From Ankle To Arch: Italy’s Culinary Diversity

Go to your local supermarket to buy pasta and you’ll find about a dozen different shapes from which to choose. Travel from the ankle to the arch of the heel in Italy, though, and you’ll find 150 different types. And those are just the pasta types that begin with the letter “C.”


Each of Italy’s 20 regions has a distinct cuisine. Pizza crust thickens and thins. Ingredients go in and out of certain sauces. Meat is cooked in entirely different ways. On the island of Pantelleria, for example, you’ll find as much couscous on the menu of an Italian restaurant as you will pasta. In Sicily bread crumbs are an actual sauce you’ll find in pasta. In Valle d’Aosta, in the Alpine north, you’ll find fondue made with fontina cheese. Culinary diversity is one of the wonders of travel. And Italy is one of the best places to discover new food.

You thought you knew Italian cuisine? Not until you’ve traveled from Torino to Taranto. Here’s a quick guide to some of Italy’s best regional cuisine.


Piedmont
A Slow Approach
It’s no coincidence the world headquarters for the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the use of local and organic ingredients, is based in this region in northwest Italy. Thanks to its location near the Alps, Piedmont’s capital, Turin, as well as the countryside is awash in mushrooms and truffles. Which is why one of the most local dishes in the region is tagliolini with white truffles, a nutmeg-accented pasta dish that is both earthy and satisfying. Wash it down with a glass of Barolo, Piedmont’s best known beverages and one of Italy’s most acclaimed wines.

Lombardy
More than Milan
The most famous dish to come out of this northern region is the breaded veal or chicken cutlet a la Milanese (which later influenced the advent of Wiener schnitzel, by the way). But Lombardy’s cuisine offers so much more. Risotto and polenta, for example, are more prevalent here than pasta and butter and cream-an influence from northern Europe-are just as popular as olive oil. The region’s capital, Milan, is an optimal place to sample the regional cuisine, but for lesser known specialties head south to the town of Pavia, surrounded by rice patties, for risotto rusti: rice with pork and beans.

Veneto
The taste of La Serenissima
Hugging the Adriatic sea in northeastern Italy, Veneto is-surprise, surprise-a feast for seafood lovers. Dried cod stewed in milk might not sound too delizia, but try it and we trust you’ll be won over. For true carnivores the fegato alla Veneziana –calf’s liver and onions-is a true taste of Venice. Like Lombardy, one of this region’s neighbors to the west, rice is more prevalent than pasta. The area around inland Treviso is famous for its soft, bubbly prosecco, be sure to indulge in a glass.

Emilia-Romagna
Porky Goodness
If there’s a gastronomic epicenter to a country that is already brimming with mouth-watering food, Emilia-Romagna is it. The region’s fertile land means it produces some of the country’s best dishes. The streets of towns like Bologna and Parma are teeming with porkliscious goodness (prosciutto, anyone?) as well as local staples like freshly made tagliatelle and lasagna. Don’t forget to try some Parmagiano in its hometown, Parma.

Tuscany
Under the Tuscan Tongue
Perhaps no other region of Italy has a more romanticized cuisine than that of Tuscany. Geography has played a heavy role in shaping the cuisine, which is earthy, simple, and seasonal: from olive oil to pecorino cheese to spices like rosemary and sage. Panzanella, a bread soup, is a traditional Tuscan dish. So are various bean soups. And, of course, one cannot forget the tender steaks the region produces (the Chianina cow from the sub-region Chianti is a legend among meat eaters). Wash it all down with the king of Italian wines, Brunello di Montalcino, which hails from Montalcino in souther Tuscany.

Umbria
The Green Heart
Known as Italy’s “green heart” for its fertile landscape, Umbria is a foodie paradise. The gorgeous hill-top towns are a feast for the eyes, but there’s plenty for the taste buds as well. Perugia is famous for chocolate and Orvieto for its many Slow Food restaurants (such as Trattoria dell’Orso or La Grotta), but be sure to check out off-the-radar Norcia, where sausage is king. For something less meaty, try the Umbrian dish falchetti verdi: ricotta gnocchi and spinach baked with cheese and tomato sauce.

