Italian food: 1 great dish from each of Italy’s 20 regions

Story highlights

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

CNN  — 

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.

1. Abruzzo

Lamb with cheese and eggs

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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.

2. Basilicata

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.

3. Calabria

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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4. Campania

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.

5. Emilia-Romagna

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 Bologne