Italy’s food is delizioso from top to toe
Benvenuto to a region-by-region guide to Italian cuisine
Parma ham from Emilia-Romagna
Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella from Campania
Risotto with rice from Lombardy
The term “Italian cuisine” is both convenient and misleading. What most outsiders assume to be Italian food is really just Neapolitan cuisine – pizzas, pastas, lots of tomatoes and olive oil – with a few other dishes thrown in for good measure – Roman fettuccine Alfredo or chicken cacciatore from Piedmont. And all washed down with red wine poured from straw-wrapped flasks labelled Chianti.
But like pretty much everything else in Italy, cuisine is local and all about the spirit of campanilismo, an identification with and loyalty to one’s own community, represented by the church tower, or campanile. Every Italian region has a distinctive cuisine that makes full use of local produce, and while you’ll find the classics on most Italian menus, by far the most interesting dishes are the ones specific to that region or even town.
Italy’s food basket and the unofficial capital of Italian gastronomy is Emilia-Romagna, with a quality and range of food that is unrivalled in Italy.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced by 737 producers throughout the province of Parma and is stamped with a seal of approval as rigorous as that given to the best wines.
The best Parma ham, or prosciutto crudo, is produced in the Appennine town of Langhirano, just above Parma, but locals are just as devoted to their boiled ham (prosciutto cotto), mortadella and culatello, cut from the leanest part of the hind leg.
Modena is the birthplace of Pavarotti and the world’s most famous vinegar, although to call aceto balsamico tradizionale just a vinegar is like saying Luciano could carry a tune. It hardly does justice to its ability to exalt virtually everything it touches, from cheese to strawberries.
The region’s pasta courses are unmatched anywhere. Unlike the dry pastas (pastasciutta) of the south, in Romagna they use pasta all’uovo, a more golden pasta made with flour and eggs. A popular dish throughout the region is the tris, where you’re served three different pasta courses, such as lasagne verdi (which uses a green pasta made with spinach), filled pastas such as tortelloni al pomodoro, and the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragú, made with a sauce English-speakers know as Bolognese, after the city of its birth.
Tuscan food is less elaborate than that of its neighbour in Emilia-Romagna. Soups are a mainstay of the menu, especially the likes of minestrone, ribollita (usually made with beans, cabbage and onions) and cacciucco, a superb fish-and-seafood stew from Livorno.
Tuscany’s best-known dish is bistecca alla Fiorentina, a huge piece of steak cut from Chianina cattle that is also the perfect complement to the region’s superb red wines, dominated by Chianti but also including the excellent Brunello di Montalcino, Carmigiano and Morellino di Scansano, a full-bodied red that goes well with wild boar and other game also popular on Tuscan menus.
A Florentine specialty is tripe, which tastes nothing like the Irish version soaked in milk and served with onions. In Florence it’s made with carrots, celery, tomatoes and cheese and is washed down with a nice glass of Chianti.