Summer is here and its official arrival brings a symphony of colors and flavors to heighten our senses and satisfy our taste buds.
Seasonal summer produce offers the best opportunity to experience some of Italy’s most iconic dishes which are based on locally grown ingredients picked at the height of their flavor and simply prepared.
One of the best ways to eat like an Italian locavore is to make l’insalata caprese (the salad from Capri). The texture, flavor and vitality of this popular Italian dish is at its best this time of the year. Deceptively simple, it is made of three basic parts that tie together the ingredients in a forceful way reminiscent of a Vivaldian concerto. Made with firm vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (bufala or fior di latte – cow’s milk mozzarella) and garden grown Italian basil. The whole is made better by the quality of the individual ingredients. Top with a drizzle of an excellent Italian estate-bottled extra-virgin olive oil for a light, delicious salad on a warm summer evening.
Most of us think that the foods of Italy are defined by red sauce, pasta and pizza but the cuisine of Italy is as gastronomically diverse as the 20 regions that make regional Italian cooking a culinary adventure. Here are a few lesser known favored Italian ingredients used to make 5 unexpected Italian dishes.
Liver. Fegato alla Veneziana, sauteed liver and finely sliced onions, seasoned with sage, parsley, a touch of red wine or vinegar in a combination of oil and butter. A classic Venetian dish.
Buckwheat. A beloved grain in Northern Italian often made into a flour to make pizzoccheri, a flat ribbon-like pasta served with cooked vegetables and cheese. Sometimes buckwheat is cooked with cornmeal and served with butter and cheese to make polenta taragna.
Tuna. Sardines and anchovies, clams and mussels rather than tuna are often thought of as the seafood of choice in Italy but tuna (tonno) is also popular served in a dish called Vitello Tonnato, or veal with tuna sauce.
Nepitella. Nepitella is a member of the mint family and a regional favorite in Tuscany where it is added to mushroom dishes and green vegetables for its distinctive flavor. Sautéed Mushrooms with Nepitella and garlic served on crostini or with roast or boiled meat dishes are delicious.
Alkermes. Alkermes is an 8th century Florentine liqueur and tonic of sorts used in various Italian pastries and confections most notably the familiar zuppa inglese. It is reputed to have been a favored elixir of the Medici. It’s complex and exotic formula (thought to include rose-water, cinnamon, sugar, honey, ground pearls, leaf gold, raw silk and kermes -a small parasitic insect found on the Mediterranean oak tree whose desiccated bodies yield a crimson dye – since replaced with artificial colorants) makes a beautiful dessert from Abruzzo known as Pesche Dolce, Italian Peach Cookies. The blushing color of the dessert is achieved by dipping the cookie in an Alkermes bagna per dolci, a bath for sweets.
“Di là,” rispose il Gatto, girando la zampa destra, “abita un Cappellaio; e di qua,” indicando con l’altra zampa, “abita una Lepre Marzolina. Visita chi vuoi dei due: sono entrambi matti.”
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw around, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.
It’s been 150 years since we followed Alice down the rabbit hole and the enormous influence of Lewis Carroll’s writings on visual art and literature has influenced the world. First published on July 4th 1865 the sentiment of creative chaos and an escape from the ordinary captured the imagination of Italian illustrators like Fulvio Bisca, a graphic and type designer from Torino who created a curiouser and curiouser version of Alice with a series of contemporary illustrations.
Traveling in Italy I’ve eaten my share of meatballs and I’ve seen many recipes. When making meatballs I always follow the advance of mia Nonna. Never crowd your meatballs. Brown in a good olive oil and leave a space between your meatballs when browning and don’t touch them until you see the oil turn a beautiful, burnished golden color. You can probably apply this to life as well. Don’t crowd and clutter and take on more than you can comfortably manage. Surround yourself with simple things that promote your well-being. Don’t manipulate too much and in the end turn a beautiful, burnished gold.
More advice and Italian food lore.
Italians are very fond of a pre-dinner ritual called the aperitivo, a drink and a nibble designed to “open the stomach” and aid in digestion. Traditions and knowledge about the Italian aperitivo say that l’appetito viene mangiando, “appetite comes when you eat.”. Popularizing a small snack and a light drink before dinner seems counterintuitive but a small bit of food before dinner may help you eat less and enjoy your food more. Stopping work at exactly 5:00 o’clock, hopping onto your Vespa and heading out to the nearest aperitivo bar is a social custom that we might benefit from. Here’s to moderation, balance and a Campari and soda.
Italians are well known for a series of both practical and artistic inventions. The piano, violin, ballet, the battery and the botanical garden. The coronary stent, combination lock and espresso machine. The film festival, law school, nuclear reactor and prosciutto. All from the hearts and minds of Italians. But one invention is a word that is universally used on a daily basis by just about everyone on the planet. An etymological reference attributed to a popular 16th century character from Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte named Pantalone, a farcical old Venetian who wore tight-fitting trousers, for which he was ridiculed. That word is “pants”.
Although Italians did not “invent” trousers (that is attributed to the 6th century horse-riding peoples of Eastern and Central Asia) the word “pants” as we know it can be etymologically connected to this comedic Italian character whose funny pants eventually caught on in France in the form of pantaloons, and elsewhere was shortened to “pants”. Today the cut, features, fabric and fit of Italian-made pants are seriously sought after and make Italian pant makers among the best in the world.
Un scherzo: Throw it at a bad opera singer at La Scala?
Italians would never be that rude at the opera or that wasteful. They knew the tomato was special as early as 1544 when Pietro Andrea Mattioli an Italian physician and botanist from the University of Padua included the tomato in his Discourse on Material Medicine where he discussed the tonic and magical powers of the pomo d’oro or “golden apple”.
However it wasn’t until 1839 that the tomato met pasta in Italy when Ippolito Calvacanti, the Duke of Buonvicino, published a cookbook with a recipe for vermicelli co le pomodoro made with crushed tomatoes and the leftovers of onions and herbs from the garden, lightly fried in oil creating the first tomato sauce. And here it is, roughly translated.
Take 4 “rotoli” ( unit of measurement used in Naples equal to .861 kg) (2.760 kg) of tomatoes, cut them in a cross, take out the seed and water, boil them, and when they are melted, pass them through a sieve, and that sauce let it condense over the fire, adding one third (gr.275) of suet, or lard. When the sauce is dense, boil 2 “rotoli” (1.380 kg) of vermicelli, very green (a typical Neapolitan expression to mean “al dente”) and drain well, put them in the sauce with salt and pepper, keeping them on the heat of the fire so they dry a little. Every now and then turn, and when they are well seasoned serve them.