Lazio
Eternally Delicious
With Rome at its axis, this region is a culinary world all its own. Famous dishes that hail from Lazio include the egg-and-pancetta-laced pasta carbonara, tomato-and-pancetta-based spaghetti amatriciana, and the spicy pasta arabiata. Many of Rome’s dishes were created in the district of Testaccio, home of an ancient slaughterhouse where workers were often paid with the “quinto quarto,” or fifth part of the animal. Only the brave should sample real Roman dishes like pajata, veal intestines with the mother’s milk still inside.

Campania
Tomatoes and Buffalos
Naples is the heart of this southern region’s cuisine, and for good reason. It’s here where locals put their famous tomatoes, San Marzano, and mouth-watering buffalo milk cheese, mozzarella di buffalo, to good use: they’re the main ingredients for the world’s best pizza, invented here in the 16th century. Lesser known treats such as bistecca alla pizzaiola, a thinly sliced beef topped with garlic and tomato sauce, are also worth the trek.

Puglia
The Pull of Puglia
Situated in the heel of the boot, the sparse olive-tree spiked landscape of Puglia has inspired a unique cuisine. And so has the region’s historic poverty. Pasta is made without eggs and the shapes are unique. Orecchiette, or “little ears,” originated here. Puglia gets more sun than anywhere else in Italy, which means the region’s wine is delicious. The negroamaro grape, nearly exclusive to the region, produces a smooth, medium-bodied wine.

Sicily
Sun and Sea
The food of this island, the “ball” being kicked by the “boot,” has a legion of influences, thanks to the many invasions over the millennia. Greeks, Vikings, Muslims and Spanish have all contributed to the cuisine. The sun and the sea have also played a large roll in shaping Sicily’s table. Everything from capers to saffron to wild fennel can be found in pasta dishes (often laced, not surpsingly, with seafood). Arancini, fried rice balls, are a must. So are cannoli, fried tubular dough stuffed with cream. Lemons are ubiquitous here, which means a true taste of Sicily can be found in drinks like the luscious after-dinner digestivi, limoncello.

[Photo by David Farley]

Learn Tuscan Cooking At Historic Wine Estate And Boutique Hotel

chiantiThere’s certainly no shortage of cooking schools and classes to be found in Italy, but the type, quality and locale vary wildly. If you’re looking for something focused on the good stuff – like eating – within a stunning venue, Castello Banfi Il Borgo is likely to make you as happy as a pig in … lardo.

This stunning historic estate, comprised of 7,100 acres of vineyards and olive groves, is located near Montalcino, one hour south of Siena. It was created from restored 17th- and 18th century structures adjacent to a medieval fortress known as Poggio alle Mura, and is owned by the Mariani family, well known for their Brunello di Montacino wine.

The seasonal, contemporary Tuscan menus used in the classes are taught by the property’s English-speaking sous chefs, who are from the region. Classes are offered exclusively to guests of Il Borgo March through November, based upon availability (advance reservations required). Two hundred and twenty euros will get you a demo, hands-on class, and four-course lunch paired with estate wines.

Other activities offered through Il Borgo include foraging for porcini mushrooms and chestnuts in fall, driving the hills of Chianti in a Ferrari or Maserati (but of course), hot air balloon rides, shopping excursions, and more. Even if you decide to just kick it in one of the 14 Frederico Forquet of Cetona-designed rooms, you’ll be able to indulge with bath amenities made from estate-grown Sangiovese grapes. That puts the “ahh” in Montalcino.

Overview of Siena, Italy

Study Shows Travel Can Increase Your Sex Appeal

girls According to a study done by Intrepid Travel using the online dating site RSVP.com.au, people who travel a lot are seen as more attractive than their non-traveling counterparts. The study found that daring travelers are seen as the sexiest, while 23 percent say adrenaline seekers make their heart race. Moreover, off-the-beaten-path travelers were most attractive to 22 percent, while culture buffs got 16 percent of the votes.

