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]

Parma – Where You Can Drop A Grand On A Wheel Of Cheese

The moment you walk through the doors of Parma’s Salumeria Verdi, one of the world’s great delis, the aromas of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and other local delicacies arrest the senses. You want to place your order and string up a hammock so you can luxuriate in the sweet, smoky smell of the room.

You can find packets or little jars of the stuff in the humblest pizzerias and Italian restaurant all over the planet. That Parmesan cheese is practically flavorless, but if you visit the impeccably preserved Italian city of Parma, and other towns in the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna, you’ll discover that the cheese named after Parma and the nearby city of Reggiano-Emilia is an awful lot better than you realized.

Inside the Salumeria Verdi, my eyes are drawn to a collection of colossal wheels of the stuff sitting on shelves in the corner. “NOV 09” is engraved on the wheels on my right, meaning they’ve been aging for nearly 30 months. There is no chance I can fit one of these hulking goliaths of dairy goodness in my suitcase, but I want to own one. Not to eat, but to place on my mantle like a fine work of art. They look that good.

But the manager of the salumeria quickly disabuses my fantasy informing me that one of the 30-month aged wheels goes for about 800 euros, or $1,040. And these wheels aren’t even the most expensive ones – if the word “export” or “extra” is engraved on the cheese, it’s even pricier. For a moment, I ponder how my wife would react if I turned up back at the hotel with a $1,000 wheel of cheese the size of our suitcases. Someday, maybe.%Gallery-153199%
I settle for a panini with prosciutto crudo and Parmesano-Reggiano on fresh focaccia bread. The sandwich is wrapped elaborately, like a present, but I unwrap it immediately and conclude it’s the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life before I even make it to the cash register.

Travelers can eat well anywhere in Italy, but the Emilia-Romagna region is to gastronomy what Lambeau Field is to football – sacred ground. Parma, Modena and Bologna are all well worth a visit, and if you can’t find something good to eat in these places, you aren’t trying very hard. They’re also great cities for pedestrians and cyclists, so you can burn the calories off while joining the stylish multitudes.

So why is the real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese so much better than the stuff that comes in those little packets you find inside your pizza box? For starters, the milk that’s used is from cows fed according to strict regulations and it has to be brought into the cheese making process within two hours of being milked. Then the cheese is allowed to age for at least 12 months and then every wheel is inspected and those that don’t pass mustard aren’t certified and branded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela seal. They’ve been making this stuff in the region since at least 1200, so it’s not something they take lightly.

Serious foodies can visit a host of food museums in the vicinity of Parma – including ones devoted to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, tomatoes, prosciutto and salami. I didn’t visit any of them, though, because I’d rather spend my time eating than studying. But the thing about food in Italy is that, often times, your most recent meal/snack/sandwich/cappuccino/gelato is the best one you’ve ever had. It gets very difficult to differentiate between one outstanding treat and another.

For example, on Thursday night, I had some nocciola gelato at a place called K2 Gelateria in Parma that seemed just about perfect. At the moment I was eating it, I deemed it the best gelato in the world. But then on Friday, in Lucca, I had one that seemed even better at a place called Le Bonta, a few minutes walk outside the city gates. Was it better or just more recent? In Italy, you’re always waiting for the next dish.

[Photos by Dave Seminara]