You can tell a lot about an Italian region from its sauce
Dishes reflect local landscape and history more than anything "Italian"
Abruzzo's lamb recipes speak of the rugged terrain
One reason Sicilians tend to identify with Sicily first and Italy (a distant) second? Sicilian food. The same goes for Veneto in the north or Puglia in the south.
Italy is a young country in modern terms. It only celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011. Despite the successful export of the “Italian restaurant,” the idea of a unified Italian cuisine is something many Italians reject. Instead, there are regional dishes, sometimes with tastes as different as you’d find between countries.
Even the basics differ – pasta with or without egg, butter in abundance or ditched completely in favor of olive oil. Like reading tea leaves, travelers can discover much about a region’s history and landscape from its special sauce.
Guaranteed: No mention of spaghetti bolognese.
Lamb with cheese and eggs
One of Italy’s most rugged regions, sheep farming predominates in Abruzzo. Meat dishes and cheeses here tend to come from that animal.
Agnello cac’ e ove (lamb with cheese and eggs) is “traditionally eaten over the Easter period, since the animal must be young and sheep are born in the spring,” says Roberto Burdese, president of Slow Food Italia. The sauce, of course, is made only with sheep’s milk cheese.
Làgane with olive oil and chickpeas
Like its southern neighbors, simplicity is the hallmark of Basilicata’s cooking. Away from the coast, you won’t often encounter ceci (chickpeas) in northern Italian food. And the pasta (làgane) will be called tagliatelle or pappardelle, and almost certainly made with egg alongside durum wheat flour and water.
Here, the làgane is tossed with olive oil, sauteed garlic and cooked ceci. And that’s it.
Macaroni with pork, eggplant and salted ricotta
A speciality of Calabrian chef Pasquale Pangallo, this dish merits an entry in “Cucina Regionale,” the bible of Italian regional cooking. It combines several of the south’s classic elements.
Melanzane (eggplant) were introduced to Italian cooking by Arabs, regular visitors to, and occasional occupiers of, southern Italy from the ninth to 11th centuries.
Calabrian cured meats, such as capocollo (pork neck), are generally spiked with chili pepper, a ubiquitous spice in Calabrian cooking. Ricotta salata (salted ricotta), a dried, pressed sheep’s milk cheese, gives the dish a salty kick.
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Pizza Napoletana reinvented
In Campania – Naples above all – cooking is all about carbs, the white flour of a pizza base in particular.
“The word ‘pizza’ has wildly varying definitions depending on the sub-region and season,” explains food journalist Katie Parla. “It can refer to a savory Easter bread or a pie for one, for example.”
Pizza Napoletana is a thick-rimmed pizza built in a wood-burning domed oven, traditionally topped with cow’s milk mozzarella, tomato sauce and another topping or two.
Parla points to culinary innovators such as Enzo Coccia at La Notizia (Via Michelangelo da Caravaggio 53, Naples; +39 081 714 2155), Frano Pepe at Pepe in Grani (Vico San Giovanni Battista 3, Caiazzo; +39 082 386 2718) and Francesco and Salvatore Salvo at Pizzeria Salvo (Largo Arso 10-16, San Giorgio a Cremano; +39 081 275 306) among those bringing new flavor and texture combinations to this Campanian classic.
Tortellini with acacia flowers
Many pasta dishes we consider “classic Italian” have roots in the cooking of Bologna and its region, Emilia-Romagna. Baked, layered lasagna was a Sunday dish for Bolognese families. Cappelletti (stuffed “little hats”), tortellini and tortelloni originate from Modena and Reggio Emilia.
At the Locanda al Gambero Rosso (Via Verdi 5, Bagno di Romagna; +39 0543 903405), chef Giuliana Saragoni grabs an ingredient from another of the region’s traditional dishes, frittelle di acacia (acacia flower fritters), to stuff her fresh tortellini.
6. Friuli Venezia Giulia
Spiced frico cheese and toast
Friuli has a hybrid cooking culture, as you might expect from a region at the corner of the Italic, Slavic and Germanic worlds, with a landscape spanning the sea, karst and high Alps. San Daniele cured ham comes from Friuli, as does some of Italy’s best white wine.