Says Intrepid spokeswoman Jo Stewart, “The attitudes of singles show that a bi-product of travel is that it adds to your sex appeal.”

The study also looked at the behavior of single travelers. Data showed that 96 percent of singles who were passionate about traveling, were also looking for a partner with the same interests. Many single travelers – 72 percent – also dream of meeting someone special on their trips. Ever fantasized about a romantic picnic in Tuscany? Twenty-six percent responded this was their perfect first date, with a sentimental stroll in Paris being their second.

[image via permanently scatterbrained]

A Sunday Afternoon Party In Lucca

lucca festival warriorAs we walked down a quiet street in Lucca, a celebrated medieval town in Tuscany, on Sunday afternoon, we heard drums beating in the distance. Like bloodhounds picking up on a pungent odor, we followed the beat, twisting and turning through the city’s narrow, ancient streets as the tribal drumming grew louder and more insistent. Before long, we were sitting in the town’s atmospheric Piazza San Michele watching a group of young musicians in medieval costumes playing trumpets, beating drums and tossing colorful flags across the piazza.

A few minutes into a spectacular free show, the music stopped for a moment and then we heard ominous drumming coming our way. Another band was marching towards the square and their drum rhythm had a military-style beat to it. The second band made its way into the piazza and several members were wearing suits of armor and carrying ancient-looking weapons, including scary-looking daggers and heavy, bows and arrows.

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On the road, a traveler’s fortunes can change in a heartbeat. Last Saturday, my wife and I were cooped up in our hotel room, seeking refuge from a persistent rain. We encouraged our children, ages 2 and 4, to watch a movie in order to give us a break but they wanted to wrestle and jump on the beds and were driving us mad in the process. Few people enjoy rainy vacation days but trying to amuse toddlers in a hotel room in inclement weather without the benefit of their normal complement of toys can be a sanity-challenging exercise.Long before I go on a trip, I enter the destinations onto the saved weather page on my iPod. I’m not quite sure why, but I check the forecast for these places obsessively in the weeks before my departure. There’s nothing you can do about the weather but somehow it’s fun to imagine what a place is going to be like before you get there.

Lucca and all the other Italian cities I placed on my iPod have enjoyed mostly sunny weather for several weeks prior to our arrival, so when I noticed a six-day forecast that showed nothing but rain the day before our arrival, I felt aggrieved. I called my mom, who spent the entire month of April in Lucca last year.

“We didn’t have a single day of rain all month,” she crowed, making me feel even worse.

Any time you encounter inclement weather while on vacation, you can be certain that people will assure you that the weather was terrific just before you arrived and that it will surely clear up as soon as you skip town. After our first day in Lucca was a washout and the icons on my iPod looked ominous for the next two days, I had very low expectations for our Sunday in town. I simply hoped the rain would be light and intermittent, rather than heavy and steady.

A Swiss couple we met in our hotel told us that they were planning to cut their trip short due to the brutal forecast, but thankfully, my iPod had it all wrong. The morning started cloudy, but right before noon the sun’s rays broke through the clouds and the warmth and light felt like an embrace from the gods. Shortly thereafter, the serendipitous battle of the bands played out right in front of us and the day just kept getting better.

After the show was over, the bands marched back out of the piazza and I spoke to a few members of the first band. A young woman who served as one of the band’s drummers said that it was Lucca’s “Liberty Day” commemorating a 14th century victory over Pisa, the city’s rival.

“At that time, they were our bosses,” she said. “But we kicked them out.”

Her band represented the district of St. Anne, located just outside the town’s ancient walls. The other band was from San Paolino – inside the town walls. No one could recall the year the battle occurred but it didn’t matter.

“The important thing to remember is that we beat Pisa,” she said.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Five (almost) labor-free recipes for Labor Day

labor day recipesI love to cook. Just not for myself. What I truly enjoy is feeding family and friends, but indoors or out the last thing I want to deal with is a labor-intensive meal–especially when it’s hot. So, in honor of the upcoming holiday weekend, I’m sharing five of my favorite, late summer recipes. They feature easy-to-find ingredients, regardless of where you live, but if you can purchase the produce and meat at your local farmer’s market or from another sustainable source, so much the better. In my opinion, the key to great food (especially where home cooks are concerned) lies in the quality of the ingredients. Even if you’re visiting friends, local ingredients can be adapted or found for these travel-friendly dishes.

