Highlights of the Italian Culinary Tradition

Aperitivo

A relaxing pre-dinner drink with traditional Italian hors d’oeuvres

Italians are known to have dinner quite late in the evening. To tide them over, they will often have a pre-dinner drink, known as an “Aperitivo”.  

Common drinks enjoyed as an aperitivo include Prosecco, wine or – particularly in the north of Italy – a Spritz.

As alcohol is typically not consumed in Italy without being accompanied by something to eat, drinks are normally served with something to nibble on. This may range from some olives and crisps to a more substantial spread of traditional Italian foods.

The lighter snacks are often bought to the table and included in the price of the drink. Where a greater range of foods are on offer, there may be a smörgåsbord  set up.

It is becoming quite common to see advertisements for “Apericena”, which is a cross between an aperitivo and dinner. With ‘cena’ being the Italian word for dinner, the word Apericena is thus kind of like what brunch is to breakfast and lunch. In this case, the cost of the first drink may be slightly higher.

If you have had a big lunch, a good aperitivo or an apericena is a great way to have a light snack in the evening and skip dinner – not to mention offering a great opportunity to mingle with the locals.

Local coffee shops will usually offer aperitivo from around 7-9pm, after which most locals will be off enjoying dinner. During the warmer months, it is lovely to find a coffee shop or bar in a picturesque piazza where you can sit and enjoy a side of people-watching with your aperitivo.

 

Bruschetta

Bruschetta – a traditional and delicious Italian starter dish.

One of Italy’s most loved starter recipes, Bruschetta was developed by field workers who would roast some bread over an open fire then add some delicious and fresh toppings for a quick and simple snack.

The term Bruschetta comes from the Italian for toasted – bruscato. Thus, the traditional way to make this famous Italian recipe is to grill the bread over a fire or barbecue, or toast it on the rack of an oven (do not toast the bread under the griller).

But how do you pronounce Bruschetta just like a local? Putting on your best Italian accent, the ‘bru’ is as in ‘brew’ then, ‘schetta’ is like ‘sketta’ – ‘brew-sketta’ (don’t forget the double t sound).

(Pro tip: keep in mind that the Italian alphabet does not contain the letter k, with the sound instead being represented by the combination of “ch”.)

As to the topping, typically Bruschetta refers to the toasted bread drizzled with fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. The idea is that in this way, Bruschetta also allows you to taste and enjoy the quality of the just-pressed olive oil.

Different regions of Italy may have their own dialect terms for Bruschetta. In Tuscany, it is “Fettunta”, that translates to ‘oily slice’. Other regions refer to this dish rather as “Panunto”, literally ‘oily bread’.

To make the ‘real’ Italian garlic bread, you may rub a clove of garlic over the bread first.

It is also common to add other toppings to Bruschetta. The most common addition is just-picked tomatoes, in which case you would be making Bruschetta al Pomodoro – Tomato Bruschetta. This can only be made during the warmer months when the tomatoes are in season and at their best.

For the Tomato Bruschetta recipe, take ripe but firm tomatoes. Removing the seeds, dice the tomatoes, drizzle with quality extra virgin olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Some people will then add quality fragrant oregano or else fresh basil. To use basil, the leaves should be either ripped with your fingers or cut with a ceramic knife – never with a normal blade as the basil reacts with the metal and turns black.  Stir carefully with a big spoon. Allow the tomato mixture to rest a few minutes  then serve over the roasted bread slices. Again, you can rub the slices of bread with garlic first if you prefer.

Alternative options are to add in some chopped buffalo mozzarella cheese or black olives.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

The Famous Florentine Beefsteak

One must-try dish for any meat-eating foodie visiting Florence is the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Enjoyed since the Etruscan and Roman times, this top cut is made from one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world, the white Chianina, that are kept in large, open fields in the Tuscan countryside. And whilst there have been attempts in the past to expert this special Tuscan cattle breed, the results have never been as good as when the breed is allowed to roam the terrain it has wandered for thousands of years.

As with most traditional Tuscan recipes, there are some simple secrets to cooking the perfect Florentine steak.

Firstly, the steak must be taken from the T-bone loin in one sharp cut. Each steak is around 800-1200 grams and about as thick as two fingers.

It should be cooked over a wood-fired flame, fanned to just the right temperature before the Florentine Steak is placed on the grill. Under no circumstances should live flames touch the meat. The Bistecca should be cooked on each side, being turned only once. The exact number of minutes will depend on the weight of the steak.

