International Cooking: Food from Italy

I love food from Italy so I was really excited about this week! The hardest thing was working out what to make; I originally had a much longer list but I just could not fit in everything. This just means I now have a nice long list of Italian dishes to make at another time.

Italy is a European country consisting of a peninsula and a few islands in the Mediterranean Sea. It is shaped kind of like a boot, with the island of Sicily at the toe. When I was learning Italian at school, we learned a little rhyme to help remember the shape: ‘long-legged Italy kicked poor Sicily into the Mediterranean Sea.’ I had to look it up to recall the correct wording and found out it’s actually part of a longer rhyme that was developed to help teach schoolchildren about European geography.

Italy has been home to many ancient civilizations, the most well-known being the Romans. The Roman Empire was founded when Augustus Caesar proclaimed himself the first emperor of Rome in 31 BC. Eventually, the empire was divided into two. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, but the Eastern Roman Empire didn’t come to an end until Constantinople fell in 1453 AD. Today, Rome is Italy’s capital city.

Some time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Italy’s city-states and maritime republics expanded and the region grew prosperous. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Italian Renaissance flourished in Florence, before spreading to the rest of Europe. However, the country wasn’t unified until 1861, when the Kingdom of Italy was established after several wars.

The north of Italy rapidly industrialized after that, but the south was left behind and mostly remained impoverished. Finally, after World War II, Italy held a referendum which resulted in the monarchy being replaced by a republic. The country enjoyed an economic boom and became a major advanced economy.

Today, Italy is considered a global center of art, music, literature, cuisine, science, technology, and fashion. It has 58 World Heritage Sites, the largest number in the world.

What Do People Eat in Italy?

Italian cuisine is one of the best-known and most popular in the world, yet the dishes are usually fairly simple, with short ingredient lists. This is most likely because many of the popular dishes were created by ordinary people rather than chefs, who would use whatever ingredients they had at hand. Lots of dishes focus on quality seasonal produce.

The Italian diet is based on foods such as pasta, pizza, cheese, cold cuts, and wine, with a focus on fresh produce and quality meat and fish. Coffee is also important! Desserts often include ingredients such as citrus, pistachio, and almonds, often paired with sweet cheeses like mascarpone or ricotta. Cocoa, vanilla, and cinnamon are common too. Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine and has the widest variety of indigenous grapevines in the world, so wine is obviously very important!

There are many regional variations when it comes to Italian food. Many dishes became well-known across the country, but usually with some changes. For example, lasagna originated in Naples during the Middle Ages, where today it is made with sausage, small fried meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, ricotta, and mozzarella, with a meat sauce. But in the Emilia-Romagna region, there is a version with a thicker meat sauce and béchamel sauce instead of ricotta. The pasta is also often made green because of the addition of spinach. These aren’t the only versions either!

A full Italian meal will usually start with an antipasto course consisting of cheese, cold cuts, and olives. The next course, known as ‘primo’, may be a pasta dish or a risotto. This would be followed by secondo, which is usually a fish or meat dish with vegetables or salad on the side. Next would be dolce (dessert), typically followed or accompanied by coffee and/or liqueur.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Italian dishes I didn’t make!

Risotto alla Milanese (Saffron Risotto)

Risotto alla Milanese (Saffron Risotto)

I knew I wanted to make a risotto of some kind, and I decided on this saffron risotto which originated in Milan. Traditionally, it included beef marrow as an ingredient, but the version I made suggested pancetta as an option. That is what I went with since it’s a lot easier for me to get.

First, I brought some beef broth to a simmer on the stove. I also dissolved some saffron in hot beef broth.

Next, I sautéed a little pancetta and onion in a mixture of oil and butter. Once the onion was translucent, I added my risotto rice (I used Arborio). After stirring for a minute or two, I began adding the simmering broth, about 1/2 cup at a time. Once the broth evaporated, I added more, continuing to stir often, until the broth was gone.

At this point, the rice was just about cooked. I added the saffron water, and when there was no liquid left I took the pot off the heat. I stirred in some pepper, more butter, and Parmesan, and served.

This was delicious! I’ve made risotto before, but not this version, and it was really good.

The recipe I used is from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Pasta with Egg, Parmesan, and Pancetta)

Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Pasta with Egg, Parmesan, and Pancetta)

I already had a pasta dish in mind for this week, but I decided to add carbonara because it’s simple to make and I already had the pancetta, which I barely used for my risotto. I’d made carbonara before, but this was my first time following an authentic recipe. Carbonara is thought to originate from Lazio, a region situated roughly in the middle of the country.

First, I sautéed a crushed garlic clove in olive oil for a few minutes. Once the garlic turned a deep golden brown, I removed it and sautéed the pancetta in the garlic oil. Once it was beginning to crisp, I added a little white wine and let it bubble for a minute or two before turning off the heat.

In a large bowl, I beat some eggs and stirred in Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, pepper, and parsley. I added some hot cooked spaghetti and tossed quickly until it was coated, then I reheated the pancetta mixture and stirred that in too.

Initially, I didn’t serve this with any extra cheese because the recipe didn’t say to, but I did add some Parmesan after starting to eat. I thought this was pretty delicious, though I would probably increase the egg/cheese to pasta ratio next time.

