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]

European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

European cheeseI work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

European cheeseI usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

France
Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
European cheese
Holland
Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Switzerland
Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Italy
Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Spain
Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Portugal
Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.European cheese

England
Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Ireland
Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Belgium
Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried frEuropean cheeseuit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.
European cheese
Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]

Daily Pampering: new San Francisco restaurant debuts $390 truffle dinner

It’s truffle season again. In the Perigord, grizzled Frenchmen scour the forests using specially-trained female pigs or dogs to sniff out the rare black fungi growing from the roots of various tree species. In Piedmont, Italy, a similar hunt is under way for the even more esteemed white truffle. According to The Daily Beast, these little buggers can fetch an average of $3,500 a pound in a good economy (in ’09, the price for white truffles dropped to $1,800 to $2,500 a pound), making them one of the most expensive ingredients on earth.

In celebration of all this fungal goodness, Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco is offering a nine-course truffle dinner for $390, through early 2011. Inside Scoop SF also tells us that for another $110, the restaurant will pair the wines for you. The Japanese-inflected meat temple opened last month in the buzzing SoMa neighborhood, but the sister location in the Silicon Valley is offering the same special.

Why are people willing to spend so much cash on a glorified foraged mushroom that smells like male pig pheromones? Gourmands will tell you the essence of the homely truffle elevates everything from scrambled eggs to pasta to euphoric levels. And truffles are supposedly an aphrodisiac (the scent of swine sex hormones, and all). Fortunately, a little of the pungent fungi goes a long way, and Alexander’s uses a total of 15 grams (roughly half-an-ounce) of black and white truffles on its special menu.

Dishes include elegant offerings like bonito sashimi with salsify, garlic chips, celery, curry foam, and black truffle; binchotan-roasted bone marrow, black garlic panko, citrus jam, and white truffle, and Japanese a5 Kagoshima ribeye cap [in plain English: expensive cut of top-grade imported Wagyu beef] with parsnip puree, butternut squash, chestnuts, and white truffle. Are you feeling randy yet, baby?

Want more? Get your daily dose pampering right here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cyclingshepherd]