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Italian Food Regional Cooking Southern Italy
Sunset over Naples and Ischia
Regions of Southern Italy
southern Italian Food
Regional Italian Food
Much of what we think of as Italian food didn’t exist before Columbus came to the New World. During the Columbian Exchange, foods from the Old World and the New World were transferred back and forth between continents, and ol’ Chris changed everything. Of the many foods swapped between New and Old, the tomato changed Italian cuisine forever. Imagine a pizza or spaghetti without even a thought of tomato sauce and give thanks to Columbus.
When the Italian Noblewoman Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France in 1553, Catherine’s chefs brought an entire cuisine to the chefs of the French Court. There is some doubt about the veracity of the legend but it is widely accepted and it points out that Italian food may be the true Mother Cuisine of Europe. Classic French and Italian cooking grew in very different directions. French chefs developing a reputation for subtle foods, built with layers of complexity and subdued, even pastel colors. Italian chefs built a bold cuisine of bright colors and assertive flavors. Using cars as a metaphor, French food might be a Renault, while Italian food would be a Ferrari. French food can be very forgiving, when you create a dish with a multitude of ingredients and flavors, the quality of each ingredient is less critical to the outcome. In Italian cooking a dish may be made with only four ingredients, so the ingredients have to be perfect. Consider the difference between making a classic Espagnole (brown sauce) compared to marinara sauce. The brown sauce starts with a long simmered meat stock with herbs, vegetables and roux. If the one of the vegetables in the brown sauce was a little old, well, you’re going to cook it for hours and discard the vegetables when you strain the sauce. Now what would happen if a cook tries to make marinara sauce but the tomatoes are not ripe and fresh? The sauce would be a disaster.
National Italian Cuisine
There is no one national Italian cuisine throughout the country, Italy was not even a unified state until 1861, before then Italy was a series of city-states. What we still find in Italy is a series of regional cuisines and dishes. There is a division between North and South Italy, Northern Italy has historically been more prosperous than Southern Italy. Butter is the usual cooking fat in the North while olive oil is the dominant fat for Southern Italy, although even within areas, some will choose a different fat for cooking. Even the choice of pasta has divided along the line of prosperity with flat egg noodles being favorite in the North while tubular plain pasta with highly seasoned sauces dominating Southern regions. The reasoning is simple; olive trees are cheaper to maintain than cows and durum wheat is cheaper than eggs for pasta.The other division is due to the Apennines mountain range,which divided Italy into relatively isolated regions with little transit between or over the mountains until modern times.
Italy is renowned for its herbs and no self respecting Italian kitchen is complete without a selection of locally grown herbs. Vegetables are said to be among the best in the world for flavor, perhaps because so much of Italy receives a sea breeze laden with minerals or because so many Italians still use natural fertilizers rather than the types we dig out of the ground. Perhaps surprisingly, rice is a major crop in Italy with Italy being the largest producer in Europe. Rice grown in the northern region of Piedmont was so jealously guarded that Thomas Jefferson once smuggled seed rice out of the area to Monticello. Like pasta, Italians cook rice al dente and think the rest of the world overcooks their rice.
Across Italy, veal is preferred to beef but even this is subject to region, in the north of Florence the choice is vitello (calf) while south of Florence vitella (heiffer) is preferred. In the north cows are raised for milk so calves get slaughtered while in the south cattle are not great milk producers but steers are used for field work.
Vegetarian guide to surviving in Italy
- A vegetarian's guide to surviving in Italy
If you are a vegetarian travelling in Italy this article will help you with the basics in vegetarian Italian cuisine, what to eat, and how to get by in restaurants.
