Eat your way through Italy! Our Italian Food by Region Guide (Part 1)

When we think of Italy, we think of a great beauty. A deeply passionate country, steeped in centuries of history and culture. We think of Rome, and its ruins, of Florence, and its art, of love, life and, of course, food. Italian food has earned itself a reputation as a gastronomic powerhouse of deliciousness. And, boy, does it live up to that reputation. What’s more, the country is a mosaic of twenty different regions defined by distinctly different dishes and flavors. So, join us as we explore great Italian food by region.

Abruzzo


Abruzzo lies between Lazio and the Adriatic sea in central Italy, and its food is, more often than not, overlooked. But here, just as in all of Italy’s regions, you can find some of the most beautiful traditional Italian cuisine.

The region’s geography defines the food served up in Abruzzo: mountains, coastline and the land the divides the two. So, those lucky enough to visit Abruzzo have three distinct cooking styles and authentic Italian recipes to look forward to.


If one thing is distinctly Abruzzese, it's a lamb dish. In this part of the country, sheep dominate the landscape, and so naturally, it’s a common feature in food. Rustic lamb dishes like lamb ragu, grilled lamb, and arrosticini, skewers of lightly herbed alternating lamb and lamb fat, are staples. They are served alongside pickled aubergines, cauliflower, artichokes and of course, delicious, soft sheep's cheese.


When you make your way down from the Apennine mountains into the valleys and plateaus of central Abruzzo, you enter pasta territory. Here, some of the finest durum and semolina wheat in all of Italy grows. Spaghetti alla chitarra, a thicker egg pasta, served in a simple tomato sauce is king in these parts.

Down by the coast, chefs turn their hands to the sea and the fruits therein. For an authentic experience, find a Trabucco. These are traditional fishing structures made of Aleppo pine. And, some serve food. Here, there is the guarantee of excellent, fresh seafood. Sample some stunning dishes like monkfish tripe or mussels with saffron.


Aosta Valley



Bordering both France and Switzerland, the Aosta Valley lies in the far northern reaches of Italy. Due to its location in the Italian Alps, cuisine from this region boasts rich mountains flavors. Most well known beyond the snowy peaks is Fontina cheese, a semi-soft cheese with buttery and nutty flavors. It is a central ingredient in Fonduta Valdostana, a cheesy fondue in which stale rye bread and savoy cabbage.


As well as a stellar selection of cured meats to satisfy those with an appetite for delicious salamis, another Aosta Valley food specialty is carbonada. That’s right, carbonada not carbonara. This dish is a stew that incorporates onions, white wine, rump steak, pancetta and herbs, and spices. It’s very alpine.


Pair these meals with the regions superb wine. The Aosta Valley exists in a microclimate and pinned to the side of dizzyingly high mountainsides you will find vineyards and wineries producing some great quality, fresh reds and whites.


Apulia


Down to Apulia, the heel of Italy’s boot, a region of the country that celebrates a distinct culinary tradition sadly underrepresented the world over. This little slice of Italy probably best represents the Mediterranean diet basing itself on Cucina Povera, peasant cooking. Here, ingredients like pasta, olive oil, vegetables, and seafood are staples.


Buffalo mozzarella may hail from Campania, but Apulia has been producing fresh cow’s milk mozzarella for centuries, and here, this too is a specialty. One of its most delicious incarnations is the burrata - a globe of mozzarella firm on the outside, but filled with stracciatella, shredded mozzarella, on the inside.

The regions signature dish is orecchiette “little ear” pasta. Apulians serve it with a broccoli rabe tossed in olive oil and chilies. The simple, played down dish allows each individual ingredient to shine. The delicious bitter tang of the rabe, rich olive oil and slight heat are all beautiful.


Basilicata


Different influences push regional Italian cuisine into different areas and directions. The result is a country divided and unified by fantastic, unique food.

The traditional Italian cuisine of Basilicata, an area of mountains and forests that kisses the Ionian Sea in southern Italy, has Spanish, French, Arab and northern European influences. The result is an area that celebrates an extensive and varied “menu.” From the simple to the intense, Basilicata food is a gourmet's delight.


The wild boar population in this part of Italy has grown considerably over the last few years, and the beast’s meat features heavily. Delicious cuts of the bold, gamey flavored meat are slow cooked in beautiful ragus or turned into sausage and salami. To further satiate fans of sausages, Basilicata boasts a superb variety in the Lucanica sausages. They are made from pork shoulder and seasoned with salt pepper and fennel seeds.


Basilicata, like all of Italy, boasts excellent pasta. But from here, records show, pasta originates. A specialty is Strascinati, a large variation of orecchiette. Like in Apulia, they dress it with simple, home-grown vegetables or seafood like cuttlefish and shrimp.


Calabria


Now, on our Italian food by region tour, to the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria.

Calabria like its neighbor to the east, Basilicata, is a region composed of highlands and mountains. Here aubergines grow aplenty, and the heat of the chilies that have come to define the coast are in many dishes.


Nduja is spicy, spreadable sausage and is beautiful eaten on fresh crispy bread or served in pasta. Pasta ccu ri sarde makes use of sardines, a staple of a Calabrian diet, in a pasta that includes breadcrumbs, raisins, and pine nuts.


Considered one of the best cheeses in southern Italy, Monte Poro Pecorino is made with sheep's milk and can be eaten young or aged. Aged Monte Poro is marked by the thicker, darker orangey-yellow crust that develops on its outer layer.

