while the wine flows and the pasta bowl never seems to empty? Unfortunately that dream is usually rudely interrupted by the alarm clock. While we may not be able to do much about the lack of gorgeous vistas, the true flavors of Italy can be brought to life anytime the mood strikes.
“Italian food is bold and satisfying without being heavy. It’s rich and textural and uses a whole palette of flavors,” says Michael Chiarello, the chef and owner of Bottega, in California’s Napa Valley, and author of the cookbook Bottega ($40, amazon.com). “Enjoying Italian cuisine is more experiential, not intellectual. It comes from a more emotional place that’s very evocative.”
And it evokes so much more than big plates of meatballs and chicken parmigiana. When Italian immigrants first arrived on American shores, they couldn’t find their trusty olive oil, dried porcinis, prosciutto, and balsamico, so they adapted to the ingredients that surrounded them, which resulted in far more meats and sausages in dishes, along with a healthy helping of garlic. And thus American-Italian food was born. But to mistake that for authentic, traditional Italian cuisine would leave your tastebuds with only half the story.
“Italian food is really a celebration of produce, and protein is a secondary thought,” says Chiarello. A typical Italian meal will start with a big plate of antipasti, which are predominantly vegetables (like pepperoncini, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts) and a selection of cured meats (like prosciutto and capicola). Then it moves on to a small pasta dish, which is followed by a light protein—perhaps a leg of lamb, simply but deliciously prepared. “As the meal progresses, it gets more simple,” says Chiarello. “Italian meals tend to have a reverse crescendo.”
From that initial crescendo to the last savored bite, every authentic Italian dish is built upon the most basic yet most flavorful ingredients. “Traditional products are very important in the flavors of Italy, which, at their best, are based on seasonality and locality,” says Lidia Bastianich, the chef and owner of Felidia, Becco, Esca, Del Posto, and Eataly in New York City and the author of Lidia’s Italy in America ($35, amazon.com. Her website is lidiasitaly.com.) Olive oil is the cornerstone of most Italian cooking (to braise, fry, and drizzle), then come the vegetables. Garlic and onion are the familiar go-to’s, but intense green vegetables are often stars on the plate. Balsamic vinegar always claims a prime spot in an Italian kitchen, and you would be hard-pressed to find a cook without a wedge of Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano within arm’s reach.
Some might be surprised to learn how much of a staple fish is in the Italian diet, whether it’s fresh from the sea or canned in oil, like sardines. Cured meats are also plentiful. The Italians are big fans of preservation, turning pork into sausage and salami, olives into extra-virgin olive oil, grapes into wine, and vegetables into pickled vegetables. They’re firm believers in taking the time when you’re trying to make the deliciousness last. Have cod and a pile of salt? Make salt cod. “The traditional Italian flavors are so intense that you don’t need a lot of anything. A moderate amount will go a long way,” says Bastianich.
Enter the ever popular starches, which are used as a vehicle for other flavors—from Arborio rice, which makes the creamiest risotto, to fettuccine, tortellini, and ziti. When preparing Italian cuisine at home, spring for the best pasta that you can afford. That is, of course, unless you’re feeling ambitious and want to make your own.
It’s much easier to make pasta than you think. Although there are an abundance of fancy gadgets out there—gnocchi boards, hand-cranked extruders, and cavatelli machines—all you need is a food processor, a rolling pin, and a smooth, comfortable surface. “Pasta is one of the simplest elements to do, but people are frightened of it,” says Bastianich. Start out by combining flour and water, then build on that. Add some egg and some olive oil, whirl it all in the food processor, and dough forms. (Tip: When the dough starts to pull off the side of the processor, it’s ready.) Next, use simple logic. If the dough is too sticky, add flour; if it’s too dry, add water. Let the dough rest, then roll it out and cut it. It’s that simple.
Whether or not you opt for making your own, starting with simple pasta dishes is a great way to bring the flavors of Italy to your table. Try recipes that have just two or three ingredients, make a five-minute sauce, and go from there. “Listen to your palate. If it says to lighten up on the anchovy flavor, do it. If you want to make a dish lighter, add vegetables, like broccoli shoots,” says Bastianich. It’s a flexible science.
Finally, remember that good Italian food starts with the shopping. Make quality ingredients a priority when you’re bringing Italian cuisine to your kitchen. And when you find a dish that you love, stick with it. “Practice until you can do it with your heart and hands only—just like the Italians do,” says Chiarello. Once that dish is perfected, move on to a new one or a new technique and soon you’ll have a slew of delicious meals at your disposal.