The Italian cuisine that we know today is the result of a very chequered history. In the past, many different races invaded the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans brought polenta and the Greeks introduced wonderful seafood cookery. The Romans not only developed the Greek style of cookery but wrote down their recipes - and they still exist today. Many people passed through Italy and brought in new ideas. In 1861, the Unification of Italy brought 20 separate regions together under one flag, but the different styles of cooking remained unchanged.
The name means "at the foot of the mountain", which it is, bordering on both France and Switzerland. Its fertile arable fields are irrigated by the many canals which flow through the region. The food is substantial, peasant-type fare, though the fragrant white truffle is found in the region. Truffles can be finely flaked or grated and added to many of the smarter dishes. There is an abundance of wild mushrooms throughout the region. Garlic features strongly in the recipes and polenta, gnocchi and rice are eaten in larger quantities than pasta, the former being offered as a first course when soup is not served.
The mention of the capital, Milan, produces immediate thoughts of the wonderful risotto named after the city and also the Milanese souffle flavoured strongly with lemon. Veal dishes, including vitello tonnato and osso buco, are specialities of the region and other excellent meat dishes, particularly pot roasts, feature widely. The lakes of the area produce a wealth of fresh fish. Rice and polenta are again popular but pasta also appears in many guises. The famous sweet yeasted cake panettone is a product of the region.
This is an area with a strong German influence, particularly when it comes to the wines. There are also several German-style liqueurs produced, such as Aquavit, Kummel and Slivovitz. The foods are robust and basic in this mountaionous area with rich green valleys and lakes where fish are plentiful. In the Trentino area particularly, pasta and simple meat and offal dishes are popular, while in the Adige soups and pot roasts are favoured, often with added dumplings and spiced sausages.
The cooking in this north-east corner is straightforward, with generous servings of polenta with almost everything. The land is intensively farmed, providing mostly cereals and wine. Pasta is less in evidence, with polenta, gnocchi and rice more flavoured, Fish, particularly shellfish, is in abundance and especially good seafood salads are widely available. Ther are also excellent robust soups and risottos flavoured with the seafood and sausages of the area.
The Genoese are excellent cooks, and all along the Italian Riviera can be found excellent trattoria which produce amazing fish dishes flavoured with the local olive oil. Pesto sauce flavoured with basil, cheese and pine nuts comes from this area, along with other excellent sauces. The aroma of fresh herbs abounds, widely used in many dishes, including the famous pizzas.
This is a special region of high gastronomic importance, with an abundance of everything, and rich food is widely served. Tortellini and lasagne feature widely, along with many other pasta dishes, as do saltimbocca and other veal dishes. Parma is famous for its ham, prosciutto di Parma, thought to be the best in the world. Balsamic vinegar, which has grown in popularity over the past decade, is also produced in Emilia-Romagna, from wine which is distilled until it is dark bronw and extremely strongly flavoured.
The Tuscans share a great pride in cooking and eating with the Emilians, and are known to have hefty appetites. Tuscany has everything: an excellent coastal area providing splendid fish, hills covered in vineyards and fertile plains where very conveivable vegetable and fruit happily grows. There is plenty of game in the region, providing many interesting recipes: tripe cooked in a thick tomato sauce is popular along with many liver recipes; beans in many guises appear frequently, as well as pot roasts, steaks and full-bodied soups, all of which are well flavoured. Florence has a wide variety of specialities, while Siena boasts the famous candied fruit cake called Panforte di Siena.
Inland Umbria is famous for its pork, and the character of the cuisine is marked by the use of the local fresh ingredients, including lamb, game and fish from the lakes, but is not spectacular on the whole. Spit-roasting and grilling is popular, and the excellent local olive oil is used both in cooking and to pour over dishes before serving. Black truffles, olives, fruit and herbs are plentiful and feature in many recipes. Eastwards to the Marches the wealth of fish from the coast adds even more to the variety and the food tends to be more on the elaborate side, with almost every restaurant note for its excellent cuisine. First-class sausages and cured pork come from the Marches, particularly on the Umbrian border, and pasta features widely all over the region.
Rome is the capital of both Lazio and Italy and thus has become a focal point for specialities from all over Italy. Food from this region tends to be fairly simple and quick to prepare, hence the many pasta dishes with delicious sauces, gnocchi in various forms and plenty of dishes featuring lamb and veal (saltimbocca being just one), and offal, all with plenty of herbs and seasonings giving really robust flavours and delicious sauces. Vegetables feature along with the fantastic fruits which are always in abundance in the local markets; and beans appear both in soups and many other dishes.
