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The Guide To Italian Culinary

Italian food with its appetizing aromas, flavors, colors and textures, has always been revered as the world's favorite cooking style.

The normal Italian kitchen, known for its healthful nature, is full of; olive oil, grains, vegetables, herbs, fish, cheese, fruit and wine. All of which are accessories to the center of the Italian diet…pasta.

The pleasures of the Italian gastronomic experience are so vast and popular that even the simplest of dishes can vary from region to region and town to town. What sets the cooking of Italy apart from that of any other country is the variety of ingredients and the spontaneity of preparation that makes a recipe not a routine but a point of reference for a creative experience.

Fresh produce is essential to Italian cooks, with their legendary knack for making things look easy. But menus also rely on specialty foods; cheeses, pastas, cured meats and fish, baked goods, extra-virgin olive oil, vinegars, condiments and sauces; crafted by artisans following age-old techniques… their excellence can't be duplicated. The gap in quality between Italy's authentic artisan foods and the widespread fabrications continues to grow even today, as many producers in other countries try to duplicate the Italian style.

More Information

The Basics Of The Italian Meal

Regional Styles of Cooking

  • Northern Italy
  • Central Italy
  • Southern Italy

 

 

The Basics Of The Italian Meal

Antipasto

Antipasto literally means "before the meal, or before the pasta" and it is a custom in Italian homes never to keep people waiting for food. As soon as guests arrive they should be served an antipasto, an appetizer that they can nibble on even before they are seated. There is usually another, more substantial antipasto served al tavolo "at the table" that precedes the first course of dinner. Some antipasti are very elaborate and require nearly as much effort to prepare as a main course, but most are quite simple and can be put together very quickly. What could be simpler, for example, than preparing a platter together of olives, cheese, roasted peppers, roasted artichokes slices, thinly sliced pieces of prosciutto, accompanied with toasted Italian bread? All these antipasti awaken the palate and prepares it for the wide range of flavors of the meal that follows.

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Pasta

One of the great myths of pasta is that it was not known in Italy until Marco Polo brought it back from his travels to China in 1292. What the noted Venetian explorer probably introduced to his native country was not pasta, but a version of rice noodles that was a favorite food of the Orient. The fact is, throughout the Italian peninsula, pasta had been eaten for thousands of years before Marco Polo's adventures. In an Etruscan burial chamber near Rome that dates from 400 BC, painted stucco pictures depict the necessary tools used for making pasta. Numerous ancient frescoes depict feasts at which pasta appears to be a main dish.
Although new pasta shapes have been invented over the centuries, the ingredients and process of making pasta have not changed. Essentially, the best dried pasta is made from durum wheat semolina, a yellow-white flour.

After the bran and germ of the kernel are removed, the wheat is ground into semolina, mixed with water and left to harden. Before factory methods were invented, the pasta would be left in the sun to dry; true pasta aficionados believe that the rays of the Italian sun impart their own flavor.
The multitude of pasta shapes have been derived not so much from sheer whimsy as from necessity. Different shapes are better adapted to different sauces. A true pasta connoisseur knows that each shape, by itself, has a distinctive taste.

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Cheese

Although there are over 450 different recorded cheeses made in Italy, most people are familiar with just a few, whether it will be soft, moist Mozzarella, sharp, oily Provolone or dry, flaky Parmesan. Italian cheeses are very regional, and to appreciate them fully one must understand the geography and the culture of the country. Each region in Italy produces various specific varieties, from the northern Alps to the boot and islands, and when it comes to cheeses, regional exclusivity is the norm. If you are visiting a city in Tuscany or one in Sicily, you should expect only those cheeses produced from that region to be sold with only a few exceptions. Cheese production in Italy began as a need to preserve milk and to provide a source of protein for workers, travelers and families throughout the winter months.

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Olive Oils

Olive oil has been an ingredient in the Italian diet since at least 800 BC In ancient Rome and Greece, athletes rubbed their bodies with it before a gladiator contest, marathon, or other competition. The olive and its oil were so important to the populace during the Renaissance that when one city-state overtook another, the punishment of the vanquished citizenry was not imprisonment or death, but death to their olive trees.