One cooked, the Florence steak is allowed to rest so the juices balance out throughout the meat. It is then served whole, usually on a wooden chopping board, as a main to be divided up between two or three people. It may be lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and a dash of cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil drizzled atop. Some like to squeeze a little lemon juice on there too.

The Bistecca alla Fiorentina is served pretty rare. There is no such thing as asking for it to be well done, with most chefs suggesting that if you don’t like rare stake, have the salad instead.

Common sides served with the Florentine steak are garden salads or grilled vegetables. Florence is also great at spinach dishes so a side of Spinaci is well advised too.

And of course, don’t forget a good, strong wine. Best would be the Brunello di Montalcino or another strong Tuscan wine like a Chianti Classico Riserva, keeping in mind that wines and recipes have evolved together within each region of Italy.

Parmigiano or Parmesan cheese

Parmesan Cheese – Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italian – is one of Italy’s most prestigious dairy foods.

A hard cheese, the taste of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is savoury with notes of fruit and nut. It’s a sharp and distinct umami flavour that is enjoyed on antipasto platters, heartily grated atop pastas, risottos and soups as well as many other dishes.

If serving on a platter, the Parmesan cheese should be broken off the round by inserting the point of the knife into the cheese that is then twisted to make little chunks.

Even the crust of the cheese is put to use, such as by boiling bits of the hard Parmigiano-Reggiano shell in stocks or soups for an extra tasty flavour.

Parmesan is said to date back to the Middle Ages, with the first reference to the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese being in the 1200 and 1300s.

Strict rules and regulations govern its production both under Italian and European law for cheeses labelled both as  Parmigiano-Reggiano and the English translation, Parmesan. Outside of Italy, it is possible to legally use the name Parmesan for products that Italians would say do not even come close to the real thing.  

Each Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is legally certified, given a unique identification number and official seal.

By law, Parmigiano-Reggiano may only be produced in certain areas – Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and in certain area of Bologna and Montova. The name for this much-loved Italian cheese indeed comes from the main areas of production, Parma and Reggio Emilia.

Two rounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano are made at a time. It starts with 1100 litres  of grass-fed cow’s morning milk blended with milk from the day prior that has been naturally skimmed after gravity separation. Several steps are carefully taken, from adding natural starter whey and calf rennet to mixing and heating the curd. Once ready, it is placed into two round stainless steel moulds that form the shape of the cheese wheel, each of which is around 40 centimetres in diameter and weighs just under 40 kilograms.

The cheese wheels are soaked in a bath of water into which is added salt from the Mediterranean sea for around 3 weeks. They are then left to rest for a year on a wood shelf, where even the way the Parmesan rounds are stored is governed by regulation of no more than 90 along by 24 rounds high.

The Parmesan wheels are turned and cleaned once per week during the entire aging process.

One year in, an inspection takes place for each and every wheel by a representative from the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium, an official cheese tester! Being a natural product, there will be some variation in the Parmesan produced, but if the cheese is not up to scratch, it cannot be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. If it is given the A-okay, an official stamp is added to the wheel.

Still, most producers wait another year before putting their Parmesan cheese to market, with each Parmesan cheese wheel then going for as much as 500 euro each.

Cappuccino

The best way to start your day in Italy with the morning coffee of choice.

The Cappuccino has become one of the most famous and popular coffee exports around the world.

It is a type of coffee that is typically enjoyed only at breakfast, with Italians often having their Cappuccino with a sweet breakfast pastry.

As there are usually table service fees for sitting down at coffee shop tables, most locals will have their breakfast standing at the bar.

Throughout the day and after a meal, Italians are more likely to have an espresso. An Italian will not have a Cappuccino after a meal, as the amount of milk is considered too heavy to have on a full stomach.

Cappuccinos are made by taking a shot of ‘espresso’ into which around 2cm of perfectly-heated frothy milk is added. It’s no secret that Italians love their coffee and take it very seriously.

Making a good Cappuccino takes a lot of skill to get the temperate, froth and coffee-milk-froth ratio just right.

The Cappuccino was likely inspired from a popular style of Viennese coffee that became popular towards the north of Italy in the 1930s. The term ‘Cappuccino’ comes from the Capuchin friars whose habit was said to be the same colour as the Cappuccino’s blend of coffee and milk.

It is not typical to add chocolate on top, however some places may offer cacao to sprinkle on top.  

Enjoying a Cappuccino in Italy is a certain must-do experience on any trip to Italy, preferably at a local bar amongst the locals.

Coffee

A guide to Italy’s much-loved beverage.

That coffee is an integral part of Italian culture is certainly no secret.

