Italian cuisine is much more than just the usual fare of pizza and spaghetti that we are all familiar with. It is actually comparable in complexity and sophistication to French cuisine. Various regions in Italy have different interpretations of dishes but there are characteristics of Italian cooking that distinguishes it apart from others in the Mediterranean.
Italian cuisine is not very vegetarian friendly. Many of its dishes feature meat as their main ingredient. The Umbria, Marche and Basilicata regions are noted for their heavy use of pork and sausage in their trademark dishes. Northern Italy is famous for its excellent bacon. More exotic fare is used in the island of Sardinia as wild boar and suckling pig is widely used there. Italy's rural regions also make extensive use of mutton and lamb.
Italian cured meats - locally referred to as "salumi" - is known throughout the world. Beef, pork, veal and even goat are all turned into various cured meats that are mainstays in every Italian kitchen. Salting, smoking, and air-drying are the different methods used in producing these mouth-watering creations. Cured Italian meats are divided into two broad categories: those that use whole cuts of meat and those that use ground or minced meat stuffed into casings. prosciutto or culatello, along with the various varieties of ham and bacon comprise the former while sausages and salami are examples of the latter.
Cheeses are a staple of the Italian diet. Bearing the same tradition as that of France, Italy's cheese industry names it's cheeses after the towns and regions that make them. Italian cheeses from the Lombardy region include gorgonzola, taleggio, robiola and crescenza. Two varieties of Italian cheese are known worldwide: mozzarella and authentic Parmigiano Reggiano grace the trademark Italian dishes of pizza and pasta. The region of Campania is regarded as home of the best mozzarella cheese. What makes this kind unique is that it uses water buffalo milk as opposed to ordinary cow's milk. Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena and Bologna are the best producers of Parmigiano Reggiano.
The bulk of Italian meals is comprised of breads and pasta, with different regions naturally having their own versions. The pasta capital of northern Italy is a distinction that goes to the Emilia-Romagna region, which also uses its sweet flour to make excellent breads. The origins of familiar pastas like lasagna, tortellini, and tagliatelle can be traced to Bologna. Lazio has versions that are characteristically heavier than the usual fare. Rice is also extensively used in Italian cooking. Risotto is famous all over the world and it can trace back its roots to the Lombardy region. Serving breads, pastas, and rice in large potions made Italian meals have the reputation of being "heavy" - add to that the prevalent use of rich creams and butter and Italian cooking is indeed hearty.
The Northern and Southern regions of Italy are different in their preference over ingredients and their overall approach to cooking. Southern Italy's cuisine favors olive oil and local vegetables as pasta toppings. Protein comes from shellfish, pork, and lamb. Provolone and mozzarella cheeses round out the South's offerings. The North also uses pasta but in combination with Arborio rice and corn for polenta. EntrÃ©es are more heavy with beef and veal. Keeping with this richer approach, sauces are cream based and utilize cheese varieties that come from milk.
A typical Italian meal is of a more formal structure. It is started with an appetizer, more commonly called antipasto - literally translated to "before the pasta" in Italian. Then comes two main courses, the primo and secondo served with a side dish or salad (contorno). The entire meal is washed down with wine or vino. Fruit and cheese (formaggio e frutta) and a dessert (dolce) round out the meal. The last part is a cup of espresso. No wonder siestas are so popular in Italy!
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