Naples / Campania
Here in the US, what we frequently think of as Italian food would be more correctly called Neapolitan cuisine. Naples gave us pizza, and is renowned for many of the sauces that go with pasta, such as the tomato ragu,’ marinara sauce and puttanesca sauce, steak alla pizzaiola, and braciole, to name only a few. Think of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius and you are thinking of Campania and Naples. Rich volcanic soil gives this some of the best land in Italy for growing fruits and vegetables. With a lengthy coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea, seafood is a staple of Campania with fish fried in olive oil, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, clams and mussels all part of the menu. Buffalo Mozzarella is said to have originated in this area. How about that “marinara” sauce? Truth is there is no such sauce in Italy (okay you may see marinara sauce in Italy on a restaurant menu now, but that is because of American tourist’s influence, the locals would say that restaurant has been “internationalized”) Marinara sauce in Italy is simply called “Salsa di Pomodoro ” in Italian which translates simply as (tomato Sauce). Them there is always “Pommarola ” (Summer Tomato Sauce), always made with the freshest tomatoes, ripe off the vine. So, ask for spaghetti marinara, and you may receive a dish with pasta and seafood, “marinara” translates in Italian to something like “in the style of the fisherman”. Puttanesca , (prostitute style) and is another quickly made sauce which usually contains anchovies and either capers or olives. The story is that “ladies of the evening” could make this quickly and get back to work serving their clientele.
The simplicity of marinara sauce may be why it is named for fishermen, it can be made quickly with few ingredients so, maybe it could be made on a boat?
Marinara Sauce Salsa di Pomodoro
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, sliced paper thin
1 lb Roma tomatoes, puréed in a food processor.
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons Fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped
1 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, chopped
Sauté the garlic in the olive oil on a medium heat, DO NOT BROWN THE GARLIC!
When the garlic has softened and begun to color, add the remaining ingredients
Bring to a boil and lower the heat till it just simmers
Cook, stirring often for 20 minutes or more until the sauce thickens.
1) The quality of the tomatoes is critical, common globe tomatoes in a supermarket simply will not do. See my article on tomatoes. If you can’t find good, ripe tasty tomatoes used canned which are picked and packed ripe.
2) There are many varieties of basil available in markets now and far more if you endeavor to grow your own, try using lemon basil, Thai basil or purple ruffles basil for a bit more anise flavor which complements tomato sauce very well.
3) People associate Italian food with oregano but all too often they overload their food with too much oregano. Use herbs sparingly at first and get the flavors to balance not dominate.
4) Neither olive oil nor garlic can take high heat, cook slowly to preserve flavors.
Essential Tools for Italian Cooking
Olive oil and press
Molise tends to blend the cuisines of its neighbors, Abruzzo to the north and Campania and Apulia - blending both northern and southern Italian cooking traditions with its own local ingredients. Pork, lamb, mutton and goat are all popular. They use their pork for excellent local Prosciuttos and various types of Salami. At festivals and celebrations, Molise is well known for Porchetta (roast suckling pig) Pasta is a staple in Molise and is often served with a rich tomato Ragu of lamb or pork and a generous amount of Molise's fiery diavolino red peppers. Molise is a place to seek out the rough-hewn gems of Italy that have not yet been contaminated by tourist culture. This is authentic Italy, unspoiled by homogenized international businesses. Some of the signature dishes of Molise are Polenta d'iragn, a polenta-like dish actually made of wheat and potatoes, sauced with raw tomatoes and pecorino; Risotto alla marinara, rice with seafood; Spaghetti with diavolillo, a fiery chili pepper sauce. Zuppa di cardi, is a soup of cardoons, tomatoes, onions, pancetta, olive oil; “a delicious soup with what looks like celery and small meatballs but which has a peppery flavour instead of the expected celery – that is Il Cardone or zuppa di cardi.” and Zuppa di ortiche, a soup of nettle stems, tomatoes, onions, pancetta, olive oil. Molise, and Abruzzo are the place for carciofi (artichokes) and cardoons.
A street-side taste of southern Italy
Apulia / Puglia
Puglia (Often called Apulia in English) makes the heel of the Italian boot, with a long sunny coastline Apulia consists of rolling plains and gentle uplands, sources of seafood, grain, wine and olive oil. Mussels, oysters, octopus, red mullet, swordfish and shellfish dominate here. Served with the local vegetables, which include fava beans, artichokes, chicory, various greens and wild foraged foods. Eggplants, hot peppers of course and lampasciuoli (a bitter onion) and of course pasta made with the local durum wheat. Meat is not much eaten and beef until a few years ago, was almost unknown on Pugliese tables, with horsemeat being preferred. Up until modern times the seafood, so plentiful on the coastline of Puglia was not available inland, transport just wasn’t available. One common characteristic of Apulian cooking is the adding vegetables to meat sauce for pasta, the vegetable may be turnip sprouts, cabbage, artichoke or any other but this is Apulian cooking. Spaghetti alla zappatora (peasants spaghetti) is emblematic of this area and it is redolent of garlic and fiery peppers.
