The regions of Italy are not all well known, even to the most traveled foodies. Some are synonymous with the food they produce and serve and the others, well, they need to be learned and appreciated. They are all well worth it!
Food and wine often vary widely from region to region. Family recipes are handed down from generation to generation. Nothing will start an argument between families like the use of a certain ingredient within the regional favorite—suggest altering a recipe and watch the fireworks fly. Though the world is getting smaller, oddly enough, many who live in one part of Italy will not eat anything but the food of that region. Here in the Capital Region, we love it all.
Here is a breakdown of the different regions and the foods that they create and love.
ABRUZZO: The cuisine is famous for artichokes and cardoons, legumes and potatoes. A regional soup called Cicoria, cacio e uova is made from backyard vegetables. The vegetables are combined with salt pork in a chicken base. The grated pecorino and eggs create a thick, creamy texture. Recipes in Abruzzo feature fresh seafood from the Adriatic prepared in many ways. One example is Brodetto, a peppered and spicy seafood soup that varies based on the family and the fishing. Octopus is plentiful and often cooked in tomatoes and hot peppers, called “Polpi in purgatorio.”
The countryside of Abruzzo is loaded with herds of sheep and goats. Cooks of the region simmer the meats slowly in their favorite sauces and serve with polenta—heavenly. My favorite, however, is lamb cooked slowly in a sealed casserole with local olives lemon and the ever popular hot peppers with olive oil, sprinkled with oregano.
BASILICATA: This region’s cuisine is known for delicious small round hot peppers called Pupazzella. They are stored in vinegar and then stuffed with anchovies and parsley. This also is the first place to ever record pasta as a food item. Homemade “little ears,” known to us as Orecchiette, is still a much-enjoyed dish when visiting. All manners of pork, including salt pork and pork crackling, are in many dishes.
CALABRIA: Produce and seafood are rich in Calabressi cooking but hot and spicy comes to mind when I think about Calabria cuisine. Sardines are a staple. The area has some of the best cooking schools in Italy. One dish taught in many of the plentiful cooking schools is pasta with breadcrumbs, raisins, pine nuts and sardines. Recipe to follow.
Then there is Nduja, a spreadable sausage that is very spicy because the great cooks of Calabria blend it with their very spicy locally-grown hot peppers. They serve it on fresh homemade bread, and the true lovers have it made into a sauce.
This one may surprise you—licorice plants and the resulting candy are considered the best in the world. “Rigulizza” is known all over to be a great digestive, but in Calabria they also make Liquore al bergamotto to enjoy after a large and often spicy meal. My husband and I once had quite a homemade lunch at the home of a great local cook. After the meal, the uncle of the woman who cooked stopped by to share and to sell his Liquore al bergamotto. It was a fun and quite fascinating day filled with local gossip, great food, and one memorable uncle!
CAMPANIA: Who doesn’t love San Marzano tomatoes? They grow abundantly in the agriculture-rich Campania region, as do basil, oregano, broccoli rabe and anything else you can think of. The soil is some of the richest in Italy and the region’s produce proves this. Pizza is the most delicious and famous in Naples, and some say it is the water. Frankly, I do not know but I have had the pizza with homemade buffalo mozzarella cheese and followed it with the best cappuccino that I have ever had, so the water is my guess, too.
Sweets also are well known and perhaps best in Campania. Sfogliatelle, gelato, and tiny balls of fried dough dipped in honey named Struffoli are just some of the stables sold in the many cafes along with tremendous coffee. Recipes to follow.
EMILIA–ROMAGNA: Now this region is the envy of all others in Italy because of the parmesan cheese, prosciutto, and traditional aged balsamic vinegar, which is the heart of so many dishes all over Italy. If these are not enough to drool over, there are truffles, too. Truffles are not and cannot be farmed, so a region either has them or not, and Emilia-Romagna has them—perhaps not as plentiful as years ago but they are there and very present in the area cuisine.
FRIULI-VENEZIA GIULIA: My next trip to Italy will be to this interesting region that for many years remained isolated by the communist curtain. The region shares its north and east borders with Austria and Slovenia and is now being discovered by Americans, Europeans and, yes, even the other Italian regions.
The region is perfect for wine that is now really getting popular. Friuli Venezia Giulia is obviously influenced by the Slavic, central European and Venetian cultures because of its location and history. The cuisine relies on simple recipes and genuine ingredients: meat, dairy, sausages and legumes, beans, grapes, corn and a wide range of root vegetables are common crops. Fish is abundant along the coast, and mushrooms are plentiful in the hills. The influence of the coffee culture is strong in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and because of the Viennese coffee legacy next door.
