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Italian Cuisine

italian cuisineWith the exception of the French, almost no other group has influenced cooking and dining (as we know it) the way the Italians have. With their passion for life, eating, and the freshest ingredients, the Italians ruled the culinary world from as early as the 1400's and all the way through the Renaissance, until the end of the 16th century when innovative "haute" cuisine began to shift over the Alps into France. And while France may currently be viewed as the motherland for artisan gastronomy, Italian cooking has done what few other cuisines ever have   made its way into the hearts (and onto the tables) of millions, possibly billions, of domestic cooks across the world.


Influenced by Greek, Roman, and Arab cuisines, Italian cooking is known for a foundation of basic fresh ingredients used in astonishing variety. In fact, a wealth of regional variations is one of the characteristics of Italian cuisine; because of the focus on tradition and the value of local and seasonal items, recipes can differ from region to region, province to province, and even home to home. These differences might be as simple as the pasta preferred with a specific sauce, or as complex as the herbs used for marinades and seasoning. Venetian cooking, for example, traditionally uses polenta (cornmeal) and risotto (Italian rice) as its main starches, rather than the pastas consistent with other regions.

Despite these variations, the principles of classic Italian cookery remain fairly constant : keep it simple, and let ingredients be the focus. Sauces, much like in France, are vital to the cuisine but are almost austere by comparison; most good Italian sauces are fairly uncomplicated combinations of four or five main ingredients used in harmony with one another.

Eat Like an Italian

Authentic Italian cooking is not the never-ending-pasta-bowl we frequently see here in the States. Portion sizes are substantially smaller, and pasta is generally served as its own course, separate from main entrees. Meals are addressed with more reverence and structure than in America, and diners are encouraged to savor their food slowly and with pleasure.

Breakfast is usually simple : fresh pastries and coffee or cappuccino (espresso with frothed milk); the main meal is eaten midday, traditionally around 1pm, with a lighter dinner following later in the evening (around 8pm).

Main meals are broken down into courses

Antipasto (hot and cold appetizers)

The antipasto is usually made up of cold cuts like salami, prosciutto, or pancetta (similar to bacon) and assorted cheeses (mozzarella, Parmesan-Reggiano, Pecorino, Asiago, etc.), spreads like bagna cauda (a mixture of warm extra-virgin olive oil, butter, anchovies, and garlic) or simple bruschetta (bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with oil, and sometimes tomato), and cold seafood salads. Breads are also presented at the beginning of a meal; Italy is known for its particularly delicious breads.

Il Primo (first course)

Il primo, the starch based course, is made up of soups and pasta dishes. Pasta is delivered in smaller doses than Americans are accustomed to, usually no more than a cup to a cup and a half; the idea is to whet the palate in preparation for the next courses. The pasta itself (penne, spaghetti, etc.) and sauces will vary greatly from region to region, but most famous are classics like pasta with Aglio e Olio (plenty of garlic, olive oil, and red pepper), Pomadoro (fresh tomato sauce), Puttanesca ("whore's spaghetti", a spicy combination of olive oil, garlic, dried hot peppers, tomato, capers, black olives, and anchovy), Bolognese (beefy meat sauce), and American favorite Alfredo (cream sauce). Risotto (a rich rice dish made by first sauteing rice in olive oil or butter with seasonings, then cooking in meat or vegetable stock) and soups like Minestrone (hearty vegetable) or Pasta Fagioli (pasta and beans) are also enjoyed

Il Secondo (main course)

The main course is traditionally meat or seafood, and again is subject to countless regional preferences. Chicken or veal cutlets and beef are generally the base of meat dishes, and are most often breaded and baked/fried, sauteed, braised, or cooked in sauce; pork usually appears in the form of pancetta or prosciutto. Dishes like Carne Pizzaiola (tomato based sauce with garlic), Parmigiana (breaded cutlet with cheese and prosciutto), and Marsala (a light wine sauce) have become staples on restaurant menus and dinner tables across North America in the last half century as well.

Il Coutorno (side dishes)

Vegetables and fruits are prepared to compliment the flavors and textures of the main course. Regional offerings like eggplant, asparagus, artichokes, peppers, spinach, beans, and escarole (a leafy green) are most commonly used

Il Dolce (dessert)

The Italian influence on dessert has been felt worldwide. Their gelato (ice cream) and sorbetti are often considered the best in the world, and sparked a devotion to frozen spoon desserts that continues today (what American mall or main street doesn't have an ice cream parlor?). Other traditional desserts like tiramisu (or "pick me up", a cake of ladyfingers soaked in espresso with chocolate and mascarpone cream) and canoli (fried dough shells filled with thick sweetened cream with nuts and/or chocolate), are equally prized by lovers of after-dinner treats.

And we would be remiss, of course, to leave out pizza. Pizza in Italy can fall underneath the category of bread (and sometimes antipasto,) but is also enjoyed as a quick lunch, light supper, or snack; authentic presentations are quite simple, without the elaborate toppings found in the Western world, and often utilize only tomato, garlic, and olive oil to showcase the phenomenal flatbread. History debates where pizza was invented, and whether its origin is even Italian, but Italy has been proud to accept the honor of being perfectors of pizza. Widely considered the national dish, the perfect pizza Margherita (a combination of buffalo or cow's milk mozzarella, olive oil, tomatoes, and a few leaves of fresh basil, named in 1889 for the visiting queen of Italy) is a culinary representation of the Italian flag.

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