The recipe I used is from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Bagna Cauda (Warm Anchovy, Garlic, and Olive Oil Dip)

Bagna Cauda (Warm Anchovy, Garlic, and Olive Oil Dip)

This is a warm dip typically made from anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. This version also contained a bit of butter. I will say I’m not entirely happy with how this looks but it tasted good in the end.

First I melted the butter with the oil in a saucepan, and then I added the garlic. I cooked it gently, not letting it color (which would be bad according to the recipe).

Next, I put the saucepan over another pot filled with simmering water. I added chopped anchovies and cooked, stirring often, until they dissolved. I didn’t know how long this part was supposed to take because the recipe did not say, and there wasn’t a photo, so I wasn’t sure what I was going for. I just stopped cooking when the anchovies didn’t seem to want to dissolve any further.

This dip is meant to be served warm with fresh, raw vegetables. The recipe didn’t mention it but I found I enjoyed this most on bread.

Although I’m not convinced my bagna cauda looked right, it was pretty good. The anchovy bits all kind of sank to the bottom, which is why it just looks like a bowl of oil. If I were to attempt this again, I would probably use less oil and more garlic.

This was another recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Pizza Margherita (Pizza with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Basil)

Pizza Margherita (Pizza with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Basil)

I didn’t feel like I could do Italian week without including pizza of some kind! There are many kinds of pizza in Italy, and it’s not just the toppings that differ. Some regions tend to prefer a thin crispy crust, while others favor a chewy, thicker crust.

I chose to make one of the most simple kinds of Italian pizza: pizza margherita, which is topped with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves.

I made my regular pizza crust recipe, which is on the thicker and chewier side as that’s the kind of pizza crust I prefer. I topped the base with some chopped canned Italian tomatoes and baked for about 10 minutes. Then I added sliced mozzarella and grated Parmesan and baked for about 5 minutes more. Finally, I topped with fresh basil leaves before serving.

This was pretty good but I would add the mozzarella earlier if I made this again (and I probably will). I could maybe have left the whole thing in the oven a bit longer but I really don’t like a crunchy crust so I chose not to. I would also add more Parmesan; you can’t even see it in the photo!

For the topping, I followed a recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Fettucine con Ragù alla Bolognese (Pasta with Meat Sauce)

Fettucine con Ragù alla Bolognese (Pasta with Meat Sauce)

Bolognese is traditionally served with tagliatelle, but I could only find multicolored tagliatelle so I got some fresh fettuccine instead. It looked the same size to me, though I’m sure there’s a tiny difference. This dish comes from the city of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy.

To make this, I started by sautéing some onion in butter and olive oil. A few minutes later, I added celery and carrot, and then after a few minutes more, I added ground beef. I seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooked until the beef was browned.

Next, I added milk and let it simmer, stirring often, until it had mostly evaporated. I added some grated nutmeg and white wine. Then, once the wine had nearly simmered away, I added some imported Italian plum tomatoes (I had to make sure I had the good stuff for this!)

The only thing I had to do then was let the sauce simmer for 3 hours, stirring now and then. Every now and then, I added a little water to keep the sauce from drying out too much (the recipe says you’ll have to do this).

Once the sauce was finally ready, I served it with fettuccine and grated some Parmesan over the top. It was really good!

One thing that surprised me about this recipe is that there was no garlic in it. I had to read everything a few times to make sure I wasn’t just missing it. This did taste really good without it, but I’d like to try adding garlic next time (regardless of whether or not that would make the dish inauthentic).

This recipe was also from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Rosemary Focaccia

Rosemary Focaccia

I’ve made focaccia before, but I never used an authentic recipe, and I thought it would go well with the chicken cacciatore (next dish).

This focaccia is made from flour, water, salt, yeast, and olive oil. After mixing and kneading the dough, I let it rise for about 1 1/2 hours. Then I spread it on a large baking sheet and let it rest for another 45 minutes or so.

I brushed the dough with a mixture of oil, water, and salt, and baked it for about 15 minutes. Then I sprinkled over some fresh rosemary and baked for a bit longer.

I can’t say this is the best focaccia I’ve ever made, but it was pretty good. I did really like the oil mixture that I brushed on top; it gave the focaccia great flavor.

This recipe was from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Stew)

Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Stew)

I found it really hard to choose a main dish for this week (although I personally would eat risotto or pasta as a main, they are usually served before a dish like this in Italy). I ended up deciding on chicken cacciatore mostly because I already had chicken thighs in the freezer. Cacciatora means ‘hunter’s style’ in Italian, and is traditionally a stew made with chicken or rabbit and vegetables.

First I coated the chicken thighs in some flour, then I browned them in oil. I removed them from the pan and added onion. After a few minutes, I poured in some white wine and scraped all the brown bits from the chicken off the bottom of the pan.

Next, I added bell pepper, carrot, celery, garlic, and some chopped canned tomatoes. I returned the chicken to the pan and let everything cook for a while, until the chicken was cooked through.

