“Italian food is bold and satisfying without being heavy. It’s rich and textural and uses a whole palette of flavors,” The chef and owner of Bottega in California’s Napa Valley and author of cookbook Bottega. “Enjoying Italian cuisine is more experiential, not intellectual. It comes from a more emotional place that’s very evocative.”
And it evokes so much more than big plates of meatballs and chicken parmigiana. When Italian immigrants first arrived on American shores, they couldn’t find their trusty olive oil, porcinis, prosciutto, and balsamico, so they adapted to the ingredients that surrounded them, which resulted in far more meats and sausages in dishes, along with a helping of garlic. And thus American-Italian food was born. But to mistake that for authentic, traditional Italian cuisine would leave your tastebuds with only half the story.
A Typical Italian Meal
“Italian food is really a celebration of produce, and is a secondary thought,” says Chiarello. A typical Italian meal will start with a big plate of antipasti, which are predominantly vegetables (like pepperoncini, mushrooms, and artichoke) and a selection of cured meats (like prosciutto and capicola). Then it moves on to a small pasta dish, which is followed by a light —perhaps a leg of lamb, simply but deliciously prepared. “As the meal progresses, it gets more simple,” says Chiarello. “Italian meals tend to have a reverse crescendo.”
Traditional Italian Ingredients
From that initial crescendo to the last savored bite, every authentic Italian dish is built upon the most basic yet most flavorful ingredients. “Traditional products are very important in the flavors of Italy, which, at their best, are based on seasonality and locality,” says Lidia Bastianich, the chef and owner of Felidia, Becco, Esca, Del Posto, and Eataly in New York City and the author of Lidia’s Italy in America.
Olive oil is the cornerstone of most Italian cooking (to braise, and drizzle), then come the vegetables. Garlic and onion are the familiar go-to’s, but intense green vegetables are often stars on the plate. Balsamic vinegar always claims a prime spot in an Italian kitchen, and you would be hard-pressed to find a cook without a wedge of Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano within arm’s reach.
Some might be surprised to learn how much of a staple fish is in the Italian, whether it’s fresh from the sea or canned in oil, like sardines. Cured meats are also plentiful. The Italians are big fans of preservation, turning pork into sausage and salami, olives into extra-virgin olive oil, grapes and vegetables into pickled vegetables. They’re firm believers in taking the time when you’re trying to make the deliciousness last. Have cod and a pile of salt? Make salt cod. “The traditional Italian flavors are so intense that you don’t need a lot of anything. A moderate amount will go a long way,” says Bastianich.
Finally, remember that good Italian food starts with the shopping. Make quality ingredients a priority when you’re bringing Italian cuisine to your kitchen.