It is believed that coffee first come to Italy in the 1500s via the Venetian ports through trades with Middle Eastern and African countries. From Venice, coffee then made its way throughout the rest of Europe.

After Pope Clement VIII declared in 1600 that consuming coffee was a very Christian activity, it immediately became popular throughout the peninsular. Still, it took some 45 years for the first coffee house to appear, opening up in Rome in 1645.

Exactly 300 years later, the first espresso machine was developed in Milan, Italy.

Both espresso and cappuccino have since become popular coffee beverages globally.

With regards to coffee consumption in Italy, around 14 billion espressos are consumed annually, making up around 60% of coffee sold in Italy. Less than 15% of coffee drunk in Italy is as cappuccino and only slightly less again as “caffè corretto” (an espresso with a shot of grappa or other liqueur). 1 in 10 coffees are espresso with a dash of milk (“macchiato”).

Cappuccinos and other milky coffees (such as caffè latte – milk with coffee) are typically only served as a breakfast coffee, with Italians considering the heavy and nutrient-rich milk too much for a post-meal beverage. Thus, throughout the day Italians will have an espresso or other lighter coffee.

In homes, Italians typically make their coffee in a stove-top moka.

At breakfast time, Italians may be seen eating pastries and even cereal in a large milky coffee to start their day. Away from home, at a local coffee shop (in Italian, called a “bar”) it is common to have a “brioche” (pastry) with a cappuccino or caffè latte.

After  lunch, an espresso will be served, considered as a closure to the meal. Some prefer to have a dash of milk or a spoonful of sugar. They may even have another after dinner.

Having a coffee in Italy is truly a cultural experience not to be missed. Do be aware though that if ordering a coffee at a coffee shop, you will likely be charged table service if you drink it sitting down. Hence why you will likely see Italians standing at the bar to drink their coffees.

Espresso

Espresso is not just a coffee, but a much-loved tradition in Italy.

Whilst in the mornings Italian will have a milky coffee like a cappuccino or caffè latte, the espresso is the caffeine hit of choice during the day.

An espresso can be made in a moka on the stovetop or ordered at the local coffee shop – known as the “bar” in Italian.

Drinking espresso in Italy is so common that to order one in a bar, you simply say “un caffè” – a coffee – and the barista automatically knows you mean a dash of piping hot espresso in a little cup.

There are a few variations however. A “caffè lungo” means there is a little extra liquid in the cup, whilst “stretto” means even less liquid for a more concentrated caffeine hit. To have a dash of milk, you would ask for a “caffè  macchiato”, literally meaning “stained” with milk. There is usually cold milk in a jug on the bar if you prefer to add your own. “Caffè corretto” has a shot of grappa added, unless you are in Venice, in which case a normal espresso is enjoyed before the cup is then swished out with the grappa. You can also add “zucchero” (sugar) or “zucchero di canna” (cane sugar).

Knocked back in one go or sipped delicately, Italians somehow manage to drink their espresso even when it is still piping hot.

As a cover charge is added for sitting down at the tables, most Italians will have their espresso standing at the bar. Not that they would have much time to take a seat, given the rapidity of the whole coffee ritual.

Olive Oil

Italy, and particularly Tuscany, is famous for its extra virgin olive oil.

The earliest evidence of olive cultivation in the world comes from the Livorno area on Tuscany’s coast.

So important was oil in the past that land would be bequeathed not in terms of metres but in numbers of olive trees.  

Olive trees are planted usually on a hillside to allow for good drainage of the soil. The trees were cultivated to grow tall, with one main trunk and the foliage up nice and high so no one could steal the olives. After a bad frost in the early 1980s however, many trees died. The trees that grew in their place were let to grow freely, making them easier to harvest.

Harvest of olives is done around October-November, just when the olives are a perfect mix of just-ripe and nearly-ripe to ensure the right acidity in the ensuing product. To be officially considered extra virgin olive oil, the acidity level must be less than 0.8%, with late harvesting risks having a too-high acidic level.

Top-quality oil is still to this today produced from olives harvest by hand. There are also olive picker devices that are like a mechanical hand with fingers that are placed in between the leaves to then ‘tickle’ the olives off the branches, however this runs the risk of cutting the olive surfaces and causing bacteria to set in before the milling process.

Once the olives are collected from the trees, they are taken to an official mill. Whilst some larger producers will have their own onsite mill, most smaller producers must go to a local oil press.

As the pressing must occur as soon as possible after harvest, during the oil season the mills take appointments all throughout the day and night.

