Italian food is an extraordinary feast for the senses. Ranging from simple to hearty, sweet to spicy, subtle to strong, each dish and delicacy is prepared with the freshest of ingredients. It’s no secret that Italy’s cuisine is incomparable, but you may not know quite how to enjoy it to the fullest. Here’s a helpful guide to exploring and savoring Italy’s culinary bounty
- “Pizza al taglio” – Pizza by the slice, typically a lunch item found at bakeries and offered in many different varieties. Spuntino – a snack, usually eaten inbetween meals.
- Aperitivo – an aperitif type of drink, usually wine, which is drunk in order to stimulate the appetite before the meal. Prima colazione – breakfast, the first meal of the day.
- Pranzo – lunch, the midday meal from 1:00pm to 2:30pm, when activity stops.
- Merenda – an afternoon snack.
- Cena – dinner, usually eaten late, between 8pm and 11pm.
- Scarpetta – whatever is left on your plate is “scooped” up with a morsel of fresh bread.
MAKE A MEAL OF IT, ITALIAN STYLE
Italian meals consist of 3-4 courses: Antipasto – a starter (hot or cold), meant to stimulate the appetite.
- Primo – the first course, usually a soup, rice or pasta dish. This can be topped with a variety of sauces. (Taste Tip: Never put cheese on any pasta containing seafood. Never chop pasta with a knife, twirl the strands on your fork like an Italian!)
- Secondo – the main dish, meat or fish served with a contorno (side dish) of vegetables or salad.(Taste Tip: Don’t mix meat and seafood in the same meal. If your first course is sauced with fish, don’t order a second course of meat.)
- Dolce – Dessert or fruit and cheese, followed by coffee or a digestivo such as grappa
TIPS ON TIPPING A coperto is a cover charge, an unavoidable “add-on” that basically covers bread and water and is charged per person. Even though tax and services are usually included in the menu prices, it is typical and courteous to leave a small tip of around 10 percent.
THE ART OF COFFEE
Making caffé is an art in itself and ordering un caffé in Italy usually means an espresso. This means “to press,” and refers to the pressure applied to the hot water forced through the ground beans, creating this strong, flavorful mixture, whose main variations are listed below.
- Lungo – More water (about double) is filtered through the grinds, giving a weaker taste, but still stronger than normal coffee.
- Ristretto – Less water, yielding a stronger taste.
- Doppio – Simply two espressos in one cup. In Italy, barmen who save coffee by serving a lungo when a doppio is ordered are frowned upon.
- Corretto – With a dash of liquor.
- Americano – Diluted with hot water. Macchiato – With a drop of steamed milk.
- Con panna – With cream on top
- Affogato – Served over ice-cream
Tip: When ordering a coffee in a bar, pay at the cash register first, then take the receipt to the barista (bartender), who will then make your brew.
Types of pasta sauces:
- Aglio, olio e peperoncino – Tossed in garlic, olive oil, and hot peppers
- Amatriciana – Pork and tomato sauce
- Burro e salvia – With butter and sage
- Al sugo – With tomato sauce
- Amatriciana – Bacon or sausage, with tomatoes, onion, and hot pepper
- Arrabbiata – Spicy tomato sauce Astice – Lobster sauce
- Bolognese – Meat sauce, usually with tomato
- Bucaniera – Seafood, tomato, garlic, parsley, and oil
- Cacciatora – Tomato, onion, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, herbs, and wine sauce
- Cacio e Pepe – Sheep’s cheese and ground pepper
- Carbonara – Cream, ham or baconegg, and parmesan cheese
- Frutti di Mare – Seafood
- Norma – Tomato, eggplant, and salted ricotta cheese
- Puttanesca – Tomatoes, capers, red peppers, anchovies, garlic, and oil
- Quattro Formaggi – Formaggi with four cheeses
- Ragù – Tomato-based meat sauce
In Italy, the pasta shape is an integral part of a meal — its building blocks — serving as the foundation for sauces bursting with each region’s herbs, spices, meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Thicker, flat, long shapes, like fettuccine, pair with extremely robust sauces. Specialty shapes, like shells, are great with hearty dairy-based sauces such as cheese or béchamel, and vegetable sauces. Cooking pasta is easy, but how much water to use, which pot, and the right combination of pasta and sauce must be chosen carefully in order to prepare a perfect pasta meal.
The diversity of dishes that Italy has to offer is also a characteristic of its wines. Italy is home to 2,000 home grown grape varieties and exports more wine than any other country. Northern Italy boasts some of the world’s finest wines, from Piedmont’s Nebbiolo and Barbera to Friuli’s whites. Central Italy’s wines are excellent, too, from Tuscany’s Bolgheri and Chianti to the Marche’s Verdicchio. Southern wines are unique, from Campania’s Taurasi and Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture to Pantelleria’s Passito. Reading an Italian label is usually straightforward: there’s the winery name, perhaps the vineyard that the grapes came from, the year, an abbreviation (DOC, DOCG) or a phrase such as Vino da Tavola. These denominations guide consumers in their choices and ensure quality control.
- Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). These wines are from the wine regions recognized as the finest in the country. DOCG wines must pass the evaluation of a tasting committee before they can be bottled. The nine DOCG regions are: Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Albana di Romagna, Gattinara, Carmignano, and Torgiano Rosso Riserva.
- Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) is the Italian answer to the French AOC. DOC wines are produced in specific well defined regions, according to specific rules designed to preserve the traditional wine-making practices of the individual regions. Thus, the rules for making Barolo differ markedly from those for making Chianti Classico. The DOC category was introduced in the early 60’s with the purpose of improving the quality of wines.
- Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT) is a wine produced in a specific area. There’s nothing special about most of it.
- Vino da Tavola: This is the lowest class of wine, a wine made by the producer as he sees fit to make it. There are few rules, and the result is often insipid, thin, weak, and acidic.