Breakfast, or Colazione, is a simple, continental style meal, consisting of Caffé latte with bread rolls, buter and jam. Children will often just have Biscotti and Hot Chocolate or hot milk.Lunch, (Pranzo) is the main meal of the day and taken between 12 noon and 2pm. Even with today’s more hectic lifestyle, the Italians still tend to regard lunch as important, especially at week-ends when all the family sit down together. A full Italian lunch is actually a very social occasion and will consist of antipasto-sliced meats, cheeses, olives and such delicacies, then follows “Primo“, the first course, either a soup, Rissotto or a Pasta dish, a main course or “Secondo” which will be either meat or fish and finished off with a dessert “Dolce” which is often a selection of fruits. Evening meals,(Cena) are often taken quite late on in the evening. The meal will quite often consist of left-overs from lunch, although it will be a slightly lighter affair. Eating out in the evening is now enjoyed by many families and they will go out fairly late to have a meal or pizza and a stroll through the town.
There are 200 kinds of bread in Italy, there are regional and social differences in these varieties. Most of the bread produced in Italy is made in the bakeries. The main flour used in Italian bread-making is Durum Wheat flour, which is also used in the production of pasta. Semolina is used in some breads but other grains tend not to feature very much in Italy. Bread is basically made with flour, water and yeast but with subtle variations and additives many different kinds of bread are produced. Altamura bread is an artisan bread from the very south of Italy and is one of the countries oldest and finest breads, it is also protected within the European Union. It’s slightly golden crumb is due to the inclusion of semolina in the dough. Focaccia is quite a popular bread and can be flavoued with a variety of things such as rosemary, olives, cheese, olive oil or even vegetables. It is the ideal accompaniment to antipasto or eaten as a snack through the day, or used to make a sandwich. The Focaccia dough is very similar to the pizza dough and is often baked in a traditional stone oven. In Rome they like their bread to be very white, the bread rolls-rosette-are legendary. Ciabatta is an elongated flatish white bread which was first produced in Liguria , although it is now found all over Italy. Even the ciabatta bread will vary with the regions in it’s texture and crust, and when milk is added to the dough it becomes Ciabatta al latte. Grissini are thin sticks of dry bread originating from Turin,they are served at the table as an appetiser and are delicious served with olives, the long nobbly Grissini made fresh in the local bakeries are the most tasty, Napolean was said to be very fond of Grissini and used to send out for fresh Grissini, from his favourite bakery, to have with coffee for breakfast before going out to battle. Piadina Romagnola is a thin Italian flatbread, they are served filled with cheeses, meats or sweet fillings. There are of course many more and everyone has their own favourite. Each region has it’s own types of bread rolls and will have their own name for them, the same with the local large loaves of bread. In Sicily sesame seeds are sprinkled in profusion on top of the loaves, Pagnotte di Enna is a beautiful mouthwatering bread of Sicily but here as everywhere else “real” bread is often lost with the arrival of supermarkets where you will find the same bread in Sicily as you will in Rome or Milan, so it is well worth seeking out the local bakeries and asking for their local varieties. In Italy bread will be eaten with everything from savouries to sweet, and even dunked in coffee or made into a bread soup, and of course it is the perfect way to clean your plate of that last little bit of delicious spaghetti sauce.
The variety of dishes in Italy is as diverse as it’s culture, from the hearty dishes of the mountainous regions of the north to the sun-kissed, Mediterranean foods of the south, one can understand why the Italians are passionate about their food. Many dishes find their roots in the old recipes, passed down from generation to generation, and using whatever was available in season and what could be grown in their gardens or in the immediate vacinity, or even foraged in the nearby forests, mountains or lakes. There was often the need to feed large families from very little ingredients and therefore dishes were often born from “Mama’s” imagination. The cultivation of wheat produced plenty of flour and mixed with water you have pasta, although eggs can also be used to enrich the pasta dough, the main staple of Italy, making pasta at home was a social event which included the children helping and therefore learning to make the many shapes of pasta that we see today. Spaghetti would be dried out in the streets, hanging over large wooden poles, blowing in the warm breeze, with wooden boxes filled with Tortellini, Farfalle, Cappelletti, Cavatelli and Orecchiette and many, many more, stacked high to dry in the warm sunshine. Sheets of Lasagne can be dated back to Roman times when the sheets were made, dried and stored in stacks in the houses, taking up very little room, they were a “store-cupboard” staple and meant that there was always a meal to be had. Pasta is now available all over the world, and although the various shapes provide variety and hold the sauce in different ways, they are made from the same basic dough. Making home-made pasta is very satisfying and not nearly so hard as people imagine it to be. Soup pastas are tiny shapes that cook very quickly and they are ideal for babies and small children, they especially love the alphabet and star shapes. There are tubular pastas such as Macaroni, Penne, Rigatoni, Ziti,and of course the large Cannelloni. Pasta strands include Spaghetti,Vermicelli and Capeli D’Angelo (Angel’s hair), Pasta ribbons Fusilli col buco, Fettuccine, Tagliatelle and Linguine, the shaped pastas, which are just too numerous to mention, but I’ll have a go! Cavatelli, Conchiglie, Gemelli, Fiori, Creste di Galle, Farfalle, Fussilli, Lumache, Gnochetti Gigli, Malloreddus, Occhi di Lupo, Cesarecci, Occhi di Passeri, Quadrefiore, Orrecciette, Radiatori, Ruote, Torchio, Ricciolini and Strozzapretti!! Lastly we come to the stuffed pastas which contain many varieties of fillings, there are the well known Ravioli and Tortellini, also Agnolotti, Capelli di Pagliaccio, Cappelletti, Mezzaluna, Pansotti, Raviolini and Tortelloni. So we have established that there are lots of pasta shapes, evidence that it is loved and cooked for families all over Italy, but what do they put with it? Well, there again ,opens up a long list of sauces and recipes , many depending on regions and others on family recipes, but the usual basis for a sauce will start with tomatoes, not the perfect, unblemished, size-graded and tastless tomatoes found on our supermarket shelves, but the nobbly, funny looking, large sun-filled tomatoes picked from the gardens of Italy. Marry these tomatoes with fragrant basil, a little garlic and a splash of golden olive oil and you have the perfect simple sauce fit for pasta, add a salad and a glass of wine, what more could you ask for? The most important thing to make any sauce for pasta is to have the freshest of ingredients and in Italy this is what makes it all taste so good and of course coupled with the sunshine remains in our memories when we return home. Pasta dishes are served as a first course, traditionally, to fill up hungry tummies, meat, being expensive, was not able to be brought to the table in large quantities and so was saved for the second course, just a little bit with perhaps a salad, was therefore enough. The pasta course is either a pasta and sauce or a pasta baked in sauce in the oven (Pasta al forno). A simple sauce will consist of tomatoes, basil and olive oil, variations are built from this with either vegetables or meat and varieties of herbs or spices to make up the various types of sauce. Pesto stirred into a bowl of pasta is an instant quick meal and so full of Mediterranean flavour.