Everywhere in Italy, olive oil from la nuova raccolta (the new harvest) is much anticipated. At a family-owned olive grove, the entire family works long hours at harvesting the olive crop. Once harvested, the olives are taken to the frantoio (olive mill) to be pressed. At the frantoio, family and workers await that first rush of the green-gold oil to come from the press. Over an open fireplace in the same room as the olive press, bread is grilled, rubbed with garlic, and then dipped in the olio turbo for that magnificent first taste. During harvest time, locals bring their freshly pressed olive oils, bread, garlic, and a flask of new wine for la prova del pane (the bread test)-a simple ceremony to compare and celebrate the fruits of the olive harvest.
Olive oil is still relatively new in America, so most Americans are novices when it comes to tasting and judging olive oils.

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Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is a secret Italians kept to themselves until the mid 1970s, when it was discovered and imported in the U.S. This occurred at the same time that the fashion for lighter, more flavorful food dishes, called nuova cucina in Italian, began sweeping the culinary world.
Creative chefs discovered in balsamic vinegar just the right combination of pungency and sweetness to new dishes with an exciting and unorthodox flavor. In the last few decades, it has become a staple of gourmet cooking in the US and all over the world.

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Espresso

Espresso is Italy's version of coffee. The process for making espresso is relatively fast and can be duplicated at home with an espresso machine. The principle behind this type of beverage is to take hot water under high pressure and have it go through the coffee grinds in a short period of time. The end result is a cup of strong and bitter espresso.

The history of espresso is not known for sure. There is however various legends about its origins. The most common of these legends has to do with goats located in Ethiopia. Around the 13th century a shepherd noticed that his goats were feasting on berries from a shrub in the region. He also noticed that after his goats ate these berries they became excited and sleepless. The people of the land decided to use these berries to help them stay up at night. These shrubs were found all along the peninsula and were brought to Italy when traders from Venice and Genoa visited the regions that contained these magical berries. Today Italy consumes well over 1 billion pounds of coffee a year and they have turned these berries into one of the most popular beverages in the world.

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Meats

Traditionally, sheep, pigs and goats, along with rabbits and poultry of all types, have been the principal sources of meat in the Italian diet. Cattle thrive in some areas of the peninsula, particularly in and around the Po Valley. However, they are more often appreciated for their milk, used in making superb cheeses, or as draught animals.

Salami (a word covering a wide range of salt-cured, air-dried and smoked preparations) is the most common way meat is included in an Italian meal. Most salami is made from pork in two generic types. The first covers minced meats known as insaccati (encased in protective coverings or sausages), such as salami, cotechino, soppressata, luganiga, zampone and mortadella. The second covers whole cuts, such as prosciutto (ham), spalla (shoulder), capocollo (neck), pancetta (belly, sometimes smoked as bacon), culatello (an aged filet of rump) and speck (smoked flank). Sources of salumi range beyond pork to beef (for bresaola), goose, goat, boar, chamois, turkey and more. Veal has always been more popular than beef in much of Italy, not only because of its more delicate flavor and greater tenderness but also because it was often more readily available.

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Breads

Cereal preference or dependence relatively neatly divided the ancient Mediterranean world in half. In the east, the Greeks cultivated and consumed barley, while wheat was the principal grain of the Latin West.

Italians did not reject barley. They grew it and ate it in various preparations as they still do, usually in soups. But it was never a major or vital part of their diet. Rye was grown to a certain extent in the Alps but it, too, was and is still today a minor food resource. Millet and oats never acquired much of a following in Italy but buckwheat (grano saraceno) is popular in northern Italy and particularly Lombardy's Valtellina. Wheat in the form of bread was the mainstay of the diet for centuries. However, it changed its form in the 17th century after the arrival of corn (maize) from the New World. Corn replaced wheat and the result was polenta.

Various types of wheat evolved at an early date. Some are specifically adapted to use in bread because of their substantial content of gluten, which gives dough elasticity. Hard wheat (durum) is more compact and the dough retains its shape during cooking. It is the ideal grain for the production of pastas. Farro or spelt wheat is a rare survivor of ancient agriculture. Cultivated primarily in Tuscany's Garfagnana zone, it was only recently rediscovered. Today, production barely keeps up with demand. Italians have developed a wide range of breads over the centuries and many ancient types are still produced in most cases on a local or regional basis. Commercial bakers account for most of the bread consumed in Italy today as they have since professionals started turning out loaves in ancient Rome in the 2nd century BC. Baking is still practiced at home to a certain extent, as at Genzano, a village near Rome. The selection nationwide ranges from extremely large loaves, once intended to keep a household supplied for a full week, to small rolls. Most breads are leavened but many are not, like the Sardinian carta da musica (thin as sheets of music paper) or carasau.

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