Italian cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world; a combination of tastes and flavours that are unique to 20 different and distinctive regions around the country. Become immersed in the tastes and textures of true Italian fare by sampling the less universally known - but no less delicious - rustic dishes native to these areas, and find an heirloom recipe or two of your own.
North vs. South
Broadly speaking, there are several overarching differences between the two main areas of Italy - the north and the south. Before delving into the various characteristics of each section, it’s important to understand the general differences between the two. In the north, people devote more space on their tables to rice and polenta than their southern brothers and sisters. In the south, cooks avoid using butter and prefer to use olive oil, unlike their friends to the north. Understanding these cooking details helps form a more complete picture of what “traditional” Italian can mean.
Located at the very top of the western side of Italy, Val d’Aosta isn’t often visited by tourists. Boasting rich mountain cuisine with French and Swiss influences, Val d’Aosta dishes often include stoneground nutty polenta, chestnuts, and fontina cheese alongside slow-braised wild game. The fritters, soups, and risottos are the best, but any traveller must sample a few bites of the freshly baked buckwheat bread before calling the journey a success.
Set on the eastern edge of northern Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s rustic courses owe their intriguing flavours to the Slavic, Austrian, and Hungarian influences that dribbled into the region over time. The resulting hearty cabbage soups, barley minestrone, and fermented turnip dish called brovada entertain the taste buds of natives and visitors alike without resorting to rich sauces or heavy pastas. Lightly seasoned pork and a less-salty variation on prosciutto di Parma make up the most popular meat options.
Nestled between Tuscany and Marche in central Italy is a pork lover’s dream come true: Umbria. This inland region is best known for its accomplished pork butchers, who utilize every scrap of meat, from snout to tail, in their preparations. Peas and fava beans are the vegetable mainstays, but most relish the decadence of the generous application of black truffle that accompanies many recipes, especially the fragrant cheeses.
Just below Umbria is a quiet and quaint section of central Italy called Abruzzo, which has a particularly unique set of culinary traditions and techniques. Favouring hot chili peppers and saffron, the dishes glow with spicy heat and golden colour. Closer to the coast, fish is marinated in tangy vinegar brines for soups, while inland areas opt for lamb spiced with rosemary, wine, garlic, and olive oil. Visit during the celebration of Saint Anthony called la panarda to indulge in an epic feast with as many as 50 courses.
Wheat, vegetables, and olive oil make up the royal triad of Apulian cuisine, with bitter wild greens slow cooked until soft for side dishes or as an ingredient in a multitude of other preparations, from soup to hand-rolled pasta. Semolina flour is baked into a plethora of round breads, most notably the frisedda, which is shaped in a ring and twice baked. As for olive oil, it’s no wonder it’s used to flavour nearly every dish served, as Puglia, the heel of the proverbial boot, is the largest olive oil producer in Italy.
Italy’s culinary intricacies is rooted deep in local, independent traditions which once explored provide a journey into rich peasant stews, crusty salt-free breads, delicate seafood soups, and unctuous vegetables that make up the diverse regional fare found in each small town.