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.