Legend has it that the residents of Bari, a town in Apulia once revolted against their Spanish rulers. It seems that the Spanish had already taxed everything else and decided to tax flour. Eventually the Spanish soldiers went into kitchens to monitor the amount of flour being used. Men being men, the soldiers spent more time chatting up the women in the kitchens when the local men had had enough. The revolt lasted two weeks and the tax was rescinded.
Creminelli Artisan Deli Capicola
In Southern Italy, forming the instep of the Italian Boot lies the region of Basilicata. It is a small mountainous region bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. The capital of Basilicata is Potenza. Olives, plums, and grains are grown, and sheep and goats are raised. There is also some fishing. Historically this has been a poor area so the use of meat is less that other Italian cuisines but their meat dishes can be spectacular. Pork is basic food here and they make wonderful ham, sausages, capocollo (salami made with pork neck) and pancetta (italian bacon). Lucanica sausages, the pork sausage of Basilicata, seasoned with fennel seed is what we recognize as Italian sausage but Italians may disagree as to whether or not this originated in Basilicata. (Lucanica is a former name for Basilicata) Savory dishes tend to be spicy and well seasoned due to abundant use of the local red peppers with the same name as the town, “Senise” and local wild herbs. Unlike much of Italy, pasta is not mandatory but may be replaced by other grains. Basilicata also has a selection of strong-flavored cheese like cacioricotta (sheeps milk), pecorino casiddi (goats milk) and caciocavallo (cow’s milk) We tend not to think of lamb as Italian food, yet lamb and goat are prominent parts of the menu in much of Italy. A typical Basilicata dish would be lamb with chicory or lamb with carrot, sausage, breadcrumbs and cheese. In the Potenza province you could try pasta with 'lu'ntruppc' ( dialect for 'obstacle), a sauce made of sausage and mixed meats. Here you might like to sample Sanguinaccio (a chocolate pudding made with pig’s blood), this is made across much of Italy and is often derided as “a disgusting, unsanitary thing that only hillbillies from 100 years ago would eat.” and pupazzella, small, hot peppers stuffed with parsley and anchovies and soaked in vinegar .
Calabria is a small region, which forms the toe of the Italian boot. Surrounded by the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Seas, Calabria has 500 miles of coastline (the longest of any Italian region). It has snow capped mountains, streams, waterfalls, and expanses of evergreen forests. Calabria is one of the oldest regions of Italy with the first evidence of human presence in the region dating as far back as 700,000 years BC but its mountains have kept it isolated economically until modern times. Calabria's is still a rustic place with an economy based mainly on agriculture, producing olive oil, onions, mushrooms, wheat and other cereal grains, wine, eggplant, figs, chestnuts, and citrus fruit. Calabria is the largest producer of bergamot oranges in Italy. Calabria has a long history of being an impoverished region so kitchen gardens have always been important as a way to supplement the diet and help the pocketbook
Peperoncino Cancariello, pipariellu, pipazzu, pipi vruscente : are some of the local names for chili peppers. As in most of Southern Italy, peppers have a prominent place in the cuisine so that almost all local specialties here contain chili pepper; still, everyone grows their own. The soil is said to be especially good for growing eggplants that lack the bitterness that is so common elsewhere. Melanzane alla parmigiana , or (eggplant parmesan), was invented in Calabria. Polpette di Melanzane (Eggplant Croquettes) (Recipe) is a popular local dish here, served as you would meatballs.
Pasta is important in Calabria and each town seems to have its own pasta specialty but polenta often replaces pasta in a local’s meal. Seafood is plentiful here and the locals like to prepare it simply to preserve the flavor of the day’s catch.
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