Formerly counted as just one region called Abruzzi e Molise, these regions have an interior of mountains with river valleys, high plateaux, densely forested areas and a coastal plain. The cuisine here is deeply traditional, with local hams and cheeses from the mountain areas, interesting sausages with plently of garlic and other seasonings, cured meats, and wonderful fish and seafood, which is the main produce of the coastal areas, where fishing boats abound on the beaches. Lamb features widely: tender, juicy and well-flavoured with herbs.
Naples is the home of pasta dishes, served with a spledid tomato sauce famous worldwide. Pizza is said to have been created in Naples and now has spread to the north of the country and indeed all over the world. Fish abounds, with fritto misto and fritto pesce being great favourites, varying daily depending on the catch. Fish stews are robust and varied and shellfish in particular is often served with pasta. Cutlets and steaks are excellent, served with strong sauces usually flavoured with garlic, tomatoes and herbs: pizzaiola steak is one of the favourites. Excellent mozzarella cheese is produced locally and used to create the crispy mozzarella in carozza, again served with a garlickly tomato sauce. Sweet dishes are popular too, often with flaky pastry and ricotta cheese, and the seasonal fruit salads laced with wine or liqueur take a lot of beating.
The ground is stony but it produces good fruit, olive groves, vegetables and herbs, and of course, there is a large amount of seafood from the sea. Puglians are said to be champion pasta eaters: many of the excellent pasta dishes are exclusive to the region both in shape and ingredients. Mushrooms abound and are always added to the local pizzas. Oysters and mussels are plentiful, and so is octopus. Brindisi is famous for its shellfish - both the seafood salads and risottos are truly memorable. But it is not all fish or pasta: lamb is roasted and stewed to perfection and so is veal, always with plenty of herbs.
This is a sheep-farming area, mainly mountainous, where potent wines are produced to accompany a robust cuisine largely based on pasta, lamb, pork, game and abundant dairy produce. The salamis and cured meats are excellent, as are the mountain hams. Lamb is flavoured with the herbs and grasses on which it feeds. Wonderful thick soups - true minestrone - are produced in the mountains, and eels and fish are plentiful in the lakes. Chilli peppers are grown in this region and appear in many of the recipes. The cheeses are excellent, good fruit is grown and interesting local bread is baked in huge loaves.
This is the toe of Italy, where orange and lemon groves flourish along with olive trees and a profusion of vegetables, especially aubergines which are cooked in a variety of ways. Chicken, rabbit and guinea fowl are often on the menu. Pizzas feature largely, often with a fishy topping. Mushrooms grow well in the Calabrian climate and feature in many dishes from sauces and stes to salads. Pasta comes with a great variety of sauces including baby artichokes, eggs, meat, cheese, mixed vegetables, the large sweet peppers of the region and of course garlic. The fish is excellent too and fresh tuna and swordfish are available, along with many other varieties. Like most southern Italians, the Calabrians are sweet-toothed and many desserts and cakes are flavoured with aniseed, honey and almonds and feature the plentiful figs of the region.
This is the largest island in the Mediterranean and the cuisine is based mainly on fish and vegetables. Fish soups, stews and salads appear in unlimited forms, including tuna, swordfish, mussels and many more; citrus fruits are widely grown along with almonds and pistachio nuts, and the local wines, including the dark, sweet, dessert wine Marsala, are excellent. Meat is often given a long, slow cooking, or else is minced and shaped before cooking. Game is plentiful and is often cooked in sweet-sour sauces containing the local black olives. Pasta abounds again with more unsual sauces as well as the old favourites. All Sicilians have a love of desserts, cakes and especially gelato. Cassata and other frozen desserts from Sicily are famous all over the world.
A pretty island with a wealth of flowers in the spring, but the landscape dries out in the summer from the hot sun. The national dish is suckling pig or newborn lamb cooked on an open fire or spit, and rabbit, game and offal dishes are also very popular. The sweet dishes are numerous and often extremely delicate, and for non-sweet eaters there is fresh fruit of almost every kind in abundance. Fish is top quality, with excellent sea bass, lobsters, tuna, mullet, eels and mussels in good supply. The island has a haunting aroma which drifts from many kitchens - it is myrtle, a local herb which is added to anything and everything from chicken to the local liqueur; and along with the wonderful cakes and breads of Sardinia, myrtle will long remain a memory of the island when you have returned home.
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