Most closely associated with the Carnia countryside around Udine, frico is based on the local Montasio cow’s milk cheese.
The mature cheese is cooked, almost to melting point, then spiked with sugar and cinnamon and served either cubed or on toasted bread. The dish is a warming balance of spice, salt and sweetness.
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Spring lamb with salt-cured anchovies
Lazio is a region divided by mass tourism. Rome, its capital, welcomes millions of visitors every year. The countryside, on the other hand, is left to itself.
Katie Parla, whose app Katie Parla’s Rome picks out some of the city’s best restaurant and street food spots, says one element captures the essence of Lazio’s agricultural roots: abbaccio.
“This young spring lamb reaches its greatest expression when prepared alla cacciatora – the chopped lamb is cooked in a pan with oil or lard and garlic, sage and rosemary, then seasoned with salt-cured anchovies. This savory dish is a reminder of a simpler time when shepherds grazed their flocks across the region and even through central Rome itself.”
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8. Le Marche
Ancona spicy fish stew
Ancona’s classic dish, brodetto all’anconetana, reflects the city’s seafaring heritage. It’s a slightly spicy, tomato-based soup/stew made from local catch.
“The dish was originally made on board fishing boats, for lunch,” explains Paolo Antinori, head chef at Fortino Napoleonico (Via Poggio, Portonovo; +39 071 801450), a restaurant specializing in Le Marche cuisine.
“Cooks used poorer catch, or fish a little broken by the nets and not saleable at the market.
Many cooking traditions in Liguria – the small, crescent-shaped region strung out along Italy’s northwest coast – come from the region’s seaport, Genoa. Among them is farinata, a thin, unleavened flatbread made with chickpea flour.
Often served as a side or street-food dish, it’s traditionally cut into triangular slices and eaten with a dusting of salt, black pepper, rosemary or all of the above.
Risotto alla milanese
You could almost be in China on the flat plains between Turin and Milan. Mile after mile is given over to rice paddies, growing Carnaroli and Arborio varieties of the staple.
This is the home of risotto, a carb-loaded primo (first course) whose base is almost always rice and stock. In a risotto alla Milanese, the traditional ingredients are beef marrow (which today is often omitted for dietary reasons) and saffron.
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With a population of less than half a million and fewer tourism sites than its neighbors, Molise is perhaps Italy’s least known region to outsiders. As in neighboring Abruzzo, the uneven terrain makes lamb the livestock of choice.
In Molise, they eat almost every bit of the creature – lamb offal is a feature of many traditional dishes. Allulur is a dish of tripe dumplings, encased in the sheep’s rumen (part of the stomach) and boiled.
At Trattoria da Nonno Cecchino (Italian site only; Via Larino 32, Campobasso; +39 0874 311 778), the tripe is seasoned with garlic, parsley and chili pepper.
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Bagna caôda or “warm dip”
Bagna caôda means “warm dip” in Piedmontese, a dialect widely spoken in northwest Italy until recent decades.
Preparing the dish is simple: chopped garlic is cooked slowly with oil and butter to form an emulsion. Chefs then pour in a few more cups of olive oil, chopped anchovies and peeled walnuts, and cook it down till it becomes a salty-garlicky bath.
It’s often served with Jerusalem artichoke, endive, sweet pepper and onion for dipping and traditionally brought to the table in a terracotta pot. In Turin, restaurants recognized with the Sapori Torinesi mark specialize in traditional Piedmontese cooking.
Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops
One of Italy’s flattest and most fertile regions, Puglia is the south’s breadbasket. Wheat and olive oil are produced in abundance, making it a top Italian region for vegetarians. Orecchiette are “little ears” of durum wheat pasta, often made here without egg.
This classic Pugliese primo (first course) sees them tossed with cime di rape, broccoli rabe or “turnip tops,” a little oil and seasoning, sometimes including preserved anchovies.
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“Fregola [small balls of pasta] is a central element in Sardinian cuisine, which uses durum wheat flour for many baked goods,” says Burdese of Slow Food Italia.
