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A Brief History of Italian Cuisine
While the ruling classes in Ancient Rome had feasts of roasted game, fish, wine, and exotic foods, peasants ate what we now call a Mediterranean diet: wine, bread, olive oil, cheese, and seasonal vegetables. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy’s regions created their own culinary identities that still exist today. Think of risotto in Milan, pizza in Naples, and seafood in Sardinia. Today, Italian restaurants, pizzerias, and trattorias featuring classic Italian fare can be found in almost every country.
12 Traditional Italian Ingredients
These 12 essential ingredients create the foundation of Italian cuisine.
- Extra virgin olive oil. While olive oil is often used in cooking, higher quality extra virgin olive oil is used as a garnish to add a peppery flavor. It is also used as a dip for Italian bread like focaccia or drizzled over salad. Learn more about olive oil in our complete guide.
- Balsamic vinegar. True balsamic vinegar is produced in the Italian region of Modena or Emilia-Romagna. This dark, well-aged vinegar is used in marinades and dressings. Learn more about vinegar in our complete guide.
- Garlic. Garlic is one of the most popular ingredients throughout the country, especially sautéed in olive oil to create a flavorful cooking base. Learn more about cooking with garlic here.
- Pasta. Pasta is a mix of flour, eggs, olive oil, water, and salt. There are many varieties based on the shape and the region they’re from. Popular types include spaghetti (long, thin strands of pasta); penne (tube shapes from Liguria); tagliatelle (thin pasta ribbons from Bologna); fettuccine (long, flat pasta from Rome); and pappardelle (flat, wide pasta ribbons from Tuscany).
- Pasta sauce. Think marinara (tomatoes, garlic, onion, olive oil, and basil; this is Italy’s most famous sauce); Pomodoro (Italian for “tomato,” this sauce uses the same ingredients as marinara but is a thicker, smoother sauce); bolognese (meat like pancetta, beef, and lamb are simmered in a tomato and wine sauce); and pesto (basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and grated parmesan cheese are blended together into a green sauce served over pasta, fish, or spread on bread).
- Fresh tomatoes. Brought to Italy in the sixteenth century, Italians first thought tomatoes were poisonous. Now they are the heart of Italian cuisine. Learn more about tomato varieties in our guide.
- Oregano. Dried oregano leaves add an earthy flavor to marinara sauce, pizza, salad dressing, or grilled meats.
- Capers. “Capperi” are pickled flower buds from the Flinders rose bush. These small, salty green orbs are a popular ingredient in Mediterranean dishes like chicken piccata and puttanesca sauce.
- Porcini mushrooms. In Italy, porcini mushrooms are found under pine and oak trees, especially in Tuscany. Porcinis, either fresh or dried, are added to sauces cooked in risotto, or simmered in a wine sauce to add texture to a dish. Learn more about porcini mushrooms here.
- Basil. Basil is a fragrant green herb with a smokey, minty taste, and the most popular herb in Italian cooking. Basil is often used in tomato sauce, in Caprese salad, and is the main ingredient in pesto sauce. Learn more about the culinary benefits of basil here.
- Italian cheese. Ancient Romans created varieties of cheese by aging and smoking them. Hard cheeses have a grainy texture and are shaved over salads or grated over pasta. Popular varieties include Parmigiano-Reggiano from Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region and Grana Padano from northern Italy. Pecorino are cheeses made from sheep’s milk. A soft cheese like mozzarella is used to melt over meals, like lasagna and pizza.
- Red wine, white wine. To many, Italy is practically synonymous with wine. Wine has certainly been part of Italian culture at least since the peninsula was colonized by the Ancient Greeks—and thousands of years even before that if recent research is to be believed. Italians drink wine and also use it to simmer meat dishes and add another layer of flavor to a red sauce. Learn more about the different types of wine grapes grown all over the world here.
14 Traditional Italian Dishes
Italian appetizers, entrees, and desserts vary between regions, but all Italian cuisine follows the same philosophy: simple recipes with fresh ingredients. Here are 14 traditional dishes from around Italy.
- Risotto Alla Milanese. Brought to Sicily by the Moors in the thirteenth century, rice is mostly grown in the fertile lands of northern Italy’s Po Valley. Carnaroli or Arborio rice is sautéed with onions in butter, then simmered in saffron-flavored broth and white wine, and topped with parmesan cheese.
- Polenta. Polenta is stone-ground corn that is whisked into boiling water or broth, usually in a copper pot, until thick. A classic polenta has butter, black pepper, and parmesan mixed in. Learn how to make Chef Thomas Keller's creamy polenta recipe here.
- Lasagna. In this classic dish from Naples, lasagne noodles are layered with tomato or meat sauce, and ricotta cheese, topped with mozzarella cheese and baked.
- Ravioli. Ravioli is a type of pasta ripiena—stuffed pasta. They are square or round cuts of pasta wrapped around a savory filling, like ricotta cheese with herbs, and served with sauce.
- Osso buco. This dish from Milan features veal shanks braised in a red-wine reduction with vegetables. It is topped with a gremolata—a seasoning mixture, of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. Anchovies can be added, too. Osso buco is often served with risotto alla Milanese.
- Arancini. These Sicilian rice balls are made by rolling cooked risotto mixed with butter and parmesan. The balls are dipped in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs, and fried in olive oil until they are golden. They resemble little oranges or “arancini” in Italian.
- Ribollita. This Tuscan stew was created when servants would clear the plates of their masters and cook the leftovers in boiling water. Ribollita, which means re-boiled, is made with cannellini beans and hearty vegetables and thickened with stale bread.
- Spaghetti Alla Carbonara. This dish from Rome is simply cooked spaghetti tossed into a hot pan with guanciale (pork cheek) or pancetta. A mix of egg, parmesan, and black pepper is poured into the hot pasta.
- Neapolitan pizza. This classic peasant dish from Naples started as flatbread and tomatoes. Originally called pizza Margherita, Neapolitan pizza is dough covered in San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and mozzarella di Bufala Campana—cheese produced from the milk of Italian water buffaloes in southern Italy.
- Caprese salad. This popular summer salad is simply tomato slices topped with mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Gnocchi. These billowy dumplings are mashed up potatoes mixed with whole grain flour. There are many varieties of Italian gnocchi, each made from different starchy ingredients. This variety originates from the Lombardy region in Northern Italy and is the most common and well-known variety of gnocchi. It is often mixed with butter and sage. Learn how to cook the perfect potato gnocchi here.
- Swordfish. Sicily is known for its seafood, including Sicilian swordfish. This filet is simply cooked in olive oil with capers, sundried tomatoes, and wine.
- Parmigiana. This eggplant parmigiana dish consists of breaded eggplant slices fried in olive oil, layered with tomato sauce and mozzarella, and baked.
- Tiramisu. This Italian dessert is made from ladyfinger sponge cookies soaked in espresso and rum and layered with a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar, mascarpone cheese, and topped with cocoa.
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