LAZIO: Lazio foods feature fresh seafood and preserved meats, and some of the best olives—hence, olive oil—in the country. Soup is a main course in this area and generally contains rosemary and garlic. The scents of Lazio cooking are divine and simple. White beans are plentiful and cooked slowly in many of the dishes.
LIQURIA: Liguria cooking is full of the simple flavors of fresh produce. Most know and love Pesto alla Genovese. Well, this is Liguria basil emulsified with extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, pepper and garlic. The basil grown here is superior to all others!
LOMBARDY: When I think of the Lombady region, I think of rice with saffron. The Italian name is Risotto allo Zafferano. Perhaps I should think of Gorgonzola cheese. The cheese comes mostly from the northern regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, and the taste is just stunning.
MARCHES: Tomatoes and fennel—oh my. One of the least visited and unknown regions, Le Marches (known to us as Marches) is famous for them. It is very rural so items in their cooking also include funghi, game, locally hunted game, as well as gathered nuts and herbs.
MOLISE: The newest region in Italy boasts of its sheep’s milk cheeses. Meat is not a big part of the food as it is generally reserved for the “affluent.” Eating in this region may consist of a wonderful soup created from nettles and vegetables and always with cheese!
PIEDMONT: This region is known for its antipasti and the items that make up many different versions of antipasti. Whether tasting a hot or cold version, you would find fried zucchini blossoms, tuna in a rich tomato sauce, home produced Salumi or preserved meats, cheeses, or perhaps a rabbit dish. A Piedmont protected local food product is Mortadella Bologna. The area is also widely known for hazelnuts and chestnuts that are created into top quality candied chestnuts.
PUGLIA: Like many in Italy, dessert recipes are often are flavored with candied fruit, honey, almonds or ricotta, but the region’s half-moon shaped Bocconotti have marsala in the dough with jam and cream placed into them before baking. They are frankly to “die for.” Because this picturesque region is nestled between two seas, mussels, urchins, clams and many more delicacies are the dishes to enjoy when visiting this area.
SARDINIA: Sardinia offers Bottarga, shaved or thinly sliced, to serve over pasta. And guess what? Its Mullet Eggs, dried into very solid blocks, are great. The local grain, farro is widely exported, as are the region’s capers and sea salt. The shrubs with capers grow like crazy on earth and in the crevices of Sardinia.
SICILY: Anyone lucky enough to travel to Sicily is in seafood heaven. Having been invaded and ruled by so many cultures over the years, the resulting cuisine is fabulous and much underrated in my mind. The region displays an Arabic influence and love of stuffed foods, as well as the use of pistachio nuts. The Greek influence brings a use of the sheep’s milk and honey locally. Then there is the Southeastern edge with chocolate production because of the Spanish influences. The list of influences is endless, but today Sicily’s simply food is created in the best way—by the region’s strong and powerful sun-driven climate. Seafood is insanely fresh and expertly prepared and, of course, what American did not grow up enjoying Sicilian thick-crust pizza?
How can I not mention their olive oil production? The olive oil is now regarded as the undisputed best in the world and for good reason.
TRENTINO-ALTO ADIGE: This area’s cuisine is simple and driven by agriculture. This agricultural theme makes Italian cooking so wonderful. Polenta takes center stage here for the residents, but the region is known to the outside world for a Tryol smoked ham called Spec, and for cheeses like Grana Trentin, Toma di Montagna and Casolet cheese.
TUSCANY: I know what you’re thinking: Who needs food when you live in Tuscany? You can live on culture and beauty. But I think Ribollita—bean soup. Ribollita is on most tables all over Tuscany as a first course, but this filling soup can easily be the main meal. Recipe to follow.
The Chianti valley of Tuscany produces many of the world’s best and most loved wines—Chianti to Vino Nobile Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and on and on and on. This region also feasts on meat products hunted and consumed with relish. A common meal in many restaurants is a great steak floating on top of some sautéed greens and then a side of herbed seasoned slow-cooked beans. It has been copied in many American homes as a preparation method to be enjoyed on this side of the ocean. Top it all off with a glass of Vin Santo and a Cantucci, or what we call biscotti, and you are living like a Tuscan.
