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]

ItaliaOutdoors introduces ski adventures for wine and food enthusiasts

Beginning in December, 2011, ItaliaOutdoors will host snow and ski tours that also include activities for food and wine enthusiasts. These small group excursions will give participants insight into the culinary culture of the Trentino Alto-Adige region of Northeastern Italy.

Each tour can be customized to fit any fitness level and budget, from shorter trails to advanced mountain climbs. Groups will be limited to twelve participants and trips are all-inclusive (aside for airfare). And the best part is, no matter which package you choose, daily wine tastings are included.

The guides for these tours are Vernon McClure and Kathy Bechtel, two extremely qualified individuals to give participants a top-notch trip. McClure has more than fifteen years of experience designing, leading, and teaching ski excursions in Italy and throughout Europe, while Bechtel is a trained ski instructor as well as a chef with formal wine training. In fact, she hosts her own food and wine television show in Sugarloaf, Maine, where she shares travel-inspired tips and recipes.

For more information or to sign up for a tour, click here.

Sting opens organic farm store in Tuscany

Is every little thing he does magic (sorry)? Mother Nature Network announced that Sting and wife Trudie Styler just celebrated the opening of their new farm store, on their 16th century Tuscan estate near Florence. The couple have quietly been producing wine, olive oil, acacia and chestnut honey, and salumi on the 900-acre property for a number of years. Until now, however, the products were only available at select outlets in the U.K. and U.S.. The property also hosts yoga retreats.

At Tenuta il Palagio, travelers, food lovers, Police fans, and…tantric yogists…can get a taste of these farmstead products. In 2009, Sting told ecorazzi, “I came here and I decided to stay and be a farmer…also because I wanted to nourish my family with genuine quality products in a healthy environment. Everyone knows about my environmental commitment, especially to the rain forests in South America. With this business in Tuscany I am trying to help myself and those who are close to me to live better in a natural context.”

Move over, Bono.

[Photo credit: Flickr user funadium]

New Haven ‘Restaurant Week’ is here and now

Now that my head is a bit less fuzzy (from drinking six glasses of Joe Bastianich‘s Italian wine, topped off by one–and that’s one too many–glass of grappa), I want to recap the wonderful wine dinner I had last night at Zinc.

Zinc is one of New Haven‘s brightest stars on the culinary scene. Now, this modest town, sandwiched between its big brothers Boston and New York, can easily be forgotten as an increasingly exotic and vibrant foodie destination. But I would say, like the general renaissance that is New Haven, this town’s food scene really deserves to be on the national radar (at least least on the radar if you’re in New England).

New Haven’s makeover could get bogged down by its reputation as one of the original homes of pizza (Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana) and hamburgers (Louis’ Lunch). That’s where the city’s first Restaurant Week comes in–but more on that later and how you can get some of the country’s best dinners, including what the New York Times called the best Spanish restaurant in the states, for $29.

Take Zinc, which serves modern American cuisine that chef Denise Appel (and co-owner) describes as “market inspired and globally infused.” What sets this place apart is the cuisine is top-rated and sourced from local ingredients. That, however, doesn’t mean you’re just left with potatoes and whatever else Connecticut grows (I’m not even sure we grow potatoes).
Last night’s four-course meal started with an airy Bastianich Rosato from Friuli, Italy (his family’s hometown). The first course was a Maine Diver sea scallop (paired with a Sauvignon Blanc and Picolit, also from Friuli), followed by an absolutely delicious wild boar ragu (a white wine that was pretty good), a hangar steak with golden raisin caponata and fried capers (a full-bodied La Mozza “Aragone from Grosseto, Italy), and one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory: a honey cake with Mascarpone gelato and lemon marmalade (there was olive oil mixed in, which I had doubts about .. but not after I had stuffed my face). Oh, and then some grappa. Yeek!

For lunch, I was over at Union League, which is always a safe choice if you’re looking for top-rated cuisine. Their coffee ice cream dessert is particularly memorable (if you haven’t guessed, I have the palate of a six-year-old). Ted Sorenson, JFK’s close adviser, was there giving a very captivating Q&A on his thoughts about the Cuban missile crisis, this election, Obama’s first year, etc.

Info on restaurant week

Running Nov. 9 to 14, the week features prix-fixe lunches for $16.38 (a spin on the town’s year of birth) and three-course dinners for $29 (taxes and gratuities not included). Some of the 18 restaurants involved are tried-and-true favorites – Pacifico, Thali, Zinc. Others are new to the scene – the much-anticipated fromagerie Caseus and the upscale lounge 116 Crown. They range from Italian (Consiglio’s) and Spanish (Barcelona) to experimental Japanese (Miya’s) and spicy Malaysian (Bentara).

“Restaurant Week was designed to showcase New Haven’s very diverse culinary offerings,” said Anne Worcester, of Market New Haven, the event’s organizer. “There’s no denying the city’s recent culinary boom.”

She said the promotional menus represent an average 20 to 25 percent savings. Some solid-value dinner entrees: the duck breast in a coriander sauce at Ibiza, the 10-ounce New York strip at Central Steakhouse, the pan-roasted pike fillet with leek fondue at Union League Café. Intriguing lunch options include the Mee Istimewa peanut-based soup at Bentara and salmon teriyaki at Miso.

At Zinc, Donna Curran, the co-owner, said her chef designed a special menu for the week. For lunch she recommended the roasted salmon with a house-made vindaloo sauce (“so much flavor”) and the chai crème brûlée for dessert. “We certainly didn’t dumb our menu down,” she said.

For a complete list of restaurants and their prix-fixe menus, see here. Reservations strongly recommended.