Italy has a coastline of approximatly 2,500km so seafood is used in abundance , with fish and seafood fresh from the blue sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, aromatic herbs and a sprinkling of juice from freshly picked lemons turn these simple ingredients into the most wonderful dishes that could rival any of the world’s posh restaurants, especially when eaten along one of the coastal towns looking over a sparkling sea. Pasta does not need to be always eaten with a sauce and it is also served with lightly cooked vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil, or chunks of sausage or salami and often with a variety of cheeses, either grated or in chunks. Wherever you travel in Italy you will always find new pasta dishes to entice you to try them and will give you new ideas to try for yourself when you return home. In the north of Italy you will find that there are a lot of stews to be sampled. Cooked for a long time using cheaper cuts of meat, fresh vegetables and herbs and normally a good splash of red wine, these are not to be missed. Pasta makes a perfect accompaniment to these dishes but you will often find Polenta served instead. Polenta is made with maize and is a beautiful golden colour, often butter and cheese is stirred into the Polenta and adds to the overall flavour of the dish, Polenta used to take around 40 minutes to cook, stirring the bubbling, splashing Polenta continuously, but nowadays there are fast 5 minute Polentas available and it makes an excellent store cupboard stand-by. Another accompaniment to meat dishes or just eaten with a good cheese sprinkled over the top, are Gnocchi, these are not just made from potatoes but also from left over bread or even semolina, again there are regional variations. The Italians are wizards with making mouthwatering dishes from anything they have to hand and Gnocchi are a good example of this, they have achieved recognition in recent years and are well worth sampling when you have the chance to do so. Unlike the large heavy dumplings the Gnocchi are small, light and a delight to eat, easy to make, just pop into boiling water or broth and when they bob they are done. Rice also plays an important part in Italian cuisine, there are many different recipes for Risotto and it is a wonderful dish to eat when it is well prepared,and the Italians certainly know how to do this well. In Milan, the rice capital of Italy, the specialty is risotto with saffron. Risotto rice, such as Arborio, is a short, fat, round grain that releases it’s starch and must be stirred continuously whilst cooking to produce a wonderfully creamy dish that goes perfectly with a fresh green salad and glass of white wine, it is probably the most versatile of Italian dishes and it can include pretty much most meats, fish or vegetables and only takes about 25 minutes from start to finish.
The varieties of soups in Italy are endless, with light soups made from broth that can then have small pasta shapes, such as Stellini,or the long thin strands of angel’s hair added, or the famous Tortellini in Brodo from Bologna. These make an excellent, light start to a meal, then the thicker soups like Minestrone contain vegetables and small tubular pasta shapes, which make them more filling and can be a meal in itself. Minestrone does not have just one authentic recipe, it uses whatever vegetables are in season and may or may not contain meat.The thickest soups are normally containing beans (fagioli) of some sort, ‘pasta e fagioli’ can be argued as to whether it is a soup or a stew and will alter in it’s recipe from region to region, it contains pasta , normally small macaroni, and beans, such as Borlotti or Cannellini. Starting out as “cucina povere” a peasant dish it has received world wide recognition through Dean Martin’s song “Amore” – “pasta fazool” the pronunciation coming from southern Italian dialect. In Naples and surrounding area you will find “Minestra Maritata” Marriage soup, this is not soup served at Weddings but refers to the perfect marriage of a variety of meats, vegetables and herbs to produce a rich hearty soup. The vast length of coastline gives rise to so many fish soups – “Zuppe di pesce”, you could fill a book with just fish soups. Not just every region, but every town has their own recipe as to which kind of fish should be used and which way it should be cooked.
Antipasti are still very popular in Italy, people are eating less these days than before, but it is still usual to go to a bar, for a pre-diner drink, and find a selection of olives, nuts, crisps and mini pizzas on offer. For special occasions there will be a large selection of antipasti using meats, salamis, fish, dried tomatoes, salads and roasted vegetables in so many different variations
To read more about the Cuisine of Italy by Region go to page 2