The following require little in the way of skill, prep and clean-up, leaving you more time to enjoy the final days of summer with the ones you love (or want to impress). All of the following serve two, and can be easily increased to serve a large dinner party or barbecue.

1. Pancetta-wrapped pears (or peaches) with blue cheese
Allow one piece of fruit per person, and be sure to use ripe, but not mushy, produce–softer pear varieties such as Bosc, French Butter, or Warren are ideal. Halve each piece of fruit, and core or remove pit. Brush cut surfaces lightly with olive oil, and wrap each half in a piece of good-quality bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto (you may want to use a wooden skewer or toothpick to secure it during cooking). Grill over medium-hot coals (start with one half of fruit; if it’s taking too long, wait until coals are hot) until bacon or prosciutto is crisp, and fruit is slightly caramelized. Serve with lightly dressed bitter greens, and garnish with a creamy, non-assertive blue cheese such as Original Blue, Blue d’Auvergne, or Bleu d’Basque.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Pink Thistle]labor day recipes2. Panzanella
I can’t claim credit for this Tuscan classic, but it should be in every cook’s repertoire. Tear a loaf of day-old, country-style bread into 1-inch pieces, drizzle with olive oil, and toast until golden brown. While bread cools, halve one pint of miniature tomatoes, and cut 2 to 4 medium-size tomatoes (I prefer to use a mixture of heirloom varieties for the best color and flavor) into chunks. Place bread in large bowl, and add tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and one tablespoon of good Balsamic or Sherry vinegar. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss with hands until ingredients are combined. Just before serving, tear basil leaves into small pieces and toss into salad.

3. Fingerling potato and haricot vert salad
Scrub 1-1/2 pounds of fingerling or new potatoes, halve or quarter them, and place them in a large saucepan or stockpot of cold water. Boil until tender, and drain. Pinch stems from 1/2-pound of haricot vert, blanch until tender (the younger and thinner they are, the better they’ll taste), and drain. Finely mince one medium shallot, and one clove garlic. Add shallots and garlic to small saucepan with 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and heat on low until the the shallots and garlic are lightly sizzling (they shouldn’t brown) and the oil is fragrant. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of Champagne or white wine vinegar, and add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (optional). Coarsely chop one large handful of Italian parsley. Place the potatoes and haricot vert in a serving bowl, and add enough of the shallot vinaigrette to coat potatoes without making the salad soggy. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, add parsley, and toss to combine.
labor day recipes
4. Grilled ribeyes with mustard-herb butter
Heat grill until coals are hot. While grill is heating, take a 1/2-stick of room temperature, unsalted butter, and place in small bowl. Add 1-2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard (or as needed), finely minced herbs such as chives, parsley, or chervil, teaspoon minched shallot or garlic and a pinch of salt. Mash ingredients together with a fork until desired flavor is reached.

Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on counter, and place butter at one end of the plastic wrap, shaping it into a log. Roll the butter up (be sure not to roll the plastic into it) to form a tube, and twist the ends of the plastic. Chill until ready to use. Pat steaks dry and generously season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and grill until medium rare. Arrange a small mound of bitter greens in the center of each plate, add a steak, and top each with an ounce of butter. Serve immediately.

5. Grilled peaches with raspberries and ricotta
Heat grill until coals are hot. Halve peaches, and brush cut surfaces very lightly with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill until the cut side of the fruit is soft and caramelized. Serve in a shallow dish or bowl with raspberries and a large dollop of good-quality ricotta, Greek yogurt, unsweetened whipped cream, or fromage blanc. Garnish with chopped, toasted pistachios.

All recipes except panzanella copyright The Sustainable Kitchen®

[Photo credits: tomatoes, Flickr user wayneandwax; greens, Flickr user burntfat]

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