And, naturally, as Calabria is bound to the coast seafood also features heavily. Perhaps most notable of which is swordfish. An authentic Italian recipe specific to the region is the to roast it in pickle sauce. Alternatively, it is also cooked in a marinara sauce and served with pasta.


Campania


Naples is the capital of the southerly Campania, a region rich with culinary treasures. The volcanic soil and great climate combine and give birth to some of the best produce in the country. This part of Italy lays claim to buffalo mozzarella and the invention of pizza two big players on the world stage.


Pizza in Campania is not your standard Domino’s delivery fare; here it is serious stuff. It comes in three varieties: Marinara, with garlic and oregano, Margherita, with tomato and basil, and Extra Margherita, the same as regular Margherita, but that must include mozzarella. All pizzas must be kneaded by hand, the dough left to rise for at least 6 hours and most importantly cooked in a wood fire oven.


Then, of course, come the hearty, rustic classics like Ischian style rabbit, a tasty meal of rabbit cooked down in wine with herbs and spices. And, Campania’s coastline means the regional Italian cuisine here also includes some superb seafood dishes.


Risotto alla Pescatora, a beautiful twist on a dish more commonly associated with central and northern Italy, is delicate and makes for the perfect summer meal. Or, look to the Frito Miso di Mar for fried seafood like calamari, shrimp, and anchovies. This pairs excellently with a glass of refreshing white wine on a hot summer’s day.


Emilia-Romagna


Stretching almost from coast to coast and lying between Florence and Venice is Emilia-Romagna, a gastronomic paradise. This region is home to Piacenza, Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena and Bologna, cities that produce some astonishing food and fantastic traditional Italian cuisine.


Because of Emilia-Romagna’s location in the Po River Valley produce grown here is sublime. Markets are a cornucopia of fabulously delicious fruit and veg. Parma is home to the world-renowned Prosciutto di Parma, thin cuts of dry-cured ham. Coppa, another fantastic cured pork product comes in several varieties. Enjoyed them as an appetizer alongside a glass or two of red wine.


Modena’s balsamic vinegar has been produced since the Roman times under strict quality laws. Drizzled over strawberries or a plate of stracchino con patate - a rindless cows milk topped with mashed potato, and it elevates already sumptuous dishes to new heights of greatness. Also coming from Modena (and Reggio) are tortellini, and it’s “bigger brother” tortelloni. Enjoy these stuffed with all kinds of fillings.


Of course, who could forget Parmigiano Reggiano, which can, by law only be made in this region and lasagna which originates from Bologna?


Friuli-Venezia Giulia


Nestled between Italy’s Veneto region and the countries of Austria and Slovenia is Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Existing in the shadow of Veneto, it’s very likely many won't have heard of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. But, with a little hope, this Italian food by region tour will change that because Friuli-Venezia Giulia offers up some pretty fantastic stuff in the way of traditional Italian cuisine.


Friuli-Venezia Giulia is most famous for its wines, specifically its whites. But, when you’re there don’t neglect its reds or even, its oranges. Enjoy one with a plate of Frico that combines shredded potatoes and high-fat cheese like Montasio PDO.

Growing in the flat highlands around Udine are white asparagus. Originally planted in the 19th century to reduce moisture in the soils of vineyards, today they are a delicacy. They are in season for a two month period across April and May, and traditionally people serve them alongside eggs and grains.


Fans of sauerkraut should turn their attention to Muset e Brovada. This is fermented white turnips shredded into a red grape marc served alongside a fat pork sausage. You can also taste Austria’s culinary influences in the region's cherry gnocchi. Served with pitted cherries and a dash of cinnamon, this is typically a summer dish. There is also an autumnal variety that includes plums.


Lazio


This part of central Italy that is home to the country’s capital Rome has cooking traditions strongly rooted in Cucina Povera. The countryside, once untouched, is now an endless sea of farms and farm towns. Lazio celebrates a frugal type of cuisine with no waste, and intense, robust flavors are the order of the day.


Lazio's produce takes pride of place. The region sources it from the fruit and veg gardens of its countryside. The Roman cauliflower and artichokes are delicious in pasta dishes or fried. Signature dishes include the spicy Penne alla Arrabiata and the of course, carbonara. Carbonara uses guanciale, cured pork jowl, cut into small chunks and fried. It is then combined with spaghetti and tossed with beaten eggs and the regions famous pecorino cheese.


Pecorino is a hard goat’s milk cheese that’s very versatile. Less mature variations are great for eating alone or with crunchy break and more mature variations grated over dishes.


Liguria


Liguria, the thin stretch of land that curls around Italy’s north-west border, its tip kissing France, is the Italian Riveria. This sliver of Italian coastline boasts great wine, olive oil, basil, rosemary, pine nuts and porcini mushrooms.


The much loved, much-eaten bread focaccia comes from Liguria. This flatbread, best eaten warm, is great on its own. But, is also perfect for dipping in olive oil or eating with cheeses and cured meats.


Ravioli, like tortellini, is stuffed pasta and said to come from Liguria. Here, there is a variation called Pansoti. They come stuffed with herbs and in a hazelnut sauce.  Liguria proximity to the coast also means that it boasts some out of this world seafood dishes. Amongst them is Ciuppin, a soup of slow-cooked fish and cappon magro, a sort of elaborate, layered seafood salad.

And so concludes part one of our journey of Italian food by region. Click here to read part two.

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