I lived in Italy, in the central Marché region (just below Tuscany on the map) for a year, and I have to say that the food was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Certainly Italians eat pasta and tomatoes a lot and pizzas too, but there are so many ingredients that are also used. The different regions tend to use different ingredients; the Marché has a coast, so fresh seafood was plentiful.
The best pizzas I had were in Naples, where I spent a couple of hours watching a traditional pizzaioli or pizza maker, pulling and twirling dough and then brushing home made tomato paste on top of his creations before sprinkling them liberally with cheese and baking them in a traditional kiln. Needless to say they were wonderful, even the simple pizza margharita I sampled.
The Italians use rice and polenta to balance their dishes, and not just pasta. In the Marché large ravioli were popular, in creamy sauces, and rice cooked in champagne, or at least Italian sparkling white wine.
Wines are plentiful and trips to vineyards make for a good day out. You can sample the wines and use them in cooking as the Italians do as well as for accompanying meals. A spaghetti sauce should have a few glugs of wine in it as a matter of course. There are many small family-owned vineyards sitting on top of hills and on the way to them, in summer you will see fields of sunflowers, which will have turned their heads the other way on your return journey, as they follow the sun.
Olive oil is used with most things and is usually on the table so that you can drown a salad in it if you want to. When cooking calls for an oil that can withstand higher temperatures, Italians use sunflower oil.
Fresh vegetables are plentiful and Italians cook what is seasonal on the whole; globe artichokes, cardoons, turnips, fennel, peppers, are frequently on the menu.
In southern Italy, in the less industrialized region of Calabria, hearty peasant food may consist of fresh borlotti beans eaten with polenta, making a well-balanced meal. Now we know that the amino acid methionine is lacking in beans but is contained in grains, so eating both makes up for the deficiency in the beans. People in the past didn’t have our more sophisticated knowledge of nutrition, but they nevertheless seem to have got the right ideas about a well-balanced diet.
The Italians have wonderful preserved meats and cheeses, and seem to keep the best of them in Italy. You can buy succulent pastrami, prosciutto, pancetta, salamis, mortadella, the list could go on. The cheeses are an eye-opener as the Parmesan comes in different grades and when you ask for it the shop assistant asks what you are going to do with it. If you want it to eat, you get the top grade cheese, and then there are the lower ones which seem to be the ones found in the export markets. Creamy gorgonzola is a treat as well as dolcelatte and there are regional cheeses: sheep’s cheese, goat’s cheese and perhaps most famous of all, buffalo cheese-mozzarella. Mozzarella can be eaten simply, just sliced thinly and interspersed with slices of tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, accompanied by black olives (another staple) and fresh bread. Again, though, the fresh mozzarella in Italy is different to the type that tends to find its way onto non-Italian supermarket shelves.
The list of Italian ingredients is endless, but truffles are worth a mention; these can be found in delicatessens and you can but a few grams or a whole truffle, depending on your needs. They are a welcome addition to Arborio rice and risottos, as well as to creamy sauces and in Italy they don’t cost very much when compared to prices in other European countries.