There are many regional dialects in the Italian language. If you come from an Italian family you probably heard your parents and grandparents speak a little differently that what you learn in an Italian language class. That’s because you are learning classical Italian based on the Tuscan dialect popularized by Dante Alighieri.
Dante is credited for standardizing the Italian language and the dialect of Tuscany making it the basis for what would be the official language of Italy and making Dante the “Father of the Italian language”. That’s not to say everyone agreed with him. There was much debate over the centuries on what should govern the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. An intellectual debate between various scholars of the time (including Baldassare Castiglione and Niccolo Machiavelli) ranted on whether the standard or dialectical form of Italian should be the most accepted. Eventually standard Italian prevailed and the Accademia della Crusca, an official government institution established in1582, began overseeing the preservation of standard Italian. Shortly after that, the Accademia published the first official Italian dictionary, the Vocabolario della Crusca, which ultimately became the template for future language dictionaries.
Spring is officially here and summer isn’t far behind. Meaning that now is the time to plan and plant your garden. Classic Italian cuisine begins with authentic ingredients.
Here are a few heirloom seed choices that will inspire your inner Italian. We call them the Italian Underground because they are slightly off the typical gardener’s radar. You can find them on various internet sites for ordering.
- Ligurian Basil from Portofino. Thick, aromatic bright green leaves. Suited to pots. Traditionally used to make Pesto Genovese.
- Melenzana Eggplant Violet of Florence. A large, violet to pink, round fruit with ribbing. Beautiful to look at as well as eat. Perfect for stuffing.
- Peperocini Ciliegia Piccante . A medium hot round cherry chili pepper. It looses about 60% of its heat when cooked making it great stuffed with mozzarella or grilled. A great addition to a plate of antipasti, pickled or in salads.
- Fava Bean delle Cascine. Farmhouse style fava favored by Italian chefs who insist it to be more tender than other favas.
- Zucchini San Pasquale. Ribbed with dark/light green stripes. Excellent taste and good flower production for stuffed zucchini blossoms.
- Mixed Swiss Chard. Ruby red, yellow and orange stem chard perfect sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
- Fennel Mantovano. Large rounded head. Very white bulb and deep green stalks. Full of crunch. Nice sweet flavor with stronger anise overtones than most varieties.
- Prezzemolo Gigante Parsley Giant of Naples. Very large flat-leaf variety from Naples with incredible flavor. Dark-green leaves regrow after cutting (hence the name prezzemolo, which means “to turn up everywhere”).
Arrosto, girarosto, allo spiedo or alle brace . . . all refer to grilled or spit roasted meats in Italy. The word brace (bra-cheh) means grilled over embers and for Italians the smoldering, glowing remains of an open fire create the perfect setting for enjoying la dolce vita.
Grilling in Italy is much simpler than the American-style barbecue. The fire is either charcoal or wood burned down to coals (hardwood such as oak is considered best, olive wood is also used). Determining temperature and time is literally by hand. Holding your hand over the fire just above the grill for 2 seconds means the flame is hot; perfect for searing a steak, 3-4 seconds is cooler and suited for grilling meats that cook quickly. For meats that have a longer cooking time (poultry, spare ribs), 5 seconds. Italians use the less is more approach to grilling and believe that the flavor has to come from the meat. Marinades, if used at all, are simple. An anointing of extra virgin olive oil or a sprinkling of herbs such as rosemary or sage is all that is needed.
In Tuscany and Umbria wood grilled meats are the truest interpretation of the rustic cuisine of the region. The legendary Florentine steak, “bistecca fiorentina” anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare to medium rare, is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed. In Umbria, Porchetto allo spiedo, a whole young pig, deboned, flavored with wild fennel and garlic and spit roasted in a wood burning oven is a signature Umbrian dish.
We’re big racing fans at Italyin30seconds. We love Monza, Maranello, Italy’s Mille Miglia and live in Indiana (Indpls 500). Here is our suggestion for an Italian inspired Memorial Day Race weekend starter.
Balsamic Beef Crostini with Herbed Cheese and Arugula
Marinate 1/2 lb thin cut steak in 1/2 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/3 c Maletti Aged Balsamic Vinegar, 2 T Worcestershire sauce, 2 cloves of minced garlic, coarse ground salt and black pepper for at least 1 hr. Toast slices of Italian Tuscan bread. Spread about 1 t. herbed cheese onto the bread then top with a few pieces of arugula. Set aside. Grill steak to medium. Let rest for at least 10 min.then cut steak into small triangles and place on top the arugula.
Right before serving, drizzle with 1/2 t. prepared balsamic vinaigrette.
Balsamic Beef Crostini with Herbed Cheese and Arugula
The portly porcini is indisputably the King of Italian mushrooms. The essence of autumn in Italy is distilled in its earthy character. Every fall the woodsy scent of the forest calls Italian mushrooms lovers to search for this flavorful fungus with the firm, fleshy texture that goes so well with everything from pasta to robust stews and sauces or brushed with olive oil and grilled over a wood fire.
I love porcini but they are difficult to find in the US and here lies my dilemma. To satisfy my craving for these stout, big capped mushrooms from the chestnut woods of Italy I have turned to the springtime woods and moist river bottoms of the American Midwest, home to the common yellow morel mushroom. With its pine-cone like appearance and spongy, honeycomb texture morels are about as far from a porcini as you can get. Yet they share a rich early flavor reminiscent of the season that favors them. There are a variety of ways to prepare morels and more imaginative cooks take advantage of their rich, meaty flavor. A culinary dilemma whose consequences can be nothing but delicious.