The varied and delicious cuisines of Italy
By Joan Hunt - Managing Editor
Enfield - posted Fri., Jul. 29, 2011
You may remember the old advertising slogan, where somebody put his thumb and forefinger together and pronounced, “now that’s Italian!”
The trouble is that, depending on what part of Italy a person is from, the taste and aroma surrounding that pronouncement could be extremely varied. In a country that is only slightly larger than the state of Arizona, we are told that as many as 20 distinct cuisines exist and that often the same dishes are made in vastly different ways from one region to the other.
Each region in Italy, which includes Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Rome/Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, The Marches, Molise, Piedmont, Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige, Tuscany, Umbria, Valle d’Aosta and Veneto, has its own special characteristics, in addition to distinct favorite dishes and ways of cooking them.
The cuisines are affected to some degree by climate and topography, which ranges from hot and sunny Sicily in the south, near Africa, to Mediterranean Liguria, abounding in fruits of the sea and the luxuriant hillsides, to land-locked and mountainous regions like Abruzzo in central Italy, to the snow-capped mountains and glittering lakes of Piedmont, tucked in between France and Switzerland in the north.
Another influence on regional cuisine comes from the many conquerors who have through history occupied various regions of what is now Italy. For example, cooking on the island of Sardinia, which boasts the spectacular coastline known as the Emerald Coast, benefits from long past days of Spanish rule. And the eclectic cuisine of Sicily reflects Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman influences, having been occupied through centuries by all these cultures.
In Tuscany, dishes are often an interplay of vegetables, beans, bread and fruity olive oil, and favorite spices, like thyme, rosemary and fennel, which are used sparingly. Tuscans love rice, and you will find it in many of their dishes. The region’s classic stuffed pastas are filled with ricotta or potatoes and pancetta, and then served with butter and sage, tomato sauce or a meat ragù.
The Venetian lagoon in the Veneto region provides seafood for risottos and soups, while cured meats and aged cheeses are produced in the hills, and mountain villages specialize in hearty recipes like braised beef, which is nicely complemented by Amarone wine, for which the region is famous.
Sicilian cooking features diverse delights like roasted peppers, stuffed olives and fried eggplant, to almond pastries and dishes flavored with salami, fennel and chick peas. Bread is a huge staple here, and served with cheese and olives, or on its own, it can become a meal.
With all these cuisines to choose from, many of which will be represented at Enfield’s Italian Festival Aug. 5-7, the possibilities are literally endless. We have chosen a couple of our favorites for you to try on your own:
Orecchiette alla Potentina
(Orecchiette with meatballs
This dish comes from the Basilicata region, one of the poorest of Italy’s regions. It is a classic Sunday dinner dish.
1/2 pound ground beef, 1/2 pound ground pork, 1 garlic clove, 1 large egg, 1/4 cup whole milk, 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, 2 T minced Italian parsley, 2 T plus 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 1/4 tsp. chili flakes, 1 T extra-virgin olive oil, 4 cups chopped canned Italian plum tomatoes, 1 pound orecchiette, 1/2 pound fresh or smoked mozzarella, grated, and 1/4 cup freshly-grated Pecorino Romano.
Mix the ground beef and pork with garlic, egg, bread crumbs, milk, parsley, 1/4 tsp. of the salt, 1/4 tsp. of the pepper and chili flakes. Shape the mixture into small balls.
Heat olive oil in pan large enough to accommodate the pasta later; add meatballs, browning evenly. After about 10 minutes, add tomatoes. Season with 1/4 tsp. of the salt and remaining 1/4 tsp. of pepper. Simmer 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Cook the orecchiette in four quarts boiling water with remaining 2 T of salt until al dente; drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water to dilute the sauce, if needed, later on. Fold the pasta into the pan with the meatballs, cook for 2 minutes, or until pasta has absorbed some of the sauce, adding reserved cooking water, if needed.
Transfer to oven dish or pot. Top with the mozzarella and Pecorino Romano. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until bubbling. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings
Asparagi al Forno
This classic roasted asparagus dish comes from the Lombardy region.
2 T extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the baking dish, 2 bunches of asparagus (about 40 stalks) with woody ends trimmed, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/8 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper and 1/4 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray or grease lightly with olive oil.
Arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet in a single layer, preferably with the tips all facing in the same direction.
Pour the water onto the baking sheet.
Drizzle the asparagus with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with the grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Roast the asparagus for 15 to 20 minutes. It should be golden on top and still slightly crisp. Makes 4-6 servings.