Jun 052012

Regional diversity of Italian food is the result of many factors:

  • Climate controls what sorts of ingredients are available.
  • Migration of people from one region to another.
  • Geography ranging from cities on the sea’s edge to villages surrounded by mountains.

Compared to the cuisine of other countries, the regional differences across Italy are well pronounced.  This is in part due to the fact that Italy was only recently unified as a nation after having been a confederate of nation-states for thousands of years before. In this article, we explore the delicious diversity of Italian food and how it has evolved over the years. We have also included a few select recipes to help you fully embrace what we mean by YOLO.

The city of Turin is known for their crisp bread sticks which are called grossini.  Grossini are pencil-sized sticks of crisp, dry bread. A close cousin from the north of Italy is what we refer to as the baguette in French cuisine; and rosquilletas from Spain. Some people believe bread sticks had been invented sometime during the 14th century. Presently, historians have established the origin of bread sticks more than two centuries later by Northern Italian bakers. Grossini goes well with a side dish of prosciutto and mozzarella as a side dish. And when available fresh from the oven it’s really good when dipped in olive oil or pesto sauce.

And if sweet thoughts beckon your attention while visiting Turin, you must treat yourself to a bicerin at Caffè Al Bicerin (founded in 1763) and is the originator of this bittersweet chocolate flavor coffee with cream topping.

Next on this journey through regional taste of Italy is the classic pesto sauce from the city of Genoa.  Traditionally, pesto consists of crushed garlic, basil, and pine nuts. The dry ingredients are then blended with olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese), and Fiore Sardo (cheese made from sheep’s milk). The name of the sauce derives the Genoese word pestare, which means to pound or to crush.  This is in reference to the original method of preparing the sauce, which consisted of using a marble mortar and wooden pestle to pound the ingredients into a thick and savory paste.

While pesto is commonly used on as a pasta sauce, it can also be served over sliced boiled potatoes, beef and tomatoes.

And if we had a few extra hours on this journey through regional taste of Italy, the Amalfi coast is only 5.5 hours away (at speeds of 70 mph+). Here you will find some of the best seafood at La Cambusa in Positano. The pesto from this restaurant is a close competitor to those you find in Rome and even Genoa itself.

Ossobuco is a Milanese specialty. This delicious dish is made out of cross-cut veal shanks. The meat is braised with vegetables, white wine and broth. Ossobuco is often served with gremolata (a condiment made out of chopped garlic, parsley, and lemon peel).  Ossobuco originated during the19th century. Ossobuco may have been a farmhouse dish.  Some also believe that it may have been invented in an osteria, a neighborhood restaurant of Milan.

Panettone is cupola-shaped sweet bread that originated in Milan. Traditionally, panettone is served for Christmas and New Year .This confection is considered to be one of the symbols of the city of Milan.

Panforte (a concentrated fruit and nut cake) is another classic dessert from Milan. It is traditionally served with a Vin Santo or sweet wine. It is possible that this cake dates back to 13th century Siena and was used as a tax payment to the local monastery during the 12th century.  The literal translation of panforte is “strong bread.” The original name given to this cake is panpepato (peppered bread), due to the heavy amounts of pepper called for in the recipe. Supposedly, the Crusaders carried panforte with them on their quests because of its durability.

Carpaccio is a Venetian specialty. It presumably started in Harry’s bar where it was first served in 1950. Carpaccio is the term that is used for raw meat or fish thinly sliced and flatted by pounding with a large terra cotta rack.  The dish was named Carpaccio by the bar’s owner in reference to the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio.  The colors of the dish reminded the owner of paintings by the artist.

Bolognese sauce is a meat-based sauce. It originated in the city of Bologna, and is customarily tossed with tagliatelle pasta. The sauce may also be used to prepare lasagne alla Bolognese.

Chef Pellegrino Artusi  included a recipe for Bolognese sauce in his cookbook which was published in 1891. Artusi’s recipe is believed to have derived from the mid 19th century.  During this time, Artusi spent a great deal of time in Bologna.

The term Capri refers to any dish that ends in the term caprese. Such dishes are likely to have originated from the city of Capri.  Caprese dishes usually contain the ingredients of fresh basil, tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. One Caprese dish is ravioli alla caprese, a simple ravioli made with fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella. Another similar dish is insalata caprese, a salad that is made with the same ingredients.

The dishes Ribollita and Panzanella both derive from the city of Florence.  Ribollita is a hearty winter potage made with bread and vegetables.  Although there are many variations of this dish, the essential ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and cheap vegetables.  The soup has peasant origins dating back to the Middle Ages. During this time, servants would gather food-soaked bread trenchers from the feudal lords’ banquets and boil them for their own dinners.

Panzanella is a salad that is made of bread and tomatoes that is particularly popular in the summertime. Like Ribollita, one of the essential ingredients is soaked stale bread.  The day-old bread is tossed with tomatoes, and sometimes onions and basil as well. The salad is then dressed with olive oil and vinegar.

Pasta alla carbonara is a pasta specialty with a empirical pedigree because it comes from the city of Rome. The recipe consists of  the following ingredients: eggs, cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano), bacon (guanciale or pancetta), and black pepper. Legend has it that Pasta alla carbonara was first made as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers. The dish was first introduced in the middle of the 20th century as a tribute to the Carbonari (charcoalmen), a secret society that was prominent in the unification of Italy. One of the best places to find pasta carbonara while in Rome is Trattoria Da Danilo.

The final stop on this YOLO journey through regional taste of Italy will be Naples.  A city known for its delicious pizza. The authentic Neapolitan pizza is generally made with San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. While the crust served in many restaurants tends to be thicker, my personal favorite is the one named after Queen Margherita (adding basil to the other ingredients described above). As you walk through the streets of Naples you will be able to smell the fresh scent of pizza emanating from the brick ovens onto the city street. For the best pizza in the world I recommend Pizzaria Brandi, which first opened in 1780 under the ownership of Pietro Coliccio, who become known as Pietro il pizzaiuolo (Peter the Pizza maker).  Cantanapoli is another restaurant famous for its pizza in Naples.

Has reading this article made your tummy long for some yummy Italian food? You should certainly add a trip to Italy to your bucket list. Once you return home we would be delighted to hear from you. Feel free to add impressions from your trip as a comment at the end of this article. If you are feeling even more bold and daring, please try one of the many recipes that we listed here. We would like to hear from you too.

This article was written by: Delton Henderson and Amber Perlmutter  © 2012 Solvere Group LLC.