The food of Italy
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These notes were made during a six week trip to Italy. These are just our food experiences and you may have a totally different experience depending on your budget, where you travel and where you eat.
Italian food is the typical Mediterranean diet, with similarities to Spain. There is not a large multicultural food influence as Italians love their pizza and pasta, and all restaurants serve both. There is also very limited takeaway food stores. There are lots of fruit shops. Alcohol is consumed at lunch and with dinner, either beer or wine depending on the weather. We were lucky enough to stay with family during summer, and experience the home style cooking and eating. Lunch was the largest and most extravagant meal, with dinner very similar. Italian grandmothers always want to feed you more! all meals at home were cooked with home grown vegetables and fruit. Tomatoes are always Roma, which are longer and skinnier than regular tomatoes, and a little sweeter.
Italian pizza is very simple, with minimal toppings and a thin base. The further north you travel the thicker the pizza base and the more toppings that are used. Generally margarita is the most common, being just tomato paste and cheese and is the cheapest. Oil is poured on top of the pizza before cooking. Pizza is often sold by weight by the slice. A couple of one we liked were:
- romano - capers and anchovies
- calabrese - artichoke, olive, ham, mushrooms
Pasta is certainly a specialty of Italy. There is an array of pasta shapes and sauce varieties. However, usually they are very simple just like the pizza. Some of the local varieties are:
- putanesca - tomato, capers, olives, chili, anchovies or tuna
- pesto - oil, basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, all ground together. Also Pesto lasagne - a specialty of the Cinque Terre
- gnocchi - potato dumplings
- ravioli - small pasta parcels filled with meat or cheese and vegetables
A rice dish made with Arborio, a short grain rice, cooked with stock and a variety of ingredients. Commonly seafood and mushrooms.
Rice balls, probably made with leftover risotto, crumbed and deep fried, flavored with tomato paste, peas and containing pieces of mozzarella cheese in the middle. When eaten hot the cheese is melted inside.
Strong coffee, usually taken short with sugar and no milk, and sweet biscuits or bread.
The array of olives, cheese, salami and other cured meats is incredible.
- Pecorini cheese is a specialty in the Tuscany region and is quite a matured cheese, delicious.
- Vegetables - Marinated aubergine, zucchini, capsicum, artichoke hearts are always available. In the Tuscany region it is common to find pink pickled carrots and onions served with your meal.
- Dried porcini mushrooms are very common, also used in lots of cooking.
- Seafood - Marinated octopus is very common, and also served in restaurants. Seafood salad is very common containing, octopus, prawns and mussels. Tuna is very popular, always in olive oil. Sgombrio is a fish fillet slightly larger than a sardine, served in oil like tuna, and is very tasty. This or tuna is often served on a bread roll with capers.
- Salads - rice with olives, bulgar wheat, and of course pasta salad
Generally bread is much heavier, harder, tougher and crunchier than French bread. Ciabatta is a specialty, which is a heavy crusted but very airy inside. Some bread types are very low in salt. Panini are small soft rolls. Bread sometimes comes with aniseeds mixed in, this can also be common for pretzel like bread rolls or biscuits. Focaccia is an oily, salty bread more common in the northern parts of Italy. Often made into pizza rather than filled like a bread roll. Very popular eaten plain and fresh. Bread is usually sold by weight.
Home cooked meals
Usually a pasta dish is served as the main part of the meal:
- Lasagne or ‘pasta al forno’ a baked pasta dish
- spaghetti with tomato, fresh parsley olives, oil and salt
- pasta and pea soup with tomatoes
- whole fish cooked with tomatoes, herbs and onions
Also with many other side dishes on the table to accompany:
- meatballs made with breadcrumbs, onions and fresh herbs
- stuffed aubergines or melanzane (capsicum) with the meatball mixture
- zucchini parmagana - layers of zucchini, tomatoes, cheese topped with breadcrumbs and baked
fried fresh sardines, spicey salami
- cheese always at the table - mozzarella, parmesan, soft white
- tomato, fresh basil and onion salad
- beef liver fried with herbs
- potato wedges roasted with oil and herbs
Fruit always served at the end of the meal, melon and pears, because that’s what is grown in the garden!
- Gelati - there is literally a gelateria on every corner. There can be up to 5 different sizes or scoop numbers in a cone or a cup. There is an unlimited amount of flavors, in creamy or icy varieties. I would take up the whole page if I was to list them all. Of course it is delicious and everyone, Italians and tourists eat Gelati mid morning, mid afternoon or any time!
- Tirimasu - specialty of Venice, but I never found it anywhere, except as an ice cream flavor in Slovenia. I found it as a dessert in Hungary as well.
- Panforte - common in the Tuscany region. A heavy rich cake, with a gooey consistency that is full of fruit and nuts. Original is a cinnamon flavor, comes also in chocolate. Delicious!
- Pita - dessert cross between a biscuit and a cake, pastry rolled with sultanas and cinnamon and cooked rolled up and sliced with each piece turned up and placed together so it looks like a bunch of roses. A local specialty of Crotone, Calabria. Another version in the next region further south, is made with thicker, softer and more cake like pastry. Just like my mother used to make at home, as my grandmother comes from this region.
- Brasilena - A Calabrian special, a dark soft drink, smelling like coffee but having the taste of caramel, coke and mild coffee.
- Marzipan flavored cordial (also a drink of the south)
- Chinoto - popular all over Italy, a black sparkling liquid with a cinnamon smell and a bitter cola flavor. You can find this in Australia.
- Sweet iced lemon tea - often sold in cans, by Lipton
- Red orange juice - made from blood oranges, called aracia rosso.
- Campari - bitter spirit red in flavor, taken with soda water and ice
Local varieties include: mozzarella sticks crumbed and fried, cremogelati, caprese salad (lettuce, cherry tomatoes, soft white cheese and carrot), different frappe flavors, beer is also available!