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Regions of Italy
Northern Italy is composed of eight regions and is considered the most prosperous, likely due to its heavy industrial trade (a strong car manufacturing center in Turin, a finance and fashion capitol in Milan) and its tourism (which boasts excellent Alpine skiing in Valle d'Aosta and year-round balmy weather on the Italian Riviera in Liguria). Tall Lombardian poplars and cypresses are a common part of the landscape. The weather, which is dominated by the capricious climate of the Alps, offers seasonal changes and can get quite chilly and sometimes snowy in many of the northern regions. The exception is Liguria. Protected by the same mountains that wreak havoc on all other weather patterns of northern Italy, this area offers very mild, balmy winters.
Located in the northwest corner of Italy are Valle d'Aosta and Piedmont, known for their excellent ski areas. The cuisine of this region is a dynamic blend of Italian mountain specialties and strong Gallic flavors influenced by its proximity to France. It is common to see white truffles (trifola d'Alba) and butter in Piedmontese recipes. Southern Piedmont, near Asti and Alba, produce Italy's greatest wines. Polenta is another regional specialty. Once a year Piedmont celebrates with a festival in honor of this wonderful grain they call Il Polentone.
South of these two regions is Liguria, which borders the French Cote d'Azur. Liguria has its own version of a wealthy tourist haven called the Italian Riviera, boasting palm tree lined streets, hills of olive trees, a profusion of flowers and harbors filled with yachts. Genoa is Italy's greatest seaport. Because of this, Ligurians are known for their seafood dishes and their Pesto Genovese, a sauce made of a paste of fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh Italian basil leaves, pine nuts and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Liguria is associated with its abundance of produce and citrus fruits but is best known for the carnations it grows and the world famous honey it produces.
Heading east we intersect with the region of Lombardy. The industrial capital of Italy, Milan, reigns powerfully in this area. It is also known for its culinary contributions to the world such as Minestrone alla Milanese and Risotto alla Milanese. Polenta has also been eaten here since the days of the Roman soldiers. The Brianza district is best known for its choice beef cattle and dairy herds, the former seen as some of the best meats produced in Italy and the latter contribute to the making of Gorgonzola and Bel Paese cheeses. Milan is a great cultural center with La Scala Opera Theater, the Duomo of Milan and Leonardo da Vinci's famous fresco, "The Last Supper." Also known for its spectacular lake region which is approximately a one and a half hour drive north of Milan, this area is favored by the rich and the romantic. The six long, slender lakes, offer stunning villas and beautifully sculpted gardens.
The land mass of Trentino-Alto Adige is made up of the Dolomite peaks in the north and east and rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards in the south. Throughout the landscape are approximately 350 old castles. The area is steeped in its original roots and traditions inherited from the Austro-Hungarian. This influence is also seen in both their blue- eyed features and their foods such as soups flavored with caraway seeds, speck (a smoke-cured prosciutto), strudels and the use of sauerkraut and vinegar in their cooking.
The influences of Yugoslavia on its eastern border and Austria on its northern border are seen in the food and languages spoken in Fruili-Venetia Giulia. Historically, the cuisine of this region was affected by many cultures, so it is difficult to pinpoint one specific ingredient or dish that reflects any one culture. Paprika, poppy seeds, cinnamon, cumin and horseradish are used as flavorings and rice and polenta supplant pasta. Sausage- making is a specialty of this area as is Goulash, a beef stew made with red wine, tomatoes, paprika and spices. Trieste, a traveler's haven, is known for its seafood dishes.
Veneto is a region of simple but charming towns including its crowning jewel, Venice. This is a city built completely on water and requires travel either by foot, by water taxis or the more romantic gondolas. Brimming with history and art, Venice offers something for everyone from its Gothic Doges Palace on the Piazza San Marco and its opera house, to the Murano glass and Venetian Burano lace produced on islands north of the Venetian harbor. The cuisine of this region offers simple, almost country food, that is well prepared. The more well known dishes are Risi e Bisi, a porridge-like soup made with fresh peas, rice and Parmesan cheese; Pasta e Fagioli, a stew-like concoction made of tomatoes, tiny pasta and beans; plus a myriad of seafood dishes that reflect Veneto's proximity to the Adriatic.
