Food in Italy: a brief gastronomical tour!
"The main characteristic of Italian cooking," according to the Italian Tourist Board website, "is its healthy balance, the excellent basic ingredients being simply cooked and retaining their original goodness and freshness. Simple and yet with such a variety of flavours and rich inventiveness in preparation, that even the most demanding gourmet is delighted."
Well, I can go along with that. In Italy, food preparation is an art form, and the way it’s eaten a crucial part of culture. As you’ll see, the different regions each make a unique contribution to Italian cuisine, although nowadays you’ll find many renowned regional dishes have been exported to other areas of Italy. But first, some basics:
Eating the Italian Way:
Prima Colazione (breakfast) is quite different from American or English. It’s usually light: cappuccino (coffee and milk) and a brioche (sweet pastry), or simply espresso (black, short and strong coffee).
Pranzo (lunch) is the big meal except in the industrialized cities. It consists of antipasti (starter) a primo piatto (pasta, risotto, polenta, gnocchi or soup), a secondo piatto (seafood, meat, poultry, game, omelets or other cooked cheese or vegetable dishes) with contorno (vegetable or salad, often eaten afterwards), then maybe formaggio (cheese), frutta (fresh fruit), dolce (dessert). Finish with caffè (espresso, naturally) and a digestivo (a strong digestive liqueur), like grappa, amaro or sambuca.
Cena (dinner) is similar to lunch. Nowadays there is a tendency to have a light lunch, with dinner becoming the major meal.
Gelato (ice-cream) has hundreds of different flavours and can be enjoyed at anytime of the day as well as the granita (crushed ice with flavoured syrup).
Where to eat ?
Ristorante: There are thousands of ristoranti (restaurants): the most formal type of place to eat when one is not in a hurry, sometimes a little fancy and pricey and family-run; it should really be a fully-fledged restaurant providing complete menus (fixed price or à la carte) cooked by a professional kitchen staff and served by waiters, including a sommelier, experienced with foods and wines. But often it is not…
Trattoria: less formal than a ristorante, where local specialties are served; a neighborhood, small town or rural eating house, often family run, serving local foods and wines. Daily menus are often hand written or chalked on a blackboard or simply recited.
Osteria: used to be a modest wine house, often serving simple foods-like the similarly small and friendly taverna or locanda. These days the term Osteria (or hostaria), although harking back to simple unpretentiousness, is just as likely to refer to a trendy winebar serving food and (like locanda, taverna or trattoria) may apply to a quite sophisticated eating place.
Panineria, paninoteca : a sandwich bar, where a quick meal can be had at any time of the day;
Pizzeria: is not only for pizza lovers! Its specialty is baked by a pizzaiolo in a wood-fired oven to be eaten on the premises or taken out. No longer confined to pizza, it often provides other dishes, usually at lower prices than a ristorante.
Wine in Italy
"Italy is not only the largest producer of wines, but above all a producer of great wines.”
Its climate, soil and very old traditions of viticulture make Italy a natural wine growing nation. The wines are "as personal as a name, as different as the colours of the rainbow and as much a part of Italian life as almost 3,000 years of tradition can make them". The Etruscans of North-Central Italy, who created one of the peninsula’s earliest civilizations, left evidence of how to make wine. The Greeks who soon after established themselves in the South gave Italy the name Enotria (the land of wine).
Today, Italy is the world’s largest maker and exporter of wine. It produces approximately two billion gallons of wine annually, most of it consumed in Italy. Nearly four million acres of official, cultivated vineyards stretch from the Alps in the north to the hot, dusty hills of southern Sicily.
For centuries wine growing has taken up most of the labour of Italian farmers; this is still true today; a large part of the population is engaged in the vine and wine industry.
Of all the Italian wines, the best known and most appreciated is Chianti, named after the low mountain range in central Tuscany. Chianti wine dates back to 790 A.D. Other Italian drinks include aperitifs, blended principally over a base of the world-famous Piedmont Vermouth; dessert wines, such as Moscato, Marsala and Malvasia from Sicily and sparkling wines from Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany and the Islands. Italy also has some excellent beers and a great variety of effervescent mineral waters.
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.