Sipping a glass of aromatic wine, savouring a dish of al dente pasta and gazing out over verdant rolling hills: this is a recurrent image in my vivid dreams about enjoying Italy’s gastronomy. While it’s certainly disappointing to wake up to your usual oatmeal- and sandwich-filled life, we at Prestige Holidays are committed to making your food fantasies come true… for a little while, at least! With our new guide to the tenets of Italian cooking, you’ll be ready to take the country’s specialities by storm on your next holiday.
If bold flavours and comforting carbs sit at top table in your household, why not treat yourself to a week – or two – of wining and dining your way through Italy? This country is often considered the world’s culinary celebrity, and for good reason: after all, who could resist the prosciutto, the pasta and everyone’s favourite, the pizza?
If your taste buds are begging you to get an authentic taste of these specialities, I’ve found that resistance is futile. Instead, the best thing to do is to familiarise yourself with the king of cuisine’s culinary cornerstones before mapping out your gastronomic tour of the country. To help you get started, my team and I have combined our insider knowledge to create guide to Italian cooking and to where it is best sampled. Let’s dig in!
Italian Cuisine at a Glance
It’s easy to have a skewed perspective on what Italian cooking actually entails when you haven’t experienced it firsthand. While your local Italian restaurant’s enormous portions of spaghetti may look and taste authentic to you, you’re sure to discover that the real thing is drastically different from its anglicised counterpart. As a rule of thumb, a typical lunch or dinner in Italy should contain most of the following ingredients. Internalise and Italianise!
Almost every Italian dish starts with one simple but ingredient: olive oil – and lots of it. Whether you’re frying, braising, cooking or drizzling, there’s no way around this basic (and delicious) foundation. Try it on bread, vegetables, pasta, fish… you name it, and there’s a good chance that the Italians have pioneered it. Along with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, onions, parmesan (or grana padano) and a zing of garlic make regular apperances at the lunch and dinner table.
Italy is famous for its vast array of outdoor markets, which shape the gastronomic culture in many towns and cities. On most days of the week you’re sure to see locals making their way through the bustling stands, chatting with the vendors and buying fresh ingredients for their next culinary feat.
Although you may think that the cuisine is predominantly carb-heavy, a visit to one of the markets will open your eyes to the reality: seasonal vegetables actually make up an equally large – if not larger – part of the local diet. You’ll also notice this if you order a quintessentially Italian antipasti plate, which naturally contains renowned cured meats such as prosciutto, but is predominantly filled with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, olives, peppers and other vegetables. It’s also not uncommon to find flavourful greens, such as kale, asparagus or fennel, in main dishes. The best part about these culinary staples is that they’re healthy and delicious at the same time.
Of course, we couldn’t compile a guide to Italian cooking without mentioning pasta, which has stood in the world’s culinary spotlight for many centuries. This revolutionary staple is available in countless forms and sauces in its country of origin, but you’ll notice that it’s generally not served as an entrée. Instead it’s generally a primo piatto, or small starter, which is followed by a main dish. Prepare yourself for starch sensations immersed in spicy tomato, meat-based or seafood sauces… but always in moderation.
Meat & Fish
The secondo piatto, otherwise known as the entrée, is usually a protein-rich dish, such as roasted pork, a leg of lamb or braised beef. More often than not, however, this dish will consist of fish, which is surprisingly popular in Italy. If you’re looking for canned sardines or would like to watch a waiter debone a piece of fresh swordfish right in front of your eyes, you’re guaranteed to get your fair share of omega-3 in Italy. Regardless of whether you favour red meats or fish, however, your taste buds will be rewarded with a simple but incredibly flavourful meal.
Where to Eat
Although the country as a whole is celebrated for its gastronomic achievements, a few regions stand out from the crowd for their culinary practices and creations. Over the years, my team – as well as our clients – have grown particularly fond of Puglia, Sicily and Lombardy, where we regularly organise stays for food and wine connoiseurs.
Situated in the far south of Italy, Puglia is known for making about 40% of the country’s olive oil. This agricultural hub is also famous for its production of vegetables, including artichokes and tomatoes, and for its top-notch meat, fish, eggs and pasta. Don’t miss out on the following dishes:
- Orecchiette and maccheroni al forno, two delectable pasta dishes
- Lamb and beef roasts
- Seafood, including mussels, anchovies, sea bass and red mullet
- Vincotto di fichi, a fig- and ricotta-based dessert
Top Tip: Want to try it yourself? This blog post recommends some of our favourite culinary classes and wine tastings in Puglia.
If you’re looking for wines that pack a powerful punch, Sicily is your best bet. From full-bodied reds to myriad fruits and nuts, this region’s cuisine was shaped by a variety of cultures and civilisations over the centuries, including the ancient Romans, Greeks and Arabs. Some of the must-try dishes are:
- Caponata, a renowned appetiser that combines seafood and vegetables
- Panelle, fritters made of chickpeas
- Arancini, rice balls filled with mozzarella, peas and meat
- Pasta con sarde, pasta with sardines or anchovies
- Cannoli and Cassata, two sugary sensations that you won’t be able to get enough of!
Top Tip: Want to find out more about Sicily’s unique culinary traditions? Read all about them in this blog post.
Lombardy, located in the northwest of the country, can be thanked for many characteristically Italian dishes, ranging from antipasti to desserts that are simply out of this world. After upgrading your wardrobe in Milan, give your tired feet a rest and treat yourself to some of the following:
- Cheeses, including Crescenza, Stracchino and Grana Padana
- Risotto with saffron, best tried in Milan
- Ossobuco, veal shanks that have been braised and spiced with herbs
- Panettone, a light cake with candied fruits, known as Italy’s Christmas speciality