This was so easy and it tasted really good. I was a little surprised considering how simple the ingredients were. This would be great served on top of polenta; I almost went with that but ended up choosing the focaccia since it was something my husband would eat. I also served a simple green salad on the side.

This recipe was also from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

Panna Cotta (Sweet Cream Dessert)

Panna Cotta (Sweet Cream Dessert)

Panna cotta literally translates to ‘cooked cream’, and it comes from the region of Piedmont in Northwest Italy. This is something I’ve always wanted to try making. On cooking shows people often seem to mess it up by using too much or not enough gelatine, or they have trouble turning them out. Well, the latter happened to me, but otherwise, these were extremely easy to make.

I poured some milk into a saucepan and sprinkled gelatine on top. Then after a few minutes, I turned on the heat and stirred until the gelatine dissolved. Once it did, I stirred in some sugar, and when that was dissolved I added vanilla and a little salt. I combined that with heavy cream and that was the mixture done!

I poured the mixture evenly among some greased ramekins, and then they sat in the fridge until it was time for dessert that night. I did try unmolding my panna cottas but it wasn’t going so well, so I left most of them in the ramekins. The one that I did get out did not look pretty because it didn’t come out cleanly.

Luckily, these tasted the same regardless of whether they were in ramekins or not. I served them with some fresh raspberries and they were delicious.

The recipe I used is from NY Times (Marcella Hazan’s book didn’t have a panna cotta recipe!)

Bruschetta (Toast with Tomatoes and Basil)

Bruschetta (Toast with Tomatoes and Basil)

Bruschetta is said to come from ancient Rome, and was originally just toasted bread with olive oil. Then it became popular to rub the bread with garlic, and later tomato and basil were added. There are many other popular toppings today, but I decided to stick with the more traditional combination of garlic, tomato, and basil.

The bread is homemade white whole wheat bread. I toasted it, then rubbed it with garlic and topped with chopped tomato, basil, and a drizzle of olive oil, before seasoning with salt and pepper.

This was really good, but I have always loved bruschetta so I knew it would be!

This is a dish so simple it hardly requires a recipe, but I did follow the one from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.

  • Frittata – an egg dish that can contain just about any combination of meat, cheese, and vegetables. It’s like a crustless quiche or thick omelet.
  • Lasagna – as mentioned earlier, there are many variations. Typically a lasagna consists of pasta sheets that are layered with sauce and often cheese, then baked. Lasagnas usually include meat, but there are vegetarian versions too.
  • Gnocchi – most people probably think of the little potato dumplings when they think of gnocchi, but they can also be made from ricotta. Both are typically boiled and served with sauce, though they can be pan-fried after boiling too. Roman gnocchi are an older version from before potatoes came to Italy, made from semolina and eggs and baked in the oven.
  • Minestrone – a thick soup made with beans and lots of vegetables. Pasta or rice will often be included too.
  • Ribollita – a Tuscan soup made from bread, beans, and vegetables. It was usually made by reheating the leftover minestrone from the previous day with stale bread.
  • Fritto misto – a selection of small, bite-sized pieces of meat, fish, and vegetables, coated in flour or batter and deep-fried. The exact ingredients vary widely depending on where in the country you are.
  • Osso buco – cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine, and broth, from the region of Lombardy in the north of Italy. There is a modern version that uses tomatoes, but the traditional version does not.
  • Cacio e pepe – a simple Roman pasta dish. It consists of spaghetti, seasoned with Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper.
  • Arancini – made from risotto formed into balls, coated with bread crumbs, and deep fried. There’s usually mozzarella in the middle.
  • Pesto alla genovese – a paste made from basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese, blended with olive oil. Traditionally, this was made in a mortar and pestle. It is thought to originate from Genoa in Liguria, which is in north-western Italy. In Italy, pesto is commonly used on pasta.
  • Panzanella – a salad that originated in the central regions of Italy. It was traditionally made by soaking old bread in water, then tossing it with vinegar, herbs, and onions. During the 20th century, tomatoes were added. Modern versions also usually include olive oil, salt, and pepper, and sometimes cucumber and/or basil are added.
  • Caprese salad – a simple salad said to originate from the island of Capri. Originally, it consisted of tomato, basil, and mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil, but it’s common nowadays to add reduced balsamic vinegar.
  • Tiramisu – a dessert made by dipping ladyfingers (sponge fingers) in coffee and layering them with an egg, sugar, and mascarpone mixture flavored with cocoa. Today, it is common to soak the ladyfingers in liqueur, but this wasn’t a part of the original recipe. Tiramisu is thought to have originated in the northeast of the country.
  • Cannoli – tube-shaped pastry filled with a sweet, creamy filling, usually ricotta though there are many variations. These come from the island of Sicily.
  • Biscotti – Tuscan almond biscuits/cookies that are baked twice. First, the dough is formed into a kind of flattened log and baked. Then it’s sliced and the slices are baked again. This results in a dry, crunchy biscuit that goes well with coffee. Although the almond version is traditional, biscotti can contain all kinds of ingredients such as other nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate chips.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! All the food from Italy was really good but my favorite was probably the risotto alla Milanese. It was hard to choose though.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Jamaica.

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