Food in Central Italy: a brief gastronomical tour!
Emilia Romagna; Tuscany; Umbria; Le Marche
Pomposa; Ravenna; Ferrara; Bologna; Modena; Parma; Siena; San Gimignano; Pisa; Lucca; Firenze (Florence); Arezzo; Montepulciano; Montalcino; Lake Trasimeno; Perugia; Assisi; Spoleto; Orvieto; San Leo; San Marino; Urbino; Ancona; Ascoli Piceno
Food in Central Italy may be the most familiar to tourists, but is nonetheless highly regarded by italians. Emilia-Romagna, the gastronomic heart of Italy, is the birthplace of balsamic vinegar (Modena), prosciutto di Parma and parmigiano (parmesan cheese) (Parma). With numerous renowned dishes, the cooking of this region tends centre on four key ingredients: tomatoes, chicken livers, cured pork and “soffrito“, a sauté of celery, onion and carrot.
Emilia is the home of salamis, and and if you’re into ham and sausages, Parma is pig-heaven (in more ways than one). “Culatello” (made from the rear muscle of the pig’s thigh) is a prime speciality of the area, considered by some even finer than “prosciutto“(which is made from the inner thigh). Modena favours the “zampone” (big paws) which is salami stuffed inside a pig’s foot, and cooked over a very low fire. It is served with mashed potatoes or black lentils. It is traditionally eaten on New Year’s day.
Parma may have prosciutto and parmigiano, but Bologna has “mortadella“, although it’s trademark is the “tortellino“, and the city fights to maintain the purity of the recipe (this is serious stuff, there’s even a Tortellino Day each year). The pasta must be made from flour and eggs with nothing else added, spread out by hand, thinned with a wooden “mattarello“and the final article must NEVER be more than 3 cm across. The stuffing must contain Parmesan cheese, lonza of pork, mortadella, raw ham, and egg.
Romagnolo cooking, in contrast with Emilian, emphasises aromatic herbs and uses the spit. Fish, seafood and chicken are roasted, as well as game, other meats, and different kinds of sausages. Pasta is still popular, but different – never mistake “cappelletti” for “tortellini“: the first ones are bigger and have a completely different filling, made of a fine mixture of ricotta (soft, fresh cheese) and different kinds of cheese. The most typical soup with broth, the oldest of them all, the only Romagna original is the Passatelli pasta: a delicious mixture of eggs, cheese, breadcrumbs and nutmeg processed by means of a specially-designed iron tool.
As opposed to Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche offer more rustic fare, tending towards a simple but hearty style of cooking, with lots of local produce.
The Tuscans bake their breads without salt, and they’re also known for liking white beans (“cannellini“), often cooked in a terracotta casserole with sage and olive oil. Minestrone, including the famous twice-boiled “ribollita” is made from the local vegetables, black cabbage from Siena, cannellini beans and olive oil; it’s served with croutons. Tuscans are big on meat too. For “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” the best beef is said to come from the Val de Chiana, usually grilled and served with a dash of virgin olive oil (some of the finest oil comes from the area around Lucca).
Fish tends to be expensive, but it’s still popular. A Tuscan fish soup called “caciucco” mixes all kinds of seafood from the nearby Tirrenean sea including mullet, dogfish, umbrine, swallow-fish, clams, small octopus and cuttlefish cut in rings. It is ladled over a thick slice of toasted bread flavoured with garlic and spiced up with a sauce of fried tomatoes and red peppers.
Umbria has “tartufo nero“, black truffles, especially from Norcia (italian site), “funghi porcini” (porcini mushrooms)and great sheep and goat cheeses (“pecorino” cheese with pears is delicious!). Game and beef play an important role in Umbrian cuisine; A typical Umbrian meat dish is”Faraona alla ghiotta” (roasted guinea-fowl). In the local fairs a regional specialty, stuffed “porchetta” is often served, spit-roasted suckling pig served with a strong flavour of wild fennel. And Norcia has another speciality: sausages. “Mazzafegati” are sausages made from hog’s liver, orange peel, pine nuts, raisins and sugar (there’s also a savoury version). A favourite dish in Todi is sweet and sour ox tongue and at Cascia they prepare, with a very old recipe, veal with truffles.
Fish is not completely forgottenin Umbria! In the towns around Lake Trasimeno the local fish is baked or braised: roasted queen carp, eel with fresh tomatoes, fillet of perch, roasted trout with wild fennel; and “tagliolini” pasta in pike soup.
Home-made pasta afficionados, Le Marche is for you. The food may well be more peasant-like but it can be rich. A version of lasagna called “vincisgrassi” (beat fat) consists of cinnamon-scented chicken gizzards and sautéed chicken livers sandwiched between layers of pasta and a creamy béchamel sauce seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg and baked in the oven. Whew! They do their own version of “porchetta” (pig stuffed with peppers, rosemary and garlic). Stuffed pigeons (“piccione ripieno“) and rabbit cooked with fennel (“coniglio in porchetta“) are also a Marche speciality.
Around Ancona, try “brodetto“, fish stew which must be made with 13 species of fish, no more, no less. Pesaro, on the Adriatic sea, is particularly famous for it. “Brodetto marchigiano” made with fish dipped in flour, fried in a mixture of oil, onion and parsley, and flavoured with saffron is also served along the coast. Thin spaghetti dressed with “vongole“, or baby clams, is always good here as is spaghetti “allo scoglio“,ie “on the rocks” dressed with seafood.
Other things to look out for are the “pecorino di San Leo“, a cheese made from sheeps milk, “ricotta” (a kind of cottage cheese) from Urbino, “bazzott” (a local fresh cheese) from Fano, and the “olives ascolane“, big white olives filled with a mixture of cheese, egg, nutmeg, white meat chopped and mixed with prosciutto, mortadella and salame, lemon peel and parsley, then dipped in beaten egg and bread crumbs and fried in oil. Delicious!
Food in Italy: More than pizza and spaghetti bolognese!
Food in Northeast Italy: Trentino-Alto Adige; the Veneto and Friuli.
Food in Northwest Italy: Lombardy; Valle D’Aosta and Piedmont; Liguria.
Food in Central Italy: Emilia Romagna; Tuscany; Umbria; Le Marche.
Food in Rome and around: Rome; Lazio.
Food in Southern Italy: Naples and Campania; Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia; Basilicata and Calabria; Sicily and Sardinia.