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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.

By Sara Gauchat and Betty Gold
Updated June 23, 2020
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italian food: how to cook

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 cookbook Bottega. “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.

A Typical Italian Meal

“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.”

Traditional Italian Ingredients

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.

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.

Making the Perfect Pasta

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.

Classic Italian Recipes

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Credit: Victor Protasio

Ribollita

Ribollita is a recipe for steaming-hot comfort in a bowl. This classic Tuscan soup is packed with fresh vegetables (kale, carrots, tomatoes) and white beans. It's comfort food in a bowl, thanks to the bread in the broth and the generous portion of Parmesan. Serve with a spicy, light red wine.

Get the recipe: Tuscan Bread Soup With Beans (Ribollita)

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Credit: Victor Protasio

Ricotta Meatballs

Using twice the cheese—creamy ricotta and salty pecorino—makes these meatballs both rich and intensely savory. And instead of a standard beef-pork mixture, this recipe upgrade to Italian parmacotta ham (think of a combination of prosciutto and a deli-style cooked ham).

Get the recipe: Ricotta Meatballs

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Credit: Greg DuPree

Neapolitan-Style Margherita Pizza

This classic rendition of a famous Naples pie uses just a few toppings: crushed tomatoes, olive oil, fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves. There's no need for a pizza stone or any other fancy pizza equipment to replicate a restaurant Neapolitan pizza at home: the homemade dough, technique, and high heat of the oven will yield incredible results.

Get the recipe: Neapolitan-Style Margherita Pizza

Tortellini With Broccoli Pesto
Credit: Gentl & Hyers

Tortellini With Broccoli Pesto

This vibrant pasta dish uses tortellini, a ring-shaped pasta originally from the Italian region of Emilia. You'll combine them with a broccoli-based pesto dish that upgrades the classic combination of fresh herbs, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

Get the recipe: Tortellini With Broccoli Pesto

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Credit: Anna Williams

Spiced Cod-and-Tomato Stew With Gremolata

The fish in this hearty, delicious stew soaks up the coriander- and paprika-infused tomato broth as it cooks. If you're looking for an alternative to cod, wild Alaska pollock is delicate and similar in flavor and texture.

Get the recipe: Spiced Cod-and-Tomato Stew With Gremolata

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Credit: Getty Images

Classic Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e pepe, which translates to “cheese and pepper," is a classic Roman pasta dish named for two of its main ingredients: Pecorino cheese, which in Roman dialect is known as cacio, and black pepper. Don't be fooled by its simplicity; cacio e pepe is a dish that, when made with quality ingredients and the right technique, will keep you coming back for a lifetime.

Get the recipe: Classic Cacio e Pepe

Nectarine Olive Oil Cake Recipe
Credit: Greg DuPree

Nectarine Olive Oil Cake

This cake's batter is made twice as tender thanks to the combination of olive oil with silky puréed nectarines. The sea salt-flecked fruit topping makes it the ultimate sweet-savory flavor combination.

Get the recipe: Nectarine Olive Oil Cake