UMBRIA: This is the only truly landlocked region in Italy and one of my favorites for food and everything Italiano. Norcia prosciutto and Ciauscolo are perfect examples of the prized cured meats of Umbria. The black truffles and the resulting sauces are the stuff of a foodie’s dream. Add to that fresh fish from the mountain lakes, much of it cooked in a wood oven. Umbria also boasts of the Buitoni family and Perugina confectionary. The area’s long history in the production of chocolate began in the early 1900s. Perugina Baci chocolate is a huge export from Umbria to the world, as is Orvieto white wine, a wonderful wine that is simple, crisp and perfect for the region’s style of food.
VAL d”AOSTA: This mountain region features the food of the mountains, including world-famous honey and honey products, medicinal herbs and a fragrant black bread that is a regional favorite. Another favorite is the Tegole biscuit. They are very light and crunchy and made with hazelnuts and sometimes almonds, they are delizioso. To finish a meal in the mountain region, try Génépy, a locally-made product with a unique and medicinal taste, typical of the Alpines. It is an excellent digestive liqueur if you enjoy that taste.
VENETO: Risotto and tiramisu are two of the most famous dishes of the region. Risotto is eaten there in many varieties by everyone. Tiramisù is eaten by the world but came from Venice. The world-famous dish Carpaccio originated in Veneto with its ultra-thin slices of beef served as an appitizer. Nowhere in the world can you experience Venetian food like at the the world famous Terrazza at the Danieli hotel. In my humble and grateful opinion, sitting on the top of of the Danieli, watching the same canal scenes that eyes have witnessed for years upon years, is only made better by their liver and onions.
Pasta con le sarde (Pasta with sardines)
1 pound fresh sardines, cleaned (can use the canned if needed)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 anchovies packed in olive oil, drained
1 medium-to-large head of fennel, thinly sliced
1 large onion, finely diced
1/2 cup raisins – plumped by soaking in hot water for 15 minutes
1/4 cup white wine
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
• Reserve 2 whole cleaned sardines (4 filets) and rough chop the remaining sardines.
• In a non-stick skillet, warm one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Fry the reserved sardines on both sides until golden brown. Drain on paper towel.
• Heat the white wine and add the pinch of saffron; steep for 15 minutes.
• In a separate skillet pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the fennel until golden brown. Remove to a bowl and reserve.
• Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the anchovies. Stir and mash around with a wooden spoon until the anchovies have dissolved. Add the onions to the pan and sauté.
• Add the reserved caramelized fennel.
• Drain the raisins thoroughly and add as well. Also add the wine with the saffron.
• Stir the mixture to combine well and cook on low for 10-15 minutes.
• Cook the pasta to your firmness desire.
• Drain but reserve some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan with the sardine mixture.
• Slowly stir the sardine mixture and pasta with for 1 minute to let the pasta absorb the sauce’s flavor. Add a little pasta water if the mixture becomes too dry.
• Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the breadcrumbs. You can also drizzle a little high-quality olive oil over the pasta just before serving.
Italian regional sweets
By Michele Kristensen
Soft glazed anisette biscotti
1 stick butter
1 tbsp Sambucca
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp anisette extract
2 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 Tbsp. milk
1/4 tsp. anisette extract to taste my add more.
Sprinkles if desired
• Mix together flour and baking powder.
• Set aside.
• Beat butter and sugar until softened, add eggs and continue mixing until blended; add in sambucca and extract.
• Add flour and mix until well blended. If the dough is too sticky, add additional flour as necessary.
• Form dough into 3 loaves (it may be necessary to wet hands while forming loaves, as dough is a bit sticky), approximately 9″ long x 1 1/2″ wide.
• Bake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet at 350° for 25-30 min., don’t over bake. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack.
• Cool, frost and slice diagonally.
Polenta shortcake with dried fruit and pine nuts
1 cup coarse cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tbsp olive oil
½ cup + 2 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup raisins
¾ cup dried figs cut up
1/3 cup dried prunes cut up
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 cup flour
• Plain bread crumbs for dusting
• Preheat oven 400°
• In medium-sized saucepan bring 2 cups water to a boil and then reduce heat and slowly add the cornmeal in a thin stream. Stir constantly. When all cornmeal has gone in, add the salt and oil. Keep stirring for about 15 min. or until the mixture thickens and pulls away from the side of the pan. Remove from heat.
• Add sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, prunes, butter, egg and fennel seeds to polenta. Mix thoroughly. Add flour and continue to mix until all the ingredients form a batter.
• Butter a 9-inch cake pan and coat with bread crumbs, shaking off excess.
• Add batter and bake on upper rack for 40 min.
• Let cool; slightly invert while warm and flip back to serve.