It’s also the main ingredient in pilau, a couscous-like dish, prepared like risotto by cooking the grains in a fresh stock. Around the island, you’ll find versions of pilau made with sheep or goat meat, or with crustaceans and shellfish in a tomato sauce.
Pasta with sardines
Pretty much every Mediterranean country that ever had a navy has invaded Sicily at some point in the past 3,000 years. Ancient Greeks and Romans left ruins across the island. Norman-French, Arabs, Spanish and others shaped the architecture of its capital, Palermo.
“With its contrast between sweet and salty, pasta con le sarde recalls the Arab influence, which has strongly influenced Sicilian cuisine,” explains Burdese.
The dish is usually made with bucatini (hollow pasta tubes) served al dente with fresh sardines, raisins, pine nuts and, most importantly, wild fennel and saffron.
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16. Trentino-Alto Adige
Italy’s northernmost region has a split personality. It was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse after World War I. As with the language, cooking comes with an Austrian accent.
“It’s thought strudel emerged after the clash of empires in the battle between Suleiman the Magnificent and King Louis II of Hungary in 1529,” explains Roberto Anesi, whose restaurant El Pael (Italian site only; Via Roma 58, Canazei; +39 0462 601 433) serves vast quantities of the dish along with history lessons.
“Apples, pine nuts, raisins and spices wrapped in a pastry sheet make up the standard recipe. At El Pael, we customize it with figs and walnuts, or use ricotta and apricots.”
“Naked” ravioli with ricotta and spinach
A rural region, Tuscany’s food heritage is rooted in its farming traditions.
“Gnudi made with ricotta and spinach is typical peasant food,” says Matteo Fantini, proprietor of Florence restaurant iO: Osteria Personale (Borgo San Frediano 167r, Florence; +39 055 933 1341).
Gnudi are “ravioli” deprived of the sheet of pasta that normally encloses them, leaving only the filling.
“To prepare the dish, the farmer needs only ricotta (sheep’s milk cheese), flour, egg and spinach, plus a simple dressing of olive oil, sage and pecorino cheese.”
Tagliatelle with truffles
In Umbria, it feels as if everything good to eat comes from the woods. Game such as cinghiale (wild boar) works its way into every course – except dessert, of course. Then there’s the fungus. The black truffle grows just below ground level in deciduous forests all over the region.
Still more prized is the tartufo bianco (white truffle) that appears around Gubbio in late autumn. The town’s Taverna del Lupo (Via Ansidei 6, Gubbio; +39 075 9274368) handles it skilfully.
The dish itself could hardly be simpler. Simply toss fresh, handmade pasta strands with a little butter and some grated Parmigiano to taste, and as much truffle as you’re allowed.
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19. Valle d’Aosta
Polenta with beef stewed in wine
A metaphorical million miles from a light, Mediterranean diet, food from the Valle d’Aosta region is a mountainous mix of cheese, butter and hearty stews. The staple carb is the cornmeal porridge polenta, traditionally cooked in an iron cauldron.
Paired with beef stewed in wine, a carbonada, it meets the calorific demands of a day on the ski slopes or mountain trails.
Rice and pea risotto
Nothing betrays the cucina povera (peasant cooking) roots of Venetian cuisine quite like the city’s most famous dish. Risi e bisi, rice and peas (“bisi” is “peas” in Venetian dialect), is more soup-like than most northern Italian risotto dishes.
The peas and rice float in a vegetable broth made from a simple base of onion and pancetta – the fatty, cured-pork cut.
Venice never had a king, but this dish was certainly fit for the doge – a kind of chief magistrate. It was traditionally served at the annual Doge’s banquet, held on April 25, the saint’s day of the city’s patron, St. Mark.
Still hungry? The “Slow Food Dictionary of Italian Regional Cooking” (Slow Food Editore) spends 570 pages chewing lovingly over the nuances of – and arguments about – Italian regional cooking.
Donald Strachan is a food and travel journalist and co-author of “Frommer’s EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice 2014,” out now.