The cold, wet winters and the hot, muggy summers make Emilia-Romagna the most successful agricultural region in Italy. Ravenna, Parma, Modena, Bologna and Rimini are all linked by the ancient Roman road, the Via Emilia, which connects the Adriatic to the heart of northern Italy. This region is known for it's gastronomical contributions. Four ingredients permeate much of the cooking of this region: tomatoes, chicken livers, cured pork and soffrito, a saute of celery, onion and carrot.
This area is typical of Italy's countryside. With its rolling hills, tall cypress trees, ancient roads, worn and crumbling farmhouses and villas, and miles of olive groves and well-manicured vineyards, it is understandable that one would think this to be representative of all of Italy. The cuisine of this area reflects a simpler, more rustic approach to cooking that relies heavily on the produce and livestock common to the area. Lamb, beef, kid and game are widely seen on the table in the form of a stew, spit-roasted or grilled. Pasta and vegetables, particularly mushrooms and truffles, are often served alongside.
Tuscan food is simple and abundant with local produce, mellow cheeses and grilled meats. Their delicious, chewy breads are baked without salt. I found this to be a strange taste but, once I got used to the flavor of the bread flour, I became a convert. Tuscans are also known for their appreciation of beans as seen in the staple of the Tuscan table: white beans cooked with sage and olive oil. Beef Steak Florentine, many versions of roasted or wine-braised game such as boar, deer and rabbit and thick and hearty soups cover the table of a typical Tuscan meal. This is the home of Chianti wine.
Umbria is a region known for its wheat fields and black truffles. Food is simply prepared and satisfying. Porchetta, or suckling pig, is a specialty of Umbria and is prepared with herbs and spit-roasted. Game and beef play an important part of an Umbrian meal.
Because of its predominantly rugged terrain, The Marches holds less attractions to a novice traveler than its neighbor, Umbria. One city that stands to be admired is the hill town of Urbino. This city has retained most of its ancient appearance and it set amid the mountainous region that makes up a great portion of The Marches. The food is considered more peasant-like and is known for such dishes as its version of Porchetta (which stuffs pig with peppers, rosemary and garlic) and their rich version of lasagna called Vincisgrassi which incorporates cinnamon-scented chicken gizzards and sauteed chicken livers sandwiched between layers of pasta and a creamy bechamel sauce seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg. Certainly not a dish for the cholesterol-conscious! Fortunately for those of us that need to eat a bit lighter, there exists a coastal plain that affords a variety of filling yet less fattening seafood. The best known dish is brodetto or seafood soup which incorporates all types of fish overflowing in a saffron-infused broth.
From the picturesque views of Rome at the top of pastoral Palestine Hill, where ancient Rome was purported to have started, to the Renaissance heart of the city housed behind the walls of the tiny city-state of the Vatican, Rome is a traveler's delight. Food is again the typical rustic fare of Central Italy with Abbacchio (a suckling lamb seasoned with fresh rosemary), Spaghetti alla Carbonara ( a bacon, egg and cheese sauced pasta), Saltimbocca (marsala braised tin slices of veal topped with ham), and Suppli al Telefono (addictive deep fried rice balls filled with mozzarella).
Pasta in Abruzzo is made using a chitarra, a rectangular device strung with thin metal wires like a guitar, hence the equipment's name. Sheets of pasta are rolled over this to form strips. Each town is known for its own specialties and lamb, hearty soups, a wide variety of herbs and even chilies are seen on the dining tables of this region. It is also known for its food festivals which honor saints or simply celebrate. Their non-stop eating and drinking event is called the Panarda which serves people course after course of food.
Travelers to this area of Italy, known as the Mezzogiorno to the natives, are generally unprepared for the stark beauty of this mainly agricultural land. The land is sun-drenched and so it always appears shining in the midday sun. With a semi-tropical climate in many parts, this portion of the country abounds with blooming flowers and scents of citrus fruits. The portion of land that is dominated by mountains experiences cold and sometimes severe, snowy winters.