The olives are placed on a grill that is agitated to rid the olives of dirt, grass and the like. They then go through the a first cold pressing. The extracted product is thus “cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil” that is more green in colour and is delicious consumed raw. The remaining pulp may then be pressed again with heat, resulting in just “extra virgin olive oil” that is used for cooking. A further chemical extraction can be done to have just “olive oil”. Most Italians will say this is best used to polish the furniture however!

Extra virgin olive oil is a good fat that can even reduce cholesterol and other heart issues.

Just-pressed extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Once heated, many of these properties are lost, hence why Italians drizzle this oil over soups, cooked vegetables, salads, meats or on toasted bread with a sprinkle of salt (the original “Bruschetta” recipe), rather than cooking the oil with the dish. Pieces of fresh bread and raw in-season vegetables can also be dipped into oil as a tasty and healthy starter dish.

Prosciutto

Italian for ham, prosciutto can refer to either the dry-cured (prosciutto crudo), cooked (prosciutto cotto) or roasted (prosciutto arrosto) varieties. 

The word prosciutto comes from Latin, meaning something along the lines of “before drying”.

The flavour of prosciutto crudo is salty with a slightly sweet note. Certain areas produce more ‘sweet’ or more ‘salty’ prosciutto hams, whilst others will even have more nutty notes. The cotto version is more delicate, whilst the roasted has that unmistakable baked flavour.

All prosciutto varieties can be thinly sliced and served as is, although there are several dishes that use  these delicious Italian ham varieties.

The most prestigious prosciutto comes from either Parma (Prosciutto di Parma) and Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Prosciutto di San Daniele), although other regions in the north, particularly Emilia and Fruili, hold their own in the top prosciutto stakes.

Indeed, prosciutto crudo is often referred to as ‘Parma ham’ by Americans.

Prosciutto crudo can be made from the hind legs of either pork or wild boar, although the same production techniques can also be applied to other animal meats.  

To make prosciutto crudo, during the winter months one would take the hind leg, wash it, salt it and then press it lightly for around 60 days to drain and dry out.  After another few washes, the prosciutto is strung up in a cellar-like environment that is cool, dark and with good airflow.  Depending on the size of the leg, this drying process can take from between 9-24 months.

One dry, the prosciutto can be hung up even at room temperatures for another year and a half… if you can wait that long!

Prosciutto crudo can be thinly sliced and served on antipasto platters as a starter, perhaps accompanied by delicious Italian cheeses and plump olives. Prosicutto crudo is also commonly used in sandwiches, whilst pizza can be made with slices of prosciutto crudo laid atop as soon as it is removed for the pizza oven. “Prosciutto e melone” (this iconic Italian ham served with rockmelon/cantaloupe) is a refreshing and super-simple summer recipe. Some pasta sauces will call for chopped prosciutto crudo also. In mains, it can be used as part of a stuffing for roasts, used to rolled up inside involtini (wraps) or with some meat dishes. When cooked, prosciutto crudo becomes quite salty and almost bacon-esque in flavour.

To produce prosciutto cotto, the pig legs are deboned, treated with a mix of salt and herbs, then pressed into a mould, before being steam-cooked.

If the prosciutto meat is rather roasted, you would have prosciutto arrosto.

The cooked prosciutto versions are also common antipasto and sandwich staples plus some pastas recipes.

Ravioli

Ravioli is an Italian filled pasta variety, normally square in shape.

The first reference to Ravioli dates back to the 1300s in Prato. Not long after, there is also reference made to Ravioli in Venice. Just 150 years or so later and they were being served in Rome as well.

The world ravioli is the plural of the singular raviolo. Not that you would ever want just one, as they are so delicious!

These fresh pasta delights can be stuffed with potato, cheese, spinach and ricotta, meat and other fillings. They take just a few minutes at most to cook in boiling salted water. They can be served with a simple sauce (like butter and sage or a light tomato sauce) or even in broth, although in many parts of Italy it would be more common to find tortellini in broth, being a form of smaller, folded ravioli.

Tagliatelle

Tagliatelle is a typical type of pasta in the form of flat ribbons.

Traditionally tagliatelle are made by mixing one egg for every 100 grams of ’00’ flour to make a dough that is then rolled out to be 1mm flat and cut into ribbons of around 6mm in width. Any major variances in the width and the pasta would be given another name in accordance.

The form and feel of the tagliatelle strands makes them particularly perfect to pair with meat or thicker sauces that grip the strands.

The Galateo: Rules of Polite Behaviour dictate that long-strand pasta such as tagliatelle and spaghetti should be eaten with a fork only. The pasta should not be cut into smaller pieces with a knife, nor should a spoon be used to wrap the strands around the fork.

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