Moving to or visiting Italy the visitor will soon discover that there is a much wider range of culinary delights to enjoy and, interestingly, they vary hugely around the different regions. These regional offerings reflect the impressive range of foods and ingredients available to that area and there is always something for everyone to enjoy.Italy consists of 20 distinct regions however, there will be, even within those areas, a different recipe for a dish depending on where the town or village is and the available ingredients – this means two villages just a few miles apart will have different ingredients and ways of cooking the same dish. Indeed, the first thing that all expats moving to Italy should appreciate is that the regional differences means that Italians reject the idea of what we understand to be ‘Italian food’ and while some restaurants will dish up regional dishes, some will stick to the traditional pizza and pasta offerings.
It should also be appreciated that pasta will vary around the country with some regions enjoying their pasta with egg and in others they have pasta without egg. Butter can be a vital ingredient for many dishes whereas in other regions butter is never used.
Polenta and rice
Polenta and rice are popular choices in the northern regions. The southern regions will barely touch butter for their recipes and opt to use olive oil exclusively. Many recipes have been unchanged for hundreds of years and still use the same ingredients.
Pasta will be of different shapes and sizes around the country with different ingredients being used to make it. For instance, while many of us will be used to tubes and quills there are also other handmade and unusual shapes that vary between the regions. One reason for this is that the Italians tend to partner their sauce with the pasta shapes’ ability to hold the sauce for that dish. Head to northern Italy and people in Veneto will be looking to use bigoli pasta which is used for anything made with butter – it’s a pasta made with whole wheat flour and eggs and used for seafood and oil-based sauces.
However, travel to Emilia Romagna which is also in the north of Italy and their pasta creation is strozzapreti which are short twists of pasta known locally as ‘priest stranglers’ since greedy priests would eat their pasta so quickly they risked choking on it. Again, strozzapreti pasta is ideal for small, light sauces that can cling to the shape’s twists. In the north, a similar pasta to strozzapreti is trofie in the Liguia region – these very slim twisted pasta are ideal for pesto. Indeed, Liguria is famous for its basil pesto sauce and Friuli-Venezia Giulia where sweet cured hams are a popular choice.
Tuscany in central Italy
We could focus the entire article on the cuisines that suit various types of pasta. In the Tuscan region of central Italy its gigli pasta is fluted and yet in nearby Abruzzo they have chitarra which is a long thin pasta.
As we have focused on pasta, we should also mention pizza which is something of a tradition on Sunday evening for many families; the country is a huge consumer of pizza with many bars and pizza restaurants doing a roaring trade. It should be appreciated that not only are there different types of pizza, but there are also different ways of serving it up.
The first is pizza al taglio which is sliced pizza and many people eat this on the move. There’s also some debate about how to eat pizza in restaurants and whether using a knife or fork is acceptable or whether it should be sliced up and then eaten by hand.
Again, the variations in the regions will become apparent with expats in Naples finding they are offered a round pizza that’s been folded in half and then folded in half again before it is handed over in a paper napkin so that the customer eats it like a sandwich.
Many expats may find that their favourite pizza toppings are simply unavailable, for instance those who love a ham, mushroom and artichoke pizza – a capricciosa – will not usually find it on the menu. Most of these outlets will be offering four cheeses and a margherita. Most pizzerias however, will be happy to create a pizza to order even if it is not on the menu.
Expats who move to Italy will appreciate why the Italians enjoy socialising and sharing their own food creations. Italy has a varied geography and climate and so there is an excellent source of ingredients. Additionally, Italy’s position in the Mediterranean means that over the years there has been a huge influence over its food styles not just from Africa and Europe but also from the Far and Middle East.
This means that regardless of how long an expat is working and living in Italy, they will always be discovering and learning new and wonderful foods.
For many people looking for unique cuisine then the region of Emilia Romagna and particularly the town of Parma delivers impressive dishes with most of them, not surprisingly, making good use of Parmesan cheese.
The region also has lots of pork products including prosciutto and culatello and even the stuffed trotter sausage of zamponi. There are lots of seafood and fish dishes with expats in Camacchio finding that eel is a popular dish and the region’s Modena is famous for its excellent balsamic vinegar.
Real foodies may dispute the belief that Sicily offers a distinctive destination with lots of excellent ingredients and flavours that combine in a unique way that is not found anywhere else in Italy. For instance, expats should try pasta con le sarde which uses fresh sardines and combines pasta with onions, fennel, raisins and toasted pine nuts; it sounds quite underwhelming for an Italian dish but it is easy to make and the overall combination is impressive.
