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Food & Drink

 
 

The first thing to be understood is that northern Italy differs in an enormous way from southern Italy in terms of culinary distinction.

Let's begin with the north. It's filled with an unbelievable variety of dishes, all as diverse as the people themselves. To get your taste buds flowing, imagine this: Visitors to Trieste will be offered goulash as the local food, in Venice it will be Austrian pastries filled with Oriental spices and in Turin peasant style dishes will be covered with sophisticated French sauces. If you want the best risotto, then you must head for Veneto and Piedmont; for pasta, go to Emilia; and for rice and polenta, go to Lombardy. Sauerkraut and dumplings will be found in the alpine Trentino-Al; to Adige, and somewhat surprisingly you will be given delicious vegetable based cuisine in Liguria (by the sea) rather than serving fish as one would expect.

A typical meal for northern Italians will mostly be made up of local foods. For instance, they would eat pasta from Bologna, salad from Cremona, pizza yeast from Pavia, eggs from Vicenza, veal and milk from Lombardy, basil from Liguria, flour from the Po Valley, parmesan from Parma, and sugar and peaches from Ferrara.

It's said that the further south you go, the better the gelato (ice cream), but it is also said that the further north you go the better the café. Turin, Trieste, Venice, Milan and Padua offer grand historic cafés of great warmth and elegance.

The north of Italy abounds in distinctive cured meats. Salama da sigo from Ferrara is a succulent sausage made from minced pork, liver and tongue. Neighbouring Modena produces ravioli stuffed with minced meats or bollito misto (mixed boiled meats), including beef, veal, tongue, and pig's trotters. Brodo is a velvety meat broth and stracotta is a slowly simmered stew flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg.

When the mists close in on Venice, comfort food suitable for sustaining marooned travellers is required and thick soup or creamy risotto is just perfect. But the cuisine here in the Veneto can be also sophisticated and light, serving dishes such as risotto sprinkled with shrimps, or carpaccio, wafer thin raw beef dressed with olive oil, rocket and parmesan. And for seafood lovers, soft shelled crabs from Murano, plump red mullet and pasta heaped with lobster. As well as being a rice growing region, the Veneto is Italy's chief area for poultry production from chicken and goose to guinea fowl and duck. Offal, spicy black pudding, horsemeat and capretto (kid) are also local delicacies, matched by whole-wheat spaghetti (bigoli), subtle cheeses and honey.

Austrian influence prevails in Alto Adige and in Trentino. Typical dishes will include smoked meats, sauerkraut cooked in lard, roast venison with polent, red cabbage goulash and other filling stews. Dumplings are preferred to pasta, and bread dumplings are confusingly known as canederli in Italian but knodel in German. The best known dish is strangolapreti – gnocchi made with potatoes, bread or spinach and coated with butter or cheese. Desserts are Austrian inspired pastries such as strawberry cake (erdbeertorte) or strudel stuffed with apples, nuts and raisins.

Gorgonzola, the greenish blue veined cows milk cheese originated in the foothills of the Alps near Milan. It's ideally served runny or as a sauce for pasta, polenta or risotto.

The mild climate of Liguria is ideal for growing vegetables and fruit such as tomatoes, artichokes, peaches, apricots and lemons. There is little meat and dairy produce in this region, which is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, but they do grow a large array of fruit and vegetables. Pesto sauce is Liguria's signature dish, made from basil, olives and pine nuts or walnuts, all ground to a pulp with parmesan and garlic. According to the purists it should only be made when basil is in flower. Liguria also produces the only olive oil to rival the finest Tuscan varieties.

Southern Italy is a Mediterranean land dominated by the sea and specialising in hearty, spicy food in their pasta, fish, pork and lamb.

Campania is the area in which you will be offered an unforgettable meal of macaroni or pasta with tomato sauce or meat sauce, two of the specialities of the region.

In the mountainous region of Calabria, where life is simple and frugal, where ancestors passed down their dietary traditions, you will be given dishes that are evidence of time recaptured: Pancotto (broth, stale bread, garlic, bay leaves, celery and parsley); lagane (handmade fettuccine cooked in milk and sprinkled with pecorino, a hard cheese) and also ragu (beef larded with pancetta and cooked in wine with carrots, leeks, dried mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, nutmeg and cloves). They eat simply here using produce of the season, from the sea and from the earth.

Another mountainous region is Basilica, where isolated villages cling to the tips of the hills. Basileus is the Greek word for king and the name Basilicata meant a province of the Byzantine Empire. It is here the hunter tradition mingles with an Eastern influence to produce interesting dishes of lamb (being the principal meat) and pork. A typical example is hare marinated in wine and flavoured with garlic and bay leaves, or partridge cooked with olives. And a dish with Eastern influence might be tagliolini, made with milk and saffron or almond milk flavoured with cinnamon. Two of the most popular dishes are boned lamb with celery, onions and rosemary and gnumariddi, lamb offal and sweetbreads cooked with garlic, onions and cheese.

In Apulia, vegetables and pasta predominate. Peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, peas, broccoli, spinach, artichokes, broad beans and other produce make up the diet in his region. The vegetables are used in soups, notably the maritata, for which chicory, fennel, celery and escarole are boiled, layered alternately with pecorino and pepper and covered with broth; in calzoni and panzerotti, pastry rolls with various fillings that are baked in the oven or fried, or in the impressive pies made with kid meat, chicken, beef, potatoes, onions, courgettes, tomatoes and cheese, which are either served as a first or second course. This region is known for pollution free waters containing large quantities fish, molluscs and crustaceans. Italy's oyster beds are located in Taranto.

As the old dictum runs: "Dimmi come mangi e ti diro chi sei (tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are)."

The famous wine names tend to come from northern Italy. Marsala is the only southern Italian wine that most people know (and rather sadly used mostly for cooking). It is the fortified wine from western Sicily. But this is all about to change. Since the 1990's local wine producers are increasingly turning from high volume production to making quality wines. Equally investors (international as well as national) are now beginning to take an interest in the south. So, it's a matter of "watch this space"!

Valpolicella, Soave, Barolo and Barberesco are some of Italy's best known wines, all of which come from northern Italy. The Veneto, covering the area from Venice to Lake Garda, is a significant wine producing region, and plays host to VinItaly in Verona, the country's largest wine fair. Prosecco, Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave are all from this region, as well as the famous firewater known as grappa. Franciacorta comes from Lombardy. Pinot Grigot and Reisling Italicoare from the Collio district of Friuli, and Lambrusco is from Emilia Romagna.


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