The regions of the south, Campania, Basilicata, Apulia, Calabria and its two islands, Sicily and Sardinia, can greet the novice traveler with untold mysteries and illusions of corruption that leave a person fearful and intimidated at the thought of touring the south. Part of this may be explained by the area's underdevelopment as compared to their wealthier relatives in the north. Trains are infrequent and often irregular, and southern Italians are more intense, more expressive, more explosive and more gregarious than their polite, reserved northern counterparts. The presence of the Mafia in the life of a southern Italian, particularly in Sicily, may also explain some of a traveler's apprehension. This is a misunderstood deterrent for many people who are too timid to venture beyond Naples. Organized crime is a part of life in southern Italy and has been a part of their culture for centuries. One must keep a clear head about this. There are many charming cities and rural towns and southern Italy is full of significant historical sites and works of art.
Food in these regions is a study in contrasts. Pasta, for instance, is usually purchased in its dry state, quite the contrast to people in the north who usually make a homemade pasta and cook it fresh. Ziti, short tubes of pasta eaten in Naples, and orecchiette, round indented small pastas meaning "little ears", are eaten in Apulia. The coastal regions rely heavily upon seafood to supplement their diet of vegetables, fruits and grains whereas the inland areas are more prone to eating meats. Of course there is always an exception to this rule. Pizzas served hot from the wood burning oven and topped with an assortment of vegetables, seafood, meats and cheeses are in stark contrast to foccacia, the flatbread of the north. Olive oil, especially extra virgin, is used in lieu of butter. The cuisines of the south are earthier and more peasant-like and bolder in their flavors and combinations of foods, reflecting the outgoing personalities of the people of this land.
In Campania, Naples is the most famous and beautiful of all its cities. Neopolitan and Campanian specialities include octopus prepared in a variety of ways, spaghetti dishes using a tomato-based fish sauce (particularly clams or squid), and dishes using the indigenous buffalo milk mozzarella, including pizza. I can't forget my favorite, Pasta Puttanesca, a fiery tomato sauced spaghetti flavored with lots of garlic and capers, Gaeta olives and anchovies. An authentic puttanesca is pure heaven if you enjoy food with lots of gusto! One more dish not to overlook is the well known Parmigiana di Melanzane, or Eggplant Parmesan.
Sicily has a subtropical climate along all of its coast and a harsher, colder climate inland near rugged Mount Etna. Because of this balmy weather, Sicily grows and exports oranges and lemons. Here, you'll get an opportunity to see examples left from the invasions of the Greeks, the Arabs and the Normans. Expect to eat lots of seafood and rich, filling pasta dishes that are often highly seasoned with strong black or green Sicilian olives or the staple of the south, the eggplant. Sweet desserts are a part of every day life. The most well known of these is the Sicilian Cassata (a layered, frozen cake) and cannoli (a crisp pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, candies and sometimes chocolate).
It is surprising how many people who believe they are familiar with Italian cooking are unaware of the regional differences that exist. Pasta is the first course in a meal for most Italians with the exception of the far north. Here risotto or polenta is the norm. For the most part, meat does not play a regular part of many Italian diets with vegetables, grains and legumes taking center stage in most homes. Olive oil is often seen in its dark green state (from its first pressing) in the south. You will see a more refined, golden oil in the north.
As far as suggesting the best olive oil to use, I must first stress your choice depends upon the use of the oil and your own personal tastes. Many people prefer a fruity, golden oil and for them I would recommend using a product from Lucca. I used to live in Pisa which is near Lucca and consequently we would have Luccan olive oil on the table all the time. It has a delicious fruity, bright green aroma and the taste would often have a pleasant sharpness or bite to it. My oil of choice, though, comes from the rich, dark green olives of Sicily. I grew up with this and find the earthy, heavier, aromatic liquid almost makes me swoon with anticipation. So powerful is the flavor, I find I use much less than when I use the more refined, golden oils.
Although focaccia originates from Genoa, you will see a softer, thicker version in Apulia which is made of potatoes. This is chewy and delicious, especially lightly brushed with that dark green, southern Italian olive oil.
Basically, Italian cuisine is a combination of vegetables, grains, fruits, fish, cheeses and a scattering of meats, fowl and game usually seasoned or cooked with olive oil (with the exception of the far north). The reliance upon what the country can produce has shaped a diet popular for centuries, particularly with the poorer Italian people, and is called la cucina povera. Now we are seeing a resurgence of this "poor people's food" and the Mediterranean diet is being touted as the model around which we should restructure our eating habits.