Expats living in Rome also get to enjoy an amazing range of dishes with the region of Lazio offering up some very distinctive dishes of their own including stuffed porchetta – stuffed pork.
Expats here can enjoy various Roman pasta speciality dishes including bucatini all’amatriciana which is an enjoyable mix of onions, tomatoes and a splash of cognac. Spaghetti alIa carbonara is popular with its creamy cheese, egg and bacon sauce with a dusting of black pepper.
This region produces a range of excellent meat dishes including abbacchio al forno or roast lamb with rosemary and anchovy sauce known as alla cacciatora. Everyone also knows the Roman favourite bruschetta which is a thin slice of bread that is toasted and then had garlic rubbed along one side and sprinkled with salt and olive oil – some people will enjoy this with the additional topping of tomato pieces.
There are lots of Italian dishes that utilise fresh ingredients from the sea which makes sense since the country is surrounded by the Mediterranean with mussel linguini being a particular favourite around the country. Marche one of the seafood regions offers a fish stew called brodetto although the fishing port of Ancona also has a variation of this that is known as stoccafisso or stockfish.
Fish and seafood
While many regions in Italy offer fish and seafood dishes there are some landlocked regions, particularly Umbria, which have an impressive range of dishes that make use of locally grown cereals which help to create some of the best pasta available.
Among the tasty offering Umbrians enjoy is spaghetti and black truffle oil – expats may find that black truffles are served over many dishes. In the north in Lombardy the rice paddies mean risottos are extremely popular with Risotto alla Milanese being a great creation without using tomato or olive oil as the rice is flavoured by saffron.
Among the traditional dishes are tasty creations such as Agnello cac’ e ove which consists of lamb with eggs and cheese and hails from the rugged region of Abruzzo and is usually served up at Easter. The region also has a love of roasted suckling pig known as porchetta.
Abruzzo and the nearby region of Molise shares a rustic range of dishes and both regions deliver some stunning pastas including handmade pasta known as maccheroni alia chitarra. Cheese is a popular staple ingredient used in these dishes.
Tuscany is a popular holiday destination for British tourists. There’s a nice choice of excellent roasted meat dishes as well as cheeses and some of the country’s best olive oils.
One of the joys of travelling in Italy is to experience how dishes vary from town to town and a visit to Florence will reveal that alla fiorentina steak is a popular choice along with seafood dishes, particularly red mullet, and the area also serves up thick vegetable and seafood soups.
For those expats who will soon be living in northern Italy, where a sizeable proportion of the Italian population lives, then they will find that the dishes tend to use less olive oil and instead use butter, or even lard, as well as corn for polenta and cheese for the creamy sauces.
For the meats, regions in northern Italy like countryside choices such as grouse, rabbit or quail and closer to the sea, then seafood and shellfish are also popular choices.
Expats can enjoy fonduta a heady mix of melting cheese with the addition of milk and eggs in Piemonte as well as some very tasty cheeses and the region also produces excellent mushrooms, particularly porcini mushrooms. There are some excellent local wines to accompany fonduta too.
Head to Val d’Aosta and you will find cheese is a popular menu choice particularly with ham and the region makes a very good venison stew complete with vegetables, wine and grappa.
For popular rice dishes, the region of Lombardi offers an interesting range of dishes including one that consists of bacon and vegetables known as Minestrone alla Milanese. The region makes other favourites including ravioli and a veal knuckle dish known as osso buco.
Rice is a popular choice in the cuisine of the Veneto region which uses polenta, mushrooms, seafood and wild fowl. One traditional dish uses rice and peas and is known as risi e bisi and expats may also enjoy calf’s liver that has been fried with onions known as fegato alla Veneziana.
Influences on Italian dishes can come from other countries. In the region of Trentino-Alto Adige there’s a heavy influence from Germany including dumplings or gnocci and a broth made with milk, bread and butter known as canederli.
The other big issue for food lovers is that Italy is also a major producer of some excellent wines and again these vary between regions and you will find that there is a good local wine to accompany the dish they choose in a restaurant or want to rustle up at home.
Essentially, Italy offers a marvellous food experience for its visitors but it should always be remembered that there is literally no such thing as ‘Italian cuisine’ since the regions offer not only their own specialist dishes but also variations on what we have come to know and love. Indeed, part of the fun of living and working in Italy is to find out just how the regional variants differ and how cooks use local ingredients to make them special to their area.
What's your favourite Italian food? Let us know in the comments!