Italian Food and Wine: A Gustatory Adventure

 

Eating is another great recreational and traditional activity, and when the Italians eat - they really eat, so don’t plan to lose weight in Italy! Italian cuisine differs from region to region with many influences often being related to the historical inhabitants of the region. The food of the South is known for being heartier and less expensive. Campania is the traditional birthplace of the pizza, but tubular pasta and tomato sauces also originated here. Even if you are not fond of pizza, trying Italian pizza is a must! You may ruin the pleasure of take away pizzas for life but it is truly worth it as the blend of a superbly baked base topped with delicious cheese and wonderfully fresh toppings is a gustatory experience not to be missed!

Pizza: The secret of great pizza, and what Italians take pride in, is its simplicity and the use of fresh ingredients. Pizza originated as a "street food," and it remains one of the few Italian foods people often eat "on the go" rather than as a sit-down meal. There are pizza shops - called pizzerie al taglio - throughout Italy that display a wide variety of rectangular pizzas sold by the slice (in Naples, take-away pizzas are sold by the inch; in Rome, they're sold by weight) to people on the move.

One of the pizza’s most celebrated varieties, pizza Margherita, is named after Italy s queen Margherita who visited Naples in 1889. She was charmed by a particular tricolore pizza made especially for her with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella - ingredients whose green, red, and white colours represented those of the Italian flag.

Whatever ingredients adorn it, pizza is not pizza unless the crust is memorable. The thickness of the crust differs from region to region in Italy. What Americans call Chicago-style pizza, made in a deep dish and with a thick dough crust, is essentially Sicilian pizza. Authentic Neapolitan pizza has a paper thin crust that is crisp and well done on the bottom and soft and slightly undercooked on top. Getting the crust the right consistency is an art form and is very difficult to achieve in a home oven where maximum temperatures are not high enough to bake the dough quickly and evenly. Wood-fired ovens, which have always been used in Italy and can reach incredible heats, are essential if you want the real thing. Roman pizza, on the other hand, is very thin, crunchy and with far less pizza topping than either its Neapolitan or Sicilian counterparts.

Calabria’s cuisine, with its figs, honey, strong spices and eggplant, definitely hints of Greek influence, whilst Sicily produces luscious deserts such as cannoli - pastries stuffed with sweet cheese and chocolate - and cassata , a rich candied ice-cream. Whilst breakfast in the South often consists of just a coffee and cornetto (a triangular shaped croissant-like pastry), lunch is a much more elaborate affair. Italian dinners are also a substantial meal, and usually start quite late in the evening. A full dinner will start with an antipasto (appetizer), such as bruschetta (pron. broo-SKET-tah; a type of garlic and herb bread), or prosciutto (cured ham) and sliced melon. The antipasto is followed by the primo (the first course), usually soup or pasta, and then the secondo, consisting of meat or fish and accompanied by contorno (a small vegetable side dish). Finally comes dessert or fruit (and more often than not both!), then coffee; however, note that full dinners are very rare (said nosh-ups take place only during special occasions such as weddings, etc.) and that most Italians will usually eat just a primo and a secondo everyday.

Helpful hints: although, the appearance of many coffee shops, such as Café Nero and Starbucks, worldwide have helped to educate us in the nuances of coffee drinking, ordering coffee in Italy can still be slightly confusing. Ordering a caffè (coffee) will get you a small and strong espresso, so for a coffee with a little milk ask for a caffè macchiato. Cappuccino, which most Italians only drink before noon, has frothy scalded milk (whipped cream doesn’t feature), and a caffelatte is heavier on the milk and lighter on the coffee (something an Italian would drink only at breakfast!). For the brave there is the caffè corretto: an espresso with a drop of strong liqueur in it.

Besides more formal restaurants you can also grab a bite to eat and a coffee in most bars. Bars are usually very inexpensive, except on major tourist thoroughfares. Hot or cold panini and tramezzini (Italian-style sandwiches), drinks, and gelato can be ordered, as well as rolls or pizza bread stuffed with prosciutto cotto or prosciutto crudo (cured or cooked ham) or formaggio (cheese), and frittate (omelettes). The cheeses in Italy are delicious, as is the Italian’s assortment of fresh breads, very satisfying to eat in just their simple combination.

Note: touristy bars will charge more if you choose to sit down; this, however, doesn't happen in truly local cafés and is unheard of in those located outside the city centres.

With Italy being amongst the best of the wine producers of world, great Italian food should be accompanied by a good bottle of Italian wine. For a good bottle of red wine (vino rosso) try  the Chianti - produced in the region of Tuscany - or Salerno, from Naples. White wine (vino bianco) connoisseurs sampling from the Centre and the South should try the ones coming from the region of Lazio or the Lachryma Christi (Christ’s tear) from Naples, respectively. The hotter climate of Southern Italy and the islands also produces stronger, fruitier wines than the North and this is evident in Marsala from Sicily, which resembles a light sherry. For a little sparkling, the famous spumante which is produced in Asti (Piedmont, in the North), deserves to be poured into a glass or two. You can usually order by the glass, carafe, half-carafe or bottle.