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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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]

Perugia: The Italian Town Haunted by Amanda Knox

The medieval city of Perugia is known for its chocolate, its well-respected universities, and for hosting one of the world’s premier Jazz festivals. But in the United States and Great Britain, this city of ancient, winding streets filled with fortress-like stone dwellings is inextricably linked to Amanda Knox, the American college student who was convicted and then acquitted of murdering Meredith Kercher.

The trials attracted a tsunami of reporters from around the world to this ancient Umbrian hill town and exposed a decadent sex, drugs and party subculture that has existed amongst the student population here for a long time. Various news reports indicated that the Knox-Kercher case has scared away British and American tourists and students but according to some in Perugia, the overall effect on tourism here may not be as grim as one might think.

Tourism officials here didn’t want to make an official comment on the effect of the Knox case on tourism in Perugia, but hotel managers and a local who rents apartments to tourists here told me that the publicity surrounding the case has brought more Italian tourists to Perugia, not less.

“Italians have a curiosity to come here and see where the murder took place,” said the apartment manager, who asked that I refrain from publishing his name. “They’re also visiting the island of Giglio to see where the Costa Concordia crashed. People have a fascination with these things.”The apartment manager and others here have told me that locals are nearly unanimous in their belief that Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffeale Sollicito, who no longer lives here, are guilty. The fact that Knox has received a book deal that could be worth close to $4 million has only hardened attitudes towards her here. (Kercher’s father is also set to release his own book) Sollicito reportedly finished a computer science degree in prison and, according to ABC News, recently had job interviews in the U.S.

Criticism of the Italian judicial proceedings, which were widely viewed in the U.S. as a travesty of justice, damaged national pride in Italy and created ill will towards Knox’s defenders in the U.S. I followed the trials and was relieved when Knox was acquitted on appeal because I don’t think there was anywhere near enough evidence to convict her of murder. I came to Perguia to see the city’s historical treasures but couldn’t resist taking a walk out to the house where Meredith Kercher was murdered. (see top photo)

As I arrived with my family in tow, a young Bangladeshi couple that now lives in the home were on their way out. They were accompanied by some relatives who were visiting from Great Britain who translated for us. The young man, whose name was Mohammed, just moved into the home four months ago, after emigrating from Bangladesh. The landlord never mentioned that a gruesome murder took place in the home but he wondered why tourists come by to photograph the place.

Initially, Mohammed asked me to take his photo and include it in this story, but I bumped into him later that evening- he sells novelty balloons on Corso Vanucci in the center of town- and he asked me to delete the photos of him from my camera.

The house is located behind an imposing fence on a busy street, very close to the University where Knox was a student. It’s considered a run-down area in Perugia but there is a very nice view of the surrounding countryside behind the home. I found no evidence of any memorial for Kercher, which is a shame.

After looking around the place for a few minutes, I felt like an intruder, even though Mohammed and his relatives were very friendly and seemed to want to ask us about the Knox case, which they had only a vague awareness of. The infamous house has new tenants and life goes on, but Perugia will never be the same.

For her part, Knox has stated that she still loves Perugia and would like to return to Italy, though it’s not likely she’ll do that anytime soon, given the fact that Italian prosecutors have appealed her acquittal. Her parents face defamation charges for comments they made about alleged mistreatment of their daughter by Perugia police officers and Knox is reportedly planning to testify via videoconference. For Perugia, there is no end in sight to the Knox case notoriety.

Eurochocolate: Italy’s biggest chocolate festival

Italy may not be synonymous with chocolate in the way that Switzerland is, but it does produce one of the world’s most recognizable brands: Perugina Baci. Wrapped in silver foil dotted with blue stars and lined with a love note, the chocolate and hazelnut morsels known as Baci are the fortune cookies of the chocolate world.

Perugina, the company that manufactures Baci and a handful of other chocolate brands, is named after and based in Perugia, capital of the Italian region of Umbria and the home of Italy’s biggest chocolate festival: Eurochocolate. Each October, more than 100 artisan chocolatiers and European chocolate companies, such as Lindt, Milka, and Toblerone, set up shop along Corso Vannucci, Perugia’s main street, for nine days of chocolate tasting, cooking demonstrations, and clever exhibitions and activities centered around chocolate. For example, with each edition Eurochocolate features sculptures carved from blocks of cacao, ranging from medieval statues to chocolate representations of Italy’s major landmarks. During Eurochocolate, visitors can sign up for all-chocolate spa days or visit participating local restaurants to indulge in entire meals made from chocolate.

Eurochocolate 2011 begins on October 14 and runs through October 23. If you’re unable to catch Eurochocolate in Perugia, both Rome and Turin present their own Eurochocolate festivals at other times of the year.

Photo © Eurochocolate Perugia

The World’s Sexiest Cities (That Are Still Secret … Shhh)

I’m going to try to sneak this post in right here, real nonchalant-like. Why? Because the details are still secret.

MSN recently put together a list of the sexiest “secret” cities around. Apparently, they compiled the list so that you could “get a head start on your fellow travellers.” Cool, huh? And thoughtful? By the way, by “sexy” they mean bursting with culture — not filled with strip clubs. Anyway, the cities are:

Yeah, I know: Scottsdale. Whatever. The other seven sound pretty sexy, though.

Feel free to share this tip with your friends — but only the sexy ones. We’re trying to keep this a secret for as long as we can. We don’t want these sexy treasures filling up with the non-sexy. Eww.

Other sexiness: