Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Thursday Thirteen - Yummah! 13 Italian Dishes

Yummah! 13 (or is it 14?) Italian Dishes

I thought I knew about Italian food before I came here. Yo! I'd even lived in New Joisey for a few years amongst the Guidos, shouldn't that qualify me? In a word, "No." If you've never been to Italy, chances are you have no idea about the cuisine. If you think Pizza Hut is good pizza, you couldn't be further off the mark. Chef Boy-ar-dee? Gag. Olive Garden? (Pass me the Chef Boy-ar-dee, please...) Garlic is a distant dream in the cooking of the average Italian chef, trust me on this - and I have the distinct pleasure of living in the Emilia-Romagna region of the country, close to Bologna, which has the finest traditional cuisine in Italy. (But that's what they all say.) It has to be sampled to be believed, which is a pity, truly.

So, here is a list of 13 delicacies from Italia. Buon Appetito!

Let's start with the breakfast, shall we? No Italian breakfast (or mid-morning break, or mid-afternoon break, etc, etc.) is complete without Caffè! And these three are the most popular forms (that I've seen):

1a) Espresso - in its classic form, espresso (not "expresso", for Heaven's sake!) is thick, almost creamy, and when compared to American coffee, quite strong. However, a "shot" of espresso has less caffeine than a regular cup of an American brew. It can be served "macchiato" (or "stained" with milk), "corretto" ("corrected" with a shot of alcohol, such as grappa or brandy), or even, "Affogato" ("drowned") - which means over a scoop of gelato. (MMMMmmm...)

1b) Caffè Latte - literally "coffee milk" - this is what some youngsters grow up on, here. One part coffee to two or three parts warmed milk, and traditionally served in a bowl (which is how many Italians take their breakfast tea - which is served with lemon, not milk). Starbucks has done a great many travellers a disservice by getting them used to ordering this drink by the name "Latte". (Try that in Italy, folks, and you'll just get a glass of milk.) Let's say that word again, okay? "Milk". Okay, I think it's out of my system, now.

1c) Cappuccino - a modern classic, this tasty treat is also done a disservice by many. It takes skill to make a proper cappuccino, and that machine at the gas station eatery doesn't have what it takes. (Tasty though those treats are!) My photo here actually shows a "Cappuccino con Panna" (Cappuccino with Cream), not a more traditional version of the drink. Either way, I loooove these! They're a great way to start the day, and wonderful before a long train journey.

Okay, enough about that... Let's move on to lunch and dinner, shall we?

2) Bruschetta - pronounced "Broos-ket-ta" (NOT brooshetta, please! I'm begging!), this is simplicity at its finest: Bread, toasted in the oven or over a fire, rubbed with garlic, brushed with olive oil, then sprinkled with a hint of salt and pepper. As you can see here, tomatoes are sometimes added, along with a bit of basil. This is one dish you can eat any time of year. And no, "bruschetta" is not really the toppings you can buy in a jar. Well, sort of. It's come to mean that, now, but the traditional take is what I've described. Bread. Garlic (rubbed, not cut or paste). Olive oil. What more do you need, really?

3) Piadina (Pee-ah-dee-na) - A regional specialty (not Roman) here in Emilia-Romagna. It consists of flatbread, thinly-sliced meat, cheese and lettuce. If you want, you can enjoy it with a sweet filling, like marmalade or, mmmmm... Nutella!

4) Of course, there's also Pizza! The difference being that, in most of Italy, when you order a pizza, you're ordering one per person, and you eat it all yourself. It sounds like a big deal, but it isn't - the pizzas here are thinner than in the US - and can be ordered "tirata", or "pulled", to make them even thinner.

5) No meal is complete without the following delicacy - Parmigiano Reggiano! You might know it better as Parmesan cheese, but trust me on this, that stuff you're eating out of the can with "Kraft" written on it is as far from the real thing as it's possible to be! This stuff is so good that, not only is it as good as money, in some cases, but international laws apply to the usage of the name "Parmigiano Reggiano". If what you're sprinkling over your pasta doesn't have this name on it, it's NOT the real thing. And you owe it to yourself to try it - at least once.

6) Balsamic Vinegar - This is a product from either Reggio nell'Emilia or Modena, and it is noted in historical documents as far back as the Middle Ages. It has been lauded as an elixir for medicinal purposes, and was once highly regarded for its value in trading. It is often served with Parmigiano Reggiano, and like its companion dish, Balsamic Vinegar has its name ("Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" or "di Reggio Emilia") protected by copyright laws. It's sweet enough to serve drizzled over desserts, such as Crème Caramel, Zabaglione, and even ice cream. Think about that, y'all. Vinegar and ice cream!

7) Pasta Carbonara - This one was a revelation to me, and one I grew to love. Pasta (usually spaghetti), an egg, cream, and pancetta (the Italian version of bacon). MMMmmmm... Grate just a teensy bit of Parmigiano Reggiano on top, and this dish is fantastic - especially in winter.

8) Tortelli di Zucca - Pumpkin-filled pasta! I had never had this until I came here, either, but it's one of my favorites ever, now! Also known as Pumpkin ravioli, this dish hails from Mantova, but is a specialty here in Reggio Emilia, too. I go through phases where I just can't get enough of this one. The filling is made of pumpkin (or other winter squash), nutmeg, Parmigiano Reggiano, and a few other spices. These can be served with a bit of melted butter, or in a ragu (a meat sauce). A friend of mine likes these served with a walnut sauce - yummmah!

9) Erbazzone - another regional specialty. This converted me to eating spinach at the age of 34 (no small feat!) - by combining the dreaded spinach (or, alternatively, swiss chard) with Parmigiano Reggiano, egg, and - oh, dear - Lard! All of this is wrapped up in a flaky pastry crust. Of course there are other spices and stuff, but this is delicious, so I don't care what else is in there. (And I hate to argue with certain "Food Network" chefs, but I do believe that this dish originated in Reggio Emilia, NOT Parma.)

10) Risotto con Fragole - Risotto with Strawberries! - It is what it is, folks. Risotto (creamy Italian rice), served with strawberries. Sweet, but not too much so, with a hint of Parmigiano Reggiano in the mix - this is often served as a first dish (Not a dessert!). Delicious - but a little goes a long way...

11) Cappelletti (or Tortellini) - Delicious little pasta pockets, round in overall shape, with fillings of meat and/or cheese (wanna guess which cheese is quite popular, here?) and served in chicken broth, in ragu, or with butter.

12) Pocket Coffee! A tasty little candy treat, from the makers of (oh, God bless 'em!) Nutella! Three of these little chocolates (filled with an espresso syrup) equal one actual shot of espresso. Great for a wee pick-me-up in the late afternoon, when you feel like you're winding down. I mean, chocolate! Espresso! Divine!

Of course, I can't finish this without mentioning a personal favorite of mine - and so many others...

13) GELATO!!! This is a treat so delicious, no description of the tastes or textures can do it justice. It truly has to be sampled to be understood. Let this suffice to say: No matter the time of year, there is a gelateria open somewhere, so Italians can get a fix of this frozen delight. I've seen people strolling with a huuuuge cone of gelato, gobbling it down, in the middle of a chilly rain, in Firenze. I've purchased a kilo of it (two pounds) in mid-winter, when it was too cold to stand outside to eat it. I've eaten it for dinner in the middle of July. The taste is so intense, you only need a little bit, and you feel satisfied much faster than you would with regular "ice cream".

A typical Italian gelateria - and customer. ;)

Still not satisfied, eh, ladies? Oh, all right... Here's some eye candy:

Costantino Vitagliano - Italian TV "personality"


Gina Ardito said...

As if the coffee wasn't enough to get my heart pumpin', you add another Italian "specialty" at the end? Thanks for sending me into overdrive when it isn't even 6 am here yet!

Ms Menozzi said...

I do what I can, you know...

Jennifer Shirk said...

Mmmmm...I am so hungry now.

And I'm so glad I can pronounce brushetta correctly now! :)

Lia said...

I'm with Gina, that last one was just too much for 8am.

And for dinner last night I had capellini with fresh tomato sauce and the cheese was hand grated parmigiano-reggiano from a Italian grocery.

Tara S Nichols said...

I'll have the three coffees and the italian man please. I love this restaurant.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I think I just gained five pounds reading this post.
LOVE it. I always knew that the Italian food and Chinese food I've eaten all my life didn't resemble the real thing.
GREAT post.

Kaige said...

Hmm.. I was going to comment on one of the dishes and then I hit that last picture...

Umm... oh yeah. Gelato... I knew they had to be related. =)

Happy TT!

Paige Tyler said...

Ooooh, I so love Italian food! And those pics are yummy! And I'm not talking about the food! LOL!


My TT is at

Tasina said...

I'm with you 1000000% on the cheese. There is no substitute.

Fantastic post!

Tempest Knight said...

They are all delish... especially that last one. Nice salami... *drools*

Heather said...

You can keep the coffee, but that Tortelli di Zucca sounds interesting. And the gelato...mmmm!

Nicholas said...

I really love bruschetta, and thanks to Italian au pair girls I have always been able to pronounce it correctly. I could do with some right now actually~

Kathleen Oxley said...

Great list (especially the finale)!! The pumpkin filled pasta sounds delish and I think my husband would kill for some of those candies - he'd love to be able to keep yummy caffeine candy in his desk drawer at work!! Although I do love my starbucks, I always laugh when someone orders an expresso *rolls eyes*. Happy TT!

:) Kat

Debbie Mumford said...

Yummm! Must be time for my midnight snack...

Gwen Mitchell said...

OMG... I'm sooo hungry now!