Italian food isn’t the result of a single culinary style. It is a delectable mosaic of many regional cooking traditions that stem from each province’s geography and climate, agriculture, history, and culture. Each region provides a different flair—the truffles in Piedmont as authentically Italian as the gelato in Rome, inside the Lazio region. While Italian food, with its myriad regional flavors, does not have a national character, the Italian way of eating does: a reverence for local ingredients, sensitively and simply prepared, and enjoyed alongside family and friends, slowly, and with gusto. Here are 10 signature tastes of Italy.
Truffles in Piedmont
What is it about the white truffle, Tuber magnatum pico, that makes people giddy with delight, pay as much as $3,600 a pound, and travel all the way to Alba in Piedmont just to taste a scraping or two on top of their risotto? In a word, the aroma. Because they grow underground, truffles lack other mushrooms’ primary means of spore disposal, wind. To compensate, the truffles emit volatile aromatic compounds that attract particular animals to dig them up, dispersing the spore in the process. But truffles only produce aroma for a few days, and once the aroma has dissipated, the unique flavor of the truffle is gone. While some truffle species have been cultivated in orchards, the pico, which grows on the roots of oak, willow, poplar, and hazelnut trees, has remained aloof. Which makes Tuber magnatum pico the ultimate seasonal food.
Polenta in Veneto
Polenta, a type of cornmeal, is the rogue of the Veneto table. It doesn’t fit in any course category, but it shows up in everything from appetizers to sweets. It might be served as a loose porridge, alongside a dish that will flavor its edges with gravy or sauce—such as Vicenza’s exalted baccalà alla vicentina, creamy rehydrated salt cod braised in milk. Or it might be baked with alternating layers of a sauce (with meat or meatless) and a melting cheese. It is a stalwart ingredient in all kinds of sweets, including torta sabbiosa (sandy cake) and Venice’s favorite golden cookies, zaletti (literally, “little yellow ones”).
Prosciutto di Parma in Emilia-Romagna
Salt-cured and air-dried Prosciutto di Parma, the most sought-after ham in the world, needs four essential ingredients: wholesome hogs well fed on whey (a byproduct of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese), barley, corn, and fruit; dry mountain air; salt; and know-how. Parma province has it all. Steady air currents rise from the Versilia River and blow through the Apennines. By the time they reach the spacious prosciuttificio (prosciutto manufacturer) in the round hills where the rear legs of 10-month porkers are salted, hung, and periodically massaged, they have picked up the perfumes of olive groves, chestnut woods, and pine forests along the way—terroir in a slice.
Parmigiano Reggiano in Emilia-Romagna
As Parmigiano Reggiano cheese ages for 18 months to four years, its flavor intensifies, so that when these wheels the color of burnished gold are cleaved open, their aroma conveys no less than the life and memories of whole villages. A nugget of bona fide Parmigiano Reggiano is a rich straw color, firm, moist, flaky, and possessing a slightly granular texture. Freshly grated, its flavor takes dishes from great to magnificent. To understand why, eat it on its own as a starter for its full bouquet and complex texture, which are released slowly as the grains dissolve in your mouth, and layer after layer of flavor is revealed. [Reserve your spot on a National Geographic Expedition to Italy.]
Lucca olive oil in Tuscany
Almost every region in Italy grows olives, but a few locales are especially famous for the aromatic, rich, extra-virgin oil they produce. Tuscany is one of those places, and within Tuscany, the extra-virgin of Lucca near the Tyrrhenian coast is among the best of all. True extra-virgin olive oil is costly and labor-intensive to make and its handcrafted production is naturally limited—but it is essential to Tuscan cuisine, indeed to the culinary cultures of all Mediterranean regions. A drizzle is often the only flavoring used to fortify Tuscany’s simple bean dishes or humble, rib-sticking ribollita. Even a juicy Chianina steak reaches new heights garnished with a swirl of Lucchese liquid gold.
Artichokes in Lazio
Lazio’s delicate-fleshed, violet globe artichoke, carciofo romanesco, is the very symbol of Rome, found in the Lazio region. Also known as cimarolo (from cima, meaning “top”) or mammola, a variety without thorns or choke, it is the product of careful pruning. As a result, each plant produces a single shoot, the most prime specimen on the stalk. Cultivated in Viterbo, Rome, and Latina, where the volcanic soil imparts a particular flavor, it is supplemented with other varieties throughout the season. Fresh artichokes are tender enough to be eaten raw, grazed with good olive oil. At the end of the season, smaller remaining artichoke heads are trimmed, pickled, and conserved whole in olive oil for enjoyment in the long winter months.
Gelato in Lazio
Rome is a temple to gelato, with some 2,500 gelaterie around the city. What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream? Simply put, gelato is creamier but lower in fat and added sugar, sweetened by the products that define its flavors. Chilled and churned in small batches to preserve its taste and silkiness, it is produced and eaten the day it is made. The best of the Lazio region, Roman gelatai prepare their confections in-house, using fresh dairy and quality raw ingredients for their artisanal scoops—local fruits, premium chocolate, local nuts, and fine wines and spirits. Try a favorite flavor, gelato di ricotta alla romana, made from the day’s fresh local ricotta.
Espresso in Campania
Dark and syrupy, espresso is one of the glories of Naples, gulped in one or two swallows from a tiny cup. The regional Campania secret: grinding the beans to a near powder, tamping it down, and blasting boiling local water through it at the highest pressure possible without exploding the machine. In the best bars, beans are roasted on-site in small batches. Your options? Espresso: straight and dense (a lemon twist is heresy!); ristretto: very concentrated; lungo: an espresso with more water; macchiato: espresso “stained” with a dribble of foamed hot milk; caffè corretto: ristretto with liqueur, grappa, or cognac; cappuccino: espresso with foamed hot milk; caffè latte: half hot milk, half espresso.
Citrus in Sicily
It hangs over everything: the fragrance of citrus. Lemons, limes, grapefruit, citron, and all sorts of oranges—these are the scents of Sicily. Sour orange, called arangias, is inedible raw, but used in cooking, it lends what writer Helena Attlee called an “almost incense-like, incredibly distinctive bitterness.” During the Middle Ages, sour orange was a status food for the elite, used to flavor meats in conjunction with rare spices from the east. Their popularity was eventually displaced by other citrus fruits cultivated in Sicily, most famously blood oranges, so named for their ruby-red flesh.
Pecorino Romano in Sardinia
There is nothing subtle about the salty punch of aged Pecorino Romano. The originators of the formula for making the cheese, Roman shepherds, liked it that way, using it to flavor their food in place of costly salt. Unfortunately, because of poor handling, too many specimens of this cheese outside of its homeland lack the charms of the original. Grated Pecorino Romano enhances bold, southern-style pasta dishes, most notably, spaghetti con acciughe e cipolle (spaghetti with anchovy and onions). With other dishes where the ingredients cannot bear the domineering presence of another, hold the Romano and instead pass the Parmigiano Reggiano.
Eugenia Bone is a nationally known food and nature journalist. She is the author of six books and has been nominated for numerous awards including a James Beard Award. Follow her on Twitter @EugeniaBone. Julia della Croce is an authority on Italian food and the author of more than a dozen books. Her cookbook Veneto won first place in the Italian cuisine category at the World Cookbook Awards. Follow